Paestum is southern Italy's most evocative archeological site. Three almost perfectly preserved Doric temples, which are considered the greatest in the Greek world, finer even than those in Greece. Much of Paestum's charm also derives from it's tranquil setting--a big meadow filled with wildflowers.
Only 7 of us went on a wonderful two hour bus ride to the site. During the ride, Christina gave us a lesson on Greek and Roman history and painted a perfect picture of life in Paestum.
Before coming to Paestum, we made stops on the way. First, we drove through Vietri Sul Mare, a village celebrated for it's ceramics. The factory is covered with a pattern of ceramic tiles which we admired from our bus. Our first stop was in Salerno, a busy port best known as one of the main Allied beach heads where the 5th U.S. Army landed in September of 1943. Our day began somewhat cloudy, and the morning was perfect for a visit to the Duomo which looked like a medieval castle. It was dedicated to St. Matthew the Evangelist, who is buried in the crypt. The Norman-style building has a square tower and was remodeled in the 18th Century and again after it was damaged in the 1980's earthquake. The church is preceded by an arcaded courtyard built of multicolored stone with ancient columns. The square tower has Moorish tiles under it's roof and the bronze doors were cast in Constantinople. The interior was large, has an iconostasis which encloses the chancel, commonly found in Byzantine or Greek churches. There is also a Crusader's chapel where the Cursaders had their arms blessed.
We took a walk through the old part of Salerno, with it's picturesque streets which had a medieval character. It was Sunday, so most shops were closed--except one--a man's hat shop. We did not enter the shop, as none of us were in need of a man's hat. We pondered the existence of such a shop, and smiled at a gentleman wearing a hat behind the sales counter. He nodded, givinng us permission to take his photograph, and afterwards, we proceeded on for refreshments at a coffee bar.
Our trip continued through rich agricultural land parallel to the coastline. Christina was telling us that big farms employ immigrants from Eastern Europe or Africa to do farm labor. The work is hard and labor cheap. One more stop was made at a buffalo farm and mozzarella factory. We saw water buffaloes wallowing in a muddy pond, munching on straw. Christina bought lovely fresh mozzarella for her family supper, we had a taste of the cheese, and shortly after, arrived at Paestum.
One of Italy's most important archeological sites, Paestum was discovered by chance in the 18th century, when the Bourbons started to build the road which crosses the area today. The first settlement was an ancient Greek colony, founded around 600 B.C. under the name of Poseidonia. It was absorbed by the Romans in 273 B.C., but began to decline and was abandoned following ravages of malaria. It lay hidden amidst jungles of cypresses for hundreds of years, when road excavations brought the magnificent temples to light.
The temples, built of a yellow limestone, stand amidst ruins of dwellings. We entered through a city wall and followed the principal street of the Greek and Roman city. The grandest, and best preserved, of the temples is the Temple di Nethune, whose columns and pediment have survived nearly intact, but the roof is missing. Next stands the Temple of Hera, sister of Zeus, also known as the Basilica, after being wrongfully identified by the archeologists. At the site's northern extreme stands the Temple de Ceres, dedicated to the goddess Athena. The temple combines a mix of styles; the Doric columns are solid and massive whereas the internal Ionic columns are more graceful.
To the East stands the amphitheater which has been divided by the main road. It is usually located outside a city center to enable the flow to and from the amphitheater.
We left the site and had a good lunch. Local specialities we selected were a Caprese salad and a sort of pancake filled with mozzarella.
Our final stop was a visit to the Museo Nazionale, a museum of finds from the site. It's most treasured exhibits are wall paintings of the Tomb of the Diver (480 B.C.). These pictures may be the only surviving examples of Greek mural paintings from that period. Four of the paintings show a funeral banquet and the songs, games, musicians, and former companions that accompany the deceased into the next world. The fifth panel, which formed the coffin's lid, shows the most famous of the paintings - a naked diver, diving into the blue sea. The scene may be an unusual allegory of the passage from life to death.