Salerno may seem like a bland big city after the Amalfi Coast’s glut of postcard-pretty towns, but the place has a charming, if gritty, individuality, especially around its vibrant centro storico where medieval churches share space with neighbourhood trattorias, neon-lit wine bars and trendy tattoo parlours. The city recently invested €12.5 million in various urban regeneration programs centred on this historic neighbourhood, under the watchful eye of Oriol Bohigas, who was similarly involved in Barcelona’s earlier makeover. A dramatic new ferry terminal designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid also opened here in 2012, accentuated by a tree-lined seafront promenade widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in Europe.
Originally an Etruscan and later a Roman colony, Salerno flourished with the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. Robert Guiscard made it the capital of his dukedom in 1076 and, under his patronage, the Scuola Medica Salernitana was renowned as one of medieval Europe’s greatest medical institutes. Far later, the city was tragically left in tatters by the heavy fighting that followed the 1943 landings of the American Fifth Army.
Hop on bus 19 from Piazza XXIV Maggio to visit Salerno’s most famous landmark, the forbidding Castello di Arechi, dramatically positioned 263m above the city. Originally a Byzantine fort, it was built by the Lombard duke of Benevento, Arechi II, in the 8th century and subsequently modified by the Normans and Aragonese, most recently in the 16th century.
The views of the Gulf of Salerno and the city rooftops are spectacular; you can also visit a permanent collection of ceramics, arms and coins. If you are here during the summer, ask the tourist office for a schedule of the annual series of concerts staged here.
Paestum, or Poseidonia as the city was originally called (in honour of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea), was founded in the 6th century BC by Greek settlers and fell under Roman control in 273 BC. Decline later set in following the demise of the Roman Empire. Savage raids by the Saracens and periodic outbreaks of malaria forced the steadily dwindling population to abandon the city altogether.
Although most people visit Paestum for the day, there is a surprising number of good hotels, and this delightful rural area makes a convenient stopover point for travellers heading for the Cilento region.
A stark reminder of the malign forces that lie deep inside Vesuvius, Pompeii (Pompei in Italian) is Europe’s most compelling archaeological site and one of Italy’s most visited tourist attractions. Each year about 2.5 million people pour in to wander the ghostly shell of what was once a thriving commercial centre.
Its appeal goes beyond tourism, though. From an archaeological point of view, it’s priceless. Much of the value lies in the fact that it wasn’t simply blown away by Vesuvius: rather it was buried under a layer of lapilli (burning pumice stone), as Pliny the Younger describes in his celebrated account of the eruption. About 1km down the road in modern Pompeii, the Santuario della Madonna del Rosario is a famous pilgrim destination.
An unashamed resort, Sorrento is still a civilized old town. Even the souvenirs are a cut above the norm, with plenty of fine old shops selling ceramics, lacework and intarsio (marquetry items) – famously produced here. The main drawback is the lack of a proper beach; the town straddles the cliffs overlooking the water to Naples and Mt Vesuvius. Sorrento makes a good base for exploring the surrounding area: to the south, the best of the peninsula’s unspoilt countryside and, to the east, the Amalfi Coast; to the north, Pompeii and the archaeological sites; offshore, the fabled island of Capri.
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