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Not So Ruined Italy: The Forgotten Ruins of Paestum

This blog post was updated on October 18, 2018.

I was guilty on several trips to Italy of stopping at Pompeii’s crossroads. When it comes to ruins in southern Italy, Pompeii and Herculaneum tend to fill itineraries. Straying down the boot of Italy for archaeological remains beyond the famous is a seldom occurrence. On my last visit to Campania, I decided to travel farther south to see if we were all missing something underneath Pompeii’s shoe. And beneath such large shoes is the archeological site of Paestum in all of its preserved glory. Paestum lacks the dramatic story of being buried in a volcano’s ash, but its tale is nonetheless intriguing.

Who?: Originally called Poseidonia for the god of the sea, Poseidon, the Greek colony of Sibari founded Paestum in 600 B.C. The colony once enveloped much of southern Italy. Paestum couldn’t escape the grasp of the Sibari. Of course, the Greeks couldn’t keep it forever. The town was conquered by the Romans and Christians and later fell into total abandonment.

With just one glance, travelers will see the first few signs of antiquity in the midst of modern travels at Paestum’s entrance. Once you enter the archaeological site at Paestum, you will quickly get to know its three main structures. Their size and preservation alone cause mouths to drop. On my visit, art students were sketching the Basilica of Hera, the Temple of Ceres and the Temple of Neptune, the oldest and best-preserved Greek temple in Italy. Even their pencils and brushes dropped in awe.

It isn’t all Greek in Paestum. In fact, the name suggests Roman rule over town. Travelers can see the Roman touches within the walls of the archaeological site including the portico of the forum and the amphitheater.

Where?: Lurking 43 kilometers from Salerno, just south of the Amalfi Coast,you will find Paestum in isolated preservation. Paestum consists mostly of a five-kilometer wall encrusted area of ruins. The noisy locusts and darting scorpions even outnumber the tourists at Paestum. They are the ruins only the insects remember to crowd in summer, the ones travelers largely forget on the Cilento Coast.

How?: Paestum fell from its glory and seemingly slipped under the radar until the first half of the 18th century. Road builders nearly plowed right through the ruins, but luckily someone had enough sense to stop the bulldozer. Writers such as Goethe, Canova, Piranesi and Shelley all made the trek down to Paestum to admire its ability to let the imagination travel back in time and to appreciate lost art and antiquity. In a sense, their words helped spread the word that below Rome, Naples and the beauty of the Amalfi Coast, such a scene was hiding.

Why?: The lack of crowds in the middle of the high summer season is reason alone to cover the extra kilometers from Positano down to Paestum. Left forgotten to its famous neighboring threads in time, Paestum quietly embraces the song of insects to the squawking of crowds. If you are headed to southern Italy this summer, don’t forget Paestum. Something tells me you might score a few points with Poseidon for visiting his overlooked town.

Have you made it to Paestum?



Photo: Brooklyn Museum


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