Off the beaten track
The Cilento National Park is a region of high mountains that rise from the plain of Paestum like a bulwark, creating a dramatic landscape and a peaceful haven in nature. The rocky coastline plunges into the sea creating secluded coves with clear crystal water or sandy beaches. In the hills, small villages perch among the olive groves and in the mountains above there are cool beech and chestnut forests, remote high plains, gorges and waterfalls. Ancient paths weave along the ridges and valleys and provide beautiful hiking routes. Large expanses of the park are totally uninhabited and kestrels, buzzards, hoopoes and wild boar are commonplace.
The region is also steeped in ancient tradition. The well-preserved archaeological site at Paestum and the smaller Velia offer a glimpse of a once thriving trade of goods and thought within Magna Grecia. There are also ancient walking routes, villages undisturbed by modern changes, traditional cooking and preservation of food. This is the home of the Mediterranaen Diet. In past decades, the rugged terrain discouraged travelers and meant the region was bypassed by main road arteries. All these factors have allowed a natural environment to prosper without the burden of development and large scale tourism and it remains an essentially rural region.
Why the Cilento…
We fell in love with the Cilento and as we were building our house and our children were small, so we decided to immerse ourselves in the region. Our children went to the local school, our youngest was born in the house and we made strong friendships.
During those years we pushed ever further afield, discovering the hinterland, the wild and mountainous areas that have long been ignored by roads and by tourists.
We followed the walking trails, discovering hidden gorges, impressive sink holes and met local guides who were passionate about their area. And of course, the spectacular coastline that has pristine sea, coves and caves as well as long sandy beaches.
an area of outstanding natural beauty
The Cilento is a Unesco World Heritage site and the second largest Italian national park. This means that the area is protected by various bodies from over-development in an effort to retain the outstanding cultural heritage and natural beauty of the area (whc.unesco.org/en/list/842). Since prehistoric times and into the middles ages, well-trodden pathways along the mountain ridges linked ancient settlements and groups of sanctuaries. These extensive communication routes created deep cultural and political interaction. The Cilento was the boundary between the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia (seen at Paestum and Velia) and the indigenous Etruscan and Lucanian peoples.
Until fairly recently the ancient paths were still used by the grandparents of the younger generation, some of whom remember the steep climb to school or the shortcut to a neighbouring village. Today these walking routes are shunned by people in their cars, and the lure of the city to escape the toil of the land is as powerful here as in any harsh agricultural environment. Nevertheless, the relatively recent intrusion of modernity into this remote region has enabled the traditions such as the pathways but also basket weaving, stuffed figs, carob chocolate and a fresh goat’s cheese ricotta to remain unforgotten in the Cilento.
Located 350m above sea level, but only about 5km from the sea, Pollica sits perched on the hillside with glorious views of the sea. The 16th century Church of San Nicola looks out over olive groves and towards the sea and the old cobbled streets climb up the hillside from the main square past the 18th century castle. Above the town is a Franciscan Monastery, founded in 1661, where once again there is a stunning panorama. The Castello di Pollica is an 18th century castle that belonged to the Principi di Capano, the feudal family that once owned the village. Recently restored by the Comune, it is used to host courses, film viewings, seminars.
On the 2nd July every year, Pollica celebrates the Madonna delle Grazie. This is a procession of a beautiful statue of the Madonna, dressed in her bright blue robes, carried through the streets by local people. The local band plays as the women, often barefoot, carry cente on their heads. These boat-shaped offerings are to ask for her protection of their traditional livelihood, which would once have been fishing.
In the summer, the village population swells with returning emigrants visiting relatives, city people with second homes and passing cyclists. The cooler mountain air is a welcome respite from the hot day and in the evenings the square and bars are bursting with life.
The other towns in the Comune di Pollica
Pollica is the capoluogo or main village in the group of 6 villages that make up the Comune. Celso has an impressive town square and from Pollica’s Franciscan Monastery there is a lovely walk around the mountain side that takes you to Celso, through birch forest, apple orchard and into the town from above. A further inland is the pretty medieval village of Galdo that slides down the hillside through cobbled lanes towards a beautiful medieival church. Cannicchio is spectacularly perched along a ridge that seems to protrude out to sea. Pioppi is down by the sea and has a medieval castle that houses a small Marine Museum and aquarium, beaches and a some bars and restaurants. The beaches here are more rocky and stoney but the sea breaks mean that is a safe environment for children and shade is more easily accessible as the beach is in the town. Acciaroli is the liveliest of the six villages. It has a large expanse of sandy beach extending over several kilometres norht of the town and a smaller beach at the other end near the harbour. The sea is beautiful and has won accolades many times over for its cleanliness. This is a vibrant fishing port and the boats moored in the harbour come in during the early morning with the night’s catch. During the summer months, Acciaroli is a lively, busy place with an evening market, various restaurants, shops and bars and on Monday mornings the town fills with people coming for the street market.
Inland, walks and things to see.
From the hills that climb steeply up from the sea, the Cilento quickly reaches peaks and summits of over 2000m. Villages nestle along the ridges, following the contours of the mountainside, many as yet unchanged over the decades. Some are abandoned and offer a glimpse into life as it was. There are numerous walking routes which range from easy morning strolls to all day hikes along spectacular ridges, through abandoned villages or into deep gorges. Much of it, naturally, is up and down hills, but the routes all follow the well-trodden ancient paths and an intrepid traveller will be able to follow the marked trails. Visit our pages on walks, cycling, beaches and Paestum for things to do and check out the calender to see what’s on locally.