Castellabate: Italy's Most Beautiful Village
Benvenuti Al Sud or "Welcome to the South" was a mega-popular movie in Italy set and filmed in Castellabate on the Cilento coast. A romantic comedy about the best and worst stereotypes of Northern and Southern Italians, Castellabate was chosen as the film's setting as it most perfectly captures the slow life in Southern Italy. On the Cilento coast, leisure is valued over efficiency and the intricacies of daily life are never banal.
Santa Maria Castellabate
Our May 2016 tour guests had a first-hand experience of the sweet and slow life when we first drove into the beach village called Santa Maria Castellabate and found part of the town's road blocked off for construction. Our driver Antonio started backing up when he noticed a tiny, elderly woman standing behind our small bus waving her hands from underneath an enormous cardigan sweater. He halted as she trundled over to the the drivers side.
"The road is closed!" she told him with a heavy regional accent, stating the obvious.
"Si, Signora," he replied nodding respectfully as she launched into a friendly conversation about how she hadn't slept well the night before, how she had fallen in the shower recently and her good-for-nothing son wasn't able to get to her before her neighbors heard her wailing across the piazza. We were ten minutes deep into her story (while I translated for the tour guests) before Antonio, ever the gentleman, was able to pull us away from the conversation. It was like a scene directly from the film.
Castellabate is one of the most beautiful places in Italy, but it hasn't sacrificed its local culture to the giant tour busses. While popular with Italian families in the summer because of its pristine swimming waters, the only American who seems to have visited is Vice President Joe Biden who vacationed in Santa Maria Castellabate in June 2011. He and his wife Jill stayed right on the beach at the elegant, but unpretentious, Palazzo Belmonte. Both professed foodies, they loved the local dishes, especially a plate of homemade ravioli.
While the nearby Amalfi coast is plagued with gridlock traffic and mediocre if not outright terrible food, the Cilento coast, just a little further south, is paradise. Stand on the beach and look to your right: that's the Gulf of Salerno and the Amalfi coast. The island on the horizon that looks like a chunk of lapis is Capri.
Look toward your left and see the rest of the Cilento coast including Acciaroli, a small fishing village where Ernest Hemingway lived and today known for it's healthy cuisine and an abundance of nonagenarians.
The town along the beach is called Santa Maria Castellabate, you can wander the main shopping district to buy local delicacies like white figs or colatura, eat gelato and take a turquoise bath in the Tyrrhenian Sea without ever being overwhelmed by large crowds.
Things cost far less than they do on the Amalfi coast and there's much to explore. Just off the coast are the ruins of a Roman city which attracts SCUBA divers from around Europe. You can hike out to the Licosa peninsula, named for the siren Licosa who like Parthenope, drowned herself after the sailor Odysseus passed her by. Among the very best and least expensive things to do is get a cuoppa, a paper cone of fried food and wander the seashore.
In the 8th century when pirates from North Africa began to raid the Cilento coast, people fled to the steep hilltops and built castellated villages to protect themselves. The best preserved of these towns today is Borgo Castellabate, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the beach at Santa Maria, it's a short drive or a very steep hike up to the village with the reward of one of the most spectacular views in Italy.
It's impossible to drive within the village as the streets and alleys are far too narrow. Visitors can get as far as the piazza in front of the main castle where there are often vendors selling jewelry, cheese and other locally made items. There is also a snack bar where you can get caffé or an Aperol Spritz while watching the sunset over the Gulf of Salerno.
Inside the walls of the medieval village, the journey is the destination. Comfortable shoes and a willingness to get a little bit lost are far more essential than a map. You'll hear conversations being had just beyond the medieval walls, forks clinking against plates and soccer balls echoing as they pass through long alleyways. Tiny lizards called lucertole scamper across your toes. Dark alleys open suddenly onto expansive views of the Vallo di Diano and the Cilento National Park.
Hidden treasures are everywhere. Peer inside iron fences and find secret gardens. Or look for the plaque with a quote from Joachim Murat, former King of Naples and brother-in-law to Napoleon Bonaparte who said about Castellabate "Here you do not die" ("Qui non si muore").
The most extraordinary discovery was in May when guests Julie and Merry Chapman and Angela Ranalli-Cicala discovered an abandoned 18th century chapel.
"My mother and I were wandering around these fantastic narrow cobbled streets – they were actually more like stone staircases carved out between ancient houses," said Julie. "There were lots of boarded up and abandoned houses that we were trying to get a glimpse inside, through cracks in their chained doors and windows. One door however, was NOT locked and we nervously pushed it open. It was incredible! It was an abandoned chapel, complete with painted ceiling and carved altar covered in years of dust and debris. We felt awestruck, like what we had stumbled across was important and forgotten. What a thrill!"
"When I first peeked through the door I was like WHOA!" exclaimed Angela. "The artwork and details on the ceiling caught my eye first. It looked a little dangerous because the beams were hanging and I was afraid the ceiling may cave in but I was so intrigued we went in anyway. I couldn't believe so much had been left in there and I was dying to know for how long that room had been untouched. Who were the last people to pray there? Who lit those candles that were on the altar that had been burned down to almost nothing, and more importantly why were they lit? To pray for someone's safe return? Their health? Protection of the village? The feeling stayed with me for a while even after we left Castellabate. It was an amazing moment of discovery and I felt like I was getting a secret peek into the past especially when I saw the date 1793 painted on the ceiling."
Food, wine and art in Castellabate
Feast On History is one of the few tour operators in the region with small group tours of the Cilento offered in May and October and custom tours from March to November.
Food along the Cilento coast is most notable for fresh seafood. The "Mediterranean Diet" was first discovered here by Dr. Ancel Keys who lived in nearby Castellabate and studied the extraordinary health and longevity of the locals. Be sure to try any dish with anchovies, rosemary and take home dried white figs which are rare and only found in the Cilento. Between Paestum and Castellabate is Vannulo, widely considered Italy's best producer of buffalo mozzarella.
Wine producers in the region include San Salvatore, DeConciliis and Costa d'Elce.
Nearby is the archaeological park of Velia, home of the Eleatic School of Greek philosophers and the massive temples at Paestum.
All photos by Danielle Oteri