South of Salerno, curvy wooded coastal roads rim rugged cliffs that plummet to the pristine sea below. Tiny towns hug the rocky cliffs hanging over hidden coastal inlets of aquamarine water. Superb seafood restaurants entice visitors to picturesque ports. Oh, yes, Roman ruins, Saracen towers, Bourbon French fortresses, Greek temples, medieval monasteries, and abandoned mountain villages are there, too, in case the splendid seaside is not enticement enough.
Pino and I finally headed to Il Cilento this past summer (after hearing intriguing stories from our daughter Giulia). Not far south of Salerno, after an obligatory stop in Battipaglia for the world’s best buffalo mozzarella, a windy wooded coastal road led us south as the sun sank into the sea. Detouring inland up a steep cliffside road, we began to wonder if we were lost. A few phone calls for directions and finalmente, our destination, Casale Santa Rosalia. Hostess Mariella had friends for homemade gnocchi and stuffed peppers that night on her patio suspended over the sea. She pulled up two extra chairs for Pino and me–a preview of Mariella’s open-armed hospitality over the next few days. It was clear that Giulia had put us on the right track.
We knew we were in paradiso the next morning when we opened the shutters. Looking south, the rocky promontory was a backdrop to the tiny port town of Acciaroli. To the north, the coastal road wound its way to Castellabate, Punto Licosa, Agropoli and Paestum. Mariella greeted us with a wide smile and a breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruits, warm bread, homemade jams and crostata. Her passione for il Cilento was contagious as she mapped out panoramic routes for our next few days of jaunts. The Casale donkeys brayed us a greeting as we headed off to explore.
We had already decided that the mountain village of Pollica would be our first stop: for us, a sort of pilgrimage, to pay tribute to the deceased “fisherman mayor” Angelo Vassallo, mysteriously shot in early September 2010. Ordered by the Neapolitan Mafia, the Camorra? No answers yet, but esteem for Vassallo in Pollica, and everywhere in Cilento, is palpable. The current vice-mayor, former assistant to Vassallo, welcomed us to Pollica’s city hall and told us proudly about all Vassallo had done for Pollica and the Cilento, promoting local agriculture, safeguarding the environment, and fighting for the preservation of the natural resources of the land and sea. Pollica’s imposing fifteenth-century fortified tower now houses the Centro Studi Internazionale della Dieta Mediterranea di Pollica, soon to be dedicated to Vassallo, and appropriately so, as he was instrumental in gaining UNESCO recognition of the Mediterranean Diet as a World Heritage Cultural Intangible
The road from Pollica serpentined down the mountain to the port city of Acciaroli below. After a seafood lunch near the port, Pino sat in the shade of an immense olive tree chatting with the older men of the town while I headed off to the now-crumbling Hotel La Scogliera, where locals say Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea.” At the elegant entryway to this once grand hotel, local farmwomen, Chiara and Annamaria, sell bunches of mountain oregano, braids of purple onions of Tropea, and jars of their homegrown vegetables sott’olio.
With a bunch of oregano and jars of fava beans and eggplant under oil, I headed back to find Pino in animated conversation with the old men. They told me that still today, the most experienced and best of their fishermen is called “Il Vecchio” (the old man). The tradition is that Hemingway often chatted with Antonio Masarone, “Il Vecchio” when he lived there, about his fishing adventures. The branches of trees throughout Acciaroli are festooned with placards bearing quotes from Hemingway’s novel. Is it only a legend that Hemingway’s famous sea story was written here where fishing boats still anchor? Not for the Acciarolesi.
Before leaving Acciaroli, we stopped at the restaurant of Angelo Vassallo’s son Antonio and daughter Giusy where their mother Angela turns out wonders in the kitchen. She joined us for coffee, a woman dignified in her sadness as she talked to us about her husband Angelo Vassallo: “He never imposed his ideas: he tried to help people understand. He tried to encourage the use of natural materials for building, respecting the environment. That is why all the signs of the Pollica area are in wood, not in aluminum. He was above all an environmentalist, aiming at zero impact on the environment. The present town administration carries on his work.”
Later we travelled the coast road south to Pioppi, an ancient Greek port town, where we swam in crystalline waters. For the past ten years, this stretch of coast has won the prestigious “Bandiera Blu,” the blue flag award, for the cleanliness of its waters and beaches. Ansel Keys, the American physiologist and “father of the Mediterranean diet,” lived in Pioppi for many years, studying the eating habits of the Cilento area people. He died in 2004, over a hundred years old.
As the sun started to slip to the sea, we headed north up the coast to CastelLabate, a fortified coastal village clinging to a mountainside, which grew up around a twelfth-century Benedictine abbey. At first sight, Pino dubbed CastelLabate “la perla del Cilento”. From the belvedere below the castle, breathtaking views sweep from the Cilento promontory to Capri, embracing all of the Golfo di Salerno. Four rounded guard towers surround the castle and the meandering backstreets wind out under fourteenth-century arches into the tiny main square, heart of the fortified village. Houses surround the tiny piazza on three sides, leaving the fourth side open to sweeping views of the countryside. It was dark when we sat down at a table in one of the two tiny restaurants on this main square. The ubiquitous group of “vecchi” played cards nearby. I couldn’t resist asking if any of them had been in the superb film on Italian immigration, “Benvenuti al Sud,” filmed here. They all pointed to one old grizzled man, toothless, with a pacific smile.
For our last day on in il Cilento, we followed the curvy coastal road south to the medieval hamlet Pisciotta, surrounded by centuries-old gnarled pisciottani olive trees. The small houses of Pisciotta, perched on a rocky mountainous ledge, seem to embrace each other to defend the town’s noble residences and the church at the top of the village. As we walked into the centro, we passed the local vecchi playing cards in the main piazza. Little boys kicked soccer balls around them. Vacationers relaxed and enjoyed gelato and the seascape views below. Two stairways lead out of the piazza to the highest part of the village and into a labyrinth of narrow, twisting backstreets. The temptation to get lost here is irresistible. I yielded, as Pino read his paper in the main piazza.
We headed back to Acciaroli for our last seafood dinner, at the Ristorante Claudio, where Angelo Vassallo’s brother served us his catch of the day and then joined us for a homemade limoncello and a chat about his brother Angelo’s love of fishing. “We were all fishermen, my father too,” he told us as we talked into the night. Across from his restaurant, the locals walked arm-in-arm along the waterfront in the last passeggiata of the day as the fishing boats rocked at anchor under the moon.
Ahhhhh, il Cilento: what took us so long?
Click here to see the beauty of the Cilento coast
Read about the Mediterranean diet, World Heritage Cultural Intangible