The Italian Region of Cilento is Cinematic, Spectacular and Undiscovered

From a piazza in the town of Castellabate on the Cilento coast of Italy, you may lift your eyes over the rim of your cappuccino and drink in a panorama of sky and Mediterranean Sea from Salerno to the Gulf of Policastro. Looking way, way down, a fruited plain of vineyards, lemon trees and white fig stretches to the flanks of green mountains decked with wisps of vapor.

Standing at the same point in 1811, Napoleon’s brother in law, appointed King of Naples in the early 19th century, uttered words that the town has engraved on its town hall: “Qui non si muore.” Roughly, Here you do not die.

Of course, people do die in the Cilento, a region south of the Amalfi Coast. But they also live longer than most, thanks to the Mediterranean Diet, first studied in these parts. It is more accurate to say that here, eternal life is a more appealing proposition.

Last spring, I decided to explore Italy’s second largest national park, the Cilento, Vallo di Diano and Alburni National Park, which encompasses both sea and mountains, and its environs, on foot. I made the town of Acciaroli my home base, from an Airbnb with a bedroom window that opened on the port. My goal was to “staccare la spina,” or unplug, in Italian. It was early May, no summer crowds. At dawn, cooing doves and trilling Eurasian blackbirds woke me. I swam in the cold, silvery bay, grabbed a caffe macchiato at one of the port bars, donned hiking boots and, armed with a guidebook called “Secret Campania,” and a trekking app called Komoot, set off in my rented manual Fiat Panda.

One of the great things about Italy, for non-Italians anyway, is how easily one slides into the sense of being in a movie. Driving the Via Bacco e Cerere east from the sea into the Alburni mountain, downshifting up switchbacks with puffy clouds casting shadows on towering white cliffs, I felt like Ms. James Bond.

The scenery is cinematic, the views spectacular, the water wine-dark, but the Cilento is not as internationally popular as the Italian playgrounds of Capri and Positano. It is a rather well-kept secret. Here the same sun and sea can be had at a fraction of the cost, along with important Greek ruins, wild nature, curious legends and medieval religious sanctuaries.

Americans are rare in these parts. Many of the residents don’t speak English. A raffish vibe appeals to a certain type: Ernest Hemingway hung out with fishermen around here. After World War II, the American Army doctor Ancel Keys stumbled into the region, bought an old villa and devoted his life to studying the salubrious effects on the heart of a diet of olive oil, fish and fresh vegetables. There’s a museum devoted to the Mediterranean Diet he made famous in the fishing hamlet of Pioppi.

It has been wild country for a long, long time. After the fall of Rome, the coastal populations here dwindled. Wild boar, wolves and bear retook the mountains. In the Middle Ages, Christian hermits and monks moved in. Long into the 19th century, the region retained a savage reputation. Local criminals became heroic “Briganti” during fighting over the unification of Italy, then formed the mafia that has run southern Italy since.

The Italic warrior tribe Lucani were the first recorded inhabitants of the Cilento (the name comes from the Latin “Cis Alentum,” meaning the other side of the Alentum River, which flows through Campania). Ancient Greeks colonized the coast, and their stupendous Doric temples at Paestum, which inspired writers like Goethe and 18th-century architects across Europe, are among the best preserved in the Mediterranean. The museum in the ancient city of Paestum displays Lucanian tomb paintings, paint still bright, mute testaments to the mystery of a gone religion involving sphinxes, female guides to the underworld and male warriors.

My trekking plan always had an ulterior motive: to justify gorging on Cilento food and wine. The region produces some of the finest basics of Italian cuisine. Extra virgin olive oil obtained from oak-sized trees; fresh seafood; homemade pasta and sauces; buffalo, cow and goat cheeses; and of course pizza, all washed down with the local rosso.

The road to Paestum is lined with shops selling mozzarella from the milk of Asian buffalo, possibly first introduced to Italy by the Greeks. On a rainy afternoon, I joined a tour of the Tenuta Vannulo, an organic mozzarella farm, where men in white coats transformed milk from 200 buffalo into creamy balls of cheese beloved by foodies everywhere. The farm itself is mechanized to a crazy extent: The animals are trained to voluntarily enter a self-serve Swedish-made milking machine. After six minutes they exit to a reward of forage and an automated buffalo massage machine.

The Cilento and Vallo di Diano Park covers 699 square miles of beaches, cliffs, emerald vales, river gorges and mountain meadows, with plenty of well-marked trails. I walked about five miles a day in different zones of the park. I regretted that I didn’t have time to cycle just a leg of the 373-mile “via Silente” bike path that circuits the park with nightly stops at various hamlets.

I started my hiking along the water. A sinuous, rutted coastal road links the fishing towns of the Cilento coast and a knee-high guardrail is all that lies between a car and hundreds of feet of air above the sea. The cliffs inspired tales of nymphs who seduced sailors to come close to the rocks where they shipwrecked. If the sailors didn’t respond, the nymphs would dash themselves on the rocks for unrequited love.

An easy, flat walk from the port of San Marco Castellabate, through olive trees and native Mediterranean shrubs, leads to the site of one of the mermaid legends, Punta Licosa. Leukosia was one of three sirens who, in “The Odyssey,” tried to enchant Ulysses and his men. The great voyager had his men stuff their ears with wax and he tied himself to the mast to resist their song. For failing to seduce the sailors, the sea god Poseidon turned Leukosia into the rocky cliff that bears a version of her name.

A trickier walk, over a steep rock path, led up from the bay at Palinuro, a town of countless gelaterias and restaurants that in summer mostly serve vacationing Italians, around a mountain to a point overlooking the Grotta Azzura (blue grotto), a major draw for cave divers.

Often enough, I had trouble finding trail heads despite Komoot (which kept me on course once I started). One afternoon I wandered for two hours in a light rain around a hilltop hamlet called Ogliastro Cilento, seeking in vain the entrance to an evocative-sounding walk called Sentiero dell’Albero Centenario (path of the 100-year-old trees). I never found it, but I did wander several miles through olive groves, trailed for part of the way by two friendly farm dogs.

Deeper in the Alburni range, the hamlet of Sassano, an assemblage of biscuit-colored houses with red roofs planted on the flank of Monte San Giacomo, is the gateway to the Valle delle Orchidee. In May, more than 100 species of wild orchids bloom in a microclimate. A few miles of easy walking wound through an astonishing spectacle of tiny pink, yellow, red and purple blossoms on single stems. These rare flowers proliferated like common dandelions as far as the eye could see.

I got lost driving to Sassano and pulled over at a caffe bar. A row of middle-aged men sat in a line of chairs under the awning in the morning sun like a 1940s photograph. This was Teggiano, my “Secret Campania” guidebook informed me, built around a medieval fortress with 25 towers, and home of one of the more peculiar Cilento legends: During a monthslong siege in the 15th century, Teggiano women supposedly breastfed soldiers to keep them vigorous.

On a plateau deep in the mountains, beyond a maze of farm roads, the baroque Certosa di Padula, a former monastery and one of the largest in Europe, is almost as unbelievable as the opera house in Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” Among its hidden gems is a library with a self-supporting spiral staircase from the 15th century and an 18th-century glazed earthenware floor in blue and emerald green.

For five centuries, Carthusian monks lived and died here, after committing to silent, solitary lives. They only spoke once a week, on Sunday walks in the woods. On the Sunday I visited, the compound was ringing with Italian families enjoying a sunny afternoon outing. Laughing children played hide and seek in the shadows of arched arcades while elders sipped espresso and Aperol spritzes at tables nearby.

The Certosa is not Padula’s only tour-worthy attraction:the Joe Petrosino House Museum honors the life of a hero New York police officer, Joe Petrosino. An Italian emigrant who grew up in New York City, he fought the mafia in the mid 20th century, and died in Italy when he came over to collar a New York mafia boss and was assassinated by the villains.

During my five days in the Cilento, I did not staccare la spina entirely: I lived by my navigational apps, Google translate, a birdcall identifier, and of course my iPhone playlist. But I returned to Rome in muddy shoes, with a sweatshirt that retained the scent of the buffalo farm and a new appreciation for the backcountry of the pulchra terra that is Italy.

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