Tuesday, November 24, 2015


An unusual note here at the start. Please make some comment today as you read this. I don't care what it is. You can even just say, "I'm here." but I would really like to know who is reading this.



I often forget that southern Italy was Greek territory during their glory days. The Greeks had trade routes all over the Mediterranean and also needed territory to send their growing populations. Southern Italy was the perfect spot. One of the best for us today is the town of Paestum on the coast a few miles south of Salerno and a two-hour drive from our base in Sorrento. It is reputedly the best site for Greek ruins in Italy outside of Sicily.

One of half a dozen artists we saw. It must have been a workshop.
Founded as Poseidonia by the Greeks in the 6th century BC, the town was later conquered by a barbarous inland tribe, the Lucanians and then by the Romans. Malaria chased out most of the residents and the site was ignored and forgotten until the 18th century when it was rediscovered and became a part of the Great Tour that Europeans and Americans used to consider one of the requirements of a well-rounded education. Since the town was essentially abandoned, it wasn’t destroyed as so many early towns have been. By the time it was rediscovered, there was a more general consensus that these old things needed to be saved fortunately for us today. It was an easy day trip from Sorrento by car. Even though the train stop is right next to the entrance to the site, to get there by public transport would have entailed a train ride to Naples and then another to Paestum (three hours each way, doable, but too much train time and a late return home assuming you didn’t miss the last train.

It was raining when we arrived so we started in the museum, a beautiful modern building with plenty of signs in English to help us understand what we were looking at. The first room we entered, really the centerpiece of the museum is for temporary displays. Currently, the show is about colors used to paint the sculptures and buildings. Excellent explanations of how they created and applied the colors along with samples of reproductions made for an interesting show. Some of the reproductions were created with a 3-D printer, a useful use of this brand-new technology. This was accompanied by an explanation of the colors’ symbolism. For example, the discussion about green points out that while today, we think of green in association with nature, for the Greeks, green was just one of the four elements of nature representing water. The other three were air (white), earth (black), and fire (red). Green’s unstable nature as a paint also meant that it represented a lack of stability and ambivalence.

Hercules killing the giant Alcyoneuas

Loom weights

Part of a large vase

The rest of the ground floor houses the relics found at Paestum and other sites nearby. One of the most interesting was the nine vases in perfect condition found at Paestum. They were filled with honey that was still in perfect condition protected by the vases and the beeswax seal. At least some of the honey was left to crystallize and become part of the display.

Crystallized honey
For us the most interesting were the many painted caskets. They were painted on the inside with remarkable coloring and quality. These people were sent off in style. Several had horses as the main motif, but the highlight is the Tomb of the Diver. The top is a fairly simple picture of a man diving off a platform into the unknown world of the dead. The Greeks weren’t sure what would happen after death so this was a common symbol. The sides of the coffin showed pictures of lounging either at a bath or a party. At least two of them are assumed to be lovers; perhaps one is the man in the coffin.

Plastic covering caused the reflections

"More, please"

After about an hour in the museum we headed outside.The timing was perfect as the sun was out and the afternoon light highlighted the beauty of the temples. We started with the Temple of Ceres – wait – it is really the Temple of Athena. The discoverers assumed that this temple would be about agriculture, but when modern archaeologists began really digging they kept finding a woman with a big helmet, Athena, goddess of wisdom and war. Local stones were used in the building of the town. It was the Romans who built the road system that would have allowed more distant stones to be brought here. The interior of this temple was, however, plundered and used in the building of Amalfi’s cathedral. The interior was also used as a Christian church in the 6th century.

Temple of Athena

The other two temples devoted to Neptune (maybe) and Hera are at the opposite end of town. The Temple of Hera built around 550 BC is one of the oldest anywhere. The Temple of Neptune built 100 years later shows a somewhat different style with fewer columns and those columns adorned with slightly more stylish capitals. All three temples are oriented east-west with the actual alters on the east side since only priests were allowed to enter.

Temple of Neptune

Temple of Hera
Temple of Hera in the foreground
Other interesting sites included the Haroon, a Greek Memorial Tomb. More likely, this was just a memorial since no bodies have been found in it and the Greeks usually buried their dead outside of the city walls. It survives in part because the Romans were loath to destroy religious buildings. Contrast that with the Christians taking the Temple of Athena apart to build a cathedral elsewhere or ISIS and the Taliban destroying ancient sites simply because they do not fit their belief system. Because this one was in the middle of their town, they simply buried it, thus preserving it for the future.
The buried Haroon
The pool
The forum
We saw a pool that perhaps was dedicated to Fortuna Virilis, goddess of luck and fertility. Next to the pool is the forum, a large grassy area (today) in the middle of town. To either side of the road we could walk through the remains of houses and businesses. While wondering we met a nice couple from Naples who exhorted us to visit Sicily on our next trip. We also met a family with two high school exchange students, one from Ohio and the other from Brazil. The Ohioan was eager to share his experiences as a traveler with us and proud of his newly acquired Italian language skills. They will live here for one full year before returning home. Meanwhile the family’s daughter is living in South Carolina for the year. It’s good to see these youngsters getting a taste of the rest of the world.

The amphitheater
A small amphitheater and an Ekklesiasterion completed our tour of the site. The Ekklesiasterion is really a sunken circular theater used as a meeting place where the Greeks would discuss matters and citizens would vote. We entered through a tunnel  and discovered that the walk along the front seats was also over a tunnel allowing people to walk without disturbing those already seated.

After completing our tour of Paestum, we found our way to the beach where the Allies landed in 1943. Having already taken Sicily, this was the next step up the Italian Peninsula. They stopped in Paestum and used the House of Neptune for a field hospital. Amazingly they treated the place with the respect it deserved. We saw no evidence of soldierly graffiti. From here the soldiers would head north to the famous battles at Monte Cassino and another landing at Anzio as they drove the Germans back towards Germany. Unlike the beaches at Normandy, there are no monuments here at all. Perhaps it is just too overshadowed by the more famous landing at Normandy, or perhaps it has something to do with an Italian ambivalence towards the war. Italy surrendered soon after the invasion although elements of the Italian army continued to fight on with the Germans and the Germans fought tenaciously to maintain their hold on their erstwhile ally.

Similar to what the soldiers saw as they were mostly unopposed as they landed. 

What we did find at the beach was a lovely long stretch of sand with many camping areas and some resorts that looked nice enough to merit five stars from anyone. The place must be absolutely overrun with tourists in August as Italians make their way to the beach or mountains to escape the heat of the summer.

Beach cottages


  1. I'm here, getting caught up on your travels. Keep the pics and narrative coming. We just returned from sunny wine country to cold weather. Look forward to seeing you all on your return,

  2. I'm here, getting caught up on your travels. Keep the pics and narrative coming. We just returned from sunny wine country to cold weather. Look forward to seeing you all on your return,