Growing up in 1960s Wales as the daughter of an immigrant Italian couple had its ups and downs. Familiarity with such exotic delicacies as aubergines, tortellini, tiramisu and real coffee fell firmly into the up camp; fried eels, pigs’ trotters and driving to Italy for the annual summer family holiday were definitely downsides. But as an adult, looking back on those trips, one memory still stands out: driving the glorious Autostrada del Sole (the A1, at 745km Italy’s longest motorway) and the Autostrada A3 Napoli-Reggio Calabria.
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This final leg, from Naples to Salerno, signified our journey’s end, and with its gorgeous views out over the gulf of Salerno and the azure waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, even we ungrateful, disgruntled children who wanted to spend our summer holidays with friends rather than barely known Italian relatives would begin to feel excited about the six weeks that stretched ahead of us.
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Perhaps because of this personal history, I think Salerno is one of the nicest cities in Italy, yet it remains one of its most underrated. Quite why this is has always been a mystery to me. It’s cleaner, more manageable and less edgy than its more famous neighbour Naples, and has a number of great attractions.
Chief amongst these are its beautiful old town, where impressive and imposing churches and noblemen’s houses – among them the baroque Church of San Giorgio, the Palazzo d’Avossa, which features some stunning frescoes, and the predominantly 17th-century Duomo cathedral of patron saint St Matthew, where various restorations have revealed large sections of the original 11th-century Romanesque architecture – line ancient streets where medical students from all over the world walked nearly a thousand years ago, studying at the Scuola Medica Salernitana.
Wherever you look, the town’s long history is beautifully evoked; on the narrow Vicolo delle Galesse, craftsmen once made coaches, gorgeous little Via Masuccio Salernitano is named for the 15th-century local poet and writer, and Vicolo della Neve takes its name from the fact that snow (neve) was stored here in cold dark caves and cellars. And dotted through them, tiny shops and cafes set around lively piazzas cater to locals stopping for an espresso at historical locations like Caffe dei Mercanti (Via Mercanti 114), queueing for ice-creams at Gelateria Gerry Di Santoro Gerardo (Via Giovanni da Procida 33) and enjoying pastries from Pantaleone pasticceria (Via Mercanti 75), whose shocking-pink scazzetta cake is famed throughout the region – and has even been sampled by Bill Clinton, the Queen and Pope John Paul II.
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But to visit Salerno and only explore its old town would be to miss out on one of its most iconic sights and activities – Lungomare Trieste. Filled with palm trees and plants, this elegant seafront promenade of just under five miles is perfect people-watching territory, particularly on a Sunday when whole families get dressed up to the nines to do the passegiata.
It’s an experience that used to keep me enthralled for hours as a child; returning recently, I was enchanted by the fact that it’s clearly an enduring social must, having barely changed in the 40 years since I last experienced it. What has is the nearby port. Here, Zaha Hadid’s Maritime Terminal finally opened last month – 16 years after she won a competition to design it and five years later than scheduled, but hey, that’s the bass’Italia way – as the final part of a redevelopment scheme that has totally transformed this once functional, always rather ugly part of town.
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From Hadid’s gorgeous new oyster-shell-shaped building, passengers can board ferries and boats to nearby tourist spots like Amalfi and Capri, but also venture as far as Sicily, Genoa and Tunisia. And even non-passengers can enjoy glorious views out over the Gulf from the terminal’s expansive terraces.
For the best views though, it’s worth heading up to Castello di Arechi, a hulking 7th-century mass that looms almost 1,000ft above the town. Built over pre-existing earlier fortifications dating back to Roman and Byzantine times, its most appealing element is the view it offers over the city and gulf; from here, it’s possible to look along the coast to the Cilento region south of Salerno, and while its standout attraction, Paestum, isn’t visible from here, it’s an easy and hugely enjoyable 1-hour drive away along the coastal SP175.
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Close up, the remains of the Greek civilisation that made Poseidonia its home in 600BC, before being replaced by local Lucanians and later, in 273BC, the Romans, who named it Paestum, are astonishing, from their three beautifully preserved Greek temples to their forum and amphitheatre. It’s a lovely site to wander, quiet and elegiac, and a long long way from the tourist hell of Pompeii.
Indeed, unlike the maddeningly frustrating congestion of the Amalfi coast’s SS163, the SP175 is rarely busy, and beyond it lie attractions for everyone, whether a hiker, history fan, horticulturalists or gastronome. Canny visitors in the latter camp, for example, don’t leave Paestum without a trip to Tenuta Vannulo, a ‘mozzarella farm’ offering not just amazing mozzarella, but also tours of the facility in different languages, taking in enticing looking buffalo pens, the cheese-making processes and a small museum.
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As the SP175 splits into inland and coastal options, the choices become ever more alluring – you could take the scenic route across the National Park of Cilento (celebrating 18 years of UNESCO heritage status this year) to explore the twists and turns of the caves that make up the Grotte di Castelcivita and Grotte dell’Angelo caves at Pertosa, stopping to do some glorious hiking in the park en route.
The 100km of coastline is a delight too, with arresting medieval hilltop towns like Castellabate and ruined medieval villages like San Severino fighting it out in the beauty competition with pretty seaside resorts like Acciaroli (home to Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s) and Pioppi. Santa Maria di Castellabate too is a delight, and offers excellent scuba diving; at Palinuro beautiful beaches on land and stunning clefts and caverns at sea, including the Blue Cavern, make for an amazing day out. Possibly not, when you’re a stroppy teenager, as amazing as a day out at Kidwelly beach with your best friends, but looking back, I realise I was very very lucky to have ever been in the enviable position of being dragged to this very very special region every year. I still hate pigs’ trotters and fried eels though.
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