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Italy’s Cilento Coast

Preston Schlebusch A view of the coast below Castellabate.

Photo: Preston Schlebusch

I’m riding shotgun in a BMW X5 that’s barreling down a coastal dirt road in southern Campania; at the wheel is Angelo Granito Pignatelli, the 13th prince of Belmonte. On one side, wheat-colored bluffs ascend to the deep-blue summer sky; on the other, the still Mediterranean glitters. My boyfriend and I are staying at Palazzo Belmonte, the prince’s hotel (and primary residence) in the town of Santa Maria di Castellabate, and we left right after breakfast to explore a sprawling parcel of land he owns on Punta Licosa, a forested promontory some three miles to the south. The 400 acres of hills, sloping uniformly down to alternating beaches of white powder and quartz-studded sandstone, are home to a handful of abandoned stone farmhouses; beyond that, they’re undeveloped—the only visible inhabitants are the peregrine falcons suspended above, in air suffused with the pungent scents of Aleppo pines, carob trees, and the sea.

We’re here because, like all of Palazzo Belmonte’s guests (mostly British, mostly posh, many of whom address the Prince of Belmonte as “Angelo”), we enjoy access to this private estate; we can swim, picnic, run or walk on its miles of paths, and sunbathe in near-total solitude. We’re also here because the prince, whose faultlessly correct bearing is leavened by a sudden and contagious laugh, harbors a proud, protective fondness for this pristine corner of his world, which he is eager to share with his guests. When you stop to consider, in the silence among the centuries-old trees, that the jammed lanes and cacophonous piazze of the Amalfi Coast are just 45 miles north, you understand why.

To call the Cilento Coast the anti-Amalfi isn’t much of an exaggeration. This portion of Campania that extends from the bottom of the Gulf of Salerno to the border of Basilicata, 65 miles to the south, lacks almost entirely the manicured glamour, scene-y restaurants and starry hotels, and canny service orientation of its counterpart across the Gulf (Belmonte’s stylishly old-school hotel, which opened to guests in 1985, is the exception). And while the Amalfi Coast’s picturesqueness is manifest in a set-designed sort of way—you have to work pretty hard to find a truly ugly view—the Cilento’s is more erratic. As we spent our days cruising up and down Route 267, the two-lane road that follows the coast, we passed through sleepy port towns and villages, drove parallel to empty beaches for miles, and meandered along the crests of Big Sur–like mountains, far above water the color of sapphire, opal, and jade. But we also took in abandoned building sites, slapdash concrete apartment complexes, and beachside lots lined with Winnebagos and Hymer Vans. (The Italian working classes descend on the Cilento during the ferragosto holiday in the middle of August, when it becomes fantastically overcrowded and, arguably, worth avoiding—something which, for that matter, is also said of the Amalfi Coast.) Here, in poverty- and corruption-ravaged southern Campania, these unlovely blips on the lovely landscape are as authentic—to reclaim a much-exploited travel buzzword—as the region’s delicate mozzarella and plaintive folk music. But if you’re the sort of traveler who can take the blips in stride, not to mention a pronounced dearth of designer boutiques and yacht slips, you’ll be rewarded with a piece of southern Italy that has remained truer to its origins for its lack of a high profile.

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