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Italy’s Cilento Coast

Preston Schlebusch A view of the coast below Castellabate.

Photo: Preston Schlebusch

Start with the sea. The water here is some of the cleanest in Italy, thanks to the marine reserves that dot the coastline (for anyone who’s watched empty Marlboro packs bobbing in the tide below their $900-a-night hotel room in Positano, that might be reason enough to visit). Cilentan villages are some of the most historically intact and culturally unchanged in the Mezzogiorno: Acciaroli, a half-hour down the coast from Punta Licosa, has biscuit-colored stone houses with blue-painted doors, and a harbor dotted with cafés where you and your party might, even in summer, be the only non-native Italian speakers, as we were one bustling Saturday morning. Ernest Hemingway lived here in the 1950’s; he is said to have taken as much inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea from the sun-worn Acciaroli fishermen—many of whom still put out in their wooden boats at dawn each day with their menaiche, traditional handwoven nets—as he did from his later days in Cuba. The medieval fortress town of Castellabate, labyrinthine and haunted-feeling, even during the crowded apex of August, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Clinging fiercely to a rocky outcropping, its castle was erected to monitor seas that were variously controlled over the centuries by Normans, pirates, and the Saracens. Far to the south, near the border with Basilicata, we took wild switchbacks up the face of a virtual cliff and through the minuscule hamlet of Lentiscosa, where the road narrows to perhaps 10 feet as one passes in little more than a blink through the ancient town center: four silent blocks shaded by crumbling Baroque palazzi and populated by men who stop their card-playing to stare as you drive by.

What the Cilento lacks in flash it makes up for in provenance: 2,700 years ago, this area was a seat of Magna Graecia, and it’s replete with pre-Christian mythology. Paestum, on the Sele Plain a few miles north of Palazzo Belmonte, is the site of some of the best-preserved Greek temples on the Mediterranean, and the Sele itself has been known as the piana degli dei, or “plain of the gods,” for millennia; Punta Licosa is the apocryphal site of the siren Leucosia’s suicide (she threw herself off a cliff to her death after failing to lure Odysseus to his). And, this being Italy, there is of course a local gastronomic heritage; its cornerstones are the venerated mozzarella di bufala campana (which has earned Italy’s coveted Denominazione d’Origine Protetta status; State Route 18, running through the fattoria-studded southern end of the Sele Plain, is known as the “mozzarella highway”) and fichi bianchi dottati, the succulent lime-size white figs that grow in the hills around Mount Stella. And there are others: tiny red Paestum artichokes; cured soppressata from Gioi; cacioricotta caprino, the tangy local goat’s-milk ricotta. You’re just as likely to find them—along with a staggering seafood catch (unpolluted water plus strict fishing regulations equals a delicious, usually 100 percent organic selection)—at homey U’ Mazzeno, the colorful osteria on the dirt road that leads to Punta Licosa, as you are on the garden terrace at Ristorante Il Caicco, suspended almost a thousand feet above the sea in Castellabate.

Natural bounty, slow food; on second thought, how is it this place isn’t overrun with self-professed Italophiles—with or without the Winnebago-packed campgrounds?Perhaps it’s only a matter of time; indeed, the prince confesses to thoughts of constructing a luxurious, Masai Mara–style tented camp on his 400 acres sometime in the next couple of years, confident that there are enough nature-loving, forward-thinking Brits and Americans ready to venture south of Salerno to experience a slice of his heaven.

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