In the meantime, Palazzo Belmonte is no longer the only nice place in the area to rest your head. Ensconced in the hills above Paestum is Il Cannito, a four-room bed-and-breakfast opened in 2006 by Anna Maria Barlotti Gorga, a fiftysomething chef from the area. Spread across two houses dating back to the 13th century, Il Cannito is stamped with that brand of pared-down, old-meets-new chic that graces the pages of glossy 12-pound Italian shelter magazines. The rough-hewn beams are whitewashed; contemporary paintings and flat-screen televisions hang on the walls; the bathrooms are stocked with locally produced fig-scented toiletries in elegant little bottles. Wide terraces of bone-colored travertine are shaded by 300-year-old oaks, spotlit from below in the evening. With the help of her preternaturally healthy-looking children, Santa, 29, and twins Antonella and Nicola, 25, Anna Maria serves dinner (fresh spaghetti in spicy clam broth, baked sea bream) from her sleek professional kitchen, separated from the dining area by electronic sliding glass doors fitted into the centuries-old walls. During the day, guests are welcome at the Gorgas’ private lido on the beach just beyond the temples at Paestum. There are the requisite spots for campers in the grass parking lot; there are also sun beds, umbrellas, and a thatched-roofed bar and pizzeria with a large wooden deck. The sound system is tuned to reggae or West African music the days we’re there, sipping Coronas or glasses of Falanghina in the late-afternoon sun. We notice white lilies popping up through the sand. It’s a native species, explains Nicola. Yes, the beach would be smoother if they were cleared away, he concurs, but we prefer to let them grow; aren’t they beautiful?
Just up the road is Tenuta Vannulo, which is to mozzarella di bufala a bit what Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate are to Cabernet Sauvignon: artisanal, scarce, legendary. At 8 a.m., people are already queueing at the doors of the bottega for cheese made just two or three hours earlier. Next door, the café-yogurteria sells yogurt, pudding, ricotta, and gelato, all made with buffalo milk. Vannulo’s proprietor, Antonio Palmieri, dapper in white linen pants and a panama hat, shows us around. The state-of-the-art facilities include massage machinery for the buffalo, who line up placidly for their turn under the rollers (a relaxed cow is a bountiful one, the theory goes). We’re here to see the relais that Antonio and his wife, Caterina, are constructing to host overnight guests—clients, potential clients, friends, and those whose love of real mozzarella has brought them here in pilgrimage. Housed in a small renovated farm building, it consists of two opulent suites. Pompeii red and terra-cotta dominate; Neoclassical antiques are scattered about. The Versace-esque overtones, totally place-appropriate here in Magna Graecia, are quite beautiful. Below the rooms is a tasting cellar, damp and mineral-smelling, with subtle recessed lighting and tables where guests who opt for a private tasting session will be served products prepared especially for the occasion. Chic, quiet, stylish, this little relais could easily be found in the center of Rome. Except that a few miles away are temples that predate most of Rome’s architecture; and you can’t get Vannulo mozzarella di bufala, or Vannulo anything, in a Roman supermarket—or, for that matter, in an Amalfi supermarket.
Returning to Palazzo Belmonte in the evening, we make our way to the outdoor restaurant, positioned on a green lawn overlooking the hotel’s private beach, for an aperitif. Behind us, five acres of palm-shaded gardens stretch to the monumental stone palazzo. They’re tended lovingly, but none too rigorously: profusions of bougainvillea and wisteria ignore the boundaries of their plots; candle-filled terra-cotta pots are scattered with no discernible artifice around the tables and along the dirt paths. The hotel is likewise rakishly elegant—a little world unto itself, from the Smythson stationery in the rooms (embossed in the country-house style with Santa Maria di Castellabate, Salerno) to the creaky antique iron beds and the absence of a sign at the estate gates; there’s just a buzzer labeled Belmonte.
A tall wall separates the grounds from the town of Santa Maria, which is busy and charming in the summer months, with an old-fashioned stone boardwalk, a handful of fine terraced restaurants, and one or two boutiques selling handmade leather sandals and Calypso-style beach wraps. Which is to say, it’s the closest the Cilento gets to more luxurious destinations, like Porto Ercole or Portofino—or Positano, just visible across the gulf, a faintly twinkling constellation in the enveloping twilight.