During my recent honeymoon in Italy, my wife Alissa and I came across a brilliantly coloured poster of a ruined temple standing lonely before a deep-blue sky. Bathed in golden sunlight and flanked by olive trees, roses and broken stones, it looked like a 19th-century romantic painting come to life. “Where is that?” we wondered aloud.
Overhearing us, our Neapolitan hotel proprietor politely interjected that it was Paestum, an ancient Greek city a few hours away. We were shocked – Roman ruins we’d expected, but it seemed odd that so little has been said of a Greek city squatting discreetly in the heart of Italy.
Immediately we knew that Pompeii could wait, for a Roman ruin is almost a modern thing when compared to that of ancient Greece. We hopped a southbound train and spent the next few hours poring over our guidebook in hopes of learning something about unassuming Paestum.
Located on the Tyrrhenian Sea about 80 kilometres south of Naples, Paestum has been known about, but not necessarily toured, for a long while. It was founded by Greek colonists around 600 BC, and became a Roman city some time around 273 BC. Praised by the likes of Ovid, Pliny and Virgil for its famous roses, which (apparently) bloomed twice a year and inspired a profitable perfume industry, Paestum fell into decline and was abandoned some time in the seventh century AD, whereupon it sat quietly crumbling until rediscovered by rich 19th-century tourists. These lucky few found the temples overgrown by weeds, and the surrounding area populated only by local farmers and grazing cattle. It is no surprise that Paestum became a place praised by poets and painters.
Upon our arrival we were immediately struck by the silence of the place. On one side, the omnipresent Apennine Mountains rose from the coastal plain like a wall, on the other a narrow road led from the train station to the ruins through a yawning arch of stone. Passing beneath the arch, we walked through a landscape of farmers’ fields, green and alive beyond the walls of the dead city. All was quiet save for the buzz of insects and the occasional lowing of a water buffalo. The smell of buffalo manure and flowers mixed in the air with that of the sea, unheard and unseen but close by. Suddenly, upon rounding a corner, there they were; three enormous Doric temples, one white as chalk, the others pinkish orange in the midday sun.
The Doric temples of Paestum are unquestionably the best in the world outside of Greece. The oldest, built around 550 BC, is the Temple of Hera; the second oldest, the Temple of Athena, was built around 500 BC; and the third oldest (also dedicated to Hera) was completed around 450 BC. We meandered around them in a dazed stupor, trying to take it all in. We found that the most exciting thing about wandering Paestum is not its preservation (Pompeii and Herculaneum are still the best-preserved sites of antiquity), but its undiscovered feeling. We encountered perhaps 40 other tourists at the site, a far cry from the wave that washes over Pompeii each day. It has the feel of having just been found, only partially excavated and utterly undeveloped for tourism. We were amazed to find crumbled stones and columns of all sizes sprouting casually from the grass like so much rubbish just waiting to be picked up and moved to a museum. Some bore Latin inscriptions. The flowers and cows that greeted 19th-century tourists are still there to greet 21st-century ones.
Walking the same streets that the Greeks and Romans did, we tried to imagine the crowded forum on market days, or the temples, magnificent and imposing in their pagan ceremony. Here were the same walls, the same mountains, the same sea. It seemed miraculous how such a place is not better marked on the tourist map. Every year thousands of tourists flock to the Acropolis in Athens, where, in addition to the broken ruins of the Parthenon, they find a veritable mob of tourists competing for space from which to contemplate and photograph the remnants of ancient Greece. The Acropolis is wonderful, deserving of its fame, but to those of you seeking an alternative, Paestum waits to be discovered.