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Hill Towns of Cilento

As noted in another entry on Cilento, "...the province of Salerno occupies about 3,000 square miles. About one-third of that area has been given over since 1991 to the Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park." The name Cilento, itself, is one of the many historic names in Italy that designate a geographic area that is not, or is no longer, an official administrative unit such as town, province or region; that is, the Cilento is simply a recognized and well-defined part of the province of Salerno in the region of Campania: it is the mountainous spur of the Apennines that bulges out into the Tyrrhenian Sea to form the southern end of the Gulf of Salerno.

The light-green area is the province of Salerno;
within that, the darker green is the Cilento and
Vallo di Diano National Park.

Some statistics of interest: There are 80 towns in the Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park, itself, and 15 others in the immediate adjacent areas. (Some of the better known coastal towns in the adjacent area are Paestum and Agropoli, both at sea-level.) The total population of the 80 towns in the park is about 270,000; the population of the entire province of Salerno (including the capital city of Salerno) is about 1,100,000. The population density in the park is 85 inhabitants per sq. km; density in the entire province of Salerno is about 220 per sq. km. Almost all of the towns in the park are either on the tops of hills or on the slopes between 400 and 800 meters. The towns are all small; populations average just under 3,000 inhabitants per town. Many of them are still relatively isolated in spite of recent improvements in the network of small 'province roads' that traverse the area. The Cilento is perhaps the least-known hill town area in Italy. (The town in the photo at the top of this entry is Capaccio. It is typical in appearance; technically, it is New Capaccio. There is an article related to Old Capaccio at this link.)

There are many reasons why people choose to live on a hilltop, and almost all of them have to do with being safe; hilltops are easier to defend. Certainly, if you are an entire colony of settlers trying to flee the cramped Aegean for the wide-open spaces in the west (meaning Italy!) a few thousand years ago, and you come with enough ships and people (especially warriors with those newfangled Iron-Age swords) and lots of time and the will to tough it out because this is your new home, then you will dare to set up shop on an open plain near a water source. If there were others there before you, they were primitive tribes who scurried away to the hilltops, mumbling, "There goes the neighborhood." Thus, the Greeks built Paestum on a plain in 600 BC and the natives scurried. It wasn't exactly uncharted territory. The Greeks' own myths told them that both Jason and Ulysses had sailed these waters and, in concrete terms, they were really only about a day's sail south of the next bay to the north; though Neapolis (Naples) did not yet exist, the Greek trading post on the island of Pithecusa (Ischia) did, and it was doing boom-town business with the Etruscans.

Payback came in about 400 BC when the natives moved back in with the help of their indigenous cousins, the Samnites, perhaps the most belligerent people ever to inhabit the peninsula—and the only ones the Romans were afraid of. 'Scurrying away' again became the thing to do, but this time it was the Greeks doing it. They moved off the plain and started the long tradition of sprinkling the local hills with the small towns that now make up the area. The hill towns were later pretty much left alone by the Romans, who set up some forts in the hills but generally by-passed much of the area with main north-south roads along the coastal plains and through the valleys. After the Romans the barbarian invasions came and then the ensuing Gothic Wars that had everyone moving away from the coast and into the hills. Then came the infamous Saracen pirate raids in the late part of the millennium. More scurrying.



Zip-line in Trentinara (Cilento)!   This box added in March 2017

If you drive inland from Paestum on the SS18, in a few minutes you'll be able to turn on your right onto SS18 and up into the hills of the Cilento at a point somewhat below the numbered group of towns shown on the map below this box. (All of those towns are covered here.) The first town you come to is Capaccio and after a few more curves you'll be looking at this view (image above) of scenic Trentinara with its prominent high point, the so-called Terrace of Cilento, with a view out all the way across the Gulf of Salerno to the Amalfi Coast and even to Capri beyond. It's a small town of about 2000 residents, a number that should grow, at least during tourist season if they pull this off
"this" being the construction of a so-called "zip-line" (the image shown here is of a similar such contraption further south in the Lucanian Dolomites at this location). Although it is not clear to me where it's going to land, that high point is the obvious "jumping off" point. Sounds ominous, I know, but I'm not sure what else to call it. I've been up there and I'll go; I don't care where it lands or if it never lands. The builders, Fraiese Construction, will underwrite the entire costs and then hold the contract to run the show for 30 years. They promise you the 1500-meter (1 mile) ride of your life at speeds up to 120 kph (75 mph) from 580 meters (1750 feet) down to 440 meters (1300 feet) at the landing point. A shuttle bus takes you back up. You can fly double if you want and even at night.

Thus, over about 2,500 years, the hill towns have grown and survived and all have at least that one thing in common: they were founded by people looking for safe places to live. There are also a number of hilltop monasteries scattered through the area. They were originally Greek Orthodox (more refugees, this time from the wars of Iconoclasm in Greece in about 900 AD); they are now Roman Catholic. Also, many of the towns are dominated by medieval castles from the early part of the second millennium, built by local barons to secure their fiefdoms (i.e., the towns and villages built up during the previous 1,000 years).

This relevant map is from another entry on the Towns of
the Alburni
(those marked by numbers in the center.)

Though the towns do share a common culture and general physical appearance,  they have developed unique qualities that distinguish one from the other and make them stand out individually to those passing through. The names themselves are striking: Bellosguardo [Beautiful View], Roccagloriosa [Glory Rock], Buonabitacolo [Nice Place to Live], Valle dell'Angelo [Angel Valley], Roccadàspide [Rock of the Asp!]. Though they all have much in common, historically, some of the towns make unique claims: that last one, Roccadàspide, claims to have been founded not by any common refugees, mind you, but by lucky remnants of the army of Spartacus, the rebel slave who went down to final defeat at nearby Giungano in 71 BC against the Roman legions of Marcus Liccinius Crassus. Or Atena Lucana [Lucanian Athens!] (Lucania is the ancient native pre-Greek name for the area), which claims to be the oldest settlement in the Cilento, with Greek ruins and Oscan inscriptions to prove it! (Oscan was related to Latin, and the inscriptions are in the alphabet learned from the Greeks.) There are old ruined windmills in Montecorice (and even new wind turbines in Albanella), remants of the original stone dwellings built 1500 years ago in Stio, miraculous well waters in Laureana Cilento (which legend traces to a visit by St. Paul, himself), the tiny hermit dwellings of Caselle in Pittari, a Poor Toy Museum (containing toys handmade by farmers for their children) in Montana Antilia, and boat races on the Calore river below the town of Castel San Lorenzo.

Castel San Lorenzo is also where they host the Summer Campus of the Italian Evironmental Protection League; the spaces of the Cilento are home to 2,000 indigenous species of plant life, the royal eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and even Canis lupus—the wolf. In addition to the Sele river on the northern boundary of the park, there are a number of other important rivers in the area, such as the Alento, the Tamagro, the Bussento, and the Calore. As a special nature bonus to die-hard troglodytes, there are some significant grottos around the Alburni Mounts in the northeast, primarily the Grotto of Castelcivita (named for the nearby town) and the Pertosa Caves. Both sites show signs of prehistoric habitation. The former is about 5 km long and is the longest karst cave in southern Italy (a third of it is open to the public). The latter has a small navigable underground lake filled by the Negro river and is now also the site of theatrical presentations of scenes from Dante's Inferno. (I know, the real entrance to the Inferno is farther north at Lake Averno near Naples, but this place is much spookier!)

The towns all have medieval churches, some with old monastery libraries (the Eleusa Museum in San Mauro Cilento) and remarkable and seldom visited works of art (the wooden sculptures in the Church of S. Maria della Pietà in Bellosguardo); as well, Padula has the UNESCO World Heritage-rated Certosa (Certosine monastery), the second largest in Italy. The towns, of course, have legends, some religiousPaul passed by over here and Peter over there. Some legends are about local maidens and daring bandits—Isabella, the count's daugher and Saul, the brigand, who threw themselves to their Liebestod from the height of Trentinara before they would renounce each other. Some are mythologicalin Caggiano they say that the earth tremors in the local Alburni Mounts are caused by the stirring of the Titans, still hiding underground after fleeing from the wrath of Neptune ages ago; and below the hill town of Centola along the coast is the port of Palinuro, named in Roman mythology for the helmsman and companion of Aeneas, the Trojan hero; the god Somnus caused Palinurus to fall asleep, fall overboard and drown so that the prophecy might be fulfilled that Aeneas would not set foot ashore until a member of his crew had died.

There are also "pre-hill town" surprises, signs of the indigenous cultures that peopled the area long before the Greeks arrived. One is the Enotrian archaeological site on Mt. Pruno near Roscigno. Or, totally unexpected—some anonymous pre-Michelangelo sculpted a warrior in the rock face at 1100 meters, above the town of Sant'Angelo a Fasanella overlooking the Calore river. Most sources date the sculpture at "middle to recent Bronze Age." (See note 1, below) The face is a little the worse for wear, but the body, tunic and sword scabbard are still evident. The figure is sculpted to life-sized proportions and is accompanied a few yards away by an oval basin (80 x 120 cm/32 x 44 inches), which has a drain channel cut into it, indicating (if the drain was for blood) that it was some sort of a sacrificial altar. The figure, itself, is set near a passage in the ancient wall, as if "guarding" the entrance to this large plateau on the mountain-top, a space that once served pre-historic shepherds for their livestock in the summer months. From ceramic evidence and the nearby presence of living quarters, it was a sizeable and relatively stable population, but a seasonal one that arrived after a long journey from the interior during what is called the transumanza, usually translated simply as "seasonal migration." [More on the "transumanza" here and here.] Maybe a guardian? A god of war? A cenotaph? (i.e., an empty tomb to commemorate a known person, a hero?) Having said all that, the other view—one that renders the "Bronze Age" interpretation problematic—is that some who have studied the statue have come to the conclusion that it probably represents a Samnite warrior and is from a very much post-Bronze Age period, when the Samnites had moved into the hills of Lucania. That would be about 340 BC. Thus, the rock sculpture is not some remnant of myth-shrouded and very early Italic tribes, but from quite historic times. Whoever he is, in local dialect they call him Antece (also spelled Antecce) —the "ancient one."


photo: Enzo D'Elia                                               

The very isolation that has saved these towns from the assaults of modern civilization, however, also produced economic backwardness, creating conditions for massive emigration from the area since the early 1800s. That isolation has been overcome to a certain extent by modern electronic media as well as improved provincial roads. The area is also making a modest comeback due to tourism. The headquarters of the National Park Commission of Cilento and Vallo di Diano is in the town of Vallo della Lucania (elev. 470 meters), off of state road 18. Vallo is one of the two larger towns in the park, with about 8,000 inhabitants. The other is Teggiano (elev. 637 meters), near the source of the Sele river at the northeast corner of the park. There is considerable doubt as to the origins of the town. At least one version is that it was founded by Greeks settlers from Tegea in Greece. Others are that it was founded by Italic settlers from the north, escaping Etruscan expansion or that it was founded by the Lucanians as part of a federation in the 4th century BC. In any event, under the Romans, the town assumed the name Dianum (in later Italian, Diano) and gave its name to the Diano plain. Teggiano sits prominently on a hill overlooking that plain just to the east of the Alburni massif (seen starting to slope upwards on the left in the above photo). Teggiano has about 8,000 inhabitants and is a splendid example of a southern Italian medieval town and the site of the impressive Sanseverino fortress, the high walls and 25 towers of which were put in place by the king of Naples, Ladislao of Durazzo in 1400. It was so well built that when feudal lord Antonello Sanseverino used it as a headquarters in 1485 to call for a revolt against the Aragonese dynasty, it withstood the siege of the royal army. *note 2 below

Ironically, state road 18 on the western side of national park has been upgraded into a limited access superstrada; it shoots through much of the park, missing many of the towns. That is, if you follow only that road from Paestum through the park, you'll go very fast and come out at the other end at the Gulf of Policastro in about  an hour. That's a mistake. Get off that main road 18 at Paestum onto road 166 and run inland for about a mile, then turn right and up on province road 13 to Capaccio, the first hill town and follow the road all the way across to Vallo di Lucania and beyond, down to the Gulf of Policastro. You'll pass through over a dozen small towns on the way, and it will take some hours to get across. You can also spider off onto secondary roads. That will take forever and you'll probably get lost, but it's worth it because all the towns have some sort of sagra, a festival dedicated to local saints, music, and, especially, gastronomybread festivals, wine festivals, chestnut festivals, and cane and cheese and sausage and you-name-it festivals. There is no doubt one with your name on it. And who knows? You may pass by neo-bucolic mixtures of the sublime and the ridiculous as I did when I passed a young fellow, a goatherd, and his faithful mutt tending their animals, yea & verily, as in days of yore, except that he (the goatherd, not  the dog) was texting on his cell-phone! For all I know, he was arranging a "flash mob" to surprise Goliath.

note 1: The dating of such a sculpture is difficult and tentative. Most who have written about this site say "from the middle to recent Bronze Age." Within the so-called Three-Age system adopted by European archaeologists in the 19th century, it is important to understand that Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age are broad labels used to indicate states of technology. They are helpful in setting dates, but only in a very general fashion. They do not calibrate across cultures on a world-wide basis, and even within Europe there are often centuries of "wiggle room" in trying to date an artifact such as this rock sculpture. Dating is not done by examination of the rock, but usually by trying to compare the item to something similar of known origin in the area or by examination of other artifacts (usually ceramics) found in the area. Since the Antecce is unique in Campania (which may mean simply that we haven't yet found the others), comparison is not possible; thus, we look at the ceramic finds and combine that with what we know of the pre-Greek history of the areathat it was for many, many centuries a target for pastoral migrations from the interior by peoples who left tracesand come up with "middle to recent Bronze Age," meaning before the year 1000 BC and probably not older than 1500 BC. That is, however, only IF the sculpture was put there by some ancient Italic Bronze Age tribe. As noted in the text, that may not be the case and the sculpture may be more recent.

note 2: The Sanseverino revolt is one of the episodes in the history of the kingdom of Naples referred to as a "Barons' Revolt." The two most prominent are this one and the revolt against Frederick II in the 1200s.

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