The Cilento & Vallo di Diano National Park in the province of Salerno is one of the
lovely, little-known treasures of the nation. It presents
exceptional points of interest to casual tourists as well
as to specialists in various fields: geologists study the
large karst area of the Alburni
massif, and historians and archaeologists swarm the
sites of Magna Grecia and
ancient Lucania. Botanists
are particularly fortunate, for just 125 km (c. 80 miles)
SE of Naples, at a point where the Alburni massif starts
to slope down to the Tanagro river
plain, they find the town of Sassano and the Valley of
The origins of Sassano,
itself, like dozens of other towns in the area can be
traced to the period roughly between 1000 and 1400 AD.
Many of the churches, fountains, art treasures, etc. are
medieval and can be placed within that time frame.
Documentation of Sassano goes back to about 1000. That is
also the time when large feudal estates thrived and when
many names prominent in the history of southern Italy
start to appear in the records. Sassano during that period
was one of a number of hamlets contained within the larger
fiefdom of Diano (the ancient name for today's town of
Teggiano), ruled by the Sanseverino family and so powerful
that it is commonly referred to in historical literature
as the "state of Diano."
Before that period,
however —that is, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the
year 1000— documentation is harder
to come by, but there is ample Norman
archaeology in the entire area; before that, Sassano and
most of southern Italy were part of the Duchy of Salerno. Again, as
with other towns in the area, there is also evidence of
Byzantine Greek monastic presence; for example, in Sassano
there was a sacred building used by Byzantine monks,
dedicated to St. Zacharias; it was active until the 13th
century. The town then developed around the nucleus of the
church of San Giovanni Evangelista, founded in 1452.
A number of places in the
hills of the Cilento actually came into existence as a
result of persons fleeing inland to escape Saracen pirate
incursions after the fall of the Roman Empire. There are
obviously Roman relics along the entire Tanagro plain.
Before the Romans the area was home to the ancient Lucanians, a pre-Roman
Italian population who spoke Oscan. The existence of
remnant Oscan vocabulary in the modern Sassano dialect
attests to this. The Lucanians had wandered down into the
area from farther north and were cousins of the Samnites. After 600 BC, the
Lucanians were forced to share some of their land along
the coast with the inhabitants of Greek settlements such
as Paestum and Velia.
modern town of Sassano today has just under 5,000
inhabitants, down from its highest census numbers in 1951
when the population was 5900. At the time of the
unification of Italy (1861) the town had 4700. The lowest
point (pop. 3700) was in 1901 in the midst of the massive
waves of emigration that swept much of Italy. Sassano is
built on a hillside with the highest part at about 1200
meters (3600 feet) and the lowest part down on the Tanagro
plain at about 400 meters (1200 feet).
The Valley of Orchids is in Sassano. It is an
open-air exhibit of an astonishing array of species of the
Orchid family, 184 at last count. Throughout Europe and
the Mediterranean Basin there are 319 species of wild
orchids; thus, in Sassano you can admire more half of that
number. The display covers an area of 47 sq km (about 18
sq miles). The trail through the orchids starts in the
middle of Sassano and runs 13 km (about 8 miles).
(Interestingly, the trail starts near a point of further
botanical interest—the Museum of Ancient Cultivation, a
rich seed bank with hundreds of varieties of beans, wheat,
maize (corn) and fruit that have been typical of the area
orchids bloom from April to June, with some varieties
flowering into July. The Valley of Orchids is a great
source of pride for the community; in May, the traditional
Festival of the Orchids is held. There are guided tours,
tastings of local foodstuffs, and folk music performances.
to take in the next Orchid Festival if only to convince
myself that orchids are beautiful and not just weird.
After all, the name "orchid" comes from the Greek word for
"testicle". I rest my case. I don't know if there is such
a thing as a carnivorous orchid, and maybe I don't want to
Sassano is very
convenient to get to. It is 75 km (45 miles) south of
Salerno on the A3 autostrada, the main motorway to Reggio
Calabria. Take the Sala Consilina exit. Sassano is just
south of the larger town of Teggiano on the west side of the
autostrada. You can see both towns as you exit. Drive by the
seat of your pants. Do not rely on the friendly voice from
your GPS gizmo. That lady has been known to act up and lure
prey right into a large stand of giant carnivorous orchids.
The illustration directly
above is from Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms
in Nature) by Ernst Haeckel (1904).