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main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Jan 20113

S
assano & the Valley of Orchids

Sassano                                                         
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 Orchids.

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.

The 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 orchids

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 for centuries.)

The 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.

I plan 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 know.

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).

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