Paestum, place of magic for travellers

There is so much to be discovered in life, places of magic for the traveller, and Paestum in southern Campania is certainly one.

For the amateur or trained archaeologist, probably the sites and sight of the temples and city of Paestum are now tame. But for most others this is a site that may even compare with the Acropolis in Athens for the quality of the ancient Greek temples and the awe it inspires.

Maybe the city was founded as Poseidonia in about 600 BC and its current name was given by the Roman conquerors in about 273 BC. In its Roman period, it survived Hannibal, but declined and was abandoned, possibly due to a change in environmental conditions, during the following 300 years.

The decline may have been assisted by Saracen raids, and the population apparently resettled on the hill of Agropoli. Paestum was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1500s. Probably, the onset of malarial conditions 1000 years earlier was the saving grace for a marvelous archaeological ‘find’.

The reason for our visit? It was the 20th annual ‘Borsa Mediterranea del Turismo Archeologico’, a meeting of archaeologists, museum directors, regional promoters, administrators and parks directors from Italy and mainly southern European countries – a meeting where you could virtually guarantee that there would be no stone left unturned and no dropped rubbish.

The experience was captivating. This is not a report on the meetings and conferences, but a memorial to my first exposure to Paestum. In the late afternoon I sat at a café looking across the foundations of the city.

To my right stood the Temple of Athena, and to my left at a greater distance, stood the first temple of Hera, virtually hiding the larger temple close behind.

The Greek gods had created a wonderful evening scenario. From the palest blue of the horizon, to a perfect clear pale blue sky, the artists of the heavens had painted strokes of cloud in a spectrum from rose in the highest, through pinks to a golden hue closer to the horizon.

As I sat for what seemed a pleasantly long evening, the scene slipped slowly into the lap of the sun, now hiding below the sea. Meanwhile to the east, behind the temple of Athena, the rugged mountains of Mordor were overhung by a pink fire. The evening settled and I arose to venture to the hotel and to sample the local fare.

The next morning, we ventured out after an early breakfast, and strolled through the ancient city foundations to the smaller of the two Hera temples and were excited to find that a visit into the bowels between the columns was allowed.

Each column and the overall structure was awe inspiring, especially as very few other tourists came, and the ‘Roman soldiers’ were just setting up camp in the forum.

However, a couple of American tourists entered the temple and we sought their opinion of this wonderful site. The husband ventured pleasure but commented that it seemed a long way to come for just one archaeological site. Maybe too much Disney in Orlando.

For those of us who are less demanding on the forces of entertainment, maybe a few more visits to Paestum are on the cards.