Life & Style | Travel

Relics of Greek glory

The ruins of Paestum have lost none of the majesty of the Hellenic and Roman civilisations that flourished there

  • By Susan Spano, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
  • Published: 23:38 May 22, 2009
  • Explore

Even if there were no fresh mozzarella cheese on the wide plain that edges the Gulf of Salerno in southern Campania, the Greek ruins of Paestum would be reason enough for going there.

Paestum was established around 600BC as part of a wave of Greek expansion that created a chain of colonies, known as Magna Graecia, around the Mediterranean basin.

Now it's one of the most intriguing archaeological sites in Italy, visible proof of the subsequent Roman empire's classical Hellenic foundations.

It's still unspoilt enough to make modern-day visitors feel like discoverers.

Looming elegance

Paestum's three huge, elegant and breathtaking Doric-columned Greek temples loom above the plain about 5 miles south of the beach town of Capaccio.

The modest entrance across the lane from the museum yields to a greensward covered with dandelions and clover, where visitors and pets can roam freely.

Sightseers get scant explanation, so it's best to buy a guidebook at one of the shops by the entrance to find less-obvious features, such as the large house with a marble pool, or impluvium, for collecting rainwater, and the Roman-era amphitheatre.

The Greeks who founded Paestum succumbed to the inland Lucan people, who left marvellously frescoed tombs in the area, and then to the Romans in the 3rd century BC.

After the fall of the Roman empire, Paestum was all but abandoned to the malaria-infested marshes.

It wasn't until the 18th century, when Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered, that Grand Tour travellers stumbled upon the ruins of Paestum, as perfect and undisturbed as Sleeping Beauty.

The nearby museum has a rich cache of findings from the Paestum area, including a collection of Lucanian tomb slabs bearing brightly painted images that look almost like doodles.

Most famous is a fresco of a diver caught in mid-air, symbolising the soul's plunge from this life to the next.

Take time to study the museum's series of metopes, or stone panels, decorating the frieze above a row of Doric columns.

They were found at the site of an important Greek temple dedicated to Hera, at the mouth of the Sele River, about 10 miles north of Paestum.

With almost comic-book vividness, the metopes depict mythological scenes, including Hercules' capture of the dwarfish Cercopes, tied by their feet to a pole hoisted on the hero's shoulders.

Hera history

No standing ruin remains at the site of the Hera sanctuary but the Museum of Hera Agriva Sanctuary has excellent multimedia exhibits on the cult of Hera and the work of Paola Montuoro and Umberto Bianco, Italian archaeologists who discovered the sanctuary in 1934.

The old stones of Foce Sele lie scattered near the river, surrounded by artichoke fields and pastures where water buffaloes graze — a magical Italian landscape in which life goes on amid the ruins of an ancient civilisation.

Go there . . . Paestum . . . From the UAE

Rome is the closest Airport.
From Dubai

Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul. Fare from Dh1,795
Qatar Airlines flies via Doha. Fare from Dh2,805

— Information courtesy: The Holiday Lounge by Dnata. Ph: 04 4380454

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