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Paestum: Where nature, ancient history and art come together

Why you should visit Paestum

What if someone would ask me how a perfect day looks like in my life? I would answer without any hesitation and I would be able to describe it in great detail...

It is a sunny day with a clear blue sky, and in front of me there is a long straight path completely surrounded by ancient walls and uncontaminated nature. I've just arrived in Paestum and left the train station behind me.

Greek History

I prepare all of my senses and my soul for the pluri-sensorial immersion in the beauty of the surrounding landscape that is about to start.

To welcome me is one of the oldest gates to the Greek city of Poseidonia, (this is the original greek name in honour of the sea god Poseidon before it became Paestum during the Roman period) one of the first settlements in the South of Italy built by Greeks from Sybaris around 600 B.C. Greek people chose this area for its strategic position close to the sea and because of its fertility and wealth, in the fertile plain of the important river Sele.

Porta Sirena, Paestum

As soon as I pass the eastern gate named “Porta Sirena” I immediately feel a strong energy which only the splendour of the past can spread. It is one of the best preserved gates in the entire system of city walls, with double piers supporting the cross-vault over the gate. A particular sphinx wrongly interpreted like a “siren” is still visible on the key-stone, its real function probably was to protect the city from the evil like an apotropaïc symbol of good omen. The ancient walls seem to be two wings, that are visible at the lateral sides of the door in a way that the visitor can decide to proceed following an external perimeter approximately 5 km long.

I choose to go straight along the main street beyond Porta Sirena to reach the wonderful Greek city of Poseidonia with its 3 impressive Doric Greek temples and the National Museum of Paestum. Immediately my gaze focuses on the details of that incredible vision: trees and flowers, blooming shrubs , the fields and the profile of the mountains of Paestum on the background behind me.

I can hear the birds and insect’s around me and I can even sense the smell of Buffalo coming from the nearby local farms specialized in the production of the famous Mozzarella di Bufala (Buffalo Mozzarella Cheese).

When people ask, I explain that Paestum is really incredible and magical. I think it’s very difficult to find a place where History and Nature are so strictly linked and where you can reach this state of peace and calmness.

The Temples

After another 10 minutes of walking I see the end of the path which leads to the archeological area so I choose to turn to the right to start the visit of the wonderful Temple of Athena, most commonly known as the Temple of Ceres located in the northern area of the city.

The Temple of Athena, Paestum

This is an original archaic Doric temple probably erected around the year 500 B.C. and dedicated to Athena, daughter of Zeus and Hera and protector of the wisdom and war in the Greek religion. The temple shows 6 Doric columns on the front and 13 on both sides.  On the columns one can notice, in the centre, a sort of convexity or swelling which is an expression of the oldest archaic style, the so called Enthasis of the column. The inside, originally preceded by elegant ionic columns, is very impressive and still preserves part of the inner sanctuary or “cella”, a cult space which at the time hosted the main statue of Athena.

At this point I choose to continue my walk following the eastern street which leads to the agora space of Poseidonia, a meeting place devoted to commercial and political activities. After five more minutes I pass the remains of a particular circular building to my left, made of concentric steps completely carved out by the natural limestone.

The old Greek city of Poseidonia

This is the “ekklesiasterion”, the original Greek parliament which housed the meetings of the ekklesia (assembly) of all adult male citizens entitled to participate in political life. Thanks to the presence of this important structure and to the discoveries of other similar buildings in Agrigento and Metapontum we are sure now that the central part of the city corresponded to the original agora, the heart of social and political greek life.

Walking southwards it’s also possible to visit the remains of the original Roman Amphitheatre and the Forum of Paestum. The Romans built their new colony around 273 B.C. and they completely changed the townscape into Roman style moving the commercial and political function in the southern part of the city.

As soon as I pass the Forum I can see the profile of the wonderful sanctuary of Hera in the distance, the “Heraion” devoted to Hera, wife of Zeus.

It’s impossible to describe the strong emotions that I feel when I find myself in front of the so called “Temple Of Neptune” (the conventional name that scholars gave to the temple during the XVIIIth century.)

View from inside the temple of Neptune

The Big Sanctuary of Hera

This is an extraordinary example of classical doric architecture, probably the best preserved in the South of Italy. It's measures are 24.30 m x 59.90 m, and it has 6 columns on the front and 14 along the side walls.

The perfection of its shapes and its symmetrical aspect is an expression of the classical Greek architecture and can be assigned to the middle of Vth century B.C.

The cella is divided into 3 naves by two rows of columns which have an upper row of smaller columns. It almost feels like I'm walking in a temple inside another temple….that’s incredible!

The columns are very elegant and the capitals are more tapered, the frieze of the temple show the original decoration with metopes (usually carved boards) which in this case are very simple and just separated by vertical triglyphs. All these elements give the temple an impressive appearance due to the particular local bright stone named “Arenaria”, which was used to built both columns and metopes.

One of the tempels of Paestum

I would like to stay in this place forever. Surrounded by imposing architecture and by the beauty of the nature around me. Together with the shapes of the temples it makes a unique breathtaking panorama.

From the cella of the temple of Neptune, looking towards the south I can also see the oldest temple of Poseidonia Hera I, (also known as Basilica because it was wrongly interpreted as a civic Roman building ) probably built in the half of VI century B.C.

Temple of Paestum

Some unmistakable features of the archaic nature are the odd number of columns on the front (9, while there are 18 along the sides), the profile with the obvius entasis (swelling) in their center and the convex “crushed” shape of the Doric capitals.

Although the upper parts of the temple have all been lost we can notice numerous notches for the wooden roof beams, which were covered by tiles and decorated with polychrome terracotta elements now preserved in the National Museum of Paestum.

My walk through the beauty of Paestum is about to end. But I could decide to visit one of the organic farms to enjoy the tasting of exquisite buffalo mozzarella. Or maybe hang out around one of the wonderful beaches of Paestum. There’s so much to see and do in the wonderful Cilento Coast!

My name is Lucia Sessa, I'm 37 years old. I'm a proud, educated and lisenced tour guide for the Campania region. I have a degree in Art & History, and an unconditional love for my work. It's truly an honor to share my knowledge about my region with people who like to learn more about it.

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