My other half was starting to get a little of the colour back in his face, and his knuckles, which remained tightly prized around the hire car’s steering wheel. Yet as we left the Amalfi Coast’s treacherous hairpins and bumper-to-bumper traffic, an anxious silence descended upon our chariot. We were entering the unknown: Cilento.
Traffic aside, the Amalfi Coast had felt reassuringly familiar. I knew its sheer drop terraces and tiered towns from the covers of guide books and I had heard of people’s disbelief at the Sorrentine citrus trees heavy with lemons the size of melons. Even the aforementioned roads were a given, seemingly scratched in to the impervious cliffs as if designed by a toddler let loose with a Crayola.
However, I knew next to nothing about its mysterious Campanian neighbour: Cilento. Sure, I’d heard rumours that it was a favoured destination of Italian’s fleeing the pesky summer tourists – but their reason for picking this under-the-radar spot was anyone’s guess. An hour later, as the scenery took a decidedly agricultural turn, it all made sense. I had been let in on Italy’s secret.
Discreetly hidden within one of the region’s many hills, the grand terrace at Il Rifugio proudly displayed the region’s jewels before me. To my left, a mustard coloured monastery absorbed the late spring sun and a drifting cloud slowly shrouded an ancient hilltop castle. Just beyond an elegant red brick viaduct, a densely wooded valley marked the start of one Italy’s largest national parks. To top it all off the Tyrrhenian Sea, which commands full attention in the neighbouring Amalfi Coast, modestly shimmied away in the distance: it knew the pecking order was somewhat different over the border.
“Around the other side of that hill is the medieval village of Castellabate; it has great restaurants and spectacular views,” said my host Nigel, the owner of the newly opened 18-acre Pinelli Estate in which I was standing. This was followed up with an open invite to use the estate’s flashy motor yacht to ‘pop to Capri for lunch’. As we moved inside the 300-year-old farmhouse, he excitedly pointed at various dips, peaks and troughs in the surrounding hills, regaling me with stories of eerie ghost towns, troglodyte dwellings, ancient ruins and a town once made entirely of white marble. Staring at the peaceful olive groves and overgrown woodland, I could have been forgiven for presuming there was nothing there at all – Cilento was a secretive land indeed.
Today, decked out with lavish antiques, grand chandeliers and lashings of gilt it is hard to imagine Il Rifugio as a humble (and towards the end somewhat neglected) working farmhouse. Having spent 10 decades within the same local family it has plenty of history within its burly limestone walls. Downstairs, striking beechwood slats crown the rooms, having been painstakingly removed and repositioned in order to meet current earthquake safety regulations.
The former olive press is now a cosy cinema room, the old wine-making area is a decadent candlelit snug, and the magnificent dining room was a store room in its former life. Bizarrely, my favourite was the toilet: dominated by a jagged limestone bedrock and illuminated by a glamorous rose gold pineapple chandelier, it was like Tatler does troglodyte. Upstairs, four equally indulgent double ensuite bedrooms await – my four-poster bed was draped in fur with yet another extravagant chandelier adding a touch of glamour to proceedings.
Surrounded by acres of olives groves, vineyards and lemon and fig trees, the Pinelli Estate is just 10 minutes’ drive from the area’s main town, Agropoli. However, embracing a more rustic itinerary, our days were spent weaving our way through the fertile valleys, famed for producing tantalisingly creamy buffalo mozzarella, and discovering historic hilltop towns – plans to meet one of the aforementioned buffalos were quickly scrapped when our hysterical one year old thought we were delivering her to the Gruffalo, rather than a buffalo.
Following our host’s recommendation, we did make it to the medieval fortress town of Castellabate which proved a highlight. On our late morning visit the tangled narrow streets were filled with heady wafts of garlic and the clatter of cutlery as the restaurants geared up for the day and pretty piazzas offered a welcome sea-view coffee spots against the backdrop of the Cilento National Park and the Valley of Diano. The UNESCO World Heritage Site contains luminous grottos, spectacular waterfalls and even evidence of prehistoric settlements within its limestone caves – not that you can tell of course, these treasures are on a need to know basis, hidden within its dense woodland and orchid-strewn meadows. The town’s castle is its crowning glory – originally built as a watch point and retreat for Saracens raids, today vivid fuchsia flowers cascade down its softened walls.
Descending 300m to the fishing village of Santa Maria di Castellabate offers a glimpse of Cilento’s famous clean waters – which, on our post-storm visit were filled with hundreds of jellyfish fighting to stay in the Tyrrhenian Sea: their loss.
Our ‘pinch me’ moment had to be Paestum. Originally named Poseidonia, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to three of the world’s best preserved Greek temples. Dating back to the 6th century BC, the former Greek (and later Roman) city was abandoned following devastating malaria outbreaks and various raids. Today, this important site is surprisingly devoid of tourists, with its wild flower meadows adding to the sense of peace and tranquillity. Despite their historic importance the site was lost to ravenous forests before being rediscovered in the 18th century. Hiding the best bits – classic Cilento. Further afield, more ancient Greek ruins are hidden at Velia.
At first our evenings were spent firing up the bells and whistles barbeque and dining on Il Rifugio’s elevated terrace, watching lone farmhouses and curious hamlets glow in the hills. That was until we discovered La Civetta. Just 700m away the family-run restaurant, owned by a befuddlingly youthful looking 73-year-old known as ‘Mamma’, serves up authentic Italian comfort food on a peaceful terrace overlooking a vertigo-inspiring valley.
Our very British body clock ensured that we were the first diners each evening, with only the resident fireflies for company. Sourcing all of her ingredients from within a 5km radius, every dish is organic and packed with flavour. The acquasale salad was incredibly moreish: its satisfyingly crispy bread dripping with fresh tomato juice and rich olive oil and the lemon spaghetti tasted like the best of Italy in a bowl. As Mamma strolled by, looking all of 42, I began to lean forward to ask the recipe but quickly though better of it.
If this trip had taught me anything, it was that Cilentans keep the best of Italy to themselves.