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The Cilento National Park


Parco Nazionale del Cilento vallo di Diano e Alburni

An amazing landscape of sea and hills south of Salerno in southern Italy abounds in the wonders of nature.  Officially named the National Park of the Cilento and Vallo di Diano, it stretches from Paestum to the Gulf of Policastro on the coast, and inland to the Vallo di Diano, covering nearly 182,000 hectares (45,000 acres) of land.  It is Italy’s second largest national park, and also one of the most unique:  rather than being merely a vast nature preserve, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes archeological cities, cultural gems, and 80 towns within its borders.

The Cilento National Park offers an intriguing blend of human history and nature.  Since the area has been inhabited for many millennia, there are traces and monuments of ancient civilizations, swaths of agriculture, and charming historic towns.  But it is also vast geographic territory of natural landscapes, encompassing a great diversity of topography, biology and geology.  It has different ecological zones, as well, ranging from coastal beaches and rocky reefs to rolling hills and forested mountains, with valleys and deep gorges and caverns in between. 

The coastline is varied and includes fishing villages with sandy beaches, reefs full of marine life, and swaths of pristine forests with hidden coves left undeveloped and in their natural state.  The coastline of Castellabate is designated a Marine Protected Area to maintain the delicate balance of flora and fauna in the sea while making the shore a pleasant place for visitors, as well.  This initiative has also resulted in the Cilento beaches being awarded the prestigious “Bandiera Blu” – the Blue Flag designating clean and healthy beaches and waters. 

Inland are rolling hills cultivated for centuries with heritage grapevines and olive orchards, the lifeblood of the area since it was Magna Grecia.  There are pastures and fields of vegetables along with fruit orchards to provide healthy meals according to the age-old concept of the Mediterranean Diet, a dietary philosophy that was researched and popularized right here in the Cilento. 

Further up are mountains, part of the southern Apennine range, ribboned with rivers and sliced with gorges.  Deep and fascinating caverns are open to visitors for a glimpse of the underground world, and hiking trails abound.  All along the way, through every landscape, are little towns that preserve old customs and a traditional way of life in their narrow lanes and stone edifices.

Within the Cilento National Park, you’ll find 2000 plant species- nearly 1/3 of the entire catalog of Italian flora in this one park!  There is an area known as the Valley of the Orchids (with an astounding 180 species!) and near Palinuro is the rare primula palinuri Petagna (Palinuro primrose), a threatened species.  Its mild climate and rich terrain provide ideal growing conditions for a vast variety of flora, and habitat for the zone’s fauna. 

Its cultural gems shouldn’t be overlooked, as they are awe-inspiring historic sites.  Paestum, the ancient Greek city of Posedonia, with its splendid temples that date to around 500 BC, represents some of the best-preserved monuments in what was Magna Grecia.  Velia, ancient Elea, boasts a 6th century BC acropolis, a rare Greek gateway in the ancient city walls, and traces of later civilizations that came after the Greeks.  The Certosa di Padula is one of Europe’s most important monastic complexes and contains the world’s largest cloister.  It is a magnificent monument to aesthetic and religious life.  These are a few of the allures that are included in the Cilento National Park.

The area’s history reaches back to time immemorial and covers colonial rulers, powerful dynasties, regal kingdoms, and simple country life.  Old traditions, country festivals, uninhabited expanses of natural landscapes, and important palaces are all found in this one area, all protected under the umbrella of the national park.

The Cilento National Park is an incredibly diverse place that combines history, culture and nature with breathtaking landscapes and seascapes – protecting the habitats and environment of the Cilento while making it accessible to visitors, as well.  In short, the Cilento National Park is more than a park, it’s a well-rounded destination.

 Valerie Schneider



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