“You can’t trust books if you really want to understand these temples… you have to come here, walk among the ruins, and then everything will spring back to life…”
Thus wrote Goethe while visiting Paestum, home to one of Italy’s most incredible archaeological sites.
Founded by Greek colonists coming from Sybaris, on the Ionian coast of Calabria in 600 BC, Paestum was originally named Poseidonia, to honor Poseidon, the Greek God of the seas. The Greeks were looking for a new port on the Tyrrhenian Sea to expand their trading power, which they did while erecting buildings that have few equals in the world.
Indeed, Paestum, thanks to its three ancient Greek temples, some of the best-preserved in the world, has been included by Unesco in its World Heritage list.
The most ancient temple dates back to 550 BC and is dedicated to Hera, the goddess of fertility and life; on the opposite side of town is the temple of Athena; the largest of the three is the temple dedicated to Poseidon, which is 60 meters long, 24 meters large and 18 meters high, the equivalent of a six-story building.
Paestum later became a Roman city (that’s when it took the name Paestum) and was abandoned in the Middle Ages. The ruins were rediscovered in the 1760s, but not fully excavated until the 1950s. After being discovered, Paestum became a popular destination on the Grand Tour.
Not as popular as the archaeological site of Pompeii, located in the same southern Italian region of Campania, Paestum makes it easier to absorb the atmosphere of the place, if you take some time to walk among the ruins, especially at sunset, when the travertine columns reflect the light of the sun.
You can get to Paestum from Naples by train in about an hour. It’s then a 15-minute walk to the archaeological area and the museum.