We had very mixed emotions about leaving Greece and heading to Italy without even knowing how we would be challenged by the beaches of the Cilento Coast.
We were looking forward to Italian food and wine but we would miss Greece, the quiet places we had found there, the wonderful beaches and friendly people. We expected Italy to be busy with those that were avoiding Greece this year and we knew from experience that unfortunately any beautiful beach in Italy is most likely shrouded by a blanket of umbrellas and sun-beds.
After our intermittent and disturbed sleep on the ferry, we planned an easy day, going back to an area we know already so we didn’t have to factor in finding a perfect place to stay for that night. We would settle for the night in Paestum where we knew it was ok, not amazing, just a quiet campsite, great sunset views from the long sandy beach and a couple of good places to eat nearby.
So reluctantly we drove straight through hot and bustling Bari whose confusing maze of alleyways we have explored before and would love to explore again one day, when time and energy are on our side. We drove straight across Italy leaving the rich wines and olives of Puglia behind and on to Salerno, south of Napoli in Campania, the gateway to the sweeping coastline towards ancient Agropoli and to a wonderful place where grazing Buffalo’s and a little Italian magic produce delicious Mozzarella.
We reached Salerno in time for lunch and headed for Restaurant Pinnochio, tucked away in a tall terrace alongside the promenade. When we travelled this way before, we stumbled across this restaurant on a hot Sunday and so knew that we would find great food here, sitting amongst the locals that, judging by the familiar welcome they received, dined regularly there. Yet again we were warmly welcomed, well fed and felt a little better prepared for our onward journey.
After leaving Salerno, the next two days were the most difficult, stressful and frustrating of the whole trip so far….
Paestum campsite was just ok. It was amazingly empty, beautifully hot and the on site pizza restaurant was open serving great Buffalina pizza. Yet it was not a patch on the Greek sites; no sea view, lots of shade (not our preference), the sea had a fine sheen of green algae (not dirty just not crystal clear), the beach was a mix of pristine private beach areas (regimented rows of matching umbrellas and sun beds) and scruffy unnecessarily crammed together umbrellas and towels in the public areas of the sand. Still it did have the amazing sight of Paestum just around the corner…
We moved on, further south to the Cilento coast where the guide book promised old towns tumbling into the sea where glorious sandy beaches entered the clear Mediterranean sea – why do we keep falling into the trap of believing the guide book!
Our criteria are, we know, reasonably demanding for the Italian coast; a beach but not end to end umbrellas, a shop for provisions but not end to end Lilos and souvenirs, a restaurant but not end to end beach bars with pictures of food. As we set off we naively commented that Cilento coast ‘looks like a junior Amalfi coast but not so busy’.
For several hot hours (both the weather and our tempers) we drove the twisting road above the sea searching for at first the perfect place, trying every promising little track to the shore but every inch of coastline was a sprawl of umbrellas and bad taste. We reluctantly changed our criteria to simply a place we would feel comfortable for the night, we certainly being challenged by rather than enjoying the beaches of the Cilento Coast. We lunched and cooled down at around 3pm at a rare oasis of calm on the road above the beach, a quiet pizzeria with a great view of the coastline stretching out below.
Finally on, our third passing, we spotted a beach with only a few umbrellas, this could have been the lateness of the hour but our hopes were rekindled and we turned down to Ogliastro Marina (of no interest according to our map and guide book – this could be it!). A shabby chic beach bar served ice cold beer ‘alla spina’ (draught). Drained and defeated, we suggested over beer that we could probably have made ‘our’ space at any of the places we had discounted over the past hours so we decided that no matter what, the scruffy ‘Sosta camper’ (camper parking) sign revealed around the corner, this would be our place for the night.
The Sosta Camper place was as scruffy as the sign suggested but the owner was friendly and welcoming and the beach and a couple of places to eat were within a mile. The owner and the few other campers (relaxing by their vans in the shade) looked on curiously as we debated over which pitch to take. To their bemusement we made ‘our space’ in the pitch with most sunshine, an electric point and nearby trees (for night time ‘toilet trips’). We could stop now.
As we sat watching the sunset across the bay, nestled in a corner of restaurant Le Cefalo (way more sophisticated than the sweat stained shorts and t-shirts we were wearing), we agreed we had found the right place, not a perfect place but not bad considering everything else we had seen that day. We also admitted that we were envious in a way, of the hundreds of people for whom the crammed campsites, towns and beaches of the rest of the coast must be ideal or why would they spend their precious time there. The coast and beaches challenged us. Is it us or them that are wrong? The Cilento Coast really is a beautiful place, or was until the beaches were covered with umbrellas and people and the towns that must have been founded by fishermen, were transformed into tourist destinations. Most days we face the same dilemma, do we continue searching for our ethereal place or do we settle for what the majority seem to want, making the most of it as everyone else seems to do.
The following morning, determined to make the most of where we were, rather than rush off to search again, we set off with our rucksacks on to explore round the headland. We trudged past the few umbrellas and lilos already on the beach and marvelled at the enthusiasm of the swimmers in the cloudy, dirty waters. Equipped with water proof bags and fins/snorkels, we swam from the boat area around the headland, eventually finding a rocky but very clean and private little bay. We spent a couple of hours here swimming, drying off in the sun and swimming again. Sitting with our toes in the water, we reflected on what we had had to do to find a tiny piece of shoreline sanctuary. Lunchtime, back at the van, we packed up and started our search again.