Italy: The Temples of Paestum - Greek history in Italy

Three stunning Greek temples and the ruins of a Greco-Roman town in an unexpected place. 

Why visit? 
Greek temples are pretty cool. They're impressive. They're old. And they have been an inspiration for two and a half millennia of Western Architecture, from the Pantheon to the White House.

So if you don't want to deal with the crowds at that other famous old town nearby, and don't have the time to add Greece to your once-in-a lifetime trip to Italy, then Paestum may be just the thing for you.   

in Campania, about an hour and a half south of Naples. Map

HAVE YOU HEARD of Pompeii? Yes, we all have. Fancy that, an ancient Roman town where you can see old houses and walk on 2000 year old roads. But Italy has a fair number of those, and Pompeii merely has the best marketing (starting with Pliny the Younger, who made the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii go viral in the 1st century AD.) 

About an hour south of Pompeii you'll find Paestum. It doesn't feature on most people's list of 'must-sees' in Italy. Yet it offers a lot of the things that Pompeii has: ancient houses, shops, a small theatre, a city wall. It also offers something Pompeii doesn't have: three grand Greek temples, dating back to the 6th and 5th BC. 

Seeing Paestum's temples can be slightly discombobulating, as we recognise these architectural forms immediately, from the Parthenon in Athens. Show someone a picture of Paestum, and they would guess it was in Greece. And they would be right- 2500 years ago, when southern Italy was really a Greek province called Magna Graecia. 
Back when Rome was still a little bumpkin town that no one had heard of, Greek colonists founded the town of Poseidonia. The city grew, encircled by solid walls. Between 550 and 450 BC, the Greeks built three monumental temples. Eventually Poseidonia was, like the rest of Italy, conquered by the Romans, and it became Paestum, a Greco-Roman city. But the Romans weren't the final conquerors: mosquitos were. Due to a change in water levels, which made for swampy fields, and excellent malaria breeding ground. Paestum was abandoned.  

And so, instead of a a volcano, it was mosquitos that caused this town to be preserved fairly intact. 

In the 18th century Paestum was rediscovered. Greece itself was still under Ottoman rule and not visited much by Europeans, but the scions of aristocratic European families, backpacking through Europe on the Grand Tour all went to Italy, and suddenly Paestum was famous, inspiring the trend for all things Greek known as Greek Revival, and the spirit of Paestum can be found in 100s of banks, museums and government buildings around the world, where it's been used to project power, importance and authority. 
The look of power and authority hasn't worn out yet. 
Back to the temples. The New York Times, back in 1907, gave them 5 stars, calling them 'Three of the most beautiful Greek temples in the world'. They were built in the Doric style- simple and robust, and impressively large. We're all used to the minimalist beauty of Greek architecture- these temples are made of a yellowish travertine marble, which gives them a golden sheen. But the Greeks didn't like their temples simple and plain- they were painted in gaudy colours, eerily reminiscent of an Indian temple rather than the austere beauty we see today. This video provides some insights of what the temples may have looked like. Traces of plaster and pigments can still be seen on the columns.

The temples are remarkably well preserved- the best one,  known as the Temple of Neptune, is in better condition than its famous doppelgänger in Athens.  Also, it doesn't have anywhere near the crowds of the Parthenon. If you ever wanted to see Greek architecture without going to Greece, Paestum (together with Agrigento in Sicily) is probably your best bet. 
Greek temples need weeding, too. 
But Paestum offers more than these awe-inspiring temples. It could even give Pompeii a run for its money, with its well-preserved roads, foundations of houses, shops and a forum, all dating back 2000 years. A great app brings the whole town to life while you walk around. 
The Via Sacra, aka Main Street, Paestum. 
Last but not least, some of the best art found in Paestum and vicinity has been hauled off to a small but well-stocked museum. The most famous of these works is the Diver, originally the lid of a tomb, presumably for a fresh water fiend. 
Taking the plunge into the Afterlife.
The museum has a number of other paintings and artefacts, many of them dating back 25 centuries, making the Colosseum and other Roman remains seem like recent developments,  One of them shows what looks like a gay party (we all know the ancient Greeks were gay-friendly long before it became fashionable). The paintings were probably inspired by Etruscan practices, like the painted tombs of Tarquinia that we have written about before.   
'Hey you love birds, have you seen my rainbow flag?'
Getting there: 
Paestum would make an easy day trip from the Amalfi Coast or Naples. There are frequent trains from Napoli Centrale, taking just over an hour. The same train stops at Salerno, which is 30 mins down the line from Paestum. 

After to you alight at the station, you will immediately feel like you've arrived once you pass through one of the old city gates and enter the park. It's about a kilometer walk to the official entrance. 

Useful links:
Definitely download the app for your visit. 
The official website is a good source of information. You can buy tickets in advance- not that we did, because, fortunately, Paestum doesn't have the crowds of Pompeii. 
City of Paestum being excavated, a 1907 article from the New York Times