The Italian region of Cilento is cinematic, spectacular and undiscovered

From a square in the town of Castellabate, on Italy's Cilento coast, you can look up over the rim of your cappuccino and drink in a panorama of sky and Mediterranean Sea from Salerno to the Gulf of Policastro. Looking down, a fruity plain of vineyards, lemon trees and white figs extends to the sides of green mountains capped with wisps of steam.

At the same point, in 1811, Napoleon's brother-in-law, appointed king of Naples at the beginning of the nineteenth century, pronounced the words that the city has engraved on its town hall: “Here no one dies”. Simply put, you don't die here.

Of course, people die in Cilento, a region south of the Amalfi Coast. But they also live longer than others, thanks to the Mediterranean Diet, studied for the first time in these parts. It is more accurate to say that eternal life is a more attractive proposition here.

Last spring I decided to explore Italy's second largest national park, the Cilento, Vallo di Diano and Alburni National Park, and its surroundings, on foot. I made the town of Acciaroli my home base, from an Airbnb with a bedroom window that opened onto the port. My goal was to “pull the plug,” or unplug, in Italian. It was early May, no summer crowds. At dawn I was awakened by the cooing of doves and the trilling of Eurasian blackbirds. I swam in the cold, silver bay, had a latte at one of the port bars, put on hiking boots and, armed with a guide called “Secret Campania” and a trekking app called Komoot, set off with my rented manual Fiat Panda.

One of the most beautiful things about Italy, at least for non-Italians, is the ease with which you slip into the feeling of being in a movie. Traveling along the Via Bacco e Cerere east from the sea towards the Alburni mountains, downshifting on switchbacks with puffy clouds casting shadows on towering white cliffs, I felt like Mrs James Bond.

The scenery is cinematic, the views spectacular, the water dark as wine, but Cilento is not as internationally popular as the Italian playgrounds of Capri and Positano. It's a pretty well kept secret. Here the same sun and sea can be had at a fraction of the cost, along with important Greek ruins, wild nature, curious legends and medieval religious sanctuaries.

Americans are rare in these parts. Many residents do not speak English. A refined atmosphere appeals to a certain type: Ernest Hemingway frequented the fishermen in these parts. After World War II, U.S. Army doctor Ancel Keys arrived in the region, purchased an old mansion, and dedicated his life to studying the heart-healthy effects of a diet of olive oil, fish, and fresh vegetables . There is a museum dedicated to the Mediterranean Diet he made famous in the seaside village of Pioppi.

It's been wild country for a long, long time. After the fall of Rome, coastal populations here declined. Boars, wolves and bears reconquered the mountains. In the Middle Ages, hermits and Christian monks moved there. For a long time, until the 19th century, the region retained a wild reputation. Local criminals became heroic “Brigans” during the fighting for the unification of Italy, and then formed the mafia that has ruled southern Italy ever since.

The Italian warrior tribe of Lucani were the first documented inhabitants of Cilento (the name derives from the Latin “Cis Alentum”, meaning the other bank of the Alentum river, which flows through Campania). The ancient Greeks colonized the coast and their stunning Doric temples at Paestum, which inspired writers such as Goethe and 18th-century architects across Europe, are among the best preserved in the Mediterranean. The museum of the ancient city of Paestum displays Lucanian tomb paintings, still luminous paintings, silent testimonies to the mystery of a disappeared religion that involved sphinxes, female guides of the underworld and male warriors.

My trekking program has always had an ulterior motive: to justify a binge on Cilento food and wine. The region produces some of the best staples of Italian cuisine. Extra virgin olive oil obtained from trees the size of oaks; fresh seafood; homemade pasta and sauces; buffalo, cow and goat cheeses; and of course the pizza, all washed down with local red.

The road to Paestum is lined with shops selling mozzarella made from Asian buffalo milk, perhaps first introduced to Italy by the Greeks. On a rainy afternoon, I took a tour of Tenuta Vannulo, an organic mozzarella farm, where men in white coats transformed the milk of 200 buffaloes into creamy cheese balls loved by foodies around the world. The farm itself is mechanized to a crazy degree: the animals are trained to voluntarily enter a Swedish-made self-service milking machine. After six minutes they come out to receive a fodder reward and an automated buffalo massage machine.

The Cilento and Vallo di Diano Park extends for 699 square kilometers of beaches, cliffs, emerald valleys, river gorges and mountain meadows, with numerous well-marked paths. I walked about five miles a day in different areas of the park. I was disappointed that I didn't have time to cycle just a section of the 373-mile “Via Silente” cycle path that surrounds the park with overnight stops in various hamlets.

I started my hikes along the water. A sinuous, rutted coastal road connects the fishing villages of the Cilento coast, and a knee-high guardrail is all that stands between a car and hundreds of meters of air above the sea. The cliffs inspired tales of nymphs who seduced sailors to come closer to the rocks where they were shipwrecked. If the sailors did not respond, the nymphs threw themselves onto the rocks out of unrequited love.

An easy flat walk from the port of San Marco Castellabate, through olive trees and native Mediterranean shrubs, leads to the site of one of the mermaid legends, Punta Licosa. Leukosia was one of the three sirens who, in the “Odyssey,” tried to bewitch Odysseus and his men. The great traveler had his men's ears filled with wax and tied himself to the mast to resist their singing. For failing to seduce the sailors, the sea god Poseidon transformed Leucosia into the rocky cliff that bears a version of her name.

A more challenging walk, up a steep rocky path, took you from the bay of Palinuro, a town of countless ice cream parlors and restaurants which in summer serve mainly holidaying Italians, around a mountain to a point overlooking the Blue Grotto, one of the main draw for cave divers.

Quite often, I had trouble finding trail heads despite Komoot (which kept me on course once I started). One afternoon I wandered for two hours in light rain around a hilltop village called Ogliastro Cilento, searching in vain for the entrance to an evocative-sounding walk called the Sentiero dell'Albero Centenario (path of the centenary trees). I never found it, but I wandered for several kilometers among the olive groves, followed for a while by two friendly farm dogs.

Within the Alburni chain, the hamlet of Sassano, a collection of biscuit-coloured houses with red roofs planted on the side of Monte San Giacomo, is the gateway to the Valley of the Orchids. In May, more than 100 species of wild orchids bloom in a microclimate. A few miles of easy walking meandered through a stunning display of tiny pink, yellow, red and purple flowers on single stems. These rare flowers proliferated like common dandelions as far as the eye could see.

I got lost driving towards Sassano and stopped at a café bar. A row of middle-aged men sat on a row of chairs under the awning in the morning sun, like a photograph from the 1940s. This was Teggiano, my “Secret Campania” guide informed me, built around a medieval fortress with 25 towers and home to one of Cilento's most peculiar legends: during a months-long siege in the 15th century, the women of Teggiano allegedly breast-fed the soldiers to keep them vigorous.

On a plateau deep in the mountains, beyond a maze of farm roads, the baroque Certosa di Padula, a former monastery and one of the largest in Europe, is almost as stunning as the opera house of Werner Herzog's “Fitzcarraldo.” Among its hidden treasures is a library with a 15th-century freestanding spiral staircase and 18th-century glazed majolica floor in blue and emerald green.

For five centuries the Carthusian monks lived and died here, after having committed themselves to a silent and solitary life. They spoke only once a week, during Sunday walks in the woods. On the Sunday I visited, the complex was buzzing with Italian families enjoying a sunny afternoon outing. Laughing children played hide and seek in the shade of the arched porches while the elderly sipped espresso and Aperol spritz at nearby tables.

The Charterhouse isn't the only attraction in Padula worth visiting: the Joe Petrosino House Museum honors the life of a hero New York police officer, Joe Petrosino. An Italian emigrant who grew up in New York City, he fought the Mafia in the mid-20th century and died in Italy when he came to arrest a New York Mafia boss and was murdered by the bad guys.

In my five days in Cilento I didn't unplug entirely: I lived off my navigation apps, Google Translate, a bird call identifier, and, of course, my iPhone playlist. But I returned to Rome with muddy shoes, with a sweatshirt that retained the scent of the buffalo farm and a new appreciation for the hinterland of the pulchra terra this is Italy.

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