Women made history in this overlooked Amalfi Coast city
On Thursday at 7pm ET I’m teaching a class about Paestum for Context Travel. I hope you’ll join me!
The Amalfi Coast is packed — so much so that local authorities now have to limit access to the coastal road. Yet, tourists repeatedly overlook Salerno, the official beginning of the Amalfi Coast and a city with fantastic food, weather, shopping, and those much sought-after Indiana Jones moments of discovery you know I’m always seeking.
The Medical School
The first of many stunning facts about Salerno is that it was the site of the world’s first medical school. Founded in 802 and enlarged in the 12th century when the Normans took control of the Amalfi Coast, it was a prestigious institution that drew on Arab, Greek, and Jewish learning. The most famous professor was Trotula (also called Trota) de Ruggiero, who wrote treatises on gynecology and cosmetics. Her writings became famous in medieval France and England.
While the remains of the original building still need to be excavated, you can visit the Garden of Minerva, an active medicinal herb garden since Trotula’s time. More fully developed in the 14th century, it served as a key reference for all future European botanical gardens. Today you can visit the garden for a measly €3 and relax in the terraced tea room. Before you leave, purchase a few medicinal tisanes in the shop, all made with organic herbs and flowers grown on the Amalfi Coast.
The Duomo of Salerno, designed in the Arab-Norman style of architecture, is still a mysterious mess after suffering bombing during World War II. The exception is the Baroque forest around the stone crypt of Saint Matthew’s beneath the cathedral.
My favorite piece though is the tomb of Margaret of Durazzo. Margaret had been the queen of Naples and Hungary until the pope overthrew her husband. She then poisoned her sister and had her son put on the throne so she could act as regent. (A regent is the brains of the operation, without the title.) In her later 50s, she decided to retire to sunny Salerno and join a third order of Franciscans. She died of the plague in 1412 and asked to be buried in the Duomo.
The tomb is unmarked and mostly unnoticed, but in an astonishing state of preservation with much of its original painted surface intact. (Most Greek, Roman, and medieval stone sculptures were painted.) Stick your nose right up to the nooks and crannies to see it. Heck, slide your body between the tomb and the wall to look at Margaret’s lady squad all decked out in their most fabulous medieval gowns. No one will stop you.
There’s a lot of fun shopping in the historic center of Salerno, especially on Via Duomo and Via Dei Mercanti. You must try sfogliatelle at Pantaleone and buy some original art prints at Sciglio Vintage. Antica Cappelleria di Russo is a historic hat shop where the owner and hat maker will enlighten you as to why you need a handmade hat. Seriously, best salesman ever.
Take note of the columns embedded in Salerno’s street corners — they were taken from Paestum during the Middle Ages by the Normans who used them to beautify Salerno. Paestum had been abandoned because of pirates and malaria, and many residents fled to and founded Positano. Paestum, for the Normans, was a giant quarry of expertly carved stone.
For better or worse, the cruise ship industry loves Italy, and while there is a large industrial port in Salerno, there was a need for a terminal to process passenger ships. It was realized by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid who unfortunately passed away just before the terminal opened. She designed it to look like an oyster shell and blend into the environment. If you’re driving from Salerno to Vietri-sul-Mare, be sure to look down from the highway to admire the glittering roof — apropos of a city that is one of Italy’s many jewels.