We soon learned that the Palazzo Belmonte, a 17th-century fortress on the Gulf of Salerno, had been a hunting lodge and storehouse, used as a repository for olive oil, grain, bales of hay and other produce from the estates of the owners, the Belmonte family. Now, converted into spacious holiday apartments, it makes a good springboard for exploring Campania, a relatively unfashionable area of Otaly not yet over-run by tourists.
A massive building, with multiple red-tiled roofs and a splendid courtyard, the Palazzo has the might of a medieval fortress. The thickness of its walls, the arched ceilings of the old storerooms, the sheer weight of masonry - all this strength is redolent of the past, and a sense of history is increased by the fact that the present Prince Belmonte is often in residence.
The Palazzo stands on the edge of the little town of Santa Maria di Castellabate, two hours by road south of Naples, so that Pompeii and Herculaneum are within range. Mountain bikes, mopeds and Vespas can be hired in the town for short-range trips into the mountainous interior.
One day we took a roaring orange bus to the village of Ogliastro, 20 minutes to the south, and walked back five or six miles along the lovely, wild stretch of coast known as the Licosa. Formerly the Belmontes' hunting ground, and still owned by the family, it is now a nature reserve.
The turning-point of our route home was the headland of Punta Licosa, off which lies a tiny island. Legend claims this to be the petrified remains of a siren who, chagrined by Ulysses' refusal to succumb to her song, leaped into the sea. Around it, the ruins of buildings are clearly visible beneath the water.
Not much farther is Paestum, one of the most glorious of Graeco-Roman sites. Greek colonists from Sybaris, in Ionia (now Turkey), settled here on a flat coastal plain early in the sixth century BC and built three huge temples in pure Doric style. The best-preserved, the Temple of Neptune, strikes one speechless with its power, precision and grace.
If the land becomes too hot, you can always go to sea. We chartered a yacht owned by the genial Gino Ippolito, who took us down the coast to where the water was clear as gin, and we dived overboard.
As we headed back to port, Gino modestly let fall that he owned the best restaurant between Naples and Sicily. Faintly cynical, but nothing loath, we repaired there next evening - and a stunning occasion it proved.
The Ristorante Caicco, in the mountain village of Castellabate, is poised 900 feet above the sea. As we settled on an open terrace, the sun sank to the left of Capri, an angular grey lump on the horizon.
Waving aside our request for a menu, Gino promised to cook us something good. Eight - or was it nine? - courses later, our cynicism had been destroyed. As a prodigious sunset flared and died, we ate squid and swordfish and exquisitely battered sardines. Next came a wonderful salad of rocket and sharp cheese. Darkness fell, the lights of Amalfi and Positano twinkled out from 20 miles across the gulf, and still we ate. We put away tuna, giant prawns, marinated strawberries and a special cake. We drank bottle after bottle of crisp white wine, then red (yes, red) champagne.
At midnight we staggered out, vowing to return - not only to Gino's, but also to the Palazzo, a perfect base for cultural and gastronomic research.
The agent for Palazzo Belmonte is CV Travel, 43 Cadogan Street, London SW3 2PR (0171-581 0851). Prices include flights on British Airways. The lowest cost of holiday accommodation at the Palazzo is pounds 503 for a week in a one-bedroom apartment in the low season (May and October), which includes hire of a group B car; and pounds 560 high season, with no car.
The Ristorante Caicco is in Via Forziati, Castellabate, Salerno (00 39 974 967291).Reuse content