Salerno impressed me. It’s an ancient city that accommodates the 21st century. The narrow lanes around the Romanesque cathedral peel stucco while the Vodaphone shop on the square sells top-ups for your cell-phone. Elderly couples roar up the streets on smart Vespa scooters while young naval officers drink beer in the half-full cafes. Tall, narrow houses jostle for position and ancient, studded wooden doors lead through to inner courtyards that would not seem out of place in Fez or Marrakech.
The large, square stones of the cobbled streets led upwards towards the Giardino Della Minerva, a medieval garden that clings to the mountainside. This unique garden is filled with medical and culinary herbs. Indeed, it is the first and oldest garden of simples or herbs in Europe.
Entered by a decorated arch, steps lead down to a medieval garden originally laid out in the 14th century around six narrow terraces. These were linked by steep steps built on the even more ancient city walls, offering breathtaking views across the Mar Tirrano to the port where Grande Mediterraneo was being offloaded.
The day was hot and humid and we read that this hillside has it’s own microclimate, making it possible to grow not only Mediterranean but sub-tropical plants as well.
Fig and lemon trees provide shade while low box hedges ensure that discrete areas are provided for each plant species, according to family and virtues. The lowest garden is divided formally into quarters and each sector subdivided into concentric planting rings. Fountains and rills drawn from natural springs provide a constant sound while narrow watercourses ensure that all the plants remain moist. Maidenhair fern and fennel rub shoulders with parsnip and verbena. All grow in a rich profusion, rebelling somewhat against the imposed formality of the design.
At 2 euros per person for entry, it provides the best hour of entertainment you can find in the city and we topped it off with chilled herbal tea made from subtle infusions of liquorice, bitter herbs and mint. Refreshing and fortifying for the walk back to the ship.