A few kilometres southeast of the coast of Casal Velino, there are the ruins of Elea — Velia, painstakingly unearthed over the last 150 years. Excavations still continue, in an attempt to free the entire perimeter of one of the most beautiful cities of Magna Grecia, founded by a group of Phocian renegades around 540 BC. For two centuries, Elea dominated the Mediterranean due to its extraordinary commercial machinery, leaving an indelible mark on the history of universal thought through the philosophical school of Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno and Melissa, known as the ‘Eleatic School’.
What made Eleaa real ‘gem’ was its favourable geographical position: a river, the Alento, wide and deep enough for vessels and, at its mouth, two small islands, Pontia and Isacia, standing guard over the area. Upstream, a promontory made of terraces sloping down to the sea is home to the Acropolis: temples, towers and magnificent buildings in the beautiful setting of green hills. People came here from all over the Mediterranean to enjoy the mild climate and the therapeutic properties of the water.
The beauty of the site even convinced a drifter like Xenophanes of Colophon to settle here. It was Xenophanes who founded the famous school of philosophy, whose greatest representative was Parmenides. In the first century BC, Elea became a Roman municipality, taking on its current name of Velia until the fourth century AD, when a catastrophic flood buried it completely.
The Archaeological Park. The ancient town occupied an area of about 90 hectares and was organised in quarters located along the natural slopes of a hill. A visit to the park begins in its southern sector, which can be entered through Porta Marina Sud, defended by a massive square tower. A paved road leads to the southern quarter, where we can visit a monument from Augustan times, probably used for the imperial cult. The path then leads to the Roman baths and following the ancient Via Porta Rosa, which linked the southern quarter with the northern one, it ascends to the top of the hill.
Passing a public building where perhaps, next to the cult of Asclepius, medical treatments (Asclepieion) were carried out, we reach the famous Porta Rosa, which is part of a complex defence system within the city and an example of great engineering (late 4th century BC). Through the northern quarter, where many examples of archaic polygonal houses can be seen, we reach the Acropolis. Passing the remains of the theatre, rebuilt in Roman times on a previous building of the Hellenistic period, the sanctuary area is reached through Via Sacra, where in the centre a temple – probably dedicated to Athena – used to stand. The monument’s base is still visible, partially incorporated in the medieval fortification.
Once we reach the Acropolis, one can still visit the Palatine Chapel, the 12th-century church dedicated to San Quirino. The silting up of the river port of the ancient Elea and the reunification of the two islands, which had served as guards for the city’s commercial port, with the mainland led to the formation of a long strip of beach that today forms the heart of the Marina of Ascea. The Spiaggia della Marina is the first beach that we come across and is large and breezy with fine sand overlooking a crystalclear sea. After a short walk we reach Baia Rondinella, behind ‘Scuoglio rinanti’, the last point of contact with the mainland. The boundary is marked by the ancient Torre del Telegrafo (Telegraph Tower), declared a site of European Community interest.
It stands on top of an impressive cliff and is almost completely covered with a local species of broom. Ascea enjoyed its moment of splendour in the 15th century, when the territory was included in the estate of Castellammare della Bruca. The late medieval origins stand out in the urban structure of the village: the alleys and squares of ‘Chianu’, ‘Arretu la Mura’, ‘A Villa’, ‘Malicavaddu’, ‘A Sciuscella’, the paving of ‘Vicu ri li Pimmaròli’, the portals of carved stone. In the heart of the historic centre stands the 18th-century Palazzo Ricci, formerly known as De Dominicis, rich in ornaments, and Palazzo Barbarella, two baronial mansions.
The Terradura quarter is certainly worth visiting. The urban layout is typically medieval, spread around the two most important religious monuments: the churches of San Michele Arcangelo and Santa Sofia, built by Italo-Greek monks who founded the village. Passing Terra- dura, the road climbs towards Mandia, which rises 504 metres above sea level. Mandia was a fortified village in medieval times: the old town is a jewel in the National Park of Cilento.
The highest hamlet of Ascea, Catona, is placed 515 metres above sea level. Visitors should certainly go and see the historic centre, as well as the sanctuary of the Madonna del Carmine, one of the seven in Cilento dedicated to the cult of the Virgin, standing at the highest point of the tiny village, and the church dedicated to San Nicola di Mira.
Pro loco di Ascea