Bask in the Palazzo Belmonte and the beauty of Campania

If one were to conjure up the quintessential Italian palazzo nestled in a garden steps away from the shimmering sea, Palazzo Belmonte (Belmonte Palace) would be that place. Located in the fishing village of Santa Maria di Castellabate

(in the Campania region, 75 miles south of Naples), Palazzo Belmonte oozes understated elegance. Hidden from view by high stone walls, it sits in the center of an idyllic five-acre garden with towering cypress and sturdy orange and lemon trees, where the breeze carries heady scents of honeysuckle, oleander and jasmine.

The palazzo was built in the 17th century for the Principe Parise di Belmonte and is still owned by the Belmonte family. It was originally used as a lodge where Italian and Spanish royalty with a hankering for hunting boar and quail in the coastline wilds would gather. Today, while there are no more boar and the quail have become elusive, much of the area surrounding the palazzo and the village of Santa Maria di Castellabate is as it would have appeared when the palazzo was constructed. Cilento National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, surrounds the palazzo and the fishing village, and requires that much of the coastline remain undeveloped and pristine. As a result, beaches in the area (including the palazzo’s private beach) have the prestigious designation of being a Blue Flag area, an indication that the water continually meets Europe’s stringent standards for environmental cleanliness.

The palazzo’s 51 rooms (22 of which are suites) are well-appointed, most with vaulted ceilings, several with private terraces and stunning sea views, and all with the right mix of an
tiques – beautiful chairs, desks, dressers and the like. The beds are new, lavishly made up in Frette linens and first-rate in comfort. The Palazzo Belmonte is refreshingly free of any gift shops selling processed snacks, jewelry or Belmonte insignia items, avoiding the trend in so many luxury hotels of hawking kitschy logo merchandise.

The palazzo’s outdoor restaurant overlooking the sea is also a source of gastronomic pleasure. Although it would be hard to single out my favorite meal, two definitely stand out: The Milanese-style risotto mantegato con gamberi e sfusato del cilentro (risotto with prawns and lemon) was rich and savory and chock-full of small, flavorful prawns, but not weighty like other risottos I’ve tasted. The polpetti affogati al vino blanco (baby octopus in white wine, arriving undisguised with tentacles curled up in a splash of fresh tomato sauce) was tender and tasted of the sea, with accents of garlic, lemon and hints of bay leaves. My mouth is watering now just thinking about it.

Each of the 20 regions in Italy boasts cuisine specialties distinct to their area. The Campania region is known for seafood, wine, olive oil and cheeses – all of which won my applause at first taste. One of the well-known rules of good Italian cooking is to use only fresh, local ingredients. So if you find yourself in this rich agricultural region during, say, tomato season, more than likely the tomatoes you eat will be superior.

Tomatoes were abundant during my visit, so I ate as many as possible. One of my favorite pizzas is the simple Margherita pizza – tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, olive oil and a few basil leaves on a thin crust. It’s possible to have a very good Margherita pizza just about anywhere in Italy, but one with sauce made that very day from locally grown San Marzano tomatoes tastes tangy and alive. Add fresh mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, and the pizza experience is elevated to a whole new level.

In addition to the many pizzas I sampled, I couldn’t get enough of insalata Caprese (Capri salad) – small balls of bufala mozzarella (made from fresh buffalo milk), garden tomatoes and fresh basil, lightly dressed with olive oil, ground sea salt and black pepper. Simply scrumptious.

Grapes have been grown in this area for more than 2,000 years, and as a result the wines pair perfectly with the food of the region. I found the whites most memorable – citrusy, crisp and perfect for priming the palate for a tasty upcoming meal.

Lemon orchards abound, and they are handy for many delicious concoctions. Among them is the after-dinner digestive limoncello, which also hails from Campania. It’s made from the tangy essential oils of lemon rinds that have been steeped in alcohol and allowed to infuse for three months. About 40 days into fermentation, a bit of sugar and water are added, with the end product being bright yellow, sweet, refreshingly lemony and commanding, both in flavor and alcohol content. It’s perfect for sipping chilled late in the evening while planning the next day’s adventures.

While it may be difficult to leave the tranquil grounds of the palazzo, there are many great day trips in close proximity. One day we arranged for a boat trip to nearby Punta Licosa, an extraordinary 6-kilometer stretch of coastline, ideal for swimming and snorkeling in the bluish-hued Mediterranean.

Another day we arranged a tour of the ruins of Pompeii, where a massive volcanic eruption by Mt. Vesuvius simultaneously destroyed and preserved a Roman town in 79 AD. Pompeii was lost for nearly 1,700 years, buried under 60 feet of ash and pumice, before its accidental rediscovery in 1748.

On a different day, we caught a hydrofoil to Capri, where enormous yachts vie for dock space, many with helipads and dutiful staff standing at attention. In Capri, after a brief stroll down the main promenade, rich with the very best Italian fashion retailers, we opted to catch a boat for Capri’s famous Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), a sea cave where sunlight, passing through an underwater cavity, shines through the seawater and creates a blue reflection that illuminates the cavern. Following a choppy ride, we discovered that the grotto was impassable due to rough water and a high tide. Although initially disappointed, I’ve come to believe (or so I’ve convinced myself) that it is important not to experience an area completely upon first visit so as to create a yearning to return. In any event, all was not lost as the rest of the afternoon was spent swimming in the sparkly cobalt blue water that surrounds Capri.

Some travelers are hesitant about returning to the same spot, fearing that the memory of their initial experience will somehow be compromised. Not true for me. I can’t wait to return to Palazzo Belmonte to explore and glean more of the richness from this region, although I’ll visit next time during fig season so I can eat my fill of cuccidati (Italian fig cookies).

To book a suite at Palazzo Belmonte, go to www.palazzobelmonte.com. Private cars with drivers can be arranged from the front desk to and from the airports in Naples or Rome.