Naples is everything I thought it would be. It's frantic and intoxicating, with much to do, see and eat. My friend Katy and I have been here for two days and we've spent almost as much time underground exploring the catacombs, caves and curiosities underground as we have above ground. We haven't made it to Pompeii yet either, but it's time for us to head further south, to the Pinelli Estate.
As we chat in the back seat, the Pinelli Estate’s Porsche Cayenne squeezes through the narrow streets of the historic quarter of Naples, slowing for pedestrians who pad across the cobblestones, seemingly oblivious of traffic. It’s a relief when we reach the motorway, Mount Vesuvius on our left as we head south towards the Cilento Coast.
Gliding along the road, Nigel Carley, owner of the Pinelli Estate puts his enthusiasm for this part of Italy on show. He points out fields of vegetables, ripening under the Italian sun. It’s artichoke season and crates are being sold by the roadside. “Buffalo sheds,” he says, pointing to some tin roofs in the middle of a field of grass being grown as Buffalo fodder. Buffalo here live a coddled existence, explaining Campania’s reputation for fine buffalo mozzarella cheese.
Before long, we are winding through the hills, past tumbledown stone buildings that make me dream of renovation. The Pinelli Estate was once one of these – “Il Rifugio”, the property on the estate, which covers 18 acres of rolling hills, was a traditional local farm building with over ten generations of Italian owners. It dates back almost 300 years but suffered from neglect in its latter years. Nigel and his wife Dawn’s tender ministrations have brought the home back to life, in spectacular fashion.
Local stone, aged birch wooden beams, shuttered windows and terracotta roof tiles reinforce the classic Italian architecture. Katy and I are ushered into the upper level through thick wooden doors. Four double en-suite bedrooms are on this level, featuring exposed brick, timber beams and extravagant touches – chandeliers, ornate mirrors, and bold bedside lamps. Downstairs, there’s a cosy lounge room and a snug that leads onto the kitchen and dining area and out to a terrace that overlooks the heated infinity pool and Jacuzzi.
Past the pool, olive trees lead down the hillside, making way for a spectacular view. Lush green hills roll across the horizon and down in the valley, where a train chugs over the lengthy railway bridge on the outskirts of Agropoli. A triangle of sea marks the furthest boundary of the summer resort town. It’s breathtaking and only the appeal of a Mediterranean lunch of fresh Buffalo mozzarella, green olives, prosciutto, ruby-red tomatoes and crusty bread drags our eyes from the spectacle.
Nigel and Dawn are keen to show us to the highlights of the area, of which there are many. We drive by Agropoli Marina, where houses perch on the cliff-top like sentinels of the sea. In Paestum, founded by the Greek Achaeans around 600BC and less than 20 minutes’ drive away, we eat gelato while we admire some of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples in the world. We drive the winding road to San Marco di Castellabate to watch the lights twinkle on along the coast, before feasting on fresh seafood from Ristorante Cuopperia Lo Sparviero at a table on the boardwalk, overlooking the golden-sand beach.
The cuisine in the area exemplifies the Italian ethos of simple and farm-fresh. At Tenuta Vannulo we visit the buffalo sheds, where the enormous beasts chew happily on hay. “See that?” asks Nigel, pointing to a contraption inside the pens that looks like a dry car wash. “It’s a scratching device,” he explains, and we watch a buffalo roll its eyes in delight as it rubs against the brushes. These contented animals provide milk for around 400 kilogrammes of unpasteurised mozzarella di bufala per day. Naturally, lunch at Vannulo incorporates enormous globes of the fresh cheese.
We only have a short time here, not long enough to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps – the writer spent time in the small fishing village of Acciaroli along the coast in 1952 after he’d finished writing The Old Man and the Sea. Nor do we explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sassi Di Matera, where the houses are dug into the rock. We leave the Cilento National Park untouched and do not board the Pinelli’s captained motor yacht, on hand for trips along the coast, should guests fancy lunch in Capri.
Instead, we explore the nearby villages and long for more, spending our final hours at the Pinelli Estate, which has become our Italian home. We lounge in the hot tub, luxuriating in the afternoon sun, and fire up the barbecue on the terrace. It’s the perfect, relaxing idyll.
On the drive back to the airport, we are silent, lost in dreams. “You ought to dream,” said Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. Perhaps he was thinking of the Cilento Coast and The Pinelli Estate, Italy’s best kept secrets.