A day exploring Benevento’s historical and culinary gems

Let me take you back to Benevento again. I have already written two blogs on specific points of interest in this town in Campania, southern Italy. This time I’d like to suggest how a day could be spent here, perhaps as a stop-off on a trip further south.

Benevento is situated about 50 km north-east of Naples, and is first recorded as a city of the Samnite Italic tribe. It was originally called “Maleventum”, which the Romans believed meant “site of bad things”, so they changed it to “Beneventum” or “site of good things” after they gained control around the 3rd century BC. It flourished as a Roman colony, and benefited from its situation along the Old Appian Way, an important trade route from Rome to the south-eastern coast of Italy. Several Roman emperors visited, including Nero, Trajan and Septimius Severus. Testimony to its importance in the Roman period is the magnificent triumphal Arch of Trajan, built in 114 AD, which still stands here today in an impressively well-preserved state. This is the sight visitors are most likely to be struck by when they first arrive in Benevento.

archoftrajan3In the centre of the town you’ll discover that a lot of buildings are modern or rebuilt, as it  was heavily bombed in World War Two. Still, many of the most precious gems have been preserved. A good place to start a sight-seeing tour of Benevento in the morning is the Church of Santa Sofia or Holy Wisdom. This was built around 760 by the Lombard (or Longobard) Germanic tribe who settled here from the sixth century, and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage group Longobards in Italy: Places of Power.

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The central part of the church has an unusual hexagon form, supported by columns that may have come from a temple to the Egyptian goddess Iside that used to be found in Benevento. Visitors can also see the remains of frescoes that originally covered all the interior walls. Afterwards you can head to the Museum of Samnium behind the church, which contains some wonderful Grecian-style urns, statues and other artifacts from ancient times. Here you can also see the cloister of the church, one of the prettiest I have ever seen. For more on Santa Sofia, the museum and cloister, see my previous post here.

WP_20140823_100After you’ve spent the morning exploring these sites (the church closes at 12pm for an early afternoon break and reopens at 1600), it’s time to enjoy a leisurely lunch. It’s worth making the most of a nice sunny day to sit in one of the restaurants close to the Arch of Trajan. While visiting with a friend, we opted for the rustic trattoria “Traiano”, where we enjoyed a delicious light meal for 10 euros each.

After lunch, we still had some time to fill before the other museums reopened later in the afternoon. So we headed for a walk around the town. We stopped to admire the 13th century bell tower and Romanesque facade of the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, among the few parts remaining after the building was almost entirely destroyed by allied bombing in World War Two.

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We then walked down to the outskirts of town to see the old Roman bridge, Ponte Leproso, and the remains of a Roman theatre. On the way we passed some very quiet areas of the town where I spotted some pretty shrines.

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Here’s the Ponte Leproso, built in the third century AD, which allowed the Old Appian Way to cross the Sabato river.

WP_20140823_188We strolled back up to the centre for around 1600, so that we could see the exhibition about the goddess Iside (Isis), who used to be worshipped in this area of Italy. We enjoyed a 3-D show about the goddess and her temple in Benevento, and saw some fascinating Egyptian statues and ornaments found in the area. For more on this see my blog here. Below is another remnant of the temple to Iside: an Egyptian obelisk that now stands in the centre of town.

IMG_4907Benevento is also known for its association with witchcraft. This legend may have developed originally from the worship of Iside. The Lombards who settled here brought their own nature cult to the area. According to legends they would head down to a site near to the Ponte Leproso and hold rituals around a Walnut tree. In the 7th century the Lombards were converted to Christianity by Saint Barbatus, Bishop of the town at the time, and the cult was suppressed. Obviously I like this story of the witches so much that I am going to craft a blog around it, coming soon!

The town’s famous liqueur, Strega, is named after the witchcraft legends. It is a yellow-coloured herbal liqueur which has been produced here since 1860. In the centre of town you can visit Caffe Strega where you can pick up some Strega products, including varying sizes of bottles of the liqueur, as well as Strega-flavoured chocolates and biscuits. I also tried a Strega flavoured icecream, which was delicious! There are some cool vintage posters on show here too.

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Before you leave Benevento, you should head back for another look at the Arch of Trajan. If you have time, you can see the video presentation explaining the scenes on the arch. This is in the nearby Sant’Ilario, a small Lombard church dating to the 7th century.

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One side of the arch shows mainly military scenes, while the other shows scenes from the life of Trajan. An interesting panel in the internal arch portays the alimentaria, a charity Trajan set up to help poor children. Spot the pieces of bread on the table in the centre.

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You may only want to stay in Benevento for a day before heading on further south. However, I recommend staying the night purely so you can try out some of the great and good value food on offer here. Ristorante Nunzia is a popular and reliable option for an evening meal.

Hope this inspires you to also spend a day discovering Benevento’s gems!

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