Elea is the site of the remains of an ancient city that was situated to the south of Poseidonia (better known by its more recent name, Paestum, and as the site of three famous temples. Elea is on the Tyrrhenian coast of the Lucania region, so in the modern Campania region of south-west Italy.
The current Italian name is Velia, so the town is also known as Elea Velia.
Note: although the ruins at Elea are interesting to those with an interest in the history of the region they are substantially less imposing than the temples at Paestum so if you are only having one 'historical day out' during your visit we recomend that Paestum takes priority.
Getting to Elea
The ruins of Elea are found near Castellammare of Bruca, overlooking the mouth of the Alento river. To reach ancient Elea by car follow the road 447 to Palinuro, and turn right on the road that leads to the Acropolis.
History of Elea
You will appreciate a visit to Elea better if you have a little background history of the settlement. Elea was founded around 540 BC by Phoenicians from Alàlia in Corsica who had abandoned the island after a hard sea battle fought against the Etruscans and Carthaginians.
The ancient city had a long period of economic prosperity that allowed it to remain independent from the Lucane people who lived further inland, and formed part of the so-called Magna Grecia - a term used by Polybius (206-124 B.C.) to describe the Greek cities of southern Italy and Sicily.
In its day Elea was a very important cultural centre and its inhabitants included some of the most famous philosophers of the age such as Parmenides (6th century B.C.) who was the founder of the Philosophical School of Elea, and Zeno (5th century B.C.).
In 88 BC the city was conquered by the Romans, and soon it became a regional centre (known as a Municipium). The citizens of Elea were recognized as Roman citizens while also being permitted to retain the Greek language and customs.
Explore Elea Velia
The ruins at Elea show a massive system of fortifications that encircled around the hill on which the city was found, leading to a top terrace with a square bastion called the Castelluccio (Little Castle). The defensive wall is about 7 kilometres long.
Your visit to the ancient ruins of Elea Velia will start from the district in the south and the Roman necropolis, where excavations began in the early 1950s. From here continue towards the old town by the Porta Marina Sud along the street of the same name. Along here you can see the remains of important buildings, some of which which date back to the Roman Imperial age.
In Via Porta Rosa you can admire the ancient 2nd century BC Roman baths and a beautiful open square, before reaching the 4th century BC Porta Rosa. From here you reach a long, ancient road paved with steps which descends to the southern port (Velia had two ports).
The Porta Rosa Gate (photo below) is truly monumental, built with cut blocks of volcanic tufa, perfectly placed one upon the other without the use of lime, and is in a state of perfect preservation. It is perhaps the only intact monument of the ancient world, and reaches a height of almost six meters.
Close to here is the oldest place of settlement of ancient Elea Velia, known as the Polygonal Village and with well-preserved ruins of a typical Greek Theatre of the third century BC, with tiers in concentric semicircles and steps about 75cm wide where the spectators sat in front of the stage.
Originally the altar of Dionysus was centrally placed in the theatre and dances were performed around the altar.
Follow the Via Sacra which leads to the Acropolis, overlooking the sea. At the Acropolis you can see a magnificent 5th century BC temple that was probably dedicated to the goddess Athena.
It is thought that Athena was the the emblem of Elea, since coins found show the head of the goddess Athena on one side and a lion devouring its prey on the other.
You can also see the fortifications of the Castelluccio of the Hellenistic period; the mighty Norman castle, probably built between the 11th and 12th centuries; and the 11th century Palatine Chapel.
To see some artefacts from the Velia archaeological excavations go to the "Antiquarian and Archaeological Park" of Velia, where you can admire both the statue of Parmenides and other artefacts such as some pots of the Etruscan and Roman Ages.
Places to visit near Elea-Velia, including Novi-Velia
- If you are visiting in summer the resorts of Agropoli, Palinuro, Santa Maria di Castellabate and Pioppi are all close enough to allow you to visit Elea-Velia and have offer tourist facilities.
- Also very impressive is a visit to the 9th century Santuario della Madonna of Novi Velia, built by Greek-orthodox Byzantines.
For those who enjoy exploring the natural environment we suggest you visit Novi Velia, about twenty miles from Elea and in a wooded landscape with vineyards and olive groves on Mount Sacred.
Novi Velia is of Byzantine origin, and was later occupied by the Longobards and Normans. Here you can see the Castle of the Barons of San Marzano, built by the Normans in 1189; the Parish Church which contains some interesting paintings by Andrea from Salerno and an Adoration of the Magi by Giovan Filippo.
We also recommend a visit to the 11th century church of Santa Maria dei Lombardi, with interesting works by pupils of the School of Raffaello.
Cuisine of Elea / Velia
No visit to the region around Elea Velia would be complete without trying the traditional cuisine, based on the local natural produce such as olive oil, wine, bread and pasta, beans and tomatoes.
We suggest you sample the Fusilli alla Cilento and struffoli, and among the main courses, the roast with porcini mushrooms and the Caciocavallo accompanied by local wine, such as Cilento.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Campania guide.