We would not have known of the existence of this garden, had we not accidentally seen mention of it on a restaurant’s pamphlet in the lobby. No guide book or web site that we consulted it mentions it, and yet it is the oldest botanical garden in Europe.
We took a taxi to get there, and when we told the driver we wanted to go to the gardens (we were picturing a public park) he asked if we wanted to be let off at the top of the stairs or the bottom. Not being familiar with the concept of parks with staircases, but being all in favour of going down stairs rather than climbing them, we thought fast, and asked to be taken to the top.
He took us on a route that had us thinking we were going back to the Castello, but just before leaving the city proper, about halfway up the mountain, he pulled over, pointed to a narrow staircase between two houses, and left. If it weren’t for a signpost to the Gardens, we would have thought we’d been had.
We followed the signs down the stairs, and through narrow cobbled laneways, until, after walking about halfway down to the shore again, we finally came upon a sign pointing to an old wooden door set into a high stone wall.
We stepped through, not knowing what to expect, but not expecting a shady, cool (by comparison) garden, built on four levels. A protective wall snakes down from the castle and extends around medieval Salerno, and the garden is planted right up against it, with old stone staircases covered by grape trellises leading from one level to the next. The tour of the garden begins and ends on a terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples and the harbour, and here we paused both at the beginning and ending of our visit.
Stone benches are found on each level, and interpretive panels. From these I gather (because they were all in Italian) that the gardens were built to teach the 12th century medical students about the medicinal qualities of different herbs and plants.
I think I already mentioned Salerno is the home of the oldest university and oldest medical school in Europe, and very proud of it. So there were pots of mandrake, borage etc., water trickling from a system of aqueducts and artesian wells, and lime trees providing pleasant shade.
The gardens are laid out in accordance with the medieval concepts of the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood). All the elements correspond with a particular humor, except for blood, which contains all four; and all illness is caused by too much or too little of one of the humors. Which would expain why they used to bleed people for sickness.
This system, invented by the ancient Egyptians and passed on to the Greeks, Romans, and western civilization throughout the past 3,000 years, was not disproved until 1858, and all I can say is, I’m glad there are no more leeches!