It was a day like any other at Misenum, base of the Roman navy in Campania. Fleet commander Gaius Plinius Secundus was working placidly when his sister, Plinia, came to warn him there was a weird cloud on the horizon. Intrigued, Plinius, who was a soldier but also a naturalist and a man of science, stepped out to take a look. Indeed, there was an unusual cloud, quite thick, which actually seemed to emerge from one of the coastal mountains. His scientific curiosity awakened, he was about to investigate when he received a message from his friend Rectina from the tiny city of Hercolaneum, asking for help as something very strange was happening to the mountain and they were terrified. Thus, the commander sailed off with 5 ships from the Misenum harbour to evacuate the population. He would never get there.
Herculaneum was buried under 25 metres of pyroclastic material. A few kilometres from there, another city was also buried under ashes, a not very relevant provincial trading port town named Pompeii. It was October, 24, 79aD and that smoking mountain, as you may already have guessed, was mount Vesuvius. Its eruption lasted for two days and obliterated everything at its foot, changing the geographical configuration of the coast – which moved 400 meters forward. That terrible catastrophe would go down in history as it left an invaluable archaeological legacy around Naples, in a region, Campania, rich in nature, traditions, gastronomy and history – it was home for Etruscans and Samnites before becoming part of Magna Graecia and the Roman Republic.
We start our tour in Naples with a pizza – the art of the Neapolitan pizzaioli recognized as cultural world heritage by UNESCO. And we strike lucky, at Le Sorelle Bandiera, close to the area known as Spaccanapoli – the street that follows the three Greco-Roman decumani of ancient Neapolis and cuts the city in two. This area is the soul of the old city and strolling around its streets we dive into the hustle and bustle of Neapolitan life: people walking everywhere, street musicians, a man singing Neapolitan songs from his balcony, sweet stalls (selling sfogliatele and babà al rum), processions with the image of Mary, churches popping up like mushrooms, lively terraces… Naples is a city to live it and to stop at every corner with a new surprise. The narrow via San Gregorio Armero is a must visit with its shops selling elaborate traditional Neapolitan nativities, an art from the 18thC, depicting daily scenes so accurately that the oldest are used as a reference by historians to know what people ate, how they dressed and even the time’s ailments just by looking at the figures. True historical documents.
In this neighbourhood we find Napoli Sotterranea, a complex of tunnels that started to form as Greeks extracted stone for building. They left cavities and tunnels that the Romans turned into cisterns, still there today. Some of them where private and some public and they could only be accessed from the wells – slaves climbed down for maintenance. Later the place would be used as an anti-aircraft shelter during WWII. The Neapolitans rose against the Nazis in September 1943, in what is known as the Four Days of Naples, after switching sides. So after suffering the Allied attacks now they suffered the Germans ones. Actually years after the end of the war there were still Neapolitans who slept in the street, at the site their houses used to be. Napoli Sotterranea makes for an interesting visit but be warned, if you’re too fat you won’t fit inside the narrow tunnels.
One of the wells goes up to the Saint Paolo Maggiore church, build over the old Roman Forum. The houses on the adjacent street were built over the remains of the ancient theatre, using the Roman walls from the 1stC Ad. The Romans knew how to build and their walls were solid, combining flat stones and mortar with volcanic limestone brick shaped like a rhombus – what they called opus reticulatum– resistant to earthquakes. This was an area of strong seismic activity, and proof of that is we’re going to find opus reticulatum at every site we visit.
Other spots in Naples we must see are the huge Piazza del Plebiscito, flanked by the Basilica devoted to Saint Frances of Paula, reminiscent of the Roman pantheon in its round shape, with a 53m high vault and surrounded by a remarkable crescent shaped colonnade with columns. At the other side of the square there’s the Royal Palace, home to the Bourbons up to the 18thC.
The Galleria Umberto is a shopping gallery built in the 19thC shaped like a cross and covered by a glass and metal dome.
The Castello dell’Ovo is the oldest castle in the city. It is named after a legend saying the fortress stands over an egg. It is located on an islet by the harbour, were the old colony of Phartenope was built in the 8thC BC. The Roman consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus bought the state to build himself a villa in the 1stC. The villa was fortified in the 5thC. It has been used as a prison, a monastery and as a defensive fortress.
The cathedral of San Gennaro, saint patron of the city, built on the 13thC, combines Gothic and Baroque elements and guards the blood of the Saint, which, according to tradition, liquefies every year on September 19. The year that does not happen you better run, as great catastrophes are going to take place – for example: WW2. I checked and it actually liquefied in 2019, so maybe the saint does not consider a pandemic to be a great catastrophe, or maybe we should really pay attention this September).
AROUND NAPLES, THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL TOUR
POMPEII, HERCOLANEUM AND OPLONTIS
This archaeological ensemble was declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 1997 for being “a complete and vivid picture of society and daily life at a specific moment in the past that is without parallel anywhere in the world.”
And truly these three sites give us a clue of how Roman daily life was 2000 years ago.
Pompeii, the trading port
Let’s imagine we are traders from the 1st century AD, and we arrive at a provincial port, not an important one. We get in through the Sea Gate, to buy or sell – wine, olive oil, garum– before going on our way to, let’s say, Germania. There are shops, restaurants, baths, whorehouses, spas, theatres… Now imagine that moment frozen in time for 2000 years. Welcome to Pompeii. What today is one of the most famous archaeological sites on the planet was actually just an ordinary coast city in its time, at the foot of a mountain. And it would have gone down in history unnoticed, probably, had not it been for that mountain.
In Roman times there was no historic memory of any eruption. Mount Somma, the ancient crater, had collapsed around 25.000 years earlier and from that eruption mount Vesuvius had emerged. The citizens of Pompeii couldn’t know they were living at the foot of a time bomb.
The first sign was an earthquake in the year 62. And actually, the city was still damaged and part of the population had moved out because of that earthquake when Vesuvius erupted, on the fall of 79 – for a long time it was believed it had been in August, as Plinius wrote in his account, but some discoveries in the site indicate vineyards had already been harvested and a few years ago an inscription was found which seemed to confirm the fateful date to be October the 24th.
First there was an explosion of gas and water, which raised a 30km high column early in the afternoon. The wind was blowing toward the city, and quickly darkness fell upon it. The terrified citizens sought for shelter inside their homes. Ash and pumice started to rain down and covered the city in a dense layer. Within hours, some buildings started to collapse. But the worst was still to come: a mass of pyroclastic flow, that buried the city and its 11.000 citizens.
Pompeii, founded by the Oscans, occupied by the Etruscans first, and the Samnites later before joining Rome along with the whole of Campania in 310BC, was no more. It would remain buried for centuries.
At the 66ha site buildings and public spaces remain, like the forum, the public baths, spas, taverns, and amphitheatre, a theatre, several temples – like the ones devoted to Isis, Jupiter or Apollo -, a palaestra, a natatorium, some gladiator houses, for example. And of course, the lupanar, the whorehouse, one of the most famous buildings due to the erotic paintings decorating its walls.
Strolling over the original cobblestone pavement we can discover details, like election propaganda paintings on the walls, the fountains in the streets – which were fed by an aqueduct -, the thermopolium (the taverns serving food) or even a sign saying caven canem “beware of the dog”, which give us a very vivid idea of the daily life of the city.
We also find many private houses. We can visit up to 30 dwellings, plus the villas outside the walls, like the Villa of the Mysteries, from the 2ndC, where we can see some famous paintings in the characteristic Pompeii Red.
The first excavations started on the 18thC under Charles IV, but with no archaeological criteria. Uncovering things just damaged them more than anything. It wasn’t’ until 1860 that, under the direction of Giuseppe Fiorelli, works took a rigorous scientific approach. It was Fiorelli who had the idea of creating casts of the citizens, by injecting liquid chalk in the holes left by the bodies inside the petrified ash.
When visiting Pompeii take into account it is the star excursion of the cruise ships stopping at the Naples harbour, so in the morning you may come across herds of tourists with their stickers and guides. Ships normally depart in the afternoon so there’s an option of visiting after lunch and using the morning to see another site, like Herculaneum.
Herculaneum, the residential city
In contrast to Pompeii, Herculaneum didn’t collapse, but was buried under a layer of 25m of pyroclastic material, which preserved not only the stone buildings but the wooden elements, like furniture, doors and even food as well.
Also in contrast to Pompeii, where the citizens locked themselves in their homes, the people of Herculaneum had gathered in the harbour waiting to be evacuated (by the Roman fleet of Gaius Plinius Secundus). 300 skeletons of women and children were found under the colonnades located where the beach was then. The men were probably on the sand waiting for the ships and must have been dragged by the burning avalanche. The Herculaneum visit is impressive, striking even. We are used to see sites with only some foundations and a couple of columns remaining, maybe an arch here and a temple there, that force us into using our imagination or some virtual reconstruction to get an idea. Here we find a whole city, almost intact – standing inside a massive hole in the middle of modern Ercolano. We approach it from above, which gives us a general panoramic view of the place. Then we go down and walk the streets, we can go inside the houses, walk into their rooms and courtyards… We can even see furniture and doors, the colours of the walls; it is a once in a lifetime experience.
This was a residential town, of wealthy people, and it shows. The Vila dei Papiri is very famous as 1700 rolled paper documents were found carbonized by the eruption. It is one of the most luxurious villas in town, 250m2, were not only the library but frescoes and marble and bronze sculptures have been found.
At the harbour, the burnt bodies still lie under the colonnades were the sea used to be in the year 79. It’s a shocking sight, and you cannot help but to imagine the fear and the angst of these poor people waiting for a rescue that never came.
My advice is to visit it with time enough to wander the streets without a hurry and to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience of walking into a 2000 year old Roman City. There’s no other place like this on Earth.
Near the site we find the Virtual Archaeological Museum, which offers a multi-sensorial experience, with more than 70 multimedia installations recreating the splendour of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Baiae, Estabiae and Capri. Here we can see a recreation of the stunning Villa dei Papiri.
Oplontis, and the luxurious villa Poppaea
At Oplontis – a site located in the modern town of Torre Annunziata-, we find the remains of the sumptuous home of Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife. I must say it was one unexpected surprise for us. The most luxurious part of the villa has been recovered – it was buried under 6 metres of volcanic material but some ceilings held – and gives us a very vivid idea of how a Roman aristocratic family lived, and believe me, they lived grandly. 3650 square meters of rooms, arcaded patios, halls, kitchens, small inner gardens, spa, a bath with running water, a chapel devoted to the lares (home gods)… Everything decorated with Pompeii style paintings and mosaics with a simple geometric design – very contemporary, actually, you could put them in a kitchen today and wouldn’t look out of place. A summer house in all its splendour, at the shores of the Tyrrhenian sea at the time, with a 61m x17m swimming pool surrounded by gardens and statues. And a thermal pool. It was an opulent ocium villa to entertain visitors, which would come to relax, and engage in philosophy and culture (and the occasional orgy, I guess).
Poppaea died in 65AD so she missed all the fun of the eruption.
The systematic excavations didn’t start until 1964 (some previous attempts had to be stopped for different reasons), following modern and well documented criteria. Until now only a part of the complex has been able to see the light as the rest of it lies under a huge 18thC factory and the city of Torre Annunziata. It’s a tricky job, but we hope someday they will find a way to dig the rest.
CUMAE, PUTEOLI AND BAIAE
Cumae, cradle of culture
Founded on the 8thC BC, Cumae was the first settlement of Magna Graecia – the name given by the Romans to the group of Greek colonies on the south of the Italian Peninsula and Sicily. Attacked by Etruscans and occupied by the Samnites finally was annexed to Rome in 338BC. At the beginning, Cumae was the main city, more important than Rome, even, and promoted the foundation of settlements, like Sorrento and Puteoli, on hills to control the gulf of Naples, and of Baiae, as a port and base for the fleet.
During the late Republic the area attracted wealthy Romans, who established their second residences in Baiae, Bauli and Misenum.
At the site of the ancient city of Cumae we find the Temple of Apollo and the Sybil Cave. The Cumaean Sybil was the most famous of the prophetesses of Apollo. Virgil wrote that Aeneas, on his way back from Troy, came into Cumae and stopped at the temple, built by the architect Daedalus after leaving Crete. According to the legend, the founder of Rome sought advice from the Sybil. This area is considered to be the cradle of Roman culture because Romans copied the Greeks, who had already founded cities along the whole Mediterranean. Cumae, Puteoli, Neapolis, Paestum… were all first settlements of Magna Graecia. Everything would be devoured, digested and assimilated by the Roman eagle. So we could argue these stones we’re stepping on are the foundation of all western culture, as the Romans would spread it to their territories from here.
We tread into the Sybil cave, a tunnel at the end of which we find the spot where the pythoness predicted the future, with ambiguous riddles everyone interpreted as best suited them. There’s one theory that claims the tunnel, actually, was built on Roman times to connect to the harbour. We prefer the mystical, magical side of the story.
Puteoli, the city of wells
It is worth the trip to Pozzuoli, 20km from Naples, to explore, among others, the Flavio amphitheatre, from the 1stC. It could seat 50.000 people and it was the third largest in Italy, behind the Colosseum in Rome and the Capua amphitheatre, not far from here. The most impressive feature, that renders it almost unique, is the basement, perfectly preserved thanks to having been buried by an eruption, of the Solfatara this time. A circular gallery runs the perimeter and surrounds a wide central corridor, were the pulleys to lift the animal cages to the arena used to be. The magnificent building in red brick is amazing and shows, once again, the prowess of Roman engineers.
It was in this theatre that Saint Gennaro, saint patron of Naples, and Saint Procolo were thrown to the beasts – according to tradition they survived and had to be beheaded at the Solfatara.
The remains from the ancient settlement of Puteoli can be visited at Rione Terra, a virtual recreation of the Roman town that was founded in the 194BC by war veterans – as a reward for having fought at the Second Punic Wars – over the Greek Dicearchia, founded by Samnite aristocrats fleeing from Policrates on the 4thC BC. The Romans found themselves with a problem: there was no water. So they were forced to dig wells and cisterns to collect the precious liquid. In 20 or 30 years the city was full of these “putus” and hence the name “puteoli”, which means “full of wells”.
The city was built on three levels. Underground was left for storage, shops were on the ground level, and homes, temples and baths on the first floor. Here cement was born. Roman engineers learn how to make concrete, the pulvis puteolanis, with pozzolan, a siliceous volcanic rock – they could have learnt from Minoans, who already used it for building. It was so light that allowed them to build higher without compromising the structure and it spread throughout the territory. The dome of the Pantheon in Rome was built with pozzolan-lime mortars and it was the largest in the world for 1500 years.
Puteoli would be sacked by Barbarians in 410AD. On the 18thC the top level was demolished and the basements filled with the debris. The digs in these basements have unearthed whole statues. On top of the Roman town the modern Pozzuoli grew using walls and Roman architectonic elements.
A walk around the contemporary city will take us to the Macellum, the ancient Roman market, which for some time was believed to be a Serapis temple as they found a statue of this god during the first digs in the 18thC. The statue can be found today in a square by the harbour.
CAMPI FLEGREI AND PARCO ARCHEOLOGICO SOMMERSO DI BAIA
Flegrei means fiery in Greek. A very suitable name as the Phlegraean Fields are still a seismological active zone, known since ancient times for the hydrothermal vents and the volcanic activity – here we find the Solfatara crater. Around the 1stC the thermal springs in the area served as inspiration for the Roman baths everywhere else.
For a unique archaeological experience we head to Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baia. In ancient Rome you were nobody if you didn’t have a summer villa at Baiae, with its mild weather and its hot springs. Today all these aristocratic villas are under water thanks to a volcanic phenomenon called bradyseism, very common in the area of Campi Flegrei and which the Romans had already observed in the 5thC. It is the gradual uplift or descent of part of the Earth’s surface caused by magmatic movements. Actually, in front of the beach there is a hill named Monte Nuovo, which appeared one night in 1538 after an earthquake. And the columns in the Macellum, the market at Pozzuoli, show traces of a mollusc, showing they had been submerged at some point.
At the Sub Campi Flegrei Center they will get you everything you need for diving. If you don’t want the complete pack with oxygen bottles there is also the snorkel option, which is our choice. We sail in a boat to a 6 meter deep area near the shore were we discover the remains of Portus Iulius, base of the Mediterranean fleet before Missenum. It was rediscovered thanks to some aerial photos during WWII. There are several villas, a lighthouse and even statues in the submerged park.
In one of these villas Agrippina, the manipulative mother of Nero, lived and died. We can choose which of the three contradicting stories about her death we like the most; whether is Tacitus, Suetonious or Cassius account all of them have a common denominator: her son is suspected to be behind her death. Maybe influenced by Poppaea, then her lover, whose villa we visited in Oplontis, 45km from here.
After our interesting and refreshing archaeological swim we head to Lago d’Averno, of volcanic origin. The Romans considered it to be the entrance to Hades, and according to Virgil in the Aeneid, Aeneas used it as a door to descend to the underworld. We cannot find any door to hell as we take a walk around some historic vineyards but we check the remains of some Roman baths by the water. And then we head for a quite lunch nearby.
Publio Vedio Polione was an aristocrat close to emperor Augustus who built himself an imperial villa integrated in the natural surroundings on a hill over the Bay of Naples. The villa had a private theatre for 2000 people, an odeon, baths and other amenities, even vineyards, all topped with exceptional panoramic views. And another detail: To get there you need to cross an impressive 700m tunnel built on the 1stC.
Publio was known to be a cruel man who mistreated his slaves and punished them physically when they broke something. They say during his visits, emperor Augustus, who disapproved of those methods, would go around breaking things to show his displeasure. After the death of Publio Vedio, in 15BC, the property passed to Augustus and his descendants. Its last resident was emperor Hadrian, who died in Baiae in 138AD.
The Parco Archeologico Ambientale del Pausilypon is part of the Protected Area of Gaiola.
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF NAPLES
Many of the discoveries made during digs on the area sites are exhibited at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN), one of the oldest and most important archaeological museums in the world, located in a 16thC palace. Apart from the Pompeii collections it guards the Farnese collection, including the stunning sculptures found on the Caracalla Baths and other elements from the Rome area, and a collection of mosaics, frescos and some funny and curious erotic figures (apparently Romans had the attitude of a horny teenager), among others.
100km from Naples, in the middle of the Cilento National Park, a mountainous regions cut by several rivers who flow into the Tyrrhenian sea, the Greeks founded the settlement of Poseidonia in the 8thC BC, as part of Magna Graecia.
Annexed to Rome in the 3rdC BC under the name Paestum, it slowly lost importance until it was finally abandoned in the Middle Ages due to being far away from the main roads. The main attractions of Paestum are the three great temples. The oldest one is the temple of Hera, with some massive Doric columns. The largest and best preserved is the Poseidon temple, from the 5thC BC, in the same style as the Athens Parthenon. The third is the temple of Ceres, from the 1stC.
By the site we find the Archaeological Museum guarding the objects found in the digs and some tombs decorated with painted murals. The most remarkable and famous of these is the tomb of the diver, the finest known example of Greek wall painting of the 5thC.
And here we conclude our trip. It was mostly focused on archaeological stuff. And food. Italy is a country to enjoy your meals without a hurry. And Campania is the home of the mozzarella. The real mozzarella is the one made from buffalo milk. It’s served fresh, ball shaped, and it’s juicy. So, here’s a list of the places where we ate.
Le Sorielle Bandiera. You cannot go to Naples and not have pizza. Try the fried pizza, a local speciality. Hell, try all of them, they are World Heritage!
Excellenze Campane Mare. Specialities from Campania. www.eccellenzecampane.it
La Bersagliera. This is a centenary family restaurant at the Naples harbour with the walls full of photos of all famous people who have eaten there, like Sofia Loren o Monica Vitti. Check them out, it’s fun. It’s a good place for fish and seafood. www.labersagliera.it
Le Sciantose. Pasta, fish, rissottos…
La Cantine dell’Averno. Local produce. www.cantinedellaverno.it
Villa Signorini. A restored 18thC palace with some beautiful gardens. www.villasignorini.it.
La Bettola del gusto. Specialized in meat. https://labettoladelgusto.it
Mandetta. Campania buffalo products like dried meat, ricotta, and of course, mozzarella. www.mandeta.it
We slept in Hotel Casa d’Amare, in Naples. A nice family run B&B located on the seafront. www.casadamarenapoli.com
Official Website of the Agenzia Nazionale del Turismo