The Phlegrean Fields
<A land where only stones breathe, deserted, with boiling water and with the remains of a past shaped by spent and half-spent volcanoes, the most marvellous region of the world, under the purest skies and the most perfidious terrain.> J. W. Goethe, 1787
In this volcanic area, the fertility of the soil has led to the cultivation of indigenous varieties of wines, getting the designation of origin “Campi Flegrei”. The DOC wines are: “Piedirosso” and “Falanghina” cultivated here for centuries, “Biancolella” and “Coda di Volpe” as white wines and “Olivella” and “Sciscinoso” for the reds.
Agnano is another big and populated quarter of Naples. Once famous for its lake, in the oldest volcano of the Phlegrean Fields, Agnano got its name from the latin “anauni”, snakes, because it was said that a lot of snakes went to the lake to quench their thirst.
The lake was drained in 1870 (in its place nowadays there is a horse racing track).
From the dried lake bed emerged archaeological proof of a huge roman thermal baths complex:
remains of a natural sauna (that used the natural heat released from the sides of the Mount Spina)
and of a thermal establishment. In the same basin are the “Stufe di San Germano”, so named by the bishop of Capua that enjoyed its benefits in the 6th century.
Not far from this SPA is “La Grotta del Cane”, (the Dog’s Grotto), a niche carved into the hill where carbonic acid vapors are emitted: this heavy gas rises only a short distance from the ground, thus
able to kill any animal walking through. The name has its origins in the barbaric practice of introducing a dog, which would then slowly but surely show signs of suffocation.
In Agnano is the verdant Astroni Reserve (a WWF oasis for the protection of the fauna): the huge crater of a spent volcano, covered in woods, in which small hills and lakes have formed.
Pozzuoli is another district located in the Phlegrean Fields. Main port of the region in Roman times, the city revealed a surprising and unexpected “underground Pompeii” with the excavations in this area. Founded in 520 BC by Greek colonists who gave it the name “Dicearchia”, or “Just Government”, it was named Puteoli by the Romans (for the malodorous sulphur vapours that its wells emitted), and became one of the main ports of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Temple of Serapis (I-II century BC) is proof of the lively commerce conducted in Puteoli. The temple is so called because of the discovery of a statue of an Egyptian divinity. In reality, the so-called temple was a food market, a Macellum. The oldest part of town “Rione Terra” was abandoned in the 80’s due to the effects of bradyseism, but now under restoration, on the high part of the tuff rock that dominate the port. Archaeological excavations are revealing the fascinating texture of this Roman city, preserved intact underground, with its store lined streets. Houses and fountains alternate with shops and restaurants. This was once the glorious acropolis of Puteoli, impermeable defence against the enemy. The most significant monument of the area is the Temple of Augustus, rediscovered after the baroque Cathedral of San Procolo burned down in 1964. It is, in fact, the Capitolium, the temple of the Capitoline trinity cult. The Amphitheatre dates to Flavian times, and is the third largest in the world. Its functional architecture is an excellent example of the exceptional technological levels reached in that era: it has underground spaces, wide stairwells, corridors, a contraption to lift the wild beasts’ cages and even a device to reenact naval battles. Pozzuoli does not just offer archaeological remains.
This lively town has a strong sense of identity: ingrained ties to an age-old maritime tradition (evidenced by the excellent cuisine) and a meeting place for young and old alike. With its port
(departure point of the ferryboats to the islands), its streets, small squares, lovely seafront and many bars, make this a lovely place to spend pleasant hours.
At the “Solfatara”, near Pozzuoli, you can see the inside of a crater with boiling lava, full of its vapours and steaming mud. This active volcano is one of the main attractions of the Phlegrean Fields. The feeling here is one of restlessness: the earth tormented by fire makes for a surreal scenery of unimaginable colours. Born 4,000 years ago almost in the exact centre of the Phlegrean Fields, the Solfatara (from the late latin Sulpha Terra, or sulphurous earth) presents itself lively with geysers, sources of gas, mineral water springs, spouts of hot mud and seismic shocks. The biggest geyser is called ‘Bocca Grande’ (Big Mouth), a natural source of pressured water vapour. It shoots out at 160°C and contains a mixture of gases that give it a peculiar “rotten egg” smell.
BAIA, BACOLI, MISENO
These are others three villages. In Baia you arrive to the richest of the Phlegrean archaeological wonders. The grandiose Roman ruins speak of ancient splendour, when the area was the centre of the most elegant holiday resorts. The luxurious and licentious lifestyle there provoked the invectives of both Seneca and Propertius, while Horace described the gulf as “the most enchanting in the world”. Most of the fabulous buildings of Baia have been submerged by the sea.
These ruins constitute the Baia Underwater Park. Excursions with special boats and underwater films show the mosaic pavements, walls, columns and other remains. At the centre of the area is the villa of Lucius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. At “Punta Epitaffio” a nymphaeum of the emperor Claudius was discovered, a luxurious hall decorated with statues that, after having been recovered, are now exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of the Phlegrean Fields in the Aragonese Castle. The entire side of the hill that gives onto the Gulf of Baia is covered in archaeological ruins spread out over the terraced land. They make up the Baia Archaeological Park, a huge complex of buildings that were probably an imperial residence.
The area is divided in three sections: to the south the Venus section, in the centre that of Sosandra, and to the east Mercury.
The Venus thermal spas are in a great covered hall with a half cupola. The complex also included a large circular hall outside of the archaeological park, almost at the port, known as the Temple of Venus. The Sosandra spas spread out over the scenic terracings with a lower portico, a nymphean theatre, residences with arched walkways and gardens, is to be imagined covered in mosaics, statues and paintings. The Mercury thermal complex gets its name from the grand hall with dome where echoes return. Just north of the park, visible from the street, is the Diana Temple (3rd century AD). Named after its marble bas reliefs of animals, it is a large octagonal thermal hall.
The splendid Aragonese Castle (built in the 1400’s and restructured by the viceroys) serves as a backdrop for the Phlegrean Fields Archaeological Museum, home to the relics from Baia, Miseno and Pozzuoli. The view from the terraces of the fortress is unforgettable.
<And each time we reach higher ground, we discover an ample and splendid landscape. In front, the calm, blue sea; down below, enveloped in a light haze, the coast of Italy, the classic coastline of even rocks; Capo Miseno closes in the distance, everything in the distance>. Guy de Maupassant, 1890
Between Baia and Miseno, Bacoli was constructed on the Roman city of Bauli. On the highest part of the city there is a grand installation of two-story cisterns known as “Cento Camerelle” (1st century BC). The upper cistern, with a rectangular layout, is divided into four naves; the lower one is a complicated network of tunnels dug into the tuff rock. A thin strip of coast separates the sea from a salt lagoon, the lake of Fusaro, creating a formidable ecosystem where fish and mussels are farmed. On the lake, on an islet united to the land by a small bridge, is the 1700’s ‘Casino Reale’, a gracious Rococo building by Carlo Vanvitelli.
Capo Miseno – the name derives from the herald of Aeneas, of whom, according to legend, the promontory is an immense tomb – was chosen by the Romans in the time of Augustus to take the place of Portus Julius of Baia, by now buried in sand. The main Roman naval fleet was stationed here. Miseno is also an important bathing destination, much appreciated by children who can splash about in all safety on the shallow soft sandy bottom. On one side of the mythical promontory is the Bay, on the other side the lake of Miseno (also known as the “Dead Sea” for its shallow waters), a coastal lagoon joined to the port by an outlet, and to the sea by a canal that crosses the big beach of Miliscola. Of the ancient city all that remains are the ruins of the public baths and the Shrine of the Augustals, dedicated to the imperial cult (reconstructed in the Archaeological Museum of the Phlegrean Fields). The most imposing monument of Miseno is surely the Piscina Mirabilis, an immense reservoir for the restocking of the fleet. Carved into the tuff rock, with the vaults upheld by four lines of pillars, this grandiose space, empty and silent, illuminated by a dim light, is extremely evocative. Upon exiting Bacoli, the street climbs up to Monte di Procida, one of the most panoramic spots of the entire phlegrean area. From every corner a magnificent view is to be enjoyed, whether over the Gulf of Pozzuoli, with Vesuvius and Mount Faito on the horizon, or of Ischia and Procida.