The Phlegraean Fields: the gates of Hades

If you look on the internet for authoritative opinions that will enlighten you about the Phlegraean Fields, trust the flair of the great poets of the past, forerunners of the modern reviewers on Booking or Tripadvisor. You will not fail. More than a positive rating, their evaluation is an expression of boundless adoration.

To cover with an aura of splendour the most solemn moments of Enea's journey towards the foundation of Rome, Virgil set them in the Phlegraean enchantment and records into his story names that still today belong to the toponymy of the area.

Horace wrote that "no other place in the world is brighter than the Bay of Baia", in perfect harmony with the refined tastes of the Roman aristocracy who, for their ''Otium'', filled this coast with magnificent residences surrounded by every luxurious comfort, from spas to fish farms for the breeding of oysters, mullets or moray eels.

Almost two millennia later, Goethe said: "here we are amazed by the events of Nature and History".

Few places can still exhibit an overwhelming variety of attractions like the arch of land and sea that stretches between Cape Miseno and Pozzuoli. Testimonies of a memorable past, with open-air, underground and submerged archaeological parks. The powerful and restless forces of the volcanic territory. And, everywhere, glimpses of the beautiful panorama of the Bay of Naples. Myth, history, nature and landscape. Each of the sites or environments to visit - and there are many - encloses all these dimensions like a treasure chest. 

Archaeological Thermal Park of Baia

 

The Magic of Cuma: the Origin

From the terraces of the Acropolis, there is a sense of silence, peace and immensity. The only perceptible sound is that of the waves that, with a slow and regular rhythm, beat the sandy coast on the final stretch of the Domitian coastline stretching towards Cape Miseno. The gaze ventures to the mighty silhouette of the island of Ischia, with the volcanic profile of its Mount Epomeo.

The Archaeological Park of Cuma, clinging to the promontory of the Phlegraean coast, is the ideal starting point for visiting the Phlegraean Fields.

In such a suggestive natural setting, myths are at home. The first was Daedalus who, it is said, fleeing from Crete with wax wings, landed in Cuma where he erected a grandiose temple.

Here is the Sibyl's Antrum, a Greek-Roman gallery dug out of the tuff: according to the legend, the Cumaean Sibyl lived there, a priestess of Apollo famous for the oracles obtained from the reading of the leaves, which instructed Aeneas for his journey through the Hades.

Cuma tells the story of the origins because it was the first Greek settlement on Italy mainland.  The same Cumans were also the founders of Parthenope-Naples. According to written evidence, they would have granted fugitives from the island of Samo permission to settle in their territory by founding Dicearchìa ("Government of the Just"), the future Puteoli-Pozzuoli.  Later, the city experienced an important moment of Roman imperial greatness.

The ships of Augustus docked just along the coast that can be admired from the terraces of the Acropolis. An underground tunnel almost a kilometer long (the "Grotta di Cocceio"), now being restored after decades of neglect, allowed rapid displacements to the Roman soldiers by connecting the city and the port of Cuma to the ancient Portus Iulius of Puteoli (formed by the lake of 'Averno and from the lake of Lucrino), which housed the imperial fleet of Augustus before its transfer near another Phlegraean lake, the Miseno.

 Archaeological Park of Cuma

 

Lake Averno: beauty at the entrance of the Hades

From the top of the road that overlooks the lake Averno the panorama extends, with a wealth of landscapes and colours, towards the Castello di Baia and the promontory of Capo Miseno. Here we can understand why Madame de Staël defined the Phlegraean Fields "a region where volcanoes, history and poetry have left more traces than anywhere else in the universe".

Lake Averno is a water mirror that lies within a volcanic crater formed 4 thousand years ago. This lake - whose waters were said to exhale gas that hindered life (the Greek etymology of Averno means "Without birds") - according to Greek and then Roman religion it opened the doors of Hades, the mystical entrance to the underworld described by Virgil Aeneid.

In his descent into the afterlife, Aeneas meets his father Anchises and the protagonists of the history of Rome, a formidable stunt of the poet who thus included Roman events and, above all, the imperial mission of Augustus in a providential design conceived by gods and fate.

Nowadays, of the original beauty of this land very little has remained, birds have returned to fly over the lake and all around you can find the opportunity to spend a beautiful picnic accompanied by some wine tasting (cantinedellaverno.it).

Lake Averno

 

Cape Miseno: Aeneas' trumpeter

It may be useful to head towards the top of the Bacoli promontory before embarking on the itinerary back to the other sites toward Pozzuoli.

We are at the northwest end of the Gulf of Naples. Like the lake of the same name, Cape Miseno - from the top of which the view embraces the Gulf of Pozzuoli, Vesuvius and the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida - evokes the Virgilian mythology.

Miseno, in fact, was the trumpeter of Enea who died in these places and his burial was imposed on the Trojan hero by the Cumaean Sibyl as one of the conditions for his access to the underworld.

From the naval base of Miseno - home of the Classis Misenensis ("Fleet of Misenum"), the powerful fleet of Augustus with 50 ships and 10 thousand sailors - in 79 AD, Pliny the Elder launched a naval rescue operation to save the people of Pompeii from the deadly eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

Cape Miseno, Pozzuoli

 

Piscina Mirabilis: Water Engineering Masterpiece

A magnificent terminal of the Augustan aqueduct, a masterpiece of Roman hydraulic engineering, the Piscina Mirabilis was built to supply with water the imperial fleet stationed at the port of Miseno.

Fascinating like the Justinian Cisterns in Istanbul, it is a majestic water collection basin, with a volume of 12,600 cubic meters. The openings of his barrel vault, supported by 48 pillars, create suggestive plays of light.

In a compelling synthesis of history and fiction, the novel, ''Pompeii''  by Richard Harris, starts from here to tell the days that preceded the great eruption of Vesuvius. The first omen of the impending disaster is a suspected sulfur pollution in the aqueduct pipes: as an immediate emergency measure, the young Atilius, the superintendent of the aqueduct protagonist of the story, closes the Piscina Mirabilis.

Piscina Mirabilis: Water Engineering Masterpiece

 

Baia, the Hedonist holiday destination of the Roman Patricians

On the short journey to Baia it is time to let yourself be influenced by Horace's veneration for these places.

The Archaeological Thermal Park of Baia is a very extensive site that slopes down to the sea. It contains the remains of thermal baths and patrician and imperial residences. An architectural gem is the large spa room called Temple di Mercury, whose domed roof anticipates that of the Pantheon in Rome by a century.

Between the 3rd and 5th century AD the bradyseism phenomenon proved the slow sinking of piers, villas and buildings, so much so that part of the ancient city is submerged by the sea and is now included in the Underwater Archaeological Park of Baia.

A bizarre challenge to the laws of nature can be admired inside a spa. Favoured by a very special micro-climate, a robust wild fig tree has grown upside down, with the roots clinging to the high ceiling and the top reaching down towards the floor.

Underwater Archaeological Park of Baiae

The Flavian Amphitheatre, the show is behind the scene

It is an impressive monument. It is, in fact, the third largest Roman amphitheatre in Italy after the Colosseum and that of Capua. The main reason of interest is because of the perfect state of preservation of its underground passages, where the complex system of lifting the cages that contained the beasts used for the gladiatorial games developed and which were raised through trapdoors up to the level of the arena. In 305, during the persecutions, the monument witnessed the martyrdom of seven Christians, including Gennaro and Procolo, who later became patrons of the cities of Naples and Pozzuoli.

the flavian anphitheatre pozzuoli

 

The Solfatara:  one of the world's supervolcanoes

A great advocate of the Phlegraean Fields' beauty, Goethe also caught the disquieting and dangerous side: "The most wonderful region in the world; under the purest sky, the most treacherous ground ".

Born after an eruption occurred about 4 thousand years ago, the Solfatara volcano - a large elliptical crater with a perimeter of 2.3 kilometres and a diameter of 600-700 meters - is today in a "quiescent" state. Its activity presents itself with secondary volcanic manifestations such as sulfur dioxide fumaroles and boiling mud pools. The Solfatara is accessed by following a path in a counterclockwise direction along the perimeter of the crater. You can follow it with the help of guides, for a fee, or by yourself. The activity of the volcano is monitored by the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

la solfatara

 

The Temple of Serapide, the "proof" of Bradyseism

The Macellum of Pozzuoli, better known as the Temple of Serapis, takes its name from a statue of the Egyptian God Serapis found during excavations in the mid-700s. In reality, it was the Roman Macellum, the public market built between the 1st and 2nd century AD. A long series of shops develop around a large porch. On the outer perimeter of the Macellum is the large apsidal hall, preceded on the porch line by four large and tall columns, of which three are still standing and one is upside down on the ground.

The columns of the hall dedicated to the imperial cult and to the gods of the market protectors have always been the empirical measures of the phenomenon of lowering and raising the earth's crust, bradyseism, which for centuries has characterized the Phlegraean area: in fact they are visible on them, the erosions created by the marine molluscs during the phases of lowering of the ground that in medieval times exceeded 6 meters. The two most recent bradyseism crises, in 1969-72 and in 1982-84, led to a total lifting of about 3.50 meters. Since 1985 the soil had fallen again. Since 2011 it is in the lifting phase.

The Temple of Serapide

 

Rione Terra and the Cathedral-Temple

First, a piece of practical information: the Rione Terra and the Cathedral can be visited only on Saturdays and Sundays and on holidays.

Born as a Roman fortification against the siege of Hannibal, the settlement of the Rione Terra di Pozzuoli was inhabited until 1970 when, due to bradyseism, it was completely evacuated. With the financial help of the European Union, the Italian government is carrying out important restoration works to restore its historic importance to the neighbourhood. The underground archaeological itinerary of the Rione Terra is a journey in the ancient Roman colony Puteoli and develops along the main axes of the Roman city, thistles and decumans, among shops, warehouses, cryptoporticus, grain stores and bread oven.

The Cathedral of San Procolo, now reopened to worshipers and visitors, was built by incorporating the pre-existing Temple of Augustus in its perimeter (in turn built on the previous Capitolium), highlighted only in 1964 following a fire. From the restoration work of the Cathedral-Temple, a very original complex emerged that unites elements of ancient architecture (such as the majestic Corinthian columns and marble walls), Christian-Baroque (the cathedral) and contemporary (the glass and steel structures that complete the Temple), in a plastic synthesis where the multi-era past is re-proposed in the present.

Rione Terra and the Cathedral-Temple







 

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