“Special Places in Italy” – On the Road to Naples

by Cindy Stollhans

To celebrate my buddy David’s 70th birthday, some friends and I took the birthday guy on a road trip from Rome to Naples.  This was the kind of trip where the journey was going to be just as much fun as the destination!  We headed south on the A-1 Autostrada.

First stop was Cumae, home to the famous Cumaean Sibyl, known as a great prophetess at the Temple of Apollo.  Cumae was the first mainland settlement by the Greeks in the 8th Century B.C. We walked around the old acropolis seeking the opening to the Cave of the Sibyl. Her cave is a long tunnel dug into the rock, which runs straight until it reaches a larger, open space that acts as a vestibule, entrance to a main room with three niches.  The Cumaean Sibyl prophesized by singing the fates and writing her visions of the future on oak leaves, not caring if the wind scattered them.  According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas of Troy disembarked from his ship in what is now the bay of Naples in order to consult the famous Sibyl.  While standing on the high hill of what is the modern archeological park, it is easy to imagine the strong-bodied Aeneas running from the coast, through the grasslands, and navigating a small forest to reach the cave where he would meet the Sibyl and be told to visit his father Anchises in Hades—all part of Aeneas’s journey as the founder of Latium.

Although mortal, the Sibyl of Cumae lived over a thousand years. The God Apollo offered to grant her one wish in exchange for her virginity. She scooped up a handful of sand and asked to live a lifetime with as many years as the number of grains of sand in her fist.  She refused to sleep with Apollo but he still granted her wish.  However, he mocked her by not giving eternal youth. Her body grew older and older, smaller and smaller as hundreds of years passed.  During her final years, her voice continued to be heard but no one could see her as she withered to an invisible size.

Our next stop was lunch!  We had reservations in the tiny seaside village of Bacoli at the hotel/restaurant named Cala Moresca (website: calamoresca.it), which is high on a hill with a gorgeous, bird’s eye view of the bay.  I knew we would stop and eat (doesn’t everyone stop and eat in Italy!), but I had no idea how scrumptious and memorable this particular lunch would be! Our table for eight was on the outdoor terrace with a perfect view of the sun worshipers on the beach as well as the ships in the harbor. Our 180-degree view included the expansive open waters of the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean Sea. The restaurant was offering a six-course fresh seafood special…we all said yes!  Each course consisted of a beautifully arranged piece of fish…shrimp or scallop or fresh anchovy…presented in a fun, creative manner. Imagine a perfectly grilled shrimp balanced upright on three tiny bite-sized golden, roasted potatoes or two white scallops perched over a bed of orange and yellow strands of zucchini with a creamy sauce drizzled lightly across the plate. It was a veritable feast for the eyes and taste buds.  After all six courses and as many bottles of wine (none of us were driving; we had hired a professional) it was time to travel to our next destination, the Piscina Mirablis (or Miraculous Pool) also in Bacoli.

We arrived at a locked gate embedded in an ancient wall.  A hand-written note said something like if you want to visit the underground cisterns, then call this number.  And so, we did!  In about five minutes an older woman, walking swiftly towards us and carrying a heavy set of keys, arrived.  We descended modern metal and then old, slippery tufa steps and found ourselves among the cavernous ruins of the old cisterns.  Wow!  The Piscina Mirabilis is an underground, ancient Roman cistern that functioned as a water supply for many towns along the bay. In Roman days, the Aqua Augusta supplied the fresh water. Did you ever read the book Pompeii by Robert Harris, published in 2003? Although historical fiction, Harris built his story about the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. by introducing Roman workers at the underground cistern as some of his main characters.  As portrayed in the book and which was historically accurate, the water level of the cistern lowered to a critical point days before Vesuvius blew.  Had the Romans understood the lack of water as a signal of the danger ahead they may have been able to escape. The cistern or piscina is truly a testament that the Romans were great engineers and builders!  The cistern was dug entirely out of the tufa and measured 49 feet high, 236 feet long and 82 feet wide.  With its 48 stone columns and great, vaulted ceilings, the space gave the same experience as standing in a large cathedral, but totally underground.

After the cistern, we took a short walk along the coastal town of Baia and visited the archeological site but, by now, we were all feeling a bit tired and ready to arrive at our destination. In Naples, we ate world-famous pizza at Starita, we viewed some of Caravaggio’s most exquisite paintings, and we enjoyed terrific views of the Bay of Naples from our balconies at the Hotel Brittannique.  Our stay in Naples was truly wonderful, but, sometimes, as this trip proved, the journey can be as exciting as the destination!

This section of La Rondine will feature special places in Italy shared by ICSTL members.  A wealth of insights exists within our membership to enrich each other’s travels.

Write to ciao@italianclubstl.com with your favorite spot, a photo if you like, and the information about why you love the place, a specific spot within a place, a place to stay, a place to dine…you get the idea.

Please submit your special spots!!

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