Beauty in our backyard

I can’t believe it has been 5 months of living in Napoli.

Five. Months.

In the first month, we took a personal day tour downtown and visited Gaeta twice. In the second month, we saw Rome for a few hours. Last month, we went on a snowboarding day trip to Roccaroso. From October to now, we have frequented the pizzeria off base about a dozen times and drove to Ikea and Vulcano Buono (a short, straight shot to our local mall). Every other time in between our “travels”, we have been firmly planted on base. That pretty much sums up our 5 months of residing in this ancient city. Pathetic, right? Vacationers have seen all of Europe in a two-week time frame than what we’ve seen in 5 months.

I blame my husband. That’s right. No sugar-coating here. All fingers pointed to the fraidy cat. Sure, he was assigned to work here and his priorities are in order; business first and fun last – I understand this and fully respect it. However, he does have the occasional day off and almost all weekends off. His excuse? ‘The roads are crazy and there is a huge language barrier’. There’s more to it but I don’t want to turn this into a post about “roasting CJ”. His patience for Neapolitans and roads with potholes that cross over into other roads with potholes that lead to the exact opposite of where we want to go, is nonexistent. His quiet, internal frustration builds up in the whites of his eyes, causing them to inch out of his skull. He impossibly communicates telepathically to Leilani and I; we then know we are doomed to yet another weekend indoors. Sure, I can just run off with Leilani and do our own thing, but I don’t like the idea of making wonderful memories as a separated family. I have too many of those and we still have a lot of catching up to do. Also, the thought of being in the streets of Napoli alone with my daughter brings chills up my spine; this isn’t the safest city. Shamefully, I sort of need him. I have to admit, his confidence has improved now that he downloaded this awesome map on his iPhone. He effortlessly navigated through a very tough part of downtown with this handy-dandy app. I was so PROUD. Although, we haven’t been anywhere since. Ha! We are so close to moving forward but it doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know Italian. Yes, he may be playing it safe, but playing it safe is costing precious time to go by faster than I’d like! One and only one point he made that I can agree on is how pricey everything is here. Cheap goods are at an expensive price. If you convert the Euro back to the USD, it’s still overpriced. This can be frustrating. However, I am a huge bargain shopper and a decent negotiator – I’m not a sucker. CJ isn’t willing to test this out just yet. All trips stated above were planned by me and costed us nothing but gas for transportation. Not bad, right? That’s because everywhere you look, you are taking a step back in time. You don’t need to throw money away when you’ve got everything you can dream of right in your backyard.

Feeling defeated by my husband’s stubbornness and sporadic amnesia of us being IN ITALY, I fearlessly took a solo tour that MWR provided last Monday. A beautiful trip to Pozzuoli and the Phlegraean Fields was what was on my morning agenda. I was very excited to go on a tour to a place I’ve heard so much about. As I hop on the small bus, I am greeted by a couple who end up being the only two that accompanied me on this trip. The three of us, the bus driver and our tour guide, Aldo, made this a very comfortable journey. The couple was telling me that they’ve been on dozens of tours and Aldo is a fun and amazing gentleman. He is a third generation tour guide who joined his father and grandfather on tours as a kid. He is also a polyglot, fluent in 7 languages! He basically knows Napoli blindfolded and will take you to hidden places that aren’t in the books. Now I was really excited to begin my history lesson with Aldo! The bus stopped off at Capo to pick up Aldo, who was standing on the corner of a side street. He hopped on board, and before the door shut behind him, he wasted no time on beginning his lesson.

On our drive to Pozzuoli, Aldo pointed out a large caldera in the distance – a collapse of land caused by an erupted volcano – that one would think was only a large hill. We were headed to the other side of it. He went on to tell us that the Campi Flegrei or Phlegraean Fields (burning fields) consist of 24 craters and signs of the presence of an active magma chamber in the form of sulfataras (sulfur fumes) and gas emissions. We got off of the highway and drove onto a narrow street that put us in front of the futbol stadium that team Napoli plays at. Note to self: go to a future game! We made another sharp right and parked in front of a university that neighbors La Terme di via Terracina – a roman thermal spa! We dodged cars and walked over the crosswalk or “zebra stripes” as Aldo calls it, to view the baths and were blocked by steel gates. The ruins aren’t open for a closer look to the public so I climbed up on the wall and stuck my camera through the gate to snap these photos.

This structure was built for travelers to rest after a long journey. The baths were lined with tiled mosaics that tell the story of Poseidon and Amphitrite’s wedding which are attended by all the creatures of the marine world. This scene was depicted throughout the spa. As I listened to Aldo’s description, I can hear in his voice how passionate he was about the architecture of this complex. That’s when I learned he used to be a high school history teacher and even helped excavate other structures in Napoli. This site was in such a random place to be discovered, it really made me think of what else could possibly be under my feet.

15 minutes later, we hopped back on the bus and went up a hill passing through the old, deserted Navy base that looks like a scene out of a zombie movie. Just around the corner, higher up on the hill, we stopped off on the side of a road where we saw steam smoking through cracks in the ground. We get out of the bus and the stench of sulfur smacks us in the face. No wonder the base moved. This is a constant reminder to locals that they are indeed living on or near an active volcano. The sulfur smoke wasn’t as visible as it is in the early hours of the morning so Aldo demonstrated with a flaming piece of paper in the trail of the smoke to how thick the sulfur clouds can get and where it exits all over that particular area.

We continued our drive, passing Roman walls that still stand; peeking through trees draped in moss and dangling branches. This tour so far has opened my eyes to how old this city is and how much there really is surrounding us.

We got to Pozzuoli and stopped to take a look at a breathtaking view of  the bay, Iosla D’Ischia (Ischia island), and the Castle of Baia that were in the distance. It was absolutely beautiful!

Next, Aldo took us through one way streets and bumpy roads. Our driver made it feel like a ride at a theme park. We stopped in front of an excavated site of a roman necropolis. These tombs were near families homes! It made me wonder if the locals appreciate this and if it’s often forgotten. As I was taking pictures, two men were watching us with a look on their faces as if it weren’t anything special. Crazy!

You can see two levels of the building that stop in the ground as it is still being uncovered. But, the cemetery is at least 30 feet under ground. The most fascinating thing about this is, it goes on and on for miles. We continued our drive and still saw parts of the necropolis popping up everywhere. Across the street was an old church that sits atop part of the necropolis that will never be dug up.

Once we left, we drove past part of an aqueduct that was peeking through bushes.

Roman aqueduct

Our final destination was in the heart of Pozzuoli. Our time was cutting short so we couldn’t go to the Sulfatara, although we were in the Campi Flegrei region and had a great experience with what we saw. I don’t think I would have been able to stomach a volcano spewing out a sulfur steam bath anyway. Pleh!

Before the end of the tour, we stopped for a cup of espresso. The Italians have an espresso and a pastry for breakfast every single morning. They also have a million espresso breaks throughout the day. All the cafe’s that I’ve passed since I’ve been here, I’ve seen the bars full of people. I’m a huge tea fan and it’s all I drink, but if I wanted to feel Italian for 5 minutes, I would have to sip on an espresso. Before I could order, the woman on the tour with me, Julie, bought me a coffee. She didn’t know this would be my first one in Italy, so I appreciated her kindness. I remember having a taste of my husband’s espresso once and it was awful. So, I asked for a cappuccino. Only because that’s what I hear everyone order in the states! I paired it with a pastry to feel even more Italian. The cappuccino had the texture of hot chocolate and the bitterness of raw dark chocolate. I added 2 packs of sugar which made it taste a wee bit better, but I think I’ll stick to my tea!

A deceiving, pocket-full-of-air pastry and a cappuccino.

A deceiving, pocket-full-of-air, pastry and a cappuccino.

After I dusted off the snow mountain of powdered sugar on my face, we made our way out of the cafe and glanced over at a fish market with a ton of vendors. I really wanted to go check it out but I made a mental note for next time! Across from the cafe was a strange structure I’ve never seen before. It was the Macellum o “Tempio di Serapide”- Food Market or Temple of Serapis. The macellum was dedicated to the Egyptian God, Serapis because his statue was discovered during the first excavation. Although, they say it is wrongly named and is nothing more than a Roman market. The macellum is famous for the phenomenon of the Phlegraean bradyseism (slow movement) that gradually uplifts and descends part of the earth’s surface that is caused by the filling and emptying of the underground magma chamber. When the caldera inflates and deflates, it can easily be identified because of its location by the sea. There are holes that were drilled by sea molluscs that are about 7 feet high on the 3 columns; an obvious example of how the land was once lowered into the sea. If it ever raises that high again, I’m sure all of the people in Pozzuoli will be evacuated due to an imminent volcanic eruption. This site acts as a unique tool to analyze volcanic activity.

Macellum in PozzuoliThe market sits in a large rectangular shape that is outlined with small rooms where the shops used to be. The center is the courtyard that shows ruins from a fountain that once stood there and on each corner there are public latrines (bathrooms).

While we walked to the opposite side of the macellum, a sweet older lady approaches us and starts making conversation. Aldo was interpreting and told us that she lives a couple of buildings over and has a view of the macellum. She said that Pozzuoli is ‘beautiful and everyone else is “living in the belly of the cow” and we are lucky to live here’, haha! She went onto say that she has 5 daughters and 4 of them are married, the other is having troubles with men, 3 are teachers, one is a doctor and still hasn’t given her any grandchildren and… she pretty much told us her whole life story in 10 minutes.

She gave all 4 of us a hug and went on her merry little way. Aldo was saying that the people here are like that; so friendly. They will always make conversation with you. This is another reason why I am teaching myself Italian. I would love to have a wonderful conversation with ‘gli anziani’ (the elderly) to hear one-of-a-kind stories you couldn’t get from a book.

Before we left the beautiful bay of Pozzuoli, I snapped this photo of a red motor scooter on the way out of the macellum.

3rd note to self: Ride a Vespa.

Aldo saved the best for last, Lago d’Averno (Lake Avernus). This lake sits in an extinct volcano. The name derives from the Greek name ‘Aornos’ – a place without birds. The absence of birds was once due to poisonous sulfur vapors that the water emitted from the lake which never allowed the birds to live. The landscape surrounding the lake is filled with fruit trees and vineyards. To the east of the lake sits Tempio di Apollo (Temple of Apollo), one of two ruins still standing. In the epic poem, The Odyssey by Homer, he calls it the entrance to the Underworld. Hard to imagine that this place could ever be ‘hell’!

Lago d'Averno

The tour had come to an end and we made our way back to Napoli. I got one last look of the bay of Pozzuoli to my right, and parts of the miles-long Roman necropolis popping up every now and again to my left. Before we could say our goodbye’s to Aldo, he hops out of the moving bus and disappears into traffic. There goes Aldo. Impressive.

I had a wonderful morning with Aldo as our guide. I look forward to the next tour I take! Now that I have a good idea of how to get to Pozzuoli and what to see, I can’t wait to take Leilani and CJ. As much as I wanted them to accompany me on this tour, it was so nice having some time to myself. Now, for my next trip: Napoli’s best eats!

FYI: I use the word ‘Napoli’ instead of Naples because it’s the correct, Italian way of saying so. Also, Naples is a city in Florida. I don’t live in Flo’da.


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