Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Wonderful Pool

When we moved here, we kept hearing of the Piscina Mirabile (wonderful pool), an ancient cistern located in Bacoli, a nearby fishing village and former vacation spot of the rich and famous in the Roman world. I'd seen a couple of photos of Piscina Mirabile, and it's no normal cistern, where you just go and look down a big hole in the ground. This was something full of magical arches that visitors wander around underground. When Paige and Julia were here, we tried to visit the Piscina Mirabile, which our guidebook states is kept locked, so one goes first to the Signora's house, the lady with the key. Her address was in our book. Naturally, our first turn off the main road put us on what could generously be called an alley. A few more turns later onto progressively smaller streets, and I'd reached the point of no return - no way to back out, no way to turn around. We crept along, praying no other car would come from the other direction (one did, but then, passing one another worked out, as it always seems to). Spotting a parking spot, we managed to fit my giant, American car into it, proceeded on to the cistern, and found that the guidebook, as has become normal, was wrong. Now there are hours posted - weekends only. But La Signora's phone number was conveniently posted on the sign. Since Paige and Julia only had one day left, I decided to call and see if she would bring the key. The very nice, patient woman who answered the phone (daughter, friend, auntie, mother, niece?) finally communicated to me that the lady with the key was not home at the moment. This conversation took about 10 minutes. I would get one word in the sentence and repeat it, which would lead to a different sentence, again with only one recognizable word. This went on until I was finally able to get enough words I recognized and put them together into something intelligible. Relief for me at a semi-successful phone conversation, but disappointing for Paige and Julia to miss out on this.

So on a Sunday after church and a delicious lunch out, we headed back to Piscina Mirabile with my aunt and uncle. It being a weekend, the lady with the key should be there, right? Well, sort of. This time, walking up, we see that the hours end on Sunday at 1pm. It was now 3pm. We were much too late, but the doors were unlocked. I happened to have our nice, DSLR camera hanging around my neck, which turned out to be important later on. The lady (The lady with the key? Is this really she?) waved us in. We descended into stillness, broken by beaming shafts of light and the click of fancy cameras from other folks below. Humidity was high, moss covered the walls, and, as described, the Piscina Mirabile was amazing, with huge stone arches marching into the distance.

This cistern was one of the largest built by the Romans and was used to provide drinking water for the Roman fleet located nearby. This was actually the end of the aqueduct serving the Naples region. Other books describe the Piscina Mirabile as an underground cathedral due to the arches and columns, the stillness and the hush that descends with each step down. There is a pipe for water to come in, but not one to take water out, so archaeologists believe hydraulic equipment was used to raise water to the surface above. I'm always stunned at little facts like this as I then begin to think about how western society went from a culture that valued art and craftsmanship, books and learning, technology and luxuries (like indoor plumbing!) - and from that, we descended into centuries of dark ages. A hundred years ago, many U.S. homes didn't even have indoor plumbing (little fun fact - King Minos of Crete had the first indoor, flushing toilet, built 2800 years ago - we will soon be visiting this lovely island, and I can check out all these little informational tidbits). History can always give a nice little wake-up call to our thoughts about the sustainability of our own societies.

We were the last folks to leave this place, and as we ascended and passed our little tip on to La Signora, we noticed all the people who'd been there with us were standing in a group at the top, all with fancy cameras hanging around their neck. It seems we had crashed a private visit for a photography club. Hee-hee - carting around that heavy camera finally paid off!

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