Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Campi Flegrei

"...these traces of a mythical past, which reach even the depths of the sea, fail to justify alone that mysterious spell that like a subtle aura pervades the Campi Flegrei. The presence of an ancient energy, both arcane and profound, is felt with each step, a force which does not belong to humankind, arising where history and legend blend and fade. It is the breath of the earth itself, potent primordial blast of heat transforming with its touch, rising to the surface through the mouths of volcanoes, symbols of a land which the first Greek settlers at the dawn of civilisation [sic] would name "The Lands of Fire."
Nunzia Massa, editor of Campi Flegrei, by Massimo D'Antonio, 2003

We live smack in the middle of the Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields), which basically means burning fields. Our entire area is one large caldera, the crater that's left behind after a volcanic eruption, and within the caldera are smaller craters and fumaroles (steam vents for geothermal activity). Within this tiny area, comprising mostly of the towns of Pozzuoli, Agnano, Arco Felice, Lucrino, Baia, Bacoli, and Monte di Procida, are glorious ruins and sites - places that go unremarked, skipped over in the guidebooks, and in visiting them, you can find yourself essentially alone in a place with incomprehensible history and legend behind it.
Pozzuoli Amphitheater
For each of our guests, I try to encourage them to spend at least one day right here in our neighborhood, but even one full day only scratches the surface. The list of things to visit include an amphitheater (like the Colisseum, but not quite as big - this one was the third largest of ancient Rome), numerous temple ruins, ruins of Cumae, Lago d"Averno (the entrance to Hell), Archeological Museum of Baia with treasures brought up from submerged Roman villas, Terme di Baia (large ruins of an area of houses and thermal complexes), Solfatara (which I blogged about months ago), modern day thermal baths on the same sites as ancient ones, Piscina Mirabile...the list goes on.

With Paige and Julia, we needed an easy day. A day to sleep in, wander down to the salumeria to have Gennaro make us some panini sandwiches, then an easy trip to a couple of interesting things before a return home for a quiet evening. We elected to visit the Pozzuoli amphitheater, where it's allowed to actually walk in the tunnels beneath, the places where the set designs and the animals in cages were hauled up to the arena using pulley systems. Sadly, upon our arrival, we found the tunnels closed due to all our rain. Walking into the arena, we looked through the grates opening onto those tunnels and saw that they were indeed flooded. Perched atop a fallen, marble column, we ate our paninis and pondered the brutal history of the arena and the roars of a bloodthirsty crowd. With rain beginning, we drove over to the Cumae ruins, yet another local site I hadn't yet visited.

Cumae as an upper and a lower section, and as the handy English signboards located all over the site advised, we did not get to both. We concentrated on the upper city, which holds Sybil's Cave (different from Sybil's Grotto on Lago d'Averno), a couple of temples, and views over shrub brush to the sea, with so little development that it was easy for us to get a sense of what the people of the city saw themselves, 3000 years ago. Many times in this blog, I'll comment about something being 2000 years old. I round. I'm not a historian, so it doesn't matter to me when there's a time difference of a couple of hundred years - not when we're talking about things that are thousands of years old. So much of what is around us is from the heydey of the Roman Empire. Ancient literature and most archaeological evidence date Cumae's founding to 730 BC. However, there have been a few artifacts found which lead some historians to believe the area was inhabited as far back as 1000 BC. So to visit Cumae is to walk a 3000 year old path.

The 730 BC settlement was a Greek colony, then the Romans took over after a few hundred years.  Wars and invasions and takeovers resulted in the fatal blow in 915 AD - after a 2000 year run, the city was finished and became a hideout for thieves and bandits, using Cumae as home base to launch their ambushes. The city was completely leveled in 1207 AD, and like so many cities and villages in this region, it became lost to time and nature. Interest in the city emerged when it was re-discovered in the 1600s. At that time excavation began off and on until the early 1900s, when real excavations began. Those continue today.

The most well-known discovery at Cumae is the Sybil's Cave, a long and eery, trapezoidal tunnel. The ancient Sybil's were Oracles. I wrote about the Cumaen Sybil previously, in Going to Hell...Twice (Sybil info is closer to the end of the post). The Greeks didn't put a whole lot of stock in prophecies, but the Romans loved them. When this cave was discovered, it was attributed to Sybil mainly due to ancient writings describing her cave. However, it's outside the acropolis (and the city walls), and it's not connected to the Temple of Apollo, where other ancient writings say was her location. So maybe this was her cave, maybe not, but it is believed to have been some type of sacred space. Looking down the tunnel with the light from the right side openings casting their glow, I paused for a moment to reflect. Who was the man who stood here thousands ago? Not the general answer - the specific. Out of the the thousands of others who walked this path before me, I think about one in particular. What was his name? Did he have a family? What were his hopes and dreams, and did he live any of them out? Cumae, like so many places here, can connect us, link us, to those everyday people who came so long before us.

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