With their beaches, coves and sandy bays, craters, cliffs and rocky caves, ancient underground buildings, mythological heroes and legendary tales, the “fiery fields” stretch westwards from the tip of the Posillipo hill to the acropolis at Cumae and Capo Miseno, the headland cutting off the Bay of Pozzuoli from shipping traffic en route to Procida and Ischia. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and bradyseism have all shaped the history of these lands, packed with archaeological sites and fascinating vestiges from the past. After being a Greek colony, the now submerged city of ancient Baiae became a legendary retreat for the rich and wealthy Romans who frequented this luxury spa town. The popularity of the Phlegraean Fields enjoyed a revival many centuries later with travellers on the Grand Tour, even before the treasures of Herculaneum and Pompeii came to light. Virgil’s beloved land has many unique natural and cultural attractions. Fire and beauty, rocks and vapours, green fields and flowering hills, art and the arts, sun and sea all come together to recreate the spirit of the ancient Western world. From the sacred ruins at Cuma to the luxurious thermal bathing complexes and Imperial villas of Baia, from the mysterious atmosphere of Lake Averno to the sulphurous clouds of the Solfatara crater, from the journey into the bowels of Rione Terra to the amphitheatre and other ancient sites in Pozzuoli, from the Piscina Mirabilis to the Grotta della Dragonara, this is a world of infinite splendours and age-old mysteries just waiting to be discovered.
Originally an emporion of the powerful city of Cumae, with the arrival of exiles from the island of Samos (530 BC) the town was given the auspicious name of Dicearchia (“just government”) and began to experience urban growth. After a period of rule by the Campanians, it fell under Roman control in 338 BC. However, it was only after Hannibal’s attempt to conquer the town in 215 BC that its commercial and military importance throughout the Phlegraean bay was understood. Puteoli (“little wells”), as it was renamed, thus became the most important port in the Mediterranean. It was called “Delus minor” and “litora mundi hospita”. The art of working with glass, clay, perfume, fabrics, paints and iron spread widely, thanks to local skilled workers trained in the Phoenician, Hellenistic and Egyptian traditions. Because of its port, Puteoli came into contact with other cultures and civilizations. In AD 61 Saint Paul stayed here for seven days and found an established community of Christians. The town continued to prosper as long as the port satisfied the demands of Roman traders, but suffered a terrible blow when another port was built in Ostia. As bradyseism (a seismic phenomenon causing the gradual rise and fall of the earth’s surface) worsened and flooded the port facilities, and then with the fall of Rome (AD 476), Puteoli was reduced to being nothing more than a small fishing village. In the Middle Ages, people came to the Phlegraean Fields just for brief stays at the hot springs. Only after the eruption of Monte Nuovo (1538) did Pozzuoli begin its slow social, economic and urban recovery, thanks to the Spanish viceroy Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo.
Driving to Pozzuoli from Naples you’ll pass the Chiesa di San Gennaro, near the Solfatara crater. The church was built on the site where San Gennaro and his six martyred companions, Acuzio, Festo, Sossio, Procolo, Desiderio and Eutichete, were beheaded on 19 September 305. After being plundered and badly damaged on several occasions, it was rebuilt in 1580 and later enlarged, only to be destroyed again in 1860. According to legend, it houses the stone on which the saint was decapitated, still stained with the blood of the seven martyrs. Whenever the saint’s blood (contained in ampules housed in Naples cathedral) liquefies, the stain is said to go darker.
Opposite the church is the entrance to the Solfatara crater, a spectacular Leucogean volcano (from the name the Romans gave to this promontory meaning “with white rocky outcrops”). Several visible phenomena such as the astonishing fumaroles and mofettes make this the most interesting volcano in the area and a must-see stop. Surrounded by woodland and Mediterranean maquis, the site covers an area of 33 hectares and is of significant importance in terms of geology, flora and fauna. The crater itself is 700 metres wide and was formed four thousand years ago. It hasn’t changed since then. Strabo identified it as “Forum Vulcani”, home of the god Vulcan, and the entrance to the Underworld. Famous since ancient times for its natural bubbling mud pools, healing sulphurous waters and sweat rooms, it was hailed in the Middle Ages as an important thermal spa. It later became an important stop for travellers on the Grand Tour. Its volcanic activity has remained unchanged over the ages. You can watch the condensation of water vapour produced when a small flame is brought near a fumarole, and hear the echoing sound when a stone is dropped from a low height, suggesting the presence of large underground caves. There are in fact small cavities produced by the fumarolic gas that accumulates in porous rock. It is as much a place of scientific interest as it is a tourist attraction, and volcanologists from all over the world constantly monitor the area carefully. Two other interesting facts are worth mentioning. Colonies of bacteria able to survive in temperatures above 90° C have been found in the mud pools, while on the rock walls behind the so-called Bocca Grande, the largest fumarole, a new species of insect called Seira tongiorgii was identified in 1989.
Three kilometres further on stands the Anfiteatro Flavio, the third largest amphitheatre in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome and the one in Santa Maria Capua Vetere. Built at the time of Vespasian in the second half of the 1st century, it is 149 metres high, 116 long and could hold up to 40,000 spectators. There were four main and two secondary entrances, as well as a complex system of underground rooms, passages, staircases, hoists for lifting cages and devices for putting on naumachiai (naval battles). In the northern sector of the underground rooms is a chapel dedicated to San Gennaro, built in 1689. The legend goes that the martyred saint was first thrown to wild beasts who refused to eat him, before being beheaded in the church of his name him situated outside the old walls of Pozzuoli.
Continuing along Corso Terracciano, you’ll pass the ruins of the so-called Tempio di Nettuno (Temple of Neptune), part of a 1st-century Roman bath complex, and those of the Ninfeo di Diana (Nymphaeum of Diana), of which only the circular base and part of the elevation survive. If you carry on along Via Carlo Maria Rosini you’ll come to the old part of Pozzuoli. The road offers breath-taking views and passes the entrance to Rione Terra (medieval sailors called a village or town terra, meaning “land”), heart of ancient Roman Puteoli. Rione Terra is a tufa rock spur standing at a height of 33 metres above sea level and stretching out into the sea between the island of Nisida and the town of Baia. Strabo described it during the time of Augustus. Urban settlement, acropolis, stronghold, castrum and religious centre, you can still see clear signs of the street plan dating back to 194 BC. As a result of bradyseism, the area had to be evacuated on 2 March 1970 and a project aimed at restoring and promoting the site began a few years ago. The tour of the archaeological site begins from the entrance hall of a building in Largo Sedile di Porta. After passing through the underground rooms of Palazzo Migliaresi, the visit begins in a wide decumanus (main road running north to south), flanked by tabernae, crossed by a narrow cardo (secondary road going east to west). At the intersection is the entrance to the public baths which, via a steep stairway, lead to the upper floor. The work of pedestrianizing the area by creating a portico on the left-hand side of the street thus narrowing the roadway is still visible, and dates from the time of Nero. There are many cisterns for the collection of rain water, fundamental for the life of the city. In an excellent state of conservation are the street plan, structural stratification, sewage system, a pistrinum (a miller-baker’s shop), where the millstones are still intact, and some other small rooms (perhaps a brothel or an inn). The most important building in the grand acropolis of Puteoli was the Tempio di Augusto (Temple of Augustus), brought to light after a fire in the cathedral (16-17 May 1964). It was the Capitolium of the Republican Age city. On the wishes of a rich local merchant named Lucius Calpurnius, it was restyled by the architect Lucius Cocceius Auctus during the Augustan Age with fine Corinthian columns. It was later converted into a Christian church between the 5th and 6th centuries and decorated in the Baroque style under the episcopacy of Martino de Leòn y Càrdenas (1634). The remains of the temple were incorporated into the Duomo di San Procolo. Built in the 17th century, the cathedral is dedicated to the martyred saint Proculus, after the local citizens were forced to take refuge in the stronghold to defend themselves from barbarian attacks.
The Chiesa dell’Assunta, in Via Castello down by the docks in Rione Terra, is a small, simple church evoking Pozzuoli’s great seafaring tradition. It was built in 1621 in honour of the purification of the Virgin Mary, but was badly damaged by a sea storm in 1876.
In Pozzuoli the Romans built what became the most important port in the empire. The town was a flourishing trading centre, as is clearly demonstrated by the presence of the nearby macellum, the public market. It’s mistakenly known as the Tempio di Serapide (Temple of Serapis) due to the discovery of a statue of the Graeco-Egyptian god sitting on a throne with a calathos, or basket, symbol of abundance and fertility, on his head. This ancient market is certainly the most unusual sight in Pozzuoli. Built between the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd century, it was restored during the Severan dynasty (3rd century). It was made up of shops arranged around a large courtyard surrounded by a colonnade and marble floor. Over the years, this impressive building has stood as a visible reminder of the effects of bradyseism in the area. On the columns you can clearly see boreholes left by lithophaga (strange marine molluscs that bore into very hard rock by producing acidic secretions) when it sank below sea level, only to re-emerge later.
There are several other interesting churches in Pozzuoli. The Chiesa della Purificazione in Via Marconi was built in 1702 and has a single nave. The Chiesa dell’Arcangelo Raffaele in Via Rosini dates from the middle of the 18th century and was built on the site where there once stood a small convent dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The Chiesa del Purgatorio in Rampe Tellini was built by the Confraternita della Buona Morte in 1639. The Chiesa di Sant’Antonio, in Via Pergolesi, dates back to 1472 and was commissioned by Don Diomede Carafa, Duke of Maddaloni. It was renovated several times starting from 1540, when two fine holy water stoops were added on the wishes of Don Pedro de Toledo. The Chiesa di San Vincenzo Ferrer (also known as the Chiesa di Gesù e Maria) dates from the first half of the 16th century. It was transferred to Dominican friars until 1806 and then renamed in 1847. The church has a traditional Latin cross plan with side chapels.
In Piazza della Repubblica you can find the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, the oldest parish church in Pozzuoli after the cathedral. Its history was determined by bradyseism and the eruption of Monte Nuovo in 1538, which damaged the existing building. As a result of negative bradyseism the church was flooded, and was later rebuilt in the elegant Neo-Renaissance style you can see today.
From Pozzuoli we move to Lago d’Averno, immortalized by Homer and Virgil as the entrance to Hades. The lake, of volcanic origin, is about 34 metres deep at the centre. In 37 BC, during the civil war between Octavian and Sextus Pompey, the strategist Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa opened up the lake to the sea via Lago Lucrino by constructing a wide navigable canal so that a gigantic arsenal, Portus Julius, could be built. Today it is mostly submerged due to bradyseism. Along the eastern shore of the lake you can see the grand ruins of part of a Roman bath complex, with an octagonal-shaped exterior and circular interior, known as the Tempio di Apollo (Temple of Apollo). Dating from the time of Hadrian, this impressive building is surmounted by a dome with a diameter of about 38 metres, just a little smaller than that of the Pantheon in Roma.
The town is widely believed to have been founded around the 8th century BC by Greek settlers from nearby Pithekoussai (modern-day Ischia), originally from the ancient Euboean cities of Chalcis and Eretria. It quickly became a flourishing and powerful town, spreading its influence throughout the Bay of Pozzuoli and the Bay of Naples. With its fall to the Campanians in 421 BC, its fate became linked to that of Dicearchia. When Puteoli later became the most important Roman port, Cumae (its Greek name) rapidly declined and was remembered only for the Antro Oracolare della Sibilla (Cave of the Cumaean Sibyl), located in what is today Cuma’s archaeological site. Dug out of the tufa rock, the chamber and tunnel were brought to light in 1932 and are still shrouded in mystery. In the sixth book of the Aeneid, Virgil claimed that this was where the home of the legendary, terrifying priestess of Apollo was to be sought. However, some experts say it may actually be a rare example of funerary architecture of Cretan and Mycenaean influence. A passageway (dromos) over 130 metres long (2.4 metres wide and about 5 metres high) in the shape of a perfect trapezoid lit by six lateral openings leads to a vaulted chamber and another adjoining room. Other recent studies maintain that the tunnel was part of a defence system built to protect the port below. To the right of the Cave is the Roman Crypt, while to the left is the Via Sacra, scattered with ancient Greek, Roman and medieval finds adding a unique touch of history to the magnificent views of Ischia and Procida. Along this ancient road stand the remains of the Tempio di Giove (Temple of Jupiter), built at the top of the acropolis. Of the Greek temple (5th century BC), only the plan of the podium survives. In the 5th century it was converted into a Christian basilica, of which substantial traces and the original baptismal font remain. On the lower terrace you’ll find the Tempio di Apollo (Temple of Apollo), whose construction is attributed to Daedalus. According to Greek mythology, Daedalus landed here after his winged flight from Crete. Only a few traces of the base are visible (this temple, too, was transformed into a Christian church in the 5th century).
On the shore of Lago Fusaro stands the Casina Vanvitelliana. An 18th-century architectural gem, it was built by Ferdinand IV of Bourbon as a royal hunting lodge and a token of love to his morganatic second wife Lucia Migliaccio, duchess of Floridia. Designed by Carlo Vanvitelli in 1782, the light and graceful building is reflected in the waters of the lake, the legendary marsh of Acherusia. The architectural idea was so sophisticated that building resembles a floating aquatic plant. It was plundered during the uprisings of 1799 and damaged by earthquakes, but was renovated in 1991. A famous painting by Hackert (housed in the Museum of Capodimonte) shows the lodge in all its atmospheric beauty of the time. Illustrious figures such as Metternich, the Tsar of Russia, Mozart, Rossini and Vittorio Emanuele III were guests at the lodge.
The name of the bay is associated with the legendary journey of Ulysses, who buried his helmsman Baius here. Baiae, the town’s Greek name, was the landing place of ancient Cumae and, above all, the most highly praised and popular town in the Phlegraean area thanks to its pleasant surroundings and hot springs. It was a holiday resort frequented by rich patricians and intellectuals. The great Horace wrote, “Nulhes in orbe sinus Bais praelucel amoenis” (“No place in the world is more beautiful than pleasant Baia”). Due to negative bradyseism, much of the ancient town is now underwater. Along the road to Baia you’ll see Monte Nuovo, a 140-metre-high volcanic hill. It was formed in just a few hours during the eruption of 29-30 September 1538 which buried the spa village of Tripergole and led to the depopulation of Pozzuoli. It’s famous for being Europe’s youngest mountain. A nature reserve was opened on the slopes of the mountain in 1996 in order to protect the geological, botanical and zoological heritage of the Phlegraean Fields. The next stop on the tour is Lago Lucrino. Here the Romans dug the first tufa rock caves to exploit the therapeutic properties of volcanic fumaroles, and built sumptuous villas as well as spa complexes around very hot thermal springs (the water gushes out at a temperature of between 58° C and 74° C). The waters are still used today in modern spa establishments. Moving on in the direction of Baia, you’ll pass Punta dell’Epitaffio. The view from the cape is truly spectacular, and looks down onto the fascinating Parco Archeologico Sommerso, an underwater archaeological site you can visit by glass-bottomed boat. Visible are the remains of what was once the most important thermal bathing complex in the Roman Empire, Pusilla Roma (meaning “little Rome”, as Baia was then called). Due to the particular layout of the rooms it is still unclear what exactly the functions of the complex (1st to 4th century AD) were. However, some of the rooms, technically very elaborate, were clearly used for bathing, such as the Temple of Mercury, the Villa dell’Ambulatio, the so-called Baths of Sosandra (Aphrodite Sosandra was the “protector of men”) and the Temples of Diana and Venus.
Finds including statues, mosaics and decorative elements are housed in the Castello Aragonese di Baia (Aragonese Castle), home to the Museo Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei. The museum provides a fascinating insight into this land of legends. The castle was built in a strategic position on a rocky promontory overlooking the entire Bay of Pozzuoli, part of the Bay of Naples and the three Neapolitan islands. It was built on the site of a Roman villa (the ruins can be seen from the sea) and was a model fortification for its time, with walls, moats and drawbridges making it quite impregnable. Its construction – along with other works making up the defence system ordered by King Alfonso of Aragon in 1495 – was begun in anticipation of an invasion by Charles VIII. The Spanish viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo enlarged the castle between 1538 and 1550. Two large rooms in the museum house a reconstruction of the famous Sacellum degli Augustali (Shrine of the Augustales – an order of Roman priests dedicated to maintaining the cult of Augustus), as well as a collection of plaster casts discovered in the Baths of Sosandra (a few dozen fragments presumably copied from well-known original Greek bronze works) and a splendid copy of Aphrodite discovered in Miseno in 1980. The most interesting statues are those of Titus and Vespasian, and the equestrian statue of Domitian-Nerva. There is also an interesting collection of stone tablets and engravings. The museum also houses a reconstruction of the magnificent Triclinium-Nymphaeum at Punta Epitaffio. The sumptuous Imperial dining room is surrounded by busts and richly decorated with sculptures such as Ulysses with his companions and the Cyclops Polyphemus.
Other important and impressive traces of ancient Baiae can be seen up on the hillside, including the remains of luxurious private villas, pools and rooms from Roman baths, the misnamed Temples of Diana and Venus, and the Baths of Mercury. The archaeological site covers an area of 14 hectares and is divided into three sectors. To the south are the Baths of Venus, which extended up to the temple dedicated to the goddess of beauty. In the central sector are the Baths of Aphrodite Sosandra, with houses and colonnaded gardens once decorated with mosaics, statues and paintings, while to the east are the Baths of Mercury with the remains of a frigidarium.
Leaving the castle, we continue on to Bacoli. There are two theories as to the origin of the name. It is thought to derive either from the word vacua, meaning “uncultivated, abandoned land” or boaulia, “ox stall”, after the legend according to which Hercules stayed here with the cattle he’d stolen from Geryon. Here you can find the ruins known as the Tomba di Agrippina (Tomb of Agrippina). It’s actually more likely to have been a small theatre attached to a Roman villa. A visit to the so-called Cento Camerelle or Nero’s Prisons is an absolute must. This enormous construction is made up of two cisterns that once formed part of the complex plumbing system of the sumptuous Republican Age villa (1st century BC) of Quintus Hortensius Hortalus. On the lower floor you can see many fascinating communicating passageways dug out of the tufa rock, about four metres high, covered with a thick layer of waterproof plaster. The present-day town of Bacoli grew up around the Chiesa di Sant’Anna and became an independent municipality on 19 March 1919.
Leaving the town behind, the road takes you to Capo Miseno, the promontory where in Virgil’s description Aeneas’ trumpeter, Misenus, drowned. Previously a Cumaean port, it played a leading role in military organization under Augustus. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa set up a naval base in the Tyrrhenian Sea here. Two Roman prefects of the Classis Misenensis (Fleet of Misenum) were Tiberius Claudius Anicetus, whose killers murdered Agrippina, mother of Nero, and Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. One of the most sumptuous villas belonged to the dictator Gaius Marius (later acquired by Lucullus), where the emperor Tiberius died in AD 37. Probably the most fascinating archaeological site is the Piscina Mirabilis, a huge cistern dug out of the cliff face in the early Augustan Age. It was a truly unique feat of engineering, the largest cistern ever constructed by the Romans measuring 70 metres long, 25.5 metres wide and 15 metres high). It was built to collect water from Serino to supply the imperial fleet stationed in Miseno. The first settlement was in fact founded by Augustus in 31 BC as a military colony. Along Via Dragonara you can still see the remains of the Public Baths, the Shrine of the Augustales (dating from the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and, on the beach, the Grotta della Dragonara, another cistern dug out of the tufa rock and covered with opus reticulatum lined with opus signinum. The cistern is divided into five naves which provided a supply of freshwater for the fleet. Today, Miseno is a very popular seaside resort with sandy beaches.
It may no longer be possible to dine like the Romans, but chefs in the Phlegraean Fields are brilliant at recreating the splendours of Imperial feasts, adapting their dishes to satisfy today’s discerning diners. Except for a few ingredients (garum, for example, a smelly fermented fish sauce very popular with the Romans isn’t used any more), you can still find essentially the same selection of mussels, clams, oysters, fish, herbs and ancient pulses like lentils that the Romans used to eat. Why not enjoy a crunchy annurche apple, an ancient variety originally grown in the countryside around Pozzuoli. For centuries mussels have been an important part of the local economy. Sergius Orata, a Roman merchant and engineer, built the very first oyster farm in Lucrino Lake. It was an extraordinary idea and the image of an oyster can even be found on many Cumaean coins. However, mussel farming in this area went on to have its ups and downs. The lakes were overharvested and things looked bleak until Ferdinand IV of Bourbon decided to reopen mollusc farms in Lake Fusaro. It soon became clear, though, that oysters and mussels were incompatible, and so mussel farming was transferred to Capo Miseno and the surrounding area. Local fishermen eat them raw with a piece of bread and a little freshly squeezed lemon juice. Simple but delicious. Recently, mussel farming has successfully been re-introduced to Lake Fusaro. The growth of the mussels is carefully monitored during each phase of the process, from October, after seeding, to May, when the mussels are ready to be sold and end their days in a delicious impepata or fish soup or pasta dish.
Impepata di cozze (Peppered mussels)
Traditionally, the best time to eat mussels is in months that don’t have an ‘r’ in their name. Impepata is extremely easy to make. Obviously the mussels should first be thoroughly washed and cleaned. Heat some oil in a saucepan and add the mussels along with a few cloves of garlic. Cover the pan and leave for a few minutes over a high heat until the mussels have opened. When they’re done, add plenty of freshly ground black pepper and chopped parsley (optional). Stir will, shaking the pan vigorously, and serve piping hot..
The best place to meet interesting people and find a really original souvenir is at the local art galleries (some highly respected) and studios of contemporary artists and painters. You’ll also find many creative artists and craftspeople making decorated glass, ceramics and wood carvings. But it’s in the food and wine department that the Phlegraean Fields really shines. Food souvenirs are so much more memorable. Some firms specialize in the production of herb liqueurs or jams, selling primarily to tourists, but it’s the wine industry that offers such a wide variety of products (not only for connoisseurs but also for inexpert noses) that it’s almost impossible to choose. Visiting local wine cellars in the Campi Flegrei DOC area of production is a fascinating experience. Two varieties, Falanghina and Piedirosso, best sum up the history of wine-growing in the area. And we’re talking thousands of years of history here. Roman intellectuals from Cato to Columella gave very detailed descriptions of the local wines and their properties. Successful wineries selling to domestic and international markets have succeeded in capturing and bottling the very identity of this ancient land. Falanghina, for example, is named after falangae, the Roman word for the wooden stakes used to support the vines as they grew. It’s basically the same technique as the “spalatrone” supporting pole system, still commonly used by growers in the Phlegraean Fields today.