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A Day-Trip to Pozzuoli

The weekend finally came around again and I decide to do some more exploring. Following the disappointments of the previous week, I had deemed it wise to give castles and museums a wide berth and to stick to outdoor sightseeing. After all, you couldn’t close the outdoors. I had quite fancied a trip to one of the islands, Ischia, Procida or Capri, but several people had told me that, unless I wanted to lie around in the sun, it would be best to wait a few weeks until the tourists packed up and left. That way I would be able to explore the islands at leisure without the inconveniences of congestion, poor quality tourist fare in the restaurants and pizzerias, and inflated tourist prices. Having thus rejected the islands as a suitable destination, consulted my guide books and spoken to a student or two, I came to settle on a zone to the west of the city that went by the name of the Phlegraean Fields and, in particular, the little fishing town of Pozzuoli. The photos I had seen of Pozzuoli made it look absolutely lovely, a true Mediterranean paradise; maybe a little scruffy, but with fishing boats and pleasure craft bobbing in a deep, blue sea, sea-food restaurants galore, and an infinity of box-like buildings in late-summer colours with blistering wood shutters; the occasional arabesque church surfacing in their midst. I was also enraptured to learn that the town had its own volcano, amphitheatre and assorted Roman ruins. Why go anywhere else? Pozzuoli clearly had everything a traveller could want. 

Getting there was implausibly simple by Neapolitan standards. A brief metro ride and I was pulling into Pozzuoli itself. This was too easy. As I emerged from the station, hoards of taxi drivers descended on me, all offering to show me the sights of Pozzuoli and beyond for a modest recompense. I brushed them aside and tried to look as if I knew where I was going. Downhill seemed the most likely option and so I turned left and tramped off under the railway bridge. Sure enough, I came to what was, unmistakeably, an amphitheatre. It would be a hope worthy of the most incurable optimist to even imagine that it could be open to visit, but no, wait a minute! I was wrong! There was indeed a young lady sitting at the makeshift ticket counter. She looked bored out of her mind and jumped to life when she saw me approach. I wouldn’t have had the heart to go back on my tracks now, even if I had wanted to. 

Minutes later, I was inside. Marvellous! It had taken me just over a week, but finally I had my first ticket for a Neapolitan tourist attraction and I had it all to myself to enjoy, for there was not another person here to spoil my imaginings of what it must have been like back in the days of emperors Nero and Vespasian. In the quiet of the mid-morning, this was easy to do, much more so than in Rome’s Coliseum. And Pozzuoli’s amphitheatre, the third largest in Italy, certainly has no reason to envy its big brother in the capital. Its subterranean structures are in a near perfect state of protection and you almost feel that you can hear the baying of the crowd and the snarling of the feverish wild beasts as they are hoisted, by means of a complex winding mechanism, in their cages up to the arena. I read of how the arena could be flooded for mock naval battles, and of how Christian martyrs, including Januarius, or Gennaro, later patron saint of Naples, were condemned to be thrown to the animals right here where I was standing. (In actual fact, Januarius was later beheaded, up the road.)

What a cruel shame, I thought to myself, that I would never get to witness such a grandiose spectacle in these magnificent surroundings. Not that I am, for one minute, suggesting a return to the sacrifice of Christian martyrs. But, surely, in these troubled times, there must be plenty of suitable replacements to be found? Mass-murderers, paedophiles, vandals, terrorists? 

How it used to be …

I spent a happy morning wandering around the amphitheatre, both above and below, trying out the various seating positions, standing smack-bang in the centre and attempting to imagine a lion hurtling towards me; a tiger taking on a giraffe, panther versus elephant; the crowd going ape-shit bonkers crazy. Had there been nothing else to see in Pozzuoli, this alone would have justified a visit. But there was more to see. Plenty more. 

Having left the amphitheatre, I bought a snack and a beer – I formed the opinion very early on, and have since had no reason to revise that opinion, that Naples and her surrounding towns serve up some of the best street food in the world – and looked for somewhere to eat it. The spot I found was a wall overlooking the Tempio di Serapide, Temple of Serapis which was, in fact, not a temple at all, but the old city market. Three columns of Cipolin at one end of the market were pock-marked with holes made by sea-molluscs, clear evidence that the whole of this had once been underwater. You could see where rows of shops had stood along each side of the market and, in the middle, was a sort of circular temple with the remains of a number of columns that had once supported the entablature. A bewitching and graceful place but, once again, I was completely alone. This was utterly bewildering to me. In a country like Germany, the most insignificant niche or nook is turned into a tourist shrine and attracts an unending flow of visitors. Pozzuoli, which had true, historical treasures to boast of, was desolate and deserted. Below the wall on which I was sitting was the usual mountain of litter; the ubiquitous pizza boxes, beer bottles, cigarette packets and serviettes. People who had had the same idea as me, that is, to enjoy a quick, but delicious lunch, had simply finished up their pizzas, drained their beer bottles and tossed everything into what should have been one of Europe’s top tourist attractions. This astonishing Neapolitan habit of dropping your litter wherever you choose amazed me back then and it continues to amaze me to this day. 

I spent the early afternoon wandering aimlessly, just trying to get an idea of the feel of Pozzuoli. It seemed half-abandoned, with shop shutters pulled down everywhere, rusty scaffolding falling from the walls, crumbling concrete staircases and fading graffiti. I found myself sitting at the sea-front, overlooking the bay, but here again were the abandoned pizza cartons, the beer bottles etc. and when I spotted a family of rats feeding on the decaying body of a dead dog, perfectly jellified in the afternoon sun, I decided that the time had come to make my way up to the Solfatara Crater. 

What on earth had happened to reduce Pozzuoli to this state? After all, here were rich fertile soils, a mild climate and hot springs. It was once a thriving trading and military port, indeed, one of the most important in the Mediterranean. It had been an industrial centre specializing in glass, terracotta, textiles and perfumes. When the Romans built the port of Ostia, however, in the region of Lazio, Pozzuoli suffered a great blow, and an even greater one when Rome, herself, fell. Puteoli, as the town was then called, became a small fishing town and, by the Middle Ages, tourists were only coming to take the waters. 

What has knocked the stuffing out of Pozzuoli in more recent years is the phenomenon of Bradyseism, a type of slow earthquake and the reason for the mollusc holes in the pillars of the Temple of Serapis. Put simply, the town is in a state of practically constant movement, either up or down, sometimes several metres over just a few days. This is the result of a large bed of magma, somewhere between three and five kilometres below the surface of the Phlegraean Fields. This bed, containing molten rock, bubbling away at about 1000°C, has branches that run underneath the Fields. The magma heats up the water in the tufa rock above it, creating steam and pressure. This causes the land to rise. On the other hand, when the magma cools down, there is a decrease in pressure and the land falls. In 1970-71, Rione Terra, a whole quarter of Pozzuoli, and the nucleus of the Greek city, was evacuated after ascendant Bradyseism. Something similar happened in 1985. The result was neglect, looting and the departure of many residents to pastures new, where they could walk the streets without the danger of large chunks of masonry falling on their heads. 

I reflected on what I had seen as I traipsed back up the hill towards the Solfatara crater. I felt the same way that I had sitting in the Villa Comunale, down by the seafront in Naples: a bitter-sweet mix of melancholy and serenity. This part of Italy certainly was a challenge to the sensibilities, and I had seen things that, already, I had found difficult to stomach. But I had also seen things, the likes of which I wouldn’t find, strolling through my native Oxford and, considering that I was only two and a half hours away by plane from the UK, I found that thought most gratifying. 

The Solfatara Crater is one of many volcanoes in the Phlegraean Fields, but it is the only one showing external signs of life, or “fumarolic activity”, as my guide book would have it. It last erupted in 1198 A.D. but is still smoking away, stroppily spurting hot jets of sulphurous steam into the air, and spewing hot mud and sand all over the shop. This evening, it was particularly active, and atmospheric in the extreme. From down in the crater, it felt like I was wandering on the moon, and the eerie rumbling, whistling, spitting and hissing sent shivers down my spine. Everything around me was ghostly white, stained yellow, ochre and even bright red, here and there, by the gasses seeping from below, and I could well believe that this place had, indeed, inspired Dante to write his “Inferno”.  

At certain points around the perimeter of the crater were natural caves, around which red brick arches had been built. The Romans used such caves as natural saunas, and would breathe in the gases to cleanse the respiratory system. I went inside and breathed deeply, but I can’t say that I felt particularly cleansed. Rather, the smoke made my eyes stream and I began to wish that I had put on some older clothes, as they were clearly going to require several washings to rid them of the smell of sulphur, and there was no washing machine chez Napoletano. But I didn’t care. As the train rattled back along the tracks towards Naples, I congratulated myself on having come to live in one of the most fascinating corners of the globe.

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