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Gaeta, a Seaside Village South of Rome

Judith Ayotte Greenwood

Gaeta is a wonderful place in late September. The noisy and crowded chaos is mostly missing but the sun is still there. It is an extension of summer for those of us from colder places.

Gaeta alley

It was still stay-out-almost-naked weather in Gaeta the last week in September. People were dressed exclusively in smart casual clothes. A scarf or shawl was as much as was needed except on our one rainy day. And what a rain that was! Gusts of wind blew my umbrella inside out no matter how I carried it. You could only rush somewhere, anywhere, inside and drink something warm and alcoholic.

Only the remnants of summer beach seekers were evident on Friday and Saturday nights, but those remnants were enough to convince me that were I to return in summer I'd go for high ground away from the crowds, the bars, the piazzas and the restaurants. The buzz and music and laughter can go on until four in the morning and the motos gunning for the slope in front of our house went on periodically all night on those busy nights.

Gaeta, called "Caieta" in Roman times, has an unusual position. It occupies a spur that begins at Formia and curves around its own deep water bay. From the end of the promontory, looking back at Formia it seems like you are on an island. On that side of the Gaeta is a deep water port with ferries, warships, a nautical school, the Coast Guard and fishing piers edged with fish processing plants. I am not sure why none of this smells, but it doesn't. A few yachts are tied up in the bay and occasionally a tall ship or a large yacht ties up at the public dock.

Such a Pretty Town

The town rises up sharply from the seaside with attractive balconied buildings of all ages jostling up the hills. Many of the streets are stairs and twist and turn their way upward. What a surprise, then, to huff all the way up those steps to find that there are drivable streets that arrive there if you only know how to find them. Also a surprise, if you are staying in the port, to find partway up an opening in the wall where you can see that there is a sheer drop with nothing but rock with a pounding sea at the bottom.

At the top there is a street guarded by cats. There were a herd at one end of the street, several along the way, often watching from atop a wall, and another herd at the other end of the street. After that, hardly a cat to be seen in the town.

On the other side of the promontory is a long, sandy beach, as good as any you will find in Italy and better than most. That side has a lot of modern hotels and the road toward Sperlonga and an interior totally different from the approach through Formia.

Gaeta admits to having two parts. New Gaeta has spread herself along the bay as you pass from Formia to the end of the promontory. Medieval Gaeta is on the end of the promontory, topped by the Castello and Torre di Orlando. I would add the beach area as a third and distinctive zone.

Driving through and around Gaeta is at first beyond confusing, what with one way streets and a series of parks that all resemble each other to the new eye. Public parking is available near one of the parks, but when returning, especially at night, there are always one or two parks too many! It is the last park, but which is the last?

Touring the Area

What is there to do in and around Gaeta? Lots more than we did. Deceived by the map, we decided to visit Caserta, Pompei and Napoli. It can be done, but it's not easy. Each is a place worth going to, but getting to Formia to take the train and then switching trains and trying to trace your steps back makes for a long day spent seeing someplace for three or four hours. I wouldn't do that again. Our day in Pompei was disastrously fraught with broken trains, unaccountably late IC trains, heel blisters and discouragement.

Gaeta is on the Ullyssean Coast of legends. Much of what you see is marked by that past. Circe and pigs and the Cyclops figure large here.

Nearby to the north is Sperlonga, of which both the old and the newer beach areas are charming.

Just outside Sperlonga towards Gaeta is Domus Tiberius, the villa of Emperor Tiberius. It's a fabulous sight to see. As the archeological work and museum come along, it will give some heavy competition to similar villas in Rome. Some of the sculptures and parts of them in the museum are breathtaking. The grotto is beyond what I imagined and when you have it almost to yourself, you can almost see it as it must have been, filled with athletic bodies taking the sea waters and climbing out into the huge grotto to be served by slaves.

Grotto

Grotto

Shopping!

Souk shopping street

Back in new Gaeta, once you've parked, you can find this street of shops just a block off the seafront. It reminded me of African souks and I loved it. I even found an exceptional birthday gift for my daughter as I gazed into the hazel eyes of the young and handsome shop owner and jewelry maker. The things a mother will do for her kids! This street has everything from butchers and poultry shops to high end fashion. Right in the middle is a small piazza with vegetable and fruit market. The views down the narrow alleys leading off in both directions demand to be painted.

In old Gaeta there is a piazza behind the parking piazza where all Gaeta goes. On the piazza is in particular a shop called "Clara" where the inimitable Maria will show you through her many-splendored goods. From embroidered Asian slippers to Prada coats, she has it and at 50% off. A lot of holiday money was left behind, and rightfully so. I've promised myself to go back after my diet. Clara is open year round, as some shops are not.

Bits and pieces

Probably our best meal out was pizza at "Luisella" which is right in front of the duomo. In Gaeta the duomo is not the prettiest, the largest or the most distinguished church. It's the bishop's seat and at the end of via del Duomo, as you might expect.

Second best was a side of the road vendor of sandwiches of bufala and various cured meats on the road toward Sperlonga - both cheap and delicious. A half a sandwich is huge.

None of our regular meals out were special at all. It was actually nicer at home eating the local ingredients of fresh fish and squeakily fresh mozzarella di bufala. Gaeta is the bellybutton of the bufala world. At the alimentare across the via del Duomo we could buy cheese made that very day. He also sold us homemade white and red wine for €2 per bottle and they were both really good. Two doors up was the forno, or bakery, where we could buy great, truly exceptional bread and pastries until 1:30pm each day. (It opens at 7:30am, but you can't really care for that when you are on vacation, right?) On the piazza in the center of Old Gaeta is a market for ortaggi, fruits and vegetable. A hike down the seafront street was a fish market that opened everyday at 5pm with that day's catch. One of the fish packers has a side door where the public can buy, as well. I bought chicken one day at the butcher on via del Duomo, and it was splendid, cut to order and had the flavor of old fashioned chickens who have had a happy life. (Thighs, boned then salted and herbed, rolled up and cooked slowly in the oven for pollo porchettata.)

The town is full of bars, jazz bars, enotecas, birrerias and restaurants. Most have someplace outside to sit in fine weather. Music is played. People talk and laugh. Occasionally they sing. If you are out in it, it will feel fine. If you are trying to sleep, you will be a cross old mean ogre.

I never heard of Gaeta before I won a holiday there in the Slow Travel Contest 2006. It was a great deal more than I expected and a place I could make a favorite for the kind of holiday in which I wanted to putter around with no particular itinerary, but with something pleasant to do whenever I wanted to do something. I encountered nothing but enthusiasm and welcome from the Gaetani and in a week didn't do it all by any means. I would definitely go off-season, be sure a parking permit was available and either pack earplugs for the weekends or plan to stay up and party with the rest of the crowd.

A Word About the Public Parking

It's a broken and lame system and even the people who sell the tickets will tell you so. Some days parking must be paid from 8am until 3am. Other days charges are from 6pm until 3am. The easiest approach is to buy a day ticket, un biglietto giornaliere, for €8 per day, but that must be bought in a bar which, of course, has its closing days. There is a machine that sells tickets, but it will not produce the daily ticket no matter how much money you feed it and it takes only coins.

On weekends, even in September, there isn't enough parking for all the people who need it. Locals can of course park in yellow spaces, but there were lots of empty yellow spaces and still no blue ones, sometimes, and you just have to wait for someone to leave. Meanwhile the parking warden wanders the one and only lot and just shrugs when asked where else to go. There is no where else. We probably should have been given one residential ticket for our apartment, but we weren't and didn't know how or where to get one. It is a real fly in an otherwise very sweet ointment.

Getting there

From Fiumicino airport take the train to Stazione Termini, then the train to Formia where you can take a cab to your accommodations.

From Naples take the train from Napoli Centrale to Formia and then a cab.

From anywhere in Italy you can drive the A1 superstrada to the Cassino exit turning toward Formia and once arrived at the sea road, follow directions provided by your landlord.

From Anzio you can take a ferry to Ponza and then another to Gaeta/Formia. This could be a bit weird, but it might also be quite adventurous.

Resources

www.italy-weekly-rentals.com: We stayed Chicca's Apartment from Italy Weekly Rentals. This was a prize in the Slow Travel 2006 Contest.

Slow Photos Album: Surprising Gaeta, Judith's photos from her trip


Judith lives in Umbria and writes the blog: Think on It: Philosophy from an Umbrian Farmer.

© Judith Ayotte Greenwood, 2006

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