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See Naples and Die! The Phlegraean Fields

Kevin Clark

The Phlegraean Fields or Campi Flegrei encompasses the area west of Naples along the bay. The name, literally burning fields, refers to the highly volcanic nature of this area. Although none of the volcanoes here are technically considered "active" today, there's still plenty of seismic activity as can be seen by a visit to Solfatara or in the still-visible evidence of the massive 1980 earthquake throughout the region.

Map of the Phlegraean Fields

The Phlegraean Fields

Solfatara

Though not considered to be an "active" volcano - Vesuvius is the only one of these in continental Europe - Solfatara is a good place to see some of the effects of volcanism up close. You can actually enter the crater, an eerie landscape about 700 meters in diameter, and walk around its surface, where fumaroles (steam vents), boiling mud, and ground that's hot to the touch can be seen. The sulfurous fumes can be quite strong and unpleasant, depending on the direction of the wind.

The crater is open from 8:30am to an hour before sunset and admission is 5 Euro.

Near the entrance to the crater is the Sanctuary of San Gennaro, a 16th century church built on the site of the saint's martyrdom. Inside is a stone supposedly stained with his blood; the stain is said to turn bright red when the saint's blood liquefies during the annual celebrations in Naples.

Pozzuoli

Pozzuoli was originally a Greek settlement, part of the series of Greek colonies in southern Italy known as Magna Graecia (which also included Neapolis and Paestum). In Roman times it was known as Puteoli and was an important port city, larger and more important in that period than Naples. In modern times, it's also known as the birthplace of Sofia Loren.

It's been badly damaged many times over the centuries by seismic activity, most recently by a severe earthquake in 1980. It's also been severely affected by another seismic phenomenon called bradyseism (from the Greek, it means literally "slow tremor") which causes the level of the land to rise and fall much more slowly than an earthquake or more typical volcanic eruption. An episode here in 1970, for example, saw an upward movement of the ground by several centimeters, which doesn't sound like much but caused enough damage to force the evacuation (to this day) of the oldest part of the city. There are innumerable bits of Roman buildings scattered around the area in apparent neglect, most of which remains fairly incomprehensible to the casual visitor.

Probably the most important sight in Pozzuoli is the Roman amphitheater. Pozzuoli was such an important city that it actually had two amphitheaters, the only city in Italy other than Rome itself to do so. The smaller and older one is now under the modern road and rail line. The later amphitheater, which dates from the 1st century AD, can be visited and is very impressive. It's the third largest in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheater in Capua, just north of Naples, seating some 40,000 spectators. Unlike the Colosseum, not much remains of the upper ranges of seats and this area can't be visited. You can however walk around the floor of the arena and can visit the extensive and very well-preserved subterranean areas, including cages for keeping animals, and remains of the mechanisms for lifting them to the arena floor. There's also an impressive collection of columns and capitals on display in the corridors here. The site is open daily except Tuesday from 9:00am until an hour before sunset. Admission costs 4.00 Euro and also gives admission to the baths and castle at Baia and the site of Cumae, described below.

Near the amphitheater, in a small park, you can see some very large pieces of the walls of the so-called Baths of Neptune. Some other bits and pieces of this complex can be seen between and behind the modern buildings in this area, but it's difficult to make sense of these remains.

Pozzuoli's other well-known site, the so-called Serapeum or Temple of Serapis, is located in a small park near the harbor. Though known since the 18th century as a "temple", this site was actually a marketplace or macellum. Set a couple of meters below modern street level, you can see the remains of the rectangular range of shops with a circular portico in the center. On the three remaining columns of this portico, you can see the effects of damage by a type of shellfish, which shows that this site spent a fair amount of time submerged (it's still very wet). This is probably the best visible demonstration of the phenomenon of bradyseism described earlier, and in fact much of this monument was submerged until the 1970s. The site is rarely open, but the best views in any case are from the railings at street level.

On the outskirts of town are the remains of two Roman necropoli. The necropolis of Via Celle is easy to reach and is signposted from the main road through the town. The actual site is rarely open, but the extensive remains can be seen pretty well from the street. The other necropolis, San Vito, is nearby, off of Via Campana, but is not signposted and is harder to find.

Lago d'Averno

In antiquity, Lago d'Averno (from the Greek, meaning "lake of no birds" - the sulfurous fumes rising from the lake were believed to be fatal to birds) was thought to be the entrance to hell. In the Aeneid, it was here that Aeneas encountered the ferryman Charon and crossed the Styx into Hades to meet the spirit of his father.

In the first century BC the lake was part of the Roman naval complex that included the nearby Lago Lucrino until the channel connecting the lakes to the sea silted up and the base was moved south to Capo Miseno. There's a nice view of the lake from the road above which leads to Cumae. Another road, reached via the coast road at Lago Lucrino, follows the perimeter of the lake part-way around.

There is limited parking near a restaurant where this road meets the lake. From here the so-called Temple of Apollo, actually part of a Roman bath complex, can be reached by a five minute walk along the lake to the right. There's not a great deal left to see, though it's impressive to think that the dome of this structure was only five meters smaller than that of the Pantheon in Rome.

In the opposite direction (about 200 meters around the lake to the left of the parking area) is the entrance to an underground passage, sometimes called the Sibyl's Grotto, which was supposedly the actual entrance to the underworld. There is a caretaker who can give tours of the grotto (in Italian only). Hours appear to be somewhat random and there's no set entrance fee, though of course a gratuity should be offered.

A second tunnel can be seen (but not entered) at the end of the road around the lake; this leads through this hill toward Cumae and was part of a never-completed system of canals and tunnels intended to link the Bay of Pozzuoli with the Tiber near Rome.

Arco Felice

This Roman arch was not a triumphal arch, but a gateway into the Roman city of Cumae. It was built by order of the emperor Domitian around 95 AD and consists of a single 20 meter high arch with smaller arches above it built of the thin Roman bricks, though presumably originally faced in marble or other stone.

Today the road to Cumae passes beneath the arch and here some Roman paving stones have been incorporated into the modern road (very bumpy, but still kind of cool!). The arch has given its name, from the Latin word felix meaning fortunate or happy, to the nearby town on the shore of the Bay between Pozzuoli and Baia.

Monte Nuovo

This small hill rising above Lago d'Averno and Lago Lucrino is the youngest mountain in Europe, formed in a volcanic eruption in 1538 which destroyed much of Pozzuoli and reduced Lago Lucrino - a former Roman naval base later famous for its oyster farms - to less than half its original size. You can climb the slope and into the crater from the southeast side (signposted from town of Arco Felice).

Cumae

Cave of the Sibyl at Cumae

Cumae was perhaps the most important of the Greek colonies in the region. Founded in the 8th century BC, Cumae was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and remained inhabited until its destruction by the Saracens in the 10th century. The area which can be visited centers on the ancient acropolis.

You enter the site through an impressive tunnel under the acropolis walls. On the left is the tufa corridor known as the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl (it's very impressive, though there's no archaeological evidence for any religious function). Ruins of various Roman crypts and galleries can also be seen on this level; these probably were part of the planned connection of the site to Lago d'Averno in Roman times.

As you climb the hill you can see more of the walls and towers of the acropolis defenses as well as temple ruins on two main levels, first the Temple of Apollo just above the walls and later the Temple of Jupiter on the summit. Along the way various vantage points offer very nice views of the beaches to the north and south of the site and back across the valley to the Roman arch (Arco Felice) described above which marked the eastern boundary of the city. In the plain below the acropolis you can see the excavations of a Roman forum and a bath complex, but I've never seen those open to the public. A few hundred meters to the south is the town's amphitheater which can be seen from the road - this site is currently being excavated, so hopefully it will open to the public at some point.

Cumae is open daily from 9:00am until an hour before sunset. There's a nice series of informative signs throughout the site in both Italian and English. Entry is via a combined ticket which also includes the amphitheater in Pozzuoli, the Terme di Baia and the archaeological museum in the castle of Baia (both discussed later) and costs 4 Euro. There's a small souvenir shop by the small parking lot, but there's not much else around. The site makes a great picnic spot, so you may want to bring your lunch.

Baia

The coast around Baia was the French Riviera of ancient Rome, particularly from the late Republic to around the 3rd century AD. The entire coastline from Lago Lucrino to Capo Miseno was lined with luxurious villas and thermal bath complexes of the rich and famous. One villa on the hill above Baia has long been thought to have been Julius Caesar's summer residence, while others belonged to various emperors and other wealthy Romans. Petronius described the already legendary decadence of the partying culture of the area in his Satyricon.

Due to seismic activity, in particular the bradyseism described earlier, much of this area now lies underwater. Tours of the underwater archaeological park are available either by scuba diving or by glass-bottomed boat, both leaving from the fishing port in the modern town of Baia.

Above water, there are two sights well worth a visit: the Terme di Baia, remains of a complex of villas and baths, and the 15th century Aragonese castle, which now houses the Archaeological Museum of the Campi Flegrei. Note that the baths are called the imperial palace in some guides (including the Blue Guide Southern Italy). In fact they contain elements of both, but they're signposted as baths, so that's how I'll refer to them here.

The Terme complex lies on the hillside overlooking the modern town. Entrance is via a gateway on the road crossing the ridge from Baia to Fusaro and is well signposted. Be sure to notice the large dome on your left as you climb the hill - it's the so-called Temple of Diana, which isn't a temple at all (a frequent mistake made by 18th century classicists) but a part of the bath complex. Unfortunately it's now privately owned and can't be visited.

Further up the hill on the left is the entrance to the Terme. This is a huge complex of terraces climbing the hillside and includes remains of both villas and baths from several periods. There's not a lot of signage so it can be difficult to make much sense out of the complex. From the entrance, you walk through the remains of a huge terraced villa. Stairs lead down the hillside to the lower terraces of the villa and various parts of the bath complex. Highlights include another mislabeled "temple", the Temple of Mercury, whose dome is intact and is one of the largest to survive from the Roman period, and a theater complex. The Terme are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00am to an hour before sunset. As already mentioned, entrance is via a combination ticket which covers the sites in Baia as well as the amphitheater in Pozzuoli and the acropolis at Cumae and costs 4 Euro.

Baia Castle was built in the late 15th century by order of King Alfonso II of Aragon as a defense against Moorish pirates. It has since seen use in various military roles, including serving as a prisoner of war camp during World War I and as a military orphanage. It opened as an archaeological museum in 1993 and contains displays from across the Campi Flegrei, primarily from the Greek, Samnite, and Roman periods. Highlights include a display of plaster casts which have proven the existence of one or more workshops in the area for the reproduction of classical Greek sculpture for the Roman market (not always open - you may have to ask), the reconstruction of an Augustan temple including a bronze equestrian statue of Domitian/ Nerva (recycled for the new emperor by changing the face!), and a reconstruction of the triclinium of the emperor Claudius. Along the way are some great views of the Bay and the castle itself. There's a very nice bookshop where many of the books listed later as references can be purchased. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00am to 7:00pm in summer and from 9:00am to 3:00pm (or 3:20) the rest of the year.

Bacoli

A little farther down the coast from Baia Castle you come to the pleasant little village of Bacoli, best known to tourists for the great Roman underground reservoirs - the Piscina Mirabilis (familiar to readers of Robert Harris's novel Pompeii) and the Cento Camerelle. These reservoirs were fed by the aqueduct system and supplied water to the villas, gardens of the area and to the Roman naval base in Miseno. The Piscina can be visited by contacting the custodian who lives nearby. The Cento Camerelle has been closed for renovation in recent years but should reopen one of these days. It too is visited by contacting a local custodian.

Miseno

The end of the line on this side of the Bay is Capo Miseno. Here two lakes connected by a man-made channel to the sea became home to the Roman naval base when it was forced to move from nearby Lago Lucrino when its harbor silted up. It was from his villa here that Pliny the Elder, commander of the fleet, witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Today there are some nice beaches around Miseno and there's a nice walk around the lake and the modern marina. There are bits and pieces of Roman ruins in the area, but none are really set up for visitors. At the tip of the cape, there's a pretty lighthouse. It's a bit of a hike but offers great views of the Bay as far as Naples, Capri, and the Sorrentine Peninsula.


© Kevin Clark, 2007

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