Naples Netherworld

Photo by Bonnie Alberts

If Hades existed, its entrance was surely here

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They call it the Campi Flegrei, the Burning Fields, for the copious number of volcanic cauldrons (a super volcano) that are simmering in this area just west of the city. Here, lies the stuff of myths and lore: the so-called home of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire; the river Styx; a birdless lake; an uttering Sibyl and the entrance to Hades. The Campi Flegrei was the backdrop for Virgil’s Aeneid and it secrets a rare geological phenomenon known as bradyseism.

Visitors to Naples rarely venture out into the Phlegrean Fields, opting for the more popular and well known sites like Pompeii and Vesuvius. Those who do venture here will find some of these sites eerily quiet, so quiet in fact you may be able to commune with the spirits.

To get the most of your visit to the Campi Flegrei, plan to spend 2 days exploring the area.

Day 1 – Pozzuoli to Cuma

It was the Cumaens, the Greeks settlers of Cuma, who founded the colony that would become Roman Puteoli and later Pozzuoli. A bustling seaport even today, it was the port of Puteoli that the Bible tells us, St. Paul docked on his way to Rome.

Puteoli has a deeper connection with San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. The bloody rock on which he was decapitated is kept at the Sanctuary of San Gennaro at Solfatara and the smoldering crater of Vulcano Solfatara is where he was beheaded. It was at Italy’s third largest Amphitheater, the Flavian Amphitheater, that San Gennaro is said to have soothed the savage beasts that were let loose to kill him.

Down by the sea we find Puteoli’s Roman marketplace, erroneously known to most as the Temple of Serapis. Restaurants flank the temple’s north side but before you stop for lunch, have a wander of Pozzuoli’s Lungomare first, stroll through the open-air market and don’t miss Pozzuoli’s fish market. There are plenty of restaurants around the port area of Pozzuoli where you can sample a traditional dish like Spaghetti alle Vongole – spaghetti and clams – and a bottle of the favorite local white, Falanghina.

Spend the afternoon in the company of Virgil. First, visit the oldest Greek settlement on mainland Campania at the Cuma Archaeological Park which is also home to the Antro della Sibilla, the cave of the Cumaen Sibyl that Virgil tells us about in Book 6 of the Aeneid. Then, head to Lago Averno to find where Aeneas, in the company of the Sibyl, went in search of the entrance to Hades.

Back in downtown Naples, two parks are dedicated to Virgil. Parco Virgiliano a Posillipo in the promontory of Posillipo hill and Parco Vergiliano a Piedigrotta at the foot of Posillipo hill, the custodian of Virgil’s so called tomb and entry to his crypta Neapolitana.

Day 2 – Baia

Baia was once a fashionable seaside resort area and playground of rich and raucous Romans. Writers like Virgil, Horace and Cicero also succumbed to Baia’s charms which was known for its sun, sea and the healing properties of its thermal waters. Rome’s upper echelon built sumptuous holiday villas and expansive thermal bath complexes here. Most of the ancient domed “temples” that dot the landscape still and are not temples at all, but rather bath houses.

At the southern tip of Baia, just before the promontory of Miseno, is the ancient Roman cistern, Piscina Mirabalis. Augustus built the first Roman naval base at Miseno and it was from here that Pliny the Elder sailed during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. Piscina Mirabilis is said to have supplied fresh water to the Roman Navy at Miseno, although it is quite possible that instead, it supplied water to the Romans’ expansive villas around Baia.

One such villa that was attributed to Julius Caesar was built on a promontory overlooking the sea. Later, the Aragons built a castle here. Known simply as the Baia Castle, it is open to the public and is also home to the Campi Flegrei Archaeolgocal Museum, where much of the area’s ancient history is on display.

Thanks to a rare phenomenon known as bradyseism, most of Roman Baia has sunk into the sea. Today, submerged Baia is part of a protected marine area known as the Underwater Archaological Park of Baia. You can visit these ruins on a Cymba glass bottom boat excursion or a diving or snorkeling tour with the Napoli Diving Center. Land lovers can still enjoy some of Baia’s ruins at the Baia Archaeological Park.

Good to Know

The sites in the Campi Flegrei are spread out in suburban and rural areas and we do not recommend using public transport except for the sites located in Pozzuoli. You will enjoy your explorations much more if you hire a car or driver.

The Campi Flegrei Combined Ticket allows for entry to the Flavian Amphitheater, Cuma Archaeological Park, Baia Archaeological Park and Baia Castle and Archeological Museum of Campi Flegrei for 4.00 euro and it’s valid for 2 days. The ticket can be purchased at any one of those sites.

Check out some more Naples Itineraries

Naples in 48 hours…a weekend of art, food and leisurely city strolls.
Naples Island Hopping: a Spa Day on Ischia…soak up the thermal waters of a volcanic island.
Pompeii Sites…ancient cities lost and found.
Walking Tour of Historic Naples...a timeless stroll for the Naples neophyte or devotee.

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