Why I Love Southern Italy

Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with the modern
Baia, just north of Naples, combines antiquity with modern

When I dream of Italy, I see myself wandering along the shimmering Bay of Naples.  A mountainous backdrop rises up to meet a baby blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. I inhale the salty sea smell mingled with driting aromas from restaurants passed along the way.  A gentle breeze tugs at my hair as I watch several white boats skim the water’s surface, leaving a bubbling trail behind them. An old castle fortress stands high on a hilltop, its many levels adding dimension to the landscape.

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My life has been blessed with the good fortune to travel to Italy several times, and I am passionate about every region. Italy never ceases to fascinate me and each time I visit, I feel myself pulled deeper into its history, culture, exotic beauty and genuine people. A return visit is always on my mind.

Although the south of Italy is poorer than the north, to me it is the real Italy. It is true that transportation by train or bus can be slower and sometimes undependable, but to really see Italy and experience the culture it is essential to leave oneself a bit vulnerable. Who knows what kind of adventures await you at a bus stop when the bus shows up late? A slow train provides the opportunity to meet the locals and strike up a conversation.

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It is the people who I have encountered along the way in the south that have put heart and soul into my experience in Italy. This young woman and her son ran a tiny restaurant next to my hotel in Naples. The hotel manager personally walked me over to her and introduced us. She wined and dined us with delicious home-made food and charged only a couple of euros. Of course we couldn’t allow it, but she staunchly refused to take any more. After the meal, she took out a laptop and brought up her Facebook photos. We had a wonderful evening even though it wasn’t easy to communicate as her English and my Italian skills were challenged.

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While spending time just north of Naples,  I spoke with the educational director (above) aboard the glass-bottom boat Cymba, which takes people out onto the shallow waters of the bay in Baia to see the underground ruins of the palatial palaces and statues of the rich and wealthy of the first centuries. When I arrived and found no excursion was leaving for the day due to murky water conditions, she brought me aboard and spent an hour educating me on the ancient luxury resort of Baia.

Happy Tummies, Great Company!
After I spent a morning walking through the wonder and grandeur of Naples, I stop for lunch at Pizzeria Da Michele. I shared a table with a young couple, who are both attorneys in Naples. They encouraged me to order Margherita pizza with extra cheese. I never imagined pizza could be so delicious. As you can see by our plates, not much was left. They were delightful to meet and spend time with. Now, when I order pizza, I usually ask for extra cheese!

Surrounded by Giovanni and his two brothers

 

Three brothers who own De Paola Cameos in San Martino, a neighborhood in  Naples, invited me in to see their art. Warm and talkative, they graciously let me observe them hard at work bent over lovely pieces of mother-of-pearl while they carved them into delicate cameos. Of course, they lured me in with intentions of selling a cameo, but I did enjoy a slice of culture that deepened my understanding of life in the south.

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I love the ‘passeggiata’, which means ‘walk’, on the waterfront in Naples during the early evening hours. The passeggiata is typical of most towns and cities in Italy. Families, friends, lovers, kids, all kinds of people from every walk of life enjoy strolling together as they intermingle with the crowd. It is warm, friendly and full of life. It signifies the shifting down from the hustle of the day and the beginning of a slower pace before mealtime, which is typically after 7:30pm.

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Where else can you stumble upon a Sunday crowd of locals and take part in rooting for the teams playing water polo? The splashing and fast action is thrilling, and I am welcomed into the group. We all pack together tightly and cheer on the players.

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The shops and street markets are abundant and colorful

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Crazy street markets sell everything you can imagine….at the most amazing bargain prices. I bring my bag and fill it up with fruits and vegetables. I love learning the ropes of bargaining.

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Morning street below my hotel balcony in Naples

I’d love to return to southern Italy and the culture I have come to understand more and to love. This time I’m excited to push further south and discover the ancient regions of Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia and forgotten Molise. They, too, have stories to tell, ones that go back to the early beginnings, developing a unique culture over time. Genuine, authentic travel among real people doing what they have done for centuries; simply live.

Naples Roman Resort of Baia

Baia, Naples and Vesuvius
The Bay of Naples ~Baia, Naples and Vesuvius

Just north of the city of Naples lies ancient Baia. It is a quiet little town on the Mediterranean with a small bay of sailboats and motor yachts. Life is laid back and simple here. Families gather at the waterfront park to cheer on a game of water polo while friends and couples share a meal of pizza and espresso at a small cafe. The single lane roads wind up and down over the hilly terrain accompanied with walkers more often than cars. A mecca of peace. But this wasn’t always so.

Did you know that Baia was the playground of the extremely rich and wealthy from the first to the third century AD? Baia far surpassed Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Capri as a desirable resort full of hedonistic temptations. Rumours of scandal and corruption filled the palace halls and baths. Julius Caesar, Nero, Hadrian and Caligula had spacious pleasure palaces built along the shoreline. Much of the town was considered imperial property under Augustus.

What was the big attraction to Baia? To begin with, Baia sits on an active volcanic area known as the Phlegrian Fields. During the Roman empire, engineers constructed a complex system of chambers that brought heat beneath the surface into bathing facilities that became saunas. These baths were used for medicinal purposes as well as relaxation. Remains of a thermal bathing complex can be seen today close to the water where the land rises on a hillside.

Remember the Trojan Horse? It was Baius, also known as Oddysseus, who came up with the whole strategy of building and hiding his Greek warriors inside the wooden horse. After they entered Troy, they came out from hiding and fought. Baia was named after this heroic figure, who is believed to be buried there.

Have you heard the legend of Baia? It was in 39 AD that the new emperor Caligula ordered a temporary floating bridge to be built from Baia to the neighboring port of Puteoli. Roman historian Suetonius states that the bridge was over three miles long. Sand was poured from various ships in the area to make the bridge passable. It is said that Caligula, clad in a flowing gold cloak, crossed the bridge on his horse in defiance against the Roman astrologer Thrasyllus who predicted that he had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baia.”

Whether the legend is true or not, what became of Baia? Where are all those luxury palace ruins? Because of the volcanic activity of the area, most of Baia is now underwater in the Bay of Naples. Very little is left of these palaces, but a glass bottom boat operates regular excursions out to view these ruins in shallow water.

Today Baia is an archaeological playground. It was here the renowned Roman writers Virgil, Cicero and Horace hobnobbed with the wealthiest. Baia, the metropolis of hedonism, washed away by the waves of time.

Canoe Polo in Italy

Fast Action
Canoe Polo, Fast Action in Baia, North of Napoli on the Bay of Naples

What was all the commotion about? Winding down from a day of exploring the ancient thermal bath complex of the emperors, I stopped by a waterfront park. I walked across the grass to see for myself. A voice over the loudspeaker was excitedly announcing a water sport competition in progress. Cheers and yells came from the crowd gathered around the embankment.

Picking my way through the spectators, I caught sight of a soccer ball flying through the air over the water. Then I saw a skirmish of paddles. Men in canoes were smacking the ball around using either their hands or their paddles. It was aggressive. I found out soon that it has a name: Canoe Polo!

Take a look at this 2 minute video I took of the game…it also gives a good glimpse of the spectators toward the end. Make sure your volume is up as the announcer is half the fun!

There is no doubt that the Italians take these games seriously and harbor competitive spirits. Supportive spectators give the teams their all. What I learned about Canoe Polo is that it begins with two teams of eight. Only 5 from each team are in the water at one time with the other three in reserve. Each ‘race’ involves two periods of ten minutes each, with intervals of five minutes. And the point of it all? To fight ones way through the onslaught of the opposing team and swoosh a ball into a suspended basket, much like basketball.

Approaching the crowds watching Kayak Polo
Approaching the crowds watching Canoe Polo

The game here was held on the Bay of Naples, but any body of water will work. Games are often played on lakes or even in pools. A helmet, life jacket and spraydeck are required to play. I had to ask what a spraydeck was, and this is what I found out. A spraydeck is a sheet of tight cloth sized to fit over the opening of the canoe to prevent water from entering the boat. Good idea, since water was splashing everywhere in the mad skirmishes and fast paddle action.

In Italy there are more than one hundred teams entered in the championships. Circolo Nautico Posillipo, a famous canoe polo club in the port area of Napoli, has won most of the titles in Italy, including the Italian Cup finals numerous times.

Winning Cups await the Champions
Winning Cups await the Champions
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Goal boat keeps tabs on the game score
Canoe Polo - This is serious business!
Canoe Polo – This is serious business!

What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. A sudden glimpse into the real Italy, with its wonderful people enjoying the company of family and friends, doing what they do, is always a treasure find.

Roman Baia, Forgotten Paradise of the Rich and Famous

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Bay of Baia near Napoli

Once the exotic playground of Roman emperors Julius Caesar, Nero, and Caligula, the one-time seaside resort of Baia just north of Naples enticed and tickled the fancies of the first-century elite. Horace described it as “Nowhere in the world is more agreeable than Baia.” Pliny praised the medicinal qualities of the water.

Rich Romans built magnificent villas along the coastline that have since become submerged under water. Because the land of Baia and its surroundings are a volcanic area, the land has dropped six meters Read more