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.

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

Italy’s Atlantis–What Lies Beneath

Baia Sunken Nymphaeum (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer) Sodibaia)
Sunken Nymphaeum of Baiae (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer Sodibaia) off the Bay of Naples

Welcome to the ancient sunken city of Baiae (Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baiae), just 30 minutes northwest of Naples.

Seneca called Baiae a “resort of vice,” while Ovid referred to it as a “favorable place for love-making.” Famous for its prestigious baths and thermal springs, the ancient city of Baiae was a fashionable bathing and recreation area of the rich and famous. But today, much of Baiae is underwater. Remains of Roman streets, Imperial Villas and tottering statues lie submerged in just a few feet of water. Sea life weave in among the ruins, the only live occupants of what used to be the summer playground of the emperors.

Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

Parts of the ancient cities of Baia and Puteoli (Pozzuoli) became submerged during the 16th century when the ground sank and the sea level rose, known as bradyseism. Volcanic lava from underneath the ground found a way of escape, causing a drop in the elevation.

Today, hoary life-size statues tilt precariously on the sea floor, remains of ancient Roman roads lead nowhere, floors of black and white mosaic attest to a long forgotten villa, bits of ancient amphorae that once held an emperors wine are scattered across the ocean floor. The first century sunken Roman seaside resort of Baiae, built during the time of Emperor Claudius, remains today as a shrine for the fish that dart about its contours and crumpled columns.

Emperors Nero, Caligula, Hadrian and Gaius Julius Caesar once owned elegant summer villas in Baiae alongside the areas famous epicurean thermal baths. Cicero entertained them during Saturnalia feasts. Known as the ‘Italian Riviera’ of its time, the pleasurable coastal resort gives evidence of high living. Below the surface is an ancient Roman road hemmed in by taverns, leading up to Villa Protiro and its colonnaded entrance and rooms with mosaics. Claudius Nymphaeum still remains embellished by once-elegant statues now covered with algae.

Baia Mosaic Floor (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer Sodibaia)
Baiae Mosaic Floor (courtesy of Parco Archeologico Sommer Sodibaia)

Submerged Baiae is flanked by Portus Julius, Rome’s most important fleet of the time. Commissioned into existence in 37 B.C. by the famous military leader and engineer Agrippa, remains of docks, cisterns and repair workshops are evident today.

This underwater city can be observed by glass-bottom boat or scuba as well as snorkeling from the town of Baia. Some of the water over the ruins are shallow, making snorkeling a great way to get up close and personal. As a Marine Protected Area, you are sure to notice various sea life that have taken up permanent residence in the sunken city. Notice the purple sea urchins and sleek little fish darting in and around the arches and statues.

Statue in Underwater Park of Baia-Still from Fabio
Statue in Underwater Park of Baiae- (Still from Fabio)

*Click on Related Links:

*Baia Protected Marine Area Info on Excursions

*The Underwater Park of Baia Info, Maps and Diving Sites/Excursions

Kayak Italy’s ‘Island of the Sirens’

Kayak along the Italian Riviera
Kayak along the Amalfi Coast

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

Observing a kayak on glowing amber waters off the coast of Amalfi one evening made me think of Homer, Greece’s epic poet of antiquity. He described the Mediterranean as having wine-dark seas, but he was also blind. This evening, however, the usual cool blue waters gave way to a brilliant, fiery orange.

Paddling over the often-visual underwater ruins of ancient Roman and Greek civilizations is enough to excite anyone. Words often fail to express a kayaking day over the Bay of Naples, down the Amalfi Coast, or the many other crystalline waters off the shores of Italy.

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Amalfi with a sprinkling of boats in the Mediterranean

This September, I will be exploring the wonders of Italy again for three weeks. Sea Kayaking is on my must-do list. Drifting by hidden grottos, dipping into caves, paddling through volcanic archways and observing castles and fortresses on the rocky mainland as I drift by is an experience I just can’t pass up. To see Italy from the water will be like getting to know it all over again.

the Siren
Siren of the Archipelago

The Island of the Sirens (la Sireneuses) is an archipelago of tiny islands off the Amalfi Coast of Italy between the Isle of Capri and 6 miles SW of Positano. Kayaking throughout these ancient mythical islands is breathtaking. Made up of three main islands, mythical sirens are believed to have inhabited them. They sang or played the lyre and flute, and bedeviled anyone happening to hear them. Strabo, a 1st century BC geographer, would warn you to plug your ears and avoid crashing your kayak on the rocky coast. Go ahead and explore their secret hideaways along magical shores, but be careful!

Explore the coastline by kayak between Portofino and Cinque Terre on the turquoise Ligurian Sea. The subtle play of light on the colors of the landscape is spellbinding. Harbors of bobbing boats, homes that cling to rugged cliffs, vineyards and olive trees that dot the terraced hillsides envelope you as your kayak glides by. Coves and promontories provide enticing exploration moments. Sunlight gives way to the shadows of rocky outcrops.

Tofino Expeditions offers kayaking tours from the Italian Riviera and Cinque Terre. Top-rated by National Geographic Adventure and an established sea-kayaking outfitter for 25 years, they also offer an 11 day excursion by kayak combined with some great on-land adventures.

Amalfi Kayak provides excellent local knowledge and insight into the area along with Kayak rentals and expeditions. If you like to support local business, as I do, this is a great option. They offer customized itineraries based upon your interests, time available and level of skill. 

Italy Kayak Tours offers expeditions around the Island of the Sirens.

“At sea, I learned how little a person needs, not how much.”
– Robin Lee Graham

Alassio is a small but elegant seaside resort ...
Welcoming waters on the Italian Riviera