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

Villa d’Este, Hollywood on Lake Como

I recall gentle breezes, cool linen sheets, satin, silk, and silence “   Pamela Fiori, Town & Country

Villa d'Este on Lake Como
Villa d’Este on Lake Como

“I had expected the Villa d’Este a place where you have to keep your voice down; but rarely have I seen ease and formality so happily married. The Villa d’Este is not a hotel at which you merely stay; it is a hotel at which you settle.”                                                              David Leavitt

There is something thrilling about visiting a place that has a whole lot of history tucked away behind the old walls and under its lofty rafters. The Villa d’Este on Lake Como, a Renaissance patrician residence in Cernobbio, is as enchanting and beguiling a place as you can imagine. It also boasts no lack of real-life drama since it was built in 1568.

Up for a Swim at the Ville?
Up for a Swim at the Villa?

Alfred Hitchcock was so in love with Villa d’Este that he spent every summer there. In fact, he filmed his first movie, “The Pleasure Garden” on the hotel grounds in 1925. He thought it was the most beautiful place on earth.

Did you know that in September of 1948, the Countess Pia Bellantani shot her lover Carlo Sacchi, a famous silk manufacturer from Como during a fashion show at the Villa? She was kept in an insane asylum afterwards, writing a note to the court “I shot Sacchi with my husband’s pistol. I shall always remember Carlo. I loved him dearly.”

The hotel’s 152 rooms, each one distinctly different from the others in size and decor, have seen a stream of actors, poets, musicians, artists, royalty, sultans, foreign dignitaries and fashion powerhouses. Names like Sir Paul Smith, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Oscar De La Renta, Calvin Klein, Lorenzo Tiva and Bill Blass consider Villa d’Este their second home.

Villa d'Estee Front

Only an hours drive from Milan, this opulent hotel sits on 25 acres of parkland with views of the Alpine foothills. Terraced water gardens sedate the spirit as you meander the magical setting. A Nymphaeum with the perspective of the fountain of Ercole stands triumphantly, from which the water flows over 130 granite basins. It was erected by Pellegrino Pellegrini, the architect of the main villa, during the Renaissance period.

Ville d'Este Garden Entrance

As you walk about the park-like surroundings, you will see several old fortresses that provide an enchanting view of the lake. These were a gift from Countess Vittoria to her husband Domenico Pino, who was a young Napoleonic general. These fortresses, built in the early 1800’s, are exact replicas of the ones that general Pino held under siege in Spain. He partook of mock battles here with other military cadets, followed by feasting, champagne and fireworks.

Fortress Remains at Ville d'Este
Fortress Remains at Ville d’Este

Cardinal Gallios, the son of a prestigious family in Como, acquired the old cloister of Sant’Andrea and the adjacent property, where he had the Villa d’Este built in 1568. Shortly afterward, the Sultan of Morocco paid a visit with his entourage to see the legendary splendors of this villa himself.

Carolyn of Brunswick, the Princess of Wales and future Queen of England, spent her happiest years at the villa beginning in 1815, escaping a loveless marriage to her first cousin George IV. Afterwards, the Empress Maria Fedorowna, wife of the Russian Czar, rented the villa for two months but stayed for two years. She was loved by the people of Lake Como because of her charitable works.

By 1873 Villa d’Este became world-famous as a super luxury hotel. Originally, the facade of the villa rose directly out of the water, but a terrace built overlooking the lake improved the water’s edge, offering a breathtaking view of the lake and the mountains.

Gardens at the Ville
Gardens at the Villa

Today the red and cream neoclassical building is operated by a group that includes Villa La Massa in Florence and run by long-time president Jean Marc Droulers.

If you are a celebrity, writer, artist or musician, this is where you would stay unless you owned your own home on the lake. The hotel registers dating from 1873 list Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, King Leopold of Belgium, Saudi Arabia Royal family, Jose Carreras and Madonna among others as guests. Gretta Garbo, Betty Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Stone, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Mel Gibson and Woody Allen have all left their imprint. The list of Hollywood stars that have visited the villa remains endless. 

Bruce Springsteen stays at the villa often while performing for his Italian audiences. Marlene Dietrich stayed at the Villa d’Este incognito in 1949, eight years after she retired. She was seen covered under a big hat and touring the lake in a private boat.

One of the many things about the villa that the celebrities love is its discreetness regarding clientele. The staff is very tight-lipped about the comings and goings within the hotel. They refuse entrance to the Paparazzi unless arranged for previously. Today the room rates run from $1400 to $5,000 per night (top suites).

Villa d’Este is honored by Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and Forbes Traveler as one of the best Super Luxury hotels in the world. It truly has an aura of palatial authenticity that is very rare to find anywhere.

*Video: Villa d’Este on Lake Como