If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the area west of Naples in the Campania region of southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. You will find several small towns and two islands. While the area is not undiscovered it tends to be less “touristy” than many other parts of Italy including Campagnia on the other side of Naples, namely Sorrento and the Isle of Capri described in companion articles in this series. If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to visit Naples, described in another companion article in this series.
We’ll start our tour in Solfatara just west of Naples. Then we will head west to Pozzuoli and southwest to Baia. We’ll pop up north to Cumae. We finish our tour with some island hopping, first south to Procida, and then southwest to Ischia. The entire area is known as Campi Flegrei (Fields of Fire) because it sits on molten lava. There is no reason to believe that volcanic eruptions are a thing of the past. And remember, the area is not far from Mount Vesuvius on the other side of Naples.
Solfatara is a semiextinct volcano that last erupted in 1198. Its name comes from the Latin sulpha terra for land of sulphur so you know what to expect. Solfatara is not very pretty, unless you like to look at boiling mud. But as long as you stick to the path you should be safe. On the positive side the escaping vapors have been used for medicinal purposes since Roman times.
Pozzuoli is a fishing town that has become a suburb of Naples, hardly suprising given its proximity. The Greeks founded it in the Sixth Century B. C. Once the home of wealthy Romans, famous residents include St. Paul and Sofia Villani Scicolone better known by her professional name, Sophia Loren. Pozzuoli was damaged by volcanic eruptions during the Middle Ages and again in the 1970s. You’ll want to see the Anfiteatro Flavio (Flavius Amphitheater), Italy’s third largest, that held 40,000 spectators. It hosts evening concerts in the summer.
Baia was perhaps the greatest Ancient Roman resort of them all. All the big shots including Caesar, Nero, and Tiberius had a home away from home in Baia. Cleopatra was there on a visit when Julius Caesar met his untimely end. For many people part of Baia’s attraction was its thermal, mineral waters said to have healing powers. Local excavations include the Temple of Mercury, the Baths of Mercury, the Baths of Sosandra, with the semicircular Theater of the Nymphs and a statue of Sosandra, the Temple of Venus, and the Baths of Venus.
Cumae was perhaps the first Greek colony on the Italian mainland, founded in the Eighth Century B. C. You’ll want to see Antro della Sibilla (Sibyl’s Cave) considered by some to be the most romantic classical site in all Italy. This cave, almost five hundred feet (one hundred thirty one meters) long, was carved out of solid rock. According to legend Sibyl was a prophet granted almost eternal life (as many years as the grains of sand in her handful) but she sadly forgot to request eternal youth. As she aged she shriveled so much that her body fit into a bottle that hung from a tree. In between uttering prophecies she begged for death.
Most present Cumae is underground. Make sure to see Lago d’Averno (Lake Avernus), a volcanic crater lake that the Romans considered the entrance to Hades (Hell). According to legend, birds flying over the lake would die from the poisonous fumes. It was on these shores that Virgil wrote The Aeneid. Let’s assume he didn’t inhale.
Just off the coast lies the densely populated island of Procida with about eleven thousand people jam packed into two square miles. This is about one third the population density of Hong Kong but Procida is the most densely populated island in all Europe. In spite of all that, Procida is beautiful and relatively undiscovered compared to the other islands off the coast of Campania. If you can, get there for the Good Friday procession, an annual event since 1627. The island and its small fishing village Corricella were featured in the films Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley, parts of which were filmed in many Campania locations including the island of Ischia, described next.
We will finish our tour of this sometimes lovely area west of Naples at the island of Ischia, probably inhabited for thousands of years. Its almost sixty thousand inhabitants including thousands of German citizens live mostly from tourism with an estimated six million visitors a year. No, this is not one of the undiscovered gems that pop up from time to time. Over the millennia Ischia has suffered many conquests. Among the worst was in 1543 and 1544 when the pirate Barbarossa devastated the island, taking four thousand prisoners in the process.
The Castello Aragonese (Aragonese Castle) is Ischia’s most heavily visited monument. Actually it was built on a rock near the so-called mainland just a bit shy of 2500 years ago. In 1441 the castle was linked to the island by a stone bridge. The nearby beach is fine and its waters may heal your ailments.
The La Mortella gardens belonged to the British composer William Walton and his Argentinean wife Susana, 23 years his junior. It is home to thousands of rare Mediterranean plants. After visiting the garden you may want to climb the long dormant volcano, Monte Epomeo, bathe in the pools of Giardini Poseidon Terme (Poseidon Gardens Spa), or take a short boat trip to the village of Sant’Angelo on the southern coast.
What about food? There is something about volcanic soil that makes food tasty and plentiful and gives wine a special zest. The focus here tends to be on vegetables and fruits. Tomatoes are served every which way, including pizza and spaghetti of course. Try to taste the mozzarella cheese, made from the milk of water buffalo.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Nero di Seppia (Spaghetti with Black Squid Ink). Then try Coniglio all’Ischitana (Rabbit simmered with Tomatoes). For dessert indulge yourself with Strufoli (Honey Balls). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Campania wine. Campania ranks 9th among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. The region produces about 64% red and and close to 36% white wine, as there is little rosé. There are17 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Only 2.8% of Campania wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. The G stands for Guarantita, and you’ll find three, the red Taurasi, the white Greco di Tufo, and the white Fiano di Avellino. I have tasted the Fiano and found it to be top of the line. There is only a single DOC wine produced west of Naples; the Ischia DOC whose region covers the entire island of Ischia and is made from a variety of local grapes. This wine may be red or white. The red may be dry or sweet, while the white may be still or sparkling. Frankly, I’d go with the Fiano di Avellino.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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