Friday, June 24, 2005

A Day of Roman Luxury

It's our final full day in the Bay of Naples. The last day for me to glean any last minute goodies for Roman Mystery number 11, Sirens of Surrentum.

I want to explore Baia more, and the amphitheatre at Pozzuoli, but am not sure I can face taking bus, train, metro and pullman to get there. That's Plan A. But it's going to be hot today. So we opt for Plan B, the 9.30 hydrojet from Sorrento to Ischia and from there a ferry to Pozzuoli. If it's impossible to get the ferry to Pozzuoli, we will explore Ischia and I might go to one of the thermal baths there (Plan C). The guide book mentions a neoclassical spa built on the ruins of a Roman bath.

Ischia is a volcanic island, bubbling with hot springs and hot mud. Some of the town names even have the word terme in them from the Latin word thermae meaning 'warm baths'. The baths at Baiae were so opulent that when travellers found their remains they thought they were temples to the gods. They were actually Temples to Pleasure.

Our hydrojet is fast but even so we don't arrive at Ischia Porto – the port town of this little island – until 10.45. I take one look at the rusty ferry to Pozzuoli and decide to go with Plan C, ie. stay on Ischia and try out one of the spas. I know from my guide book that the baths I want are in the next town and that they close at midday, so when a dark Italian with oily, slicked-back hair says 'Taxi? You want taxi?' I negotiate a fee to the Termi Belliazzi at Casamicciola Terme.

On the way, between my broken Italian and his broken English, Pepe the taxi-driver tells me the baths I have chosen aren't very elegant. 'You should try Negumbo or Poseidon's Garden,' he says. But I let him know I'm interested in all things Roman and so he shrugs and settles back to drive. Actually he hunches forward to drive; all the taxis on Ischia are micro-taxies and Pepe is a big man.

We arrive at the Terme Belliazzi about ten minutes later and once I have established that I can have a look at the Roman baths underneath before a massage, Richard goes to a sunny square to do a watercolour.

This spa is like something out of a Fellini movie. I am taken past cublicles and through the half-closed curtain I can glimpse old men wrapped in sheets and moaning softly. On the black and white marble floor are buckets of mud and plastic sheets smeared with mud.

A man called Antonio takes me down to the Roman baths. It is very hot and steamy down here. He shows me where the hot water bubbles up out of the ground and the hoses that now transfer it up to the baths above us. I notice the same vaulted roof as the modern building above.

Antonio also shows me the modern sauna and jacuzzi, both of which are carved from stone and look very Roman. Then I am taken back to the vaulted room with cubicles. I have gathered that I can have a massage with either Antonio or a woman called Rosa. As I have to get totally naked the choice is not difficult.

Rosa is a tanned, cheerful brunette who keeps taking my arm with a firm grip and guiding me here and there. I sense it's going-home time and she wants to go home, but there is no way a man is giving me a massage! As I am undressing she asks if I want 'fango'. I have been hearing this word all morning and now she shows me a contraption above the massage-couch. She pulls a lever and out comes a giant worm of grey mud! This is fango.

'Si,' I reply bravely. 'I'll have the fango.'

Once I am naked I have to climb up onto the pile of mud on the plastic sheet. I do so. Wow! The mud is warm and very slippery. I help Rosa smear it all over and then she wraps me up in the plastic sheet with a cloth sheet around it and I lie there for ten minutes, enveloped in slippery, squelchy, warm grey mud. It is very sensuous!

Every so often Rosa comes in to mop my face, which is sweating. Then, after ten minutes she negotiates me off the couch and hoses me down with mineral water. (Boy am I glad Antonio is not doing this; talk about a 'squirmy'). In the cubicle is also a bathtub full of mineral water and once I am sluiced off I get into that for another ten minutes.

I can tell by the silence outside my curtained cubicle that most people have left this spa. I reckon it's almost twelve. Rosa comes in and asks me once again if I want Antonio to give me my massage. 'No, you please, Rosa,' I say in Italian, and add by way of explanation: 'I'm from England.' (She probably wants to get home to her kids; Italian schools broke up last week...)

Rosa nods cheerfully, takes me to a clean cublicle next door and proceeds to give me a vigorous full-body massage with lemon-scented cream. In Roman times it would have been scented olive-oil of course, but I imagine the luxurious establishments in Baiae would have specialised in hot mud treatments, after all, Baiae is situated on top of sulphurous fumaroles, too.

I give Rosa a nice tip and my last copy of one of my books in Italian, dedicated to her three children. I leave the baths feeling very smooth and relaxed. No wonder rich Romans spent so much time there.

Richard is in a café finishing a nice watercolour of the little park opposite. The owner of the cafe wants him to do a portrait of his son. As payment in advance he gives Richard a bottle of cheap Spanish red wine. Hmmmn.

We get another micro-taxi to take us to various places. Philippe – our new taxi-driver – shows us Negumbo, the spa with turquoise pools of hot water (you go from pool to pool, getting hotter and hotter) and also the Villa di William Walton, where musical recitals are held. After a decent pizza lunch in Casamicciola, we catch a bus back to Ischia Porto.

I want to see the house where The Talented Mr Ripley was filmed and hey! there's Pepe! He knows where the Mr Ripley house is but first he shows us the Roman acqueduct. Yup. It's a Roman acqueduct. Then on to the Palazzo Malcoviti, where Dicky Greenleaf and Marge 'lived'. It's a different colour now but I recognize it. Pepe was actually one of the drivers for the film crew and tells us that 'Anthony Minghella is a very nice man.' I tell him that Minghella's family sells ice cream on the Isle of Wight. Pepe did not know that! Finally Pepe takes us to the foot of the Castello Aragonese. We find a cool shady place to sit, with a view of the castle, and while Richard does another watercolour, I shmooze a local bookshop and have a pistachio ice cream.

We catch the 5.20 hydrojet back to Sorrento and I make my last research stop: the Hotel Bellevue Syrene. This four-star hotel perched on Sorrento's cliff has Roman reproduction rooms and is built on the foundations of a Roman villa, like that of Pollius Felix. I can't see the foundations, of course, but a handsome receptionist called Mehdi kindly agrees to take us down to show us the Roman rooms. These are reserved for wedding parties and there is one about to arrive any minute.

The Roman rooms of the Bellevue Syrene are superb. Replica frescoes and mosaics were done at the beginning of the 20th century. The setting and landscaping is magnificent, too. If they ever make a Hollywood blockbuster of one of the Roman Mysteries and have a wrap-party (or whatever they call it) afterwards, then this is the place to come!

Richard and I have drinks on the terrace with its Roman-like columns and arbour, gazing out over the blue Gulf of Sorrento in the cool of the evening. Our cocktails cost as a much as dinner but it's worth it for this moment of sybaritic luxury. After all, tomorrow it's back to London!

P.S. The Sirens of Surrentum ended up being my fave book of the series, along with The Pirates of Pompeii and The Man from Pomegranate Street. All three are very romantic, but The Sirens of Surrentum is the most 'grown-up'!

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