Friday, July 18, 2014

Stabian Villas in 2000

Most of the action in my second book, The Secrets of Vesuvius, takes place on the plain of Stabiae, a Roman town on the bay of Naples, south of Pompeii and Vesuvius. 

In my book, it is the summer of AD 79. My 10-year-old detectrix Flavia Gemina has gone with her father and friends to visit her uncle Gaius, a farmer. Little do they dream that the mountain called Vesuvius will soon erupt! 

I travelled to this region in October 2000 to check facts and get a feel for the terrain. Now known as Castellammare di Stabia this area is not exactly beautiful, but it is incredibly fertile. 

One of the things I wanted to do was visit the beach at Stabia. This was where Pliny the Elder died. His companions survived the pyroclastic flow but his asthmatic lungs could not cope. After his poignant death, Flavia and the other refugees continue south around the promontory on foot. There are no sources supporting this; it's just my assumption. 

In my research, I had read about the 'Milky Mountains' behind the plain of Stabia. I imagined them to be gentle mounds upon which sheep and cattle grazed. When we first took the Circumvesuviana railway through the modern town of Castellammare di Stabia, I saw that the 'Milky Mountains' were steep ridges, rearing almost vertically above the fertile plain. In fact, they are so steep that there is a funicular to take to you the top of Monte Faito, the tallest of them. It is from this vantage point that I open the sequel to The Secrets of Vesuvius: The Pirates of Pompeii

On Friday the 20th of October, 2000, I decided to make an early start and see as much of Stabia as I could. Here are some excerpts from one of the little pocket diaries I always carry with me.


5.30 am - I am suddenly awake 

6.00 am - I leave our villa on the Capo di Sorrento quietly, so as not to wake the others, going out through the sliding glass doors in the living room. For a moment I stand on the terrace. It is still dark, but beautifully mild. I have packed my rucksack with towel, shampoo, hairbrush, etc. In case I find the ancient but still operating baths of Stabia. 

6.10 am - I thought one of the little orange buses might be waiting at its stop by the American Bar at the bottom of the hill, but 6.00 in the morning is obviously too early. So I set off briskly down the road to Sorrento. I have walked it before, and I know it only takes about 20 minutes. The yellow-orange sodium lights give plenty of light. Directly above hangs a beautiful half-moon.

But I've barely gone a few paces when I hear someone following me!



I hear the skitter of toenails on the paved road and a panting sound.

Yellow dog and flea
It's a dog! A yellow dog. 

'No, boy. Go back!' I say in my firmest voice.
The yellow dog stands up, puts his paws on my arm, grins and barks.
'No. Stay. Stay!' I repeat.
He accompanies me all the way to the waterfall at the outskirts of Sorrento. Sometimes, for no reason I can discern, he chases a car, barking at it. But other cars he ignores? Why?

6.20 am - I have a revelation! On a previous research trip to Ostia, Flavia Gemina 'appeared' to me. Here is another character from the pages of my book: Scuto!

I should have seen it before! The golden-brown woolly coat, the absently wagging tail, the cheerful bark and grin, the slightly lopsided ears... most of all the faithful, comforting companionship. 

6:30 am - 'Scuto' waits with me at the bus stop for a few minutes, and when I shrug and resume walking he carries on beside me. When at last I reach the outskirts of Sorrento town he peels off to go have a sniff and I don't see him again. I miss him... 

6:45 - The Sorrento train station is the end of the line for the Circumvesuviana, (so called because it goes 'around Vesuvius'). It's a pretty station with palms and bougainvillea adding colour to the clean, new platform. 

6.50 am - It's just getting light when I buy my return ticket to Castellammare di Stabia. There are no tourists at this hour, just commuters: students and distinguished-looking civil servants who say 'Ciao!' when they step on the train, before they even see who is sitting there.

6.55 am - Perhaps the commuters always choose the same car, because they soon find friends and start chatting. They are very cheerful for that hour of the morning. I feel out of place. I can see from my reflection as we go through a tunnel that my hair is still mussed from my stealthy exit earlier that morning. Peering around me with notebook poised, I must seem slightly suspect. In the crowded train the seats around me are conspicuously empty. 

7.00 am - We rattle through the lesser towns: the delightfully named Piano di Sorrento, Meta, and Vico Equense with its Roman aqueduct out the right hand window. A lot of commuters get out here and then we continue on through the mountain to Castellammare.

7.05 am - We finally emerge from the long tunnel, the green cliff rising steeply on our right, and pull into Castellammare. The sun is just rising to the east somewhere over the plain. But I can't see it because the town is full of tall buildings. Originally, I had asked the travel agent to find a villa here, because this is where The Secrets of Vesuvius is mainly set. 

The travel agent ignored my request and gave us a villa in Sorrento. 'Nobody stays in the plain around Pompeii,' she informed me. 

7.07 am - I set off down the road from the train station and start to ask people where the baths are. My guide book to Naples says 'Thermal Baths; Piazza Amendola; June - Oct; 7am - 1 pm.' Well, it's October and it's just past 7am... I see a lurid poster for a Circus featuring piranha fish and beautiful women. 

7.10 am - I wander down to the 'beach' of Stabia.The sand is a rather unattractive grey brown. More like dirt than sand. It is a big beach, with a smooth opalescent bay beyond, dominated by Vesuvius's truncated cone. The coast stretches round to my right and there are are dockyards on my left. 

7.15 am - Along the waterfront dozens of joggers - both men and women - are running back and forth. Many of them stop and do leg stretches on the balustrade dividing the waterfront from the beach. This is obviously what the residents of Castellammare do at 7.00 am on a weekday. I ask one or two of the 'stretchers' about the baths. Nobody here in Stabia seems to know that their town is blessed with thermal baths. Even the oldest and the most venerable of them give each other glances and edge away from me when I enquire. Finally a man in a red and blue tracksuit gestures vaguely up the street, back towards Sorrento. 

So I set off to find the baths...

7.20 am - As I pass the dockyards in search of the baths of Stabia, I see a sign warning that cars might fall into the sea. The sign reminds me...

The day before we had just stepped off the ferry onto Capri when we heard shouts and turned just in time to see a tiny yellow Cinquecento (smaller than a Mini) rolling into the harbour!

Its front wheel was already over the edge and two Italians were hanging onto its rear yelling 'Aiuto! Aiuto!' For a moment it looked as if it could go either way. Then every Italian man in the piazza left their cups of espresso and swarmed over the little yellow car and pulled it back to safety. 

Thankfully, there was no-one inside. But someone had obviously left the parking brake off. As they pulled the little car back to safety there was much laughter and back slapping and rude jokes (I presume) at the car's expense. 

7.25 am - I am still trying to find the thermal baths of Stabia. I have visions of steamy Turkish baths full of short, moustached Italian women; of a massage on a marble slab; maybe even a mud-bath. I have purposely not washed my hair for a few days in anticipation. It's a bit itchy and I scratch it thoughtfully as I wander along the waterfront of Castellammare di Stabia.

I don't see any baths. 

Across the road is a smart looking coffee shop called the Excelsior Cafe. I figure someone in such a posh-looking joint might speak some English. Yes, he does. Yes, he knows the baths. I'm heading in the right direction but he doesn't think they open until 9.00 am. I glance at my watch:

7.30 am - As I leave the cafe, I note again that many Italian cafes don't have chairs or stools, just a bar at which to stand and grab a quick doppia (a double measure espresso) and one of those cheese filled croissants that seem so popular. It seems the Italians are in even more of a hurry to get through life than Londoners or New Yorkers... I proceed up the street through a distinctly non-tourist area of town. I get suspicious looks from women hanging laundry from windows, men lurking in alleys and high school students on their way to school. 

Then I discover that the way to deal with this intensely suspicious glance is to disarm it with a cheery smile and a bright buon giorno! This has the most amazing effect. Immediately the glowering face is transformed to a delighted smile. I ask some kids where i termi are. They point behind me. 

There, behind a crinkled street-sweeper with a twig broom is a huge fascist-looking structure. Sure enough, cleverly hidden behind a shrub are the words TERME STABIANI... A group of men loiter on the stairs and the steep green cliffs of the Milky Mountains rise up behind it. With some trepidation I mount the steps. I am thinking sauna, massage, mud wrap, steaming hot sulphurous baths...
The man at the ticket window looks blankly at me when I ask for the baths. He gestures vaguely back towards town. Then he hands me a brochure. Apparently the mud baths, massage and saunas are available in the posher part of Stabia, up in the hills in a private beauty clinic. Then he hands me a plastic cup and gestures for me to enter. I stand for a minute feeling extremely stupid, then hesitantly walk towards the huge iron doors. This is going to be a very interesting bath, I think to myself, holding my plastic cup as I pass through the gates.

7.45 am - I find myself outside again. The green cliff rises up before me. To my right is a large open space with table and chairs. The chairs are all stacked on the tables, but presumably in summer this place is crowded with people. 

To my left are semi-circular steps leading down to a kind of altar from which nine pipes protrude. Each one spouts cold water into a marble trough. Above the pipes are the words in Latin 'Creationis Gloria Humanitatis Salute' which I guess means something like 'The Glory of Creation for the Health of Humanity'... 

Looking closer, I see that the spouts are labelled: Solfurea Ferrata (Sulphur Iron), Ferrata, Solfurea, Magnesiaca, S. Vincenzo, Media, Acidula, Solfurea Carbonica and Muraglione.

Nine different types of water gush from nine pipes which emerge from the cliff. Suddenly I get a strong whiff of sulphur, as if someone were waving a hard-boiled egg just under my nose. It really gets me in the back of the throat. I stand with my plastic cup, watching peasant women and joggers fill empty bottles, cups and even cupped hands to get the water. They bottle and drink it avidly.

I take a deep breath and bend to fill my cup with Solfurea Ferrata. I stand and sip it. It's cold and tastes of fizzy, salty eggs. I drink it down. 

The Ferrata is just salty and fizzy. 

Then I try just the Solfurea. It's eggy.

As I finish my third cup an odd woman smiles at me. She has been drinking from S.Vincenzo and is patting it on her cheeks.

She sees me watching and indicates that S.Vincenzo is good for the skin. In fact it's good for all over. She points to the Magnesiaca and prods her stomach. 'Per stomaco' she says. Then she points to the first three pipes, the ones I've been drinking from. She makes a downwards sweeping motion with her hands and says something which sounds like, 'Clistere, clistere...' Clyster?

Oops! I've just drunk three cupfuls of water designed to loosen the bowels!

The marble trough which catches the water as it gushes out of the pipes is rust red, presumably from the high iron content. This is REAL mineral water. A man is filling plastic water bottles from the Ferrata pipe and there is half an inch of red-orange sediment at the bottom of his bottle! I try more of the water, this time just taking a taste. The Acidula isn't acid. The Solfurea Carbonica just tastes salty. I suppose an expert would describe it as 'eggy, with a hint of iron and the insouciant fizz of bicarbonate...' but to me it all tastes the same. 

As I walk back along the waterfront towards Stabia's train station, I notice that most of the joggers have been replaced by Italian naval officers who look as if they've just stepped off a battleship.
Wearing well-cut navy blue uniforms and white caps, they look extremely smart as they stroll towards the coffee shops for their tiny jolt of espresso. 

8.30 am - When you come into Stabia by train, the sign on the platform reads: Stabia di Castellemmare/Villa Romana. So I figure the environs of the train station would give the best lead for finding the famous Roman villas. No such luck. No-one seems to have a clue what I am talking about. Can 'Villa Romana' be so hard to understand? At last I spot a brown 'historical interest' sign promising 'scavi': excavations. It directs me up the main street, in the opposite direction from the baths.

8.35 am - I duly set off through the centre of the modern town. Shopkeepers are opening up shops and schoolchildren making their way to school. Traders have just finished setting up fruit and veg stalls displaying the most wonderful variety of produce: yellow-green baby pears, black grapes, purple figs, pale green fennel, mottled green zucchini, glossy aubergine and tomatoes still on their stalks. 

8.40 am - And the fish stalls! Flat round blue trays filled with shellfish, red mullet, anchovies, and fish I couldn't begin to recognise or name. This probably hasn't changed in two thousand years. Except for the plastic scoop. 

I notice the brick pavements are set with white marble patterns, presumably for the same reason ancient Pompeian sidewalks had marble chippings - to help you see them in the night. These were the ancient Roman version of cat's eyes. 

8.45 am - At last I reach a hill where the street divides, becoming bigger and busier. Ahead of me, the road sign indicates that the 'scavi' can be reached by going either right or left. It's a busy road and I can't go on foot. While staring round distractedly I notice a line of tiny mini-bus taxis which have just finished doing their school runs. I approach one of the drivers, a short young man with dark hair, and I point to the address in my guide book. Though he speaks no English he understands where I want to go and agrees to take me.

8.50 am - I am the only passenger in a little 'buslet' meant for five or six school children. I feel a bit like Gulliver among the Lilliputians: if I sit up straight my head touches the car's roof! Up the hill we buzz. Up an up, round and round, finally ending up at a small white wooden house at the end of a track. Several men come out onto the porch, lean their elbows on the rail and grin down at us. My driver gets out and shows them my guide, asking if this is Villa Ariadne.

'Yes.' they say. 'Of course this is the Villa Arianna.' A tour of the villa should take about 20 minutes. The driver agrees to wait for me. I show the Villa Ariadne men my ticket from Pompeii: it's supposed to allow you free entry to these other sites. One of the men, a pleasant looking Italian with grizzled hair, waves it aside. 

'No payment,' he smiles. 'Just sign guest book.' 

Then he takes a heavy bunch of keys from his pocket and leads me across a grassy, dew-soaked field for my private tour of not one but two opulent Roman villas, both set right at the edge of a cliff, looking down on suburban houses and small gardens built where the sea bed would have been 2000 years ago. But eheu! Alas! I have run out of film. I can't take photographs of the two amazing villas he shows me. [Needless to say, this is before the age of digital cameras or iPhone backups.]

9.00 am - At the first villa I can still see the remains of the terrace where guests would have sat to sip honeyed wine and to watch the sun set. They must have had a stunning sea view in ancient times. This is the famous Villa Ariadne, so called after a fresco of Ariadne lolling about on a rock, after Theseus has abandoned her on the island of Naxos. The young wine god, Dionysus, has just arrived to console her. The famous fresco is now at the Archaeological Museum in Naples.

One of the most famous paintings of Roman times comes from this villa: it is a tiny figure of the goddess Flora. It's also in Naples, of course. [Seven years from now, Bulgarian set designers will paint a much larger version on the set of the TV series based on my books.]

9.10 am - These Roman villas on the hill overlooking Castellammare di Stabia are astounding. Huge rooms, all triclinia (dining rooms) according to my guide, with frescoes on the walls and mosaics on the floors. Some of the stairs to the upper floors still remain. There are tiny slaves' quarters, huge reception areas, hidden passages and narrow halls. These were really vast mansions. These would have been the neighbours of Pliny the Elder's friend Titus Tascius Pomponianus. 

9.15 am - I return to my taxi and we drive to the Villa San Marco. I see later from a map that what took a few kilometres by car is only a few meters. I could have walked it.

9.30 am - A smiling woman in a trouser suit leaves her kiosk to show me the Villa San Marco. She sets off towards a nearby farm, beckoning me to follow. I follow her through a farm courtyard, past some olive groves, a few sleeping dogs (this could almost be the farm of Flavia's Uncle Gaius), and past a more modern complex to the villa.

9.45 am - The first thing that strikes me is the huge swimming pool in the courtyard of the Villa San Marco. It is as wide as an Olympic swimming pool and twice as long! 

My guide has no English, and I have little Italian, so she gestures silently, like a game show hostess showing me the prizes on offer.

She shows me the enormous private bath complex, with its large sunken rectangular pool and the biggest hypocaust system (for heating water) I have seen on any ancient site. 

She shows me the lady's boudoir, with dark blue walls and little stars and a plaster sleeping platform on which to put a feather down mattress.

She shows me the charming atrium, with its four beautiful columns, Pompeian red at the base, then plaster mixed with marble dust and fluted to give the impression of real columns. 

9.50 am - Then my guide shows me the most enormous Roman kitchen I have ever seen. 

Most Roman kitchens have one or maybe two arched cooking platforms. Wood goes underneath, and coals lie on top, like a kind of indoor barbecue. This one has a cooking platform with FOUR arches and enough space on top to prepare a meal for one hundred! On the left a large stone sink! 

In a big airy dining-room about two storeys high is another famous fresco I recognise. Perseus, wearing Mercury's winged sandals and hat, is tiny, less than two feet tall. He calmly holds up the head of Medusa. The decapitated gorgon is not at all hideous. She looks quite mild and even coy. 

Suddenly there is a fluttering in the high rafters: a little sparrow. 

'Uccellino,' says my guide, gesturing at the bird and smiling apologetically, as if it's her fault he's trapped in this bright room. We watch him silently for a few minutes and make sympathetic faces. But there is nothing we can do, and we leave him there, fluttering above Perseus and his little Medusa.

9.55 am - As my female guide leads me away from the villa San Marco a curly-haired young man with a rucksack slung over one shoulder approaches. We converge outside the modern bungalow I noticed earlier. This is obviously the archaeologists' headquarters, the place where they catalogue shards of pottery and collect bits of mosaic. The young man greets my guide in Italian. They exchange a few words. Then he turns to me and introduces himself.

His name is Benjamin and he learned his English in London, in Wood Green. As we chat, a few of the other archaeologists poke their heads out of the doorway and beam at us. One of them has a truly impressive big beard, another looks like the American comedian Jon Lovitz: rotund and genial. There is another woman and a few older men. They confer among themselves then call out something to my guide. 'They want you to join us for breakfast,' grins Benjamin. 

'I'm afraid I can't. I have a taxi waiting for me; I've already been too long...' I smile at Big Beard and shrug apologetically. 

10.00 am - A few minutes later I find myself in a kind of lounge with all six of them. A sink and small cooker in one corner, a formica table, some shelves and chairs. On the table is a rectangular metal caterers' dish filled with a curious kind of food: chunks of wholemeal bread have been hollowed out and filled with an unidentifiable meat and some type of greens - broccoli leaves, I think. 

'They've been up since before 6.00 am', explains Benjamin, 'and they like a big breakfast.'

I've been up since before 6.00, too, but there's half a litre of sulphur water sloshing about in my stomach. I protest that I'm not really hungry and besides, my taxi is waiting for me... But they won't hear of it. Big Beard thrusts a 'lamb-butty' into my hand. As I take a few bites, they all laugh and chatter away happily in Italian. I notice they're drinking wine. 

'They say you must have some wine,' laughs Benjamin. 'It's home-made; they make it themselves...' Ah. So THAT'S what Italian archaeologists do all day... Big Beard reaches down into a green plastic crate and pulls out a glass bottle filled with something dark. It's the home-made wine.

'No. Don't open a new bottle for me. Really. I couldn't. I mean, it's not even 10.00 am yet! No, really. My poor taxi driver. Well, if you insist... grazie... No! Basta! Basta!' The liquid in my plastic cup is such a dark red it is almost black. It is fizzingly fresh, with purple foam on top, and incredibly powerful. I take a few sips and another bite of my sandwich. The archaeologists are really buzzing now, all talking and laughing at full volume. 

'I really must go,' I pleaded. 'If I didn't have a taxi waiting, I'd stay and...'

'No. They say you can't possibly go until you've had a coffee!' insists Benjamin. Within seconds 'Jon Lovitz' hands me a tiny plastic cup half full of rich, dark espresso. It's strong. Very strong. No wonder they're all buzzing!

10.15 am - I say goodbye to the archaeologists of the Villa San Marco and hurry to see if my young taxi driver is still waiting. He is. Leaning against the car, smoking a cigarette. When he sees me coming he flicks the butt into the dewy grass. Then opens my door and drives me back through the most chaotic spaghetti of traffic I have ever witnessed. Big cars, little cars, scooters, bicycles, buses all weaving and dancing and honking and doing U-turns and gesticulating... Apparently it's normal weekday traffic in Stabia. Heaven help them if the mountain blows! 

10.20 am - The taxi finally drops me at the train station of Via Nocera, which is closer than Castellammare di Stabia. I pay my faithful driver 50,000 lire, about £16 [or 15 euros at today's rates] which I think he well deserves

10.22 am - Waiting for a train, I have a sudden thought: Maybe I should try walking round the promontory from here! To see if it's possible... 

[to be continued]

P.S. For up-to-date information on the Villas at Stabia, visit the Restoring Ancient Stabia website and follow them on Twitter @fond_ras.


  1. What a delightful account of your adventures! Waiting anxiously for the next update. Hope that you are planning on writing several. Loved your "meeting" with Scuto Perhaps you also encountered the ghost of Lesbia's sparrow at the Villa San Marco I always hoped that it would escape from the Underworld despite Catullus' ominous words.

    1. I love your idea of the uccellino being the ghost of Lesbia's sparrow. Part Two is now up!