Saturday, June 18, 2005

Baths of Baia

The Sirens of Surrentum
It is mid-summer of 2005. I am on the Bay of Naples to research my most romantic Roman Mystery, The Sirens of Surrentum. It has taken me three days to find an internet cafe here in Campania and it's not even an internet cafe, just a video/DVD shop with a computer by one wall. Plus it's down in Sorrento, not in the hill village where we're staying. Our package tour has put us in a little village 'only seven kilometres' from Sorrento. Problem is it takes ages to get the bus down to Sorrento. That's what happens when you book cheap last minute holidays sight unseen. Anyway, the Hotel Delle Palma in Sant'Agata is a very charming three star hotel with pines, palms, magnolia and plane trees. Our room has a balcony overlooking the pool and a bit of the gulf and Capri. (Later on I discover there IS an internet cafĂ©, only a hundred metres from the hotel!)

Saturday is our day to explore Baia. It is quite a journey. We catch the little SITA bus from Sant'Agata at 7.10, the circumvesuviana train at 7.40, the metro from Naples-Garibaldi at 9.00, chang trains at Napoli Campi Flegrei to catch the train to Pozzuoli at 9.30 and finally arrive at the Archeobus stop at 10.00am.

pool at the Hotel Della Palma in Sant'Agata near Sorrento
There is so much I want to see here: the site of ancient Baiae (modern Baia), ancient Cumae, where the Sybil lived; Misenum, from where Pliny first saw the volcano erupting; Pozzuoli, with its Flavian amphitheatre and underground Roman city... But my next book is mainly set in Baia so we go there first. The Archeobus is a little bus that makes a circuit of all the major sites to the west of Naples, those around the Campi Flegrei (burning fields), so called because of all the volcanic activity.

We have been standing at the busstop about 10 minutes a gentleman with a cane politely informs us that "the archeobus is finished". Apparently they have stopped running it.

The man tells us to get a little bus which they call pullman. He will show us. Presently the little SEPSA bus comes and we go with the gentleman as far as Lago Lucrino. The Lucrine Lake was the site of Agrippina's house. Agrippina was the mother of Nero and one spring evening in AD 65 he decided to have her murdered. After his botched plan to drown her in a collapsing boat (she swam to shore), some fishermen picked her up and brought her here, where Nero's hitmen finished the job with their swords. The Lake – which was once famous through the Empire for its oysters – is now little more than a stagnant pool, but there is a restaurant on the shore called La Nimphea which overlooks the lake and puts me in mind of Agrippina's Villa.

It is after 11.00am and boiling hot. We haven't had anything to eat, so we dive into a shady cafe for peanuts, espresso and water. Suitably refreshed, we ask the waiter when the trains to Baia run. "Every ten minutes" he assures us in Italian. We go to the little station across the road but when we ask about il prossimo treno per Baia the handful of travellers just shrug.

so-called Temple of Diana at Baia
So we stand in the beating sun to catch another pullman. Mercifully it comes after five or ten minutes and we pile on.

It is only luck that we get out at the right place; the busdriver has no clue where the ancient baths are. But we spot the brown sign with its white letters. A short but exhausting climb up the hill brings us to the site entrance.

These ruins on the hill overlooking the pretty blue bay are of opulent baths. There were many baths complexes here in Baia. The so-called Temple of Diana, a dramatic half dome, that we passed on the way up are baths. So is the Temple of Venus.

From up here we can clearly see the train station of Baia. Its tracks are rusted and wildflowers grow profusely around it. 'Every ten minutes', indeed! This station hasn't been used in at least five years...

The site is hot and deserted. We explore the terrace of an opulent villa and the baths surrounding it. We see the odd black and white mosaic, a headless marble statue in a niche, a patch of frescoed wall with Pompeian red and the even more expensive Egyptian blue. Much of the site is roped off and it is obviously well-off the beaten track. I am hoping we will be able to see the so-called (again) Temple of Mercury.

The Temple of Mercury was a huge dome, as big as the Pantheon and pre-dating it, built in the time of Augustus. It was either the apodyterium or frigidarium of this bath complex. I tend to think the latter as it is the outstanding feature of the baths and this is where people would mainly congregate. I have seen pictures and know it will be amazing. But will we have access? Poor Richard is pouring with sweat, even though he's wearing his straw hat, and he follow me without complaint, occasionally stopping to mop his brow with a handtowel borrowed from the hotel.

I lead him past ruined porticoes and down scrubby paths fringed with fennel, quince, chamomile, dill, sage and other herbs. At last we arrive and it seems to be open! Next to the rectangular entrance is a vault which was once one of the rooms of the baths. And here is something I have never seen in my life; a fig tree growing UPSIDE DOWN from the roof of the vault. It is green and healthy and bearing a good crop of figs. What a marvel!

Then we enter the rectangular room and go through a narrow passage and emerge into another world.

Caroline in the so-called Temple of Mercury
Here is a great dome with a circular open skylight at the top and four rectangular openings on its sides. From somewhere a breeze is funneled through the openings and carresses us with delicious coolness. The high dome amplifies our whispered exclamations and makes them echo. But the most amazing thing is the sunlight which pours almost straight down through the skylight onto four feet of green water, caused by bradyseism or flooding. The surface of the water, barely rippled by the breeze, throws a huge trembling golden disc back up onto the inner surface of the dome.

Then we see the fish swimming in the murky water: huge gold and white carp, languidly drifting through the dark water and avoiding the sunlit patches. A flutter of wings makes us look up to see a dove fluttering through one of the openings. The breeze blows, the water plops, I want to stay in this magical place forever.

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2. Season One of the TV series is available in Europe and the UK on iTunes.]

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