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main index         © Jeff Matthews            entry Feb. 2003  top image added March 2015


Campi Flegrei 
The Flegrean Fields

"The Breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone..."    - Isaiah xxx, 33.

 A print depicting the Campi Flegrei as seen through the eyes of                                 
 Athanasius Kircher in his Mundus subterraneus from 1665                             

Somewhere there's a German—(is that a song title?)—who, if he ever thinks of me at all, remembers me simply as as the joker who gave him a bum steer (taurus impecuniosus) about the Fiery Fields of Naples, the Flegrean Fields, the Campi Flegrei. We were sharing a metro carriage, stopped and apparently wintering over in Fuorigrotta, when I noticed a young man with an Erich von Stroheim scalpcut, dueling scar and monocle,  humming The Ride of the Valkyries under his breath and holding a guidebook to Naples upside down. I approached and asked in my best Gothic, "Are you please to be in dire straits of information, nicht wahr? " 

 "Zese are ze Phlegrean Fields, ja?"  he snapped. 

"Uh, yeah," I said, in that authoritative Baedecker baritone that is well-known to those who know and love me (not necessarily the same persons), for I, too, had seen the Campi Flegrei sign on the station platform. Spent by the intimacy of conversation, he clicked his heels and got off in gratitude. (I was later to get off in Bagnoli). As we pulled out, I noticed him noticing that he was surrounded by Fiats and cement. I last saw him dolefully rummaging through newsstand post-cards looking for exploding volcanoes and similar stuff that had made Goethe swoon, sturm und drang 150 years earlier. 

I now know that I put young Siegfried off the train at least two stops too early. (Who could blame him if he has since dedicated his life to taking revenge on unsuspecting tourists by standing outside the Black Forest Gasthaus in the middle of Hamburg and telling them, "Why, sure, the headwaters of the Danube are right over there. It says "Black Forest," doesn't it? Heh-heh-heh.") 


 Monte Nuovo and Lake Lucrino in the Campi Flegrei

The Campi Flegrei is a cauldron of volcanic origin extending from the heights of Posillipo in the south to Cuma in the north and inland a number of miles. It is a welter of extinct  craters, bubbling sulfur pits, underground thermal springs, skewed hills and sudden jagged upcroppings of tufa and solidified lava. 

The best way to see this geological freakshow as a single unit is to get some high ground. Parco Virgiliano is ideal for this. The park is on the Posillipo ridge overlooking the island of Nisida and offers a clear view over to the other side of the bay, Cape Miseno, and inland to the Astroni, which is the wildlife reserve and park above Agnano. Lake Miseno, by the way, was an important port for the imperial Roman fleet. There is a lighthouse on the cape, a modern descendant of the one that guided Roman sailors. The highest point in the Phlegrean Fields is Camaldoli. It is home to an ancient hermitage (now a modern convent), prominently visible from anywhere in the area, perched as it is, 458 meters above sea-level. It is open to visitors and offers another clear and broad panorama of the Fields (photo album here).

Monte Nuovo (photo, above), near Arco Felice, is another remarkable feature of the Campi Flegrei. The name means "new mountain" and is entirely appropriate. It was born in a matter of days, beginning early in the morning of September 29, 1538. In geological terms, mountains don't come much newer than that, or if they do, try to be elsewhere when it happens. A Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies published in Naples in 1816 recounts that the eruption destroyed a local town and a hospital. It also cites the proverbial wisdom that "grass doesn't grow on Monte Nuovo," then points out how off the mark that bit of folk wisdom is — there is grass, not to mention trees, all over Monte Nuovo, says the encyclopedist.

(See the main article on Monte Nuovo.)

(For a separate item on the geology of the Bay of Naples, click here.)

Solfatara is the ever bubbling sulfur pit just south of Pozzuoli; it is one of the greatest tourist attractions in the area. Sulfur fumaroles vent themselves all over the place, and you may see entire families out for a Sunday stroll suddenly stop and run over to one and stick their heads right into the stygian stench. These are not practitioners of some cult of Neo-Nasal Masochism, for besides use in vulcanizing rubber, making matches, gunpowder, insecticides and industrial-grade brimstone with which to pave the "broad way to destruction," sulfur has putative healing powers, so if the stuff shoots up right beside the road, free for the snorting, why should you pay for the privilege at one of the many spas around town?)


Also, if someone has told you to go to Hell recently, Lake Averno is on the left as you leave Pozzuoli and head north up the via Domiziana. From World Literature, you will remember that this is the mythological descent to the underworld, mentioned by Virgil in the Aeneid. Speaking of which: Cuma, home to Aeneas after his wanderings and the first Greek settlement on the Italian mainland, is the last prominent "bump" on the Phlegrean landscape before it smooths out onto the plain that goes north towards Gaeta. If there is room for only one cultural "must" on your list, there is something wrong with you, but, anyway, Cuma is it. For those of you who fall into the psychological trap of telescoping all ancient civilizations into one convenient mind-frame (as in: "the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans"), remember that two thousand years ago, an ancient Roman stood where you are standing and marveled at Cuma because the ancient Greeks had built it. 

The Campi Flegrei have fascinated travelers for centuries. When Charles Dickens was here, he said: 

The fairest country in the world is spread about us. Whether we turn towards the Miseno shore of the splendid watery amphitheatre, and go by the Grotto of Posillipo to the Grotta del Cane (Dog) and away to Baiae, or take the other way, towards Vesuvius and Sorrento, it is one succession of delights.

A less poetic view of the Grotto of the Dog is provided by Mark Twain, who claimed he was all fired up to really try and suffocate one of man's best friends in the Grotto's famed noxious vapors. He couldn't manage to chase down a victim. [Click here for that Mark Twain passage from The Innocents Abroad.] I'm not going to tell you where that particular place is. Find it yourself. Look for the metro stop that says Campi Flegrei. Then, ask a stranger.

Oh, all right. The Grotto of the Dog is here.

[Also see Mar 2009 update: "The Baia Castle and the Museum of the Campi Flegrei".]
[Also see The Big Archie  and The Coastal Caves.]  [Also update from April 2015.]

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