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The Blue Grotto at Capri

Capri is a resort island reached by boat from Naples. When you arrive, take the funicular to the piazzetta (little square) where It Started In Naples was filmed starring Sophia Loren and Clark Gable. From here, walk two kilometers along narrow roads lined with white washed buildings and where hotel carts zip past. You’ll end at the eerie remains of Emperor Tiberius’ villa, called the Jovis Villa.

The emperor’s summer villa still exists in Sperlonga, but Tiberius exiled himself to the Jovis Villa with its stunning views of the sea. He then left the day-to-day ruling of Rome to his ruthless praetorian guard Sejanus.

Villa of Tiberius in Capri

The two historians who documented Tiberius’ life, Tacitus and Suetonius, claim that by the time he lived in Capri, he was a depraved man. Known by his subjects as “Biberius” for his hard drinking, Suetonius seemed to almost enjoy the detailed descriptions of Tiberius’ time on the island. Seutonius wrote:

“Bevies of girls and toy boys, whom he had collected from all over as adepts in unnatural practices and who were known as spintriae, would perform before him in groups of three to excite his waning passions. A number of small rooms were furnished with the most indecent pictures and statuary obtainable, as well as the erotic manuals of Elephantis; the inmates of the establishment would know from these exactly what was expected of them. He furthermore devised little nooks of lechery in the woods and glades of the island, and had boys and girls dressed up as Pans and nymphs posted in front of caverns or grottoes, so that the island was now openly and generally called “Caprineum.””

Leaving the governance of Rome to his ruthless Sejanus, Tiberius was no less ruthless on his island. Suetonius also said:

“In Capreae they still talk about how the place at the cliff top where Tiberius used to watch his victims being thrown into the sea after prolonged and exquisite tortures. A party of marines was stationed below, and when the bodies came hurtling down they whacked at them with oars and boat hooks, to make sure that they were completely dead. An ingenious torture of Tiberius’ devising was to trick men into drinking huge draughts of wine, and then suddenly to knot a cord tightly around their genitals, which not only cut into the flesh but prevented them from urinating.”

Tiberius became so ruthless while exiling himself on Capri that upon his death at the age of seventy-seven, he was denied the usual divine honors of a Caesar and mobs of people in the streets of Rome yelled “To the Tiber with Tiberius.” They refused even to bury his body.

Today, beaches and quiet nature make this island beautiful. The Blue Grotto is the main tourist attraction, which would be a wonderful experience – if it wasn’t also a real assault on the pocketbook.

You pay a fee at the harbor and a boat takes you along the sheer cliffs until you reach the opening of the grotto. Here, you’re required to pay another fee to get into a row boat. The rower then tells you to lie down in the boat. He pulls at a chain strung through a small rock opening and the boat rushes inside. You enter a cavern where startling electric blue ambient light shines from the bottom of the water. The rower sings a song – often this is O Sole Mio but we got something from the Spanish group Gypsy Kings – his voice echoing throughout the cave along with the many other boatmen. He then asks for a tip before you leave his rowboat… and asks for an additional tip after that.

It’s brief, has a measure of magic but is, above all, an expensive experience that may leave you with a Tiberius-like sense of fiduciary perversity.

Getting There: You can catch a fast hydrofoil (aliscafo) to Capri every hour of every day at the Molo Beverello port in downtown Naples across the street from Castel Nuovo. Slower ferries (whether a nave or traghetto) depart from the nearby Calata Porta di Massa port. Check timetables (orari) at any tourist office or on-line at the ferry and jet services, including: Caremar and SNAV.

The Bourbon Tunnel

Near Piazza del Plebiscito and a little way up Via Gennaro Serra, a tiny vicoletto provides another route into the heart of the underground. You begin in a former veterinary clinic before descending tuff stone steps down into the Bourbon tunnel.

The year 1848 was tough for any European monarch; riots and revolution were the order of the day in many cities. This made King Ferdinand more than thoughtful as he sat in his new palace in Naples. What he needed most of all was a possible escape route. So in 1853 he commissioned architect Enrico Alvino to construct a tunnel from the royal palace to a spot near the barracks at Piazza Vittorio. Officially this was to be a double tunnel, the King’s and Queen’s tunnels running parallel, full of stores and with an elegant interior. But in reality, the workers not only had to dig through the tuff rock to create a new passageway, but they also had to cross the existing water system that Cesare Carmignano had devised in the 17th century. This part, at least, was accomplished by bridging cisterns and carving out new spaces where once only the pozzari had ventured with their lanterns. Work stopped after two years and soon Ferdinand and his building projects would be overtaken by political changes that swept across Europe.

Entrance to Bourbon TunnelAs with many other underground spaces, the tunnel was used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War; cisterns were filled with earth to raise them to usable levels, low voltage electricity supplies were installed along with toilets and showers. One can only imagine how difficult it was to endure months of bombing in these dank spaces. Down here, as you pass along the corridors and through echoing cisterns, you can see heart-rending messages on the walls – Noi vivi or “We are alive” – and view the remains of beds and children’s toys.

Towards the end of the tour comes a real surprise, the ghostly chassis and frames of cars, vans, and bicycles along the passageways. The tunnel was used as storage for vehicles confiscated from Neapolitans who engaged in contraband trade, chiefly that of tobacco. Just before emerging, blinking into the light of day at Via Morelli (grateful there are no stairs to climb back up) you see the broken fragments of an enormous statue that once stood in Piazza Santa Maria degli Angeli – a monument to Aurelio Padovani, the fascist leader of Campania in the 1920s.

Padovani died, along with eight other people, when he stepped out onto a balcony in Via Generale Orsini to greet enthusiastic crowds on his name’s-day and the railing gave way. Conspiracy theories abound as to whether Mussolini, jealous of Padovani’s popularity and power in the south, had orchestrated his demise. Il Duce commissioned his statue, whether in a fit of regret or cynicism, and the monument remained in the little square throughout the war. How the pieces came to be found under layers of trash and rubble in the Bourbon tunnel is yet another mystery.

It took five years for the teams of speleologists and various volunteers to clear out the accumulated lumber and refuse, but now the tunnel offers a great glimpse into the history of Naples at three key points in its history.

Getting There: The address is Vico del Grottone 4, Naples. Walk up Via Gennaro Serra from Piazza del Plebiscito. The vico and entrance are on the left. Expect to see laundry hanging to dry overhead.

Grotte Di Pastena

The impressive and yet out of the way Grotte di Pastena is about eighty-five kilometers north of Naples. If you drive to the city of Formia, signs for the grotto begin along the road, but beware: the signs don’t mark the number of kilometers to the destination, taking you instead into endlessly winding and mountainous roads.

An hour’s drive later amid beautiful views of valleys and lush vegetation, the signs lead to a gravel parking lot replete with a restaurant and souvenir shop. The entrance to the grotto is at the end of the parking lot and a concrete pathway leads down a hill to a rock opening with shades of copper and mossy green.

River CaveThe grotto system measures 2,127 meters long and is actually a huge river cave. The river drains into the cave from the valley, creating a sinkhole.

The tour begins in a chamber, where you can see small blue lakes and water streams. Stalagmites rise from the floor and stalactites hang from the ceiling of caves, which form through the dripping of mineral-saturated water.

The echo of running water persists throughout the tour accompanied by the sound of squeaking bats. As you walk deeper and deeper into the cave, a path takes you to a sheer dark cliff on one side and turns down into another tunnel, leading into a dark grotto. Here, impressive stalagmites scatter up a hill until dirt meets the rock above. Bats fly all around and a large black mound of bat excrement towers in the middle, prompting most tourists to comment: “Eeew.”

Getting There: Either follow the signs from Formia for the scenic route or drive along the A1 either from Rome or from Naples until you see the signs to the Grotte di Pastena. The address is Via Porta Napoli, Pastena.

Pausilypon

When his slave broke a crystal cup, Publius Vedius Pollio condemned him to death, insisting that he be dropped into a pool of moray eels. Pollio’s friend, Emperor Augustus, told the self-made ga-gillionaire to spare the slave’s life. Augustus then ordered all Pollio’s expensive drinking vessels smashed and his pool filled in.

Pollio was described as a cruel Roman knight of the equestrian order. He was also so wealthy that he owned a private grotto 770 meters long. People and horses could pass through the tunnel by invitation only, which led to his villa perched on a cliff. Inside, he had his own amphitheater for gladiator fights as well as an odeon for theater spectacles. After Pollio’s death, the notorious minister of Tiberius, Sejanus, bought the villa. Hence, today the long tunnel is known as the Grotta di Seiano.

Naples Posillipo Island While walking down the grotto, three corridors provide ventilation. One corridor has a hallway of old toilets that people used during WWII when this tunnel was used as a temporary bomb shelter. The main tunnel ends at a pathway filled with vegetation that curves over to a massive villa, known as Pausilypon, which means a respite from toil or pain in Greek.

Publius Vedius Pollio’s are well-preserved. Broad steps take visitors up to what could have been a suite of bedrooms overlooking the sea. The kitchen downstairs still displays the original slabs of red marble against the walls. While the villa sits on a cliff, it can’t be seen from any angle within the city or by boat – its construction craftily tucked into the mountain.

Behind the villa, another pathway meanders to an outlook point where three small islands dot the water. On one island, an eighteenth century villa sits abandoned. Legend has it that the owners left during the twentieth century because it was haunted by ghosts. Other folklore says that a woman lived there in complete solitude for many years until her death and the villa remained uninhabited thereafter.

Getting There: The Villa di Pollione (also called Pausilypon) with its Grotta di Seiano, is at Discesa Coroglio 36, Naples. Parking is available along the sidewalk.

Pausylipon When is it open? Answer: Unclear. The men at the front say they are at the desk Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and their tours are free. You must only call this number: 081 230 1030, which after three rings goes to a fax machine. Another number to call is: 081 575 4465, which goes to someone who gives private tours for an unknown fee. In truth, someone answers both these numbers only sporadically. My advice: be persistent and get someone on the phone to find out when the gates are open. Getting someone on the phone is the trick: it may take months and when they answer and give you a date – run over as fast as you can. It’s worth the trip!

Do you know anything more about the abandoned villa on the island? Write me and let me know!


Virgil’s Tomb

After a decade of writing The Aeneid while living in Naples, Virgil traveled to Athens in 19 B.C. where he met his friend and patron, Emperor Augustus. During the trip, he caught a fever and he eventually died in the Brundisium harbor. Augustus ordered Virgil’s remains sent back to Naples and today a park with a sign off the congested road between the districts of Mergellina and Fuorigrotta announces “Virgil’s Tomb.”

Bust of Virgil Park your car on the sidewalk to the rear of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta Church and then stroll through unassuming gates and a small visitor center, presumably where tickets can be purchased, but it’s abandoned. Instead, the park is free to the public. A concrete path leads to an alcove with a bust of Virgil. The path turns steep after that and placards in the grass identify the lush Mediterranean vegetation. Whoever takes care of this park nurtures the very plants mentioned in Virgil’s works, including strawberries, myrtle, and ivy.

The path winds up to a trapezoidal Grotta Vecchia, also called the Crypta Neapoletana. It’s a mammoth tunnel cut into the tuff-stone, measuring about 700 meters long by 16 meters wide that the Romans constructed during the first century B.C. A locked fence bars visitors from entering. Up high on the ceiling, there’s a well-preserved, brightly colored 14th century fresco of the Madonna and Child.

Grotta Vecchia The early Renaissance humanist, Petrarch, wrote that a chapel was built here in an attempt to curb pilgrims during the early Middle Ages from gathering for all-night parties and orgies in honor of the god Mithras. The Church then absorbed these gatherings into its own tradition, creating a celebration at this location for the Madonna of Piedigrotta.

As the Church increasingly pressured paganism out of existence from 330 A.D. onwards, emperors and clergy alike had a difficult time convincing people to convert fully to Christianity. As a consequence, pagan festivals were turned into Christian festivals and the Church replaced the many gods and goddesses with a variety of male and female saints. If you wander through this region long enough, you’ll observe the seamless blend of pagan and Christian traditions, which no longer harbor any contradictions.

Virgil To the right of the Grotta Vecchia, steps lead to a Roman aqueduct that used to carry water along a one-hundred kilometer route. Additional steps lead up and across the top of the Grotta Vecchia to a sanctuary. Inside, a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo sits in a hollow space. This may have been the place where Virgil’s ashes once rested.

Virgil is said to have foretold the coming of Christ in his Eclogues, so myths grew during medieval times about how he had possessed magical powers during his lifetime and how he even hid a magical egg inside Castel dell’Ovo. Pilgrims, including Petrarch and Dante, continued to come to this sanctuary and pay homage to the poet for many centuries. His remains, of course, are lost to time, but from the shrine, you can admire the mystical view of downtown Naples and Mt. Vesuvius.

Getting There: The address is Via Salita della Grotta 1, Naples. You can take the Line 2 Metropolitana to the Mergellina stop and ask directions – it’s only two blocks away. The park entrance lies right before a road tunnel and behind Santa Maria di Piedigrotta Church. It’s easy to miss and there’s no parking except on the sidewalk. To get there, you’ll also have to wade through the Naples traffic, so the metro might be an excellent choice.

Villa of Tiberius in Sperlonga

Driving north of Naples toward Formia and Gaeta, you come to sheer cliffs that overlook the sea at Sperlonga. Here, the Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C. – 37 A.D.) created a summer villa which included a grotto.

Suetonius has an other-worldly description of the Emperor:

“Tiberius was strongly and heavily built, and above average height. His shoulders and chest were broad, and his body perfectly proportioned from top to toe. His left hand was more agile than the right, and so strong that he could poke a hole in a sound, newly plucked apple or wound the skull of a boy or young man with a flick of his finger. He had a handsome, fresh-complexioned face, though subject to occasional rashes of pimples. Letting his back hair grow down over the nape seems to have been a family habit of the Claudii. Tiberius’ eyes were remarkably large and possessed the unusual power of seeing in the dark…”

Villa of Tiberius in Sperlonga Suetonius explains that as a young man, Tiberius distinguished himself in the military. He married Vipsania whom he loved, but Emperor Augustus forced him to divorce her and marry Julia the Elder, Augustus’ daughter. Tiberius loathed Julia who was known to be very promiscuous.

When Augustus died and Tiberius was his only remaining heir, he at first ruled with equanimity, consulting his senators for every decision and remaining humble to the point of refusing to be considered a deity. He even remained prudish during this period, issuing an edict against promiscuous kissing.

After the death of his son Drusus at Rome and then of his adopted son Germanicus in Syria, Tiberius went to Campania, but he probably didn’t stay here long. Sejanus won the Emperor’s gratitude when the roof of the grotto at these Sperlonga ruins collapsed while Tiberius dined; Sejanus saved his life. Sejanus then persuaded the Emperor to live in Capri, leaving Sejanus to rule Rome as he wished. In Capri, Tiberius’ life took a turn to the darker side.

The villa in Sperlonga lies along the shore of a public beach. Tiberius didn’t worship any gods, believing that the world was ruled by fate, so it’s interesting that this grotto was once filled with marble statues of the gods and also included a naked Polyphemus being speared. The impressive Polyphemus statue still exists in the accompanying Archeological Museum at the entrance to the complex.

Getting There: Drive north of Naples toward Formia and then follow the signs to Sperlonga. After that, signs are everywhere to the Tiberius Villa. Next to the ruins there’s one of the few public beaches where you can swim in the Mediterranean or sit on the sand. While there, you can also visit the city of Formia that boasts, among other things, Cicero’s Tomb. Nearby, the city of Gaeta has Split Rock where the rock is said to have split three-ways on the day that Jesus was crucified. You can also follow the signs to Grotte di Pastena.

Grotta Dell’Angelo Di Pertosa

Near the Greek ruins of Velia, a ferryman escorts you into a boat and pulls you deep into the cave. Once you disembark, the tour goes through a grotto of impressive lights, pathways lined with moist rock formations, and ends with pictures of modern day men, such as Mussolini, who the grotto caretakers claim are likely living out eternity in Dante’s description of Inferno.

A stage production of Dante’s Inferno takes place in the grotto during the year. You can find more information about the production and directions at their website. The address is: Località Muraglione 18/20, Pertosa (SA).

The Emerald Grotto

Also known as the Grotta di Smeraldo, you can charter a boat that takes you to the bay in Conca dei Marini about three miles west of Amalfi. The name of the grotto comes from the green color of the water that reflects off the ceilings and floors.

Grotta Palazzese

A high-class restaurant located inside a grotto, many famous people come here to dine and stay at the expensive hotel. It’s off the Adriatic Coast and their website offers a glimpse of the experience as well as more information.

Have you been here before? Write me to let me know!