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Culture / Travel

The Secrets of Naples

Volcanoes, Hot Springs and Blue Hotels in Italy

BY Mary Margaret Hansen // 07.16.16

This is the fourth installment of photographer and activist Mary Margaret Hansen‘s travel diary as she and fellow artist Earl Staley bask in an Italian sojourn. Read the prior stories here.

So much blue on the Bay of Naples where we are staying. Not just the blue of the bay itself, or the gray-blue haze along the distant shoreline, or the deep purple-blue of Vesuvius. Our hotel room is blue, too, the bed pillows, the striped draperies and upholstered chairs, the bathroom tile, shower and sink and toilet and bidet are all blue. In the morning, the room’s mirrors reflect blue as well as dazzling sunlight.

Yesterday we met Pina, a guide Earl engaged for three of our six days in Napoli. She, a terrific storyteller and teacher, led us not through Naples, but up into the hills northwest of the city to an area called ‘de’ Bagnoli’, so named because of its fumaroles and hot springs.

A pool inside the Bath of Mercury Dome.
A pool inside the Bath of Mercury Dome.

We visited the Vulcano Solfatara, an ancient volcanic crater near Pozzuoli. The site was the mythical entrance to the ancient Romans’ Hell. The inactive volcano is part of the Phlegraean Fields, and is still famous for steaming jets of sulphurous vapor and small puddles of boiling mud. Pina took a good-sized rock and threw it to the ground, so we could hear a hollow sound as it landed.

“The ground is solid,” she said, “but it has tiny veins of gases, and that is what makes the sound of emptiness below.”

Two field trips of high school students marched across the white alum, suddenly giving scale to this ancient place as they approached the steam. There is a campground adjacent to Solfatara. One could bring a camper or pitch a tent and stay awhile.

We also visited Baia, site of ancient Roman villas and therapeutic springs. A spa with baths named after Venus and Mercury was built here in the late 2nd century BC. It spread over a great hill and was renowned for its mineral waters and naturally occurring saunas. We saw the remains of frescos and a terrace for suppers alfresco. We entered the Bath of Mercury, a large dome with an oculus that allows a circle of sunlight to fill the space.

In that moment, I wished, quite simply, for immersion in the waters.

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