Spending a month in the town of Gaeta in central Italy has catipulted me back to my high school studies in Latin. At that time, I questioned my choice to study a dead language but was encouraged by the fact that with it came the revelation of how our English language was built on it, and my discovery that Roman history was far from boring. These past few weeks have certainly sparked a renewed interest for me in all things Roman.
In their hey day, the Romans spread their empire to many parts of Europe, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa. Most historians today would agree that they were master builders as evidenced by their remains which people have been flocking to for centuries. The Coliseum in Rome, the Pantheon, and the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum are a few of the notables which have been well-preserved and draw hoards of tourists every year from around the globe.
You could say that the legacy of the Romans is broad enough to cover almost all facets of our life today. Its influence can be traced to the spread of Christianity, the basis of our law system, and our democratic form of government. Other things which come to mind are roads, aqueducts, baths, temples to various gods and goddesses, forums or sports stadiums, coliseums, amphitheatres, and beautiful homes with their *atriums and *peristiles. And, let’s not forget to thank them for a myriad of smaller necessities such as, our newspapers, our calendar, and our public toilets, to name just a few.
Rome and its environs were the centre for this ancient civilization. However, it was the towns and cities further to the south on the western sea coast sheltered by the Aurunci Mountains, which provided valuable places for trade and places of refuge for emperors and those of the upper class who wanted to escape the clamour of the city. All have their Roman remains with stories to tell of their time spent here.
Gaeta was one of those towns, along with Sperlonga, Formia, and Terracina. These are coastal towns located midway between Rome and Naples. Picture the Almalfi Coast…Capri and Sorrento. This will give you an idea of what this area has to offer: sandy beaches, weird and wonderful rock formations, grottoes, and mountains. No wonder the Romans loved it! Modern day Italians and northern Europeans still flock here in the summer months. March and April are ideal for visitors like Hubby and me because we can not only avoid the crowds and get cheaper prices for just about everything, but also enjoy the sun with moderate temperatures. Nights are cool but days are usually around 18 degrees centigrade.
Gaeta, with a population of about 40,000, is divided into two areas: the old and the new which is typical of all the towns we have been….Sperlonga, Terracina, Formia, Itri, and Naples. If not situated on the coast offering beautiful beaches, they can be found further inland on a hilltop in the mountains. All of them have an old and new part, and all of them have Roman ruins scattered here and there. The old parts of town often reveal their Medieval influences with narrow, cobble stone streets, and piazzas or squares usually dominated by a cathedral, town hall, or museum. Larger towns and cities are linked by bus or train running at an affordable cost. A rental car would be the best bet to get to hard to reach places in the mountains but is more expensive. Gasoline isn’t cheap in Italy. We have relied on the bus to get to most places except for Naples when we took the train.
The highlights of our travels in and around the area have been Itri, a small mountain town which lies on part of the Appian Way, the Archeological Museum and the Cavern in Speralonga, the Circeo Promontory and the Temple of Jupiter in Terracina, and Herculaneum near Naples.
The Appian Way was built by the Romans beginning in 312 BC to give their capital a link to the south extending as far as Brundisi. Cutting the rocks, paving the road, and constructing the temples and cisterns must have required careful planning, great expertise and super human endurance. Over the centuries reconstructions have been carried out making it still a viable road even today for automobiles, bikes, and pedestrians. We stopped near the town of Itri to walk on a part of the Appian Way dating back to its beginning. The thrill of our walk was slightly marred by the hordes of mountain bikers who were using the road for racing, a popular sport in Italy.
Itri was the only town we visited that wasn’t on the sea. It’s a small village sitting atop a mountain 170 meters above sea level dominated by a Medieval castle. Being fairly remote from any discernible public transport, we were thankful to have friends with a rental car and an excellent driver to manoeuver the incredibly narrow streets of the Old Town. Here we witnessed the bonfires which are set every year on March 19th to honour St. Joseph. People come out in droves from all over the region to dance, sing, and prepare “zappole di San Guieseppe” a fried dough made of sugar, eggs, and coated with honey. We would have liked to have joined the fun and sampled some of their food, but because there were so many cars leaving no spots to park, we decided to head back to Gaeta for a bite to eat.
Sperlonga’s Archeological Museum and Cavern was my top choice for a delightful tour of Roman ruins. The museum portrayed sculptures and artifacts depicting the mythology relating to the battles between Ulysses and the Scylla, leading archeologists to believe that the discovery of this collection in 1957 actually dates back to the Greeks. Over the centuries most of them were reconstructed by the Romans during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Not far from the museum is the remains of a village, the villa where Tiberius lived in the summers, and the cavern where his sculptures were hidden. With such an idyllic setting by the sea and the mountains , no wonder Tiberius fled Rome’s heat to spend his summers in Sperlonga.
Terracina is another coastal town situated near a gigantic rock promontory jutting out into the Trryhanean Sea with the Aurunci Mountains on one side and a fertile plain on the other. The rock was split in two for the construction of the Appian Way, and there are remnants of Roman rule everywhere. On top of the promontory sits the ancient Temple of Jupiter. In the Old Town on the slope of the mountain, narrow, cobblestone streets lead to a piazza which is built on a Roman forum. Presently, the site is undergoing more excavations to unearth an amphitheatre.
Formia is the closest town to Gaeta. Bus service runs on a regular basis every hour so we took advantage of this for a change of scenery…to try a new cafe for coffee and pastries… and to explore. Formia claims to have a several notable ruins but we discovered that some simply were not accessible. For example, Cicero’s villa is located on a private property. However, we were successful in finding his Mausoleum located near the Appian Way. Cicero was one of the better Roman Emperor’s; however, his reign ended because he was too outspoken, resulting in his death which was common in those days.
Herculaneum was well worth another trip back to Naples for us. Since we had both visited Pompei many years ago on separate trips, Herculaneum was our undisputed choice. Both of these ancient cities were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Pompei gained its notoriety from the body of the little boy covered in a coat of lava. This image, becoming so embedded in our minds over the centuries, caused people to flock to Pompei and bypass Herculaneum. However, in recent years Herculaneum has been gaining popularity because it actually reveals a closer look at ancient Roman life. Their almost intact buildings, pottery, and art are in much better condition. Apparently reconstruction was started soon after an earthquake in 63 AD. It has been ongoing so the whole site is much better preserved. Moreover, Herculaneum was a more compact city with narrow streets and layered buildings ….their version of our present day high rise…which makes it an easier site to walk and do in a day. I remember how spread out Pompei was with its wide streets making it difficult to see everything in one visit.
Gaeta is the last place on my list for finding Roman ruins because it seems to have the least amount that are visible. Bits and pieces are scattered around the Old Town in the columns of some of the churches reconstructed during Medieval times. The Italians are very proud of their Roman heritage so wanting to preserve some of it, they became masters of incorporating pieces of what was left into their reconstruction efforts.
The most complete Roman structure in Gaeta is a mausoleum located somewhere on top of Mount Orlando, overlooking the beautiful Serapo Beach. It’s not visible from down below. It was built by the Romans in honour of Munatius Plancus, a Roman senator who spent time in Gaeta. We tried walking up to see it but never made it. The path wasn’t clearly signed, and we had no way of knowing just how far we had left to go. However, what we accomplished was worth our effort. On the way, we got a close up view of the Turco Grotto which comes with a religious story mentioned in the book of Matthew. The story goes that the rock jutting out to the sea was split into two pieces forming the grotto at the exact time of Jesus’ death. We also stumbled upon some rocks, which upon closer look, resembled a small Roman bath and some type of fortification. Our third reward for this strenuous walk was a fabulous view of Serapo Beach which is the longest (1.5 km) and most beautiful beach in this area. This is the beach that is only a 10 minute walk from our apartment, and where we have been working on our tans on those sunny days when the breeze was warm enough.
Gaeta and its environs are primarily noted as a tourist area today….as a place to escape from the larger cities… as it was in the time of the ancient Romans. That much hasn’t changed, thank goodness. The beaches we have seen are clean with crystal clear waters. There are ample apartments and hotels to stay for as long as you want. Fish, artichokes, strawberries, pears, olive oil, buffalo cheese made from the milk of water buffalo, rustic sausage, and chickling peas (like beans) are some of the foods the area is noted for. All are readily available at good prices in the numerous markets to be found in every town and village. Gaeta’s location between and not far from both Rome and Naples is another plus if you want a reprieve from small town living and fancy the buzz of the large city for awhile. Most importantly, if you are at all interested in the history of the Romans and how it has impacted our present day life, this would be an excellent area to brush up on that, as I have discovered.
*atrium – the open area of a dwelling surrounded by rooms on all sides as in Roman days. The concept is very popular today.
*peristile – an open garden surrounded by a colonade of porticos.
*triclinium – a formal dining room lined on three sides by reclining benches familiar to the Roman house a wealthy family.