(Written Feb. 5) – I’m trying to catch up a bit. Sue me–I’m busy continually overcoming my own mental health issues while seeing the world.
After all–why else join the Navy? Certainly not for the easy working hours!
I’m staying on board the Navy’s support site in Gricignano di Aversa, outside Naples proper. Today I hopped a train and zipped up north to Gaeta. The Navy has a small presence in Gaeta. It used to be bigger, but times change. Anyway, I met a shipmate who’s stationed there. He and his family just moved to Gaeta, so they’re eager to explore. Unfortunately, Michael’s wife and kid were sick; in fact he told me she told him (in NO uncertain terms) to get out of the apartment today and leave them alone to sleep!
So, having me take the train up from the Naples area was a bonus for us both. For me it eased the agoraphobic issues I mentioned in my previous post.
Central to Gaeta is Monte Orlando (Mount Orlando). This mountain and the natural harbor made Gaeta a strategic point for centuries. Mike and I did a 9.97 km (6.2 mile) hike over this mountain…in the mist. It’s February, after all. Even sunny Italy has winter!
Gaeta is an old Italian town that, like most of Italy, has its origins back to the Roman days (go figure, right?). At one time it was one of the strongest outposts delineating the Kingdom of Naples. The great castle atop Monte Orlando is a really interesting structure. Begun in the 6th century, it effecively is two structures that went and met in the middle–the Angevine fortress (lower sector), from the House of Anjou’s rule in the Kingdom of Naples and the Aragonese structure (top part) built by emperor Charles V.
Mike and I were unable to tour inside it, but getting up close on this thing…especially the sides that are flush with a cliff rising 171 meters (561 feet) from the sea is an astounding experience. We’d have difficulties constructing something flush with a cliff edge today; they did it a thousand years ago by hand!
Atop another part of Monte Orland is a magnificent cylindrical mausoleum for Lucius Munatius Plancus. Plancus is a famous an successful general in is his own right. However, he is more famous (or infamous?) for surviving multiple politcal upheavals in the ancient world by skillfully shifting his allegiances so cleverly that no one ever suspected him of being anything but on their side.
For students of later history, look up the French politician Talleyrand. Read up on how he not only survived, but thrived, through Louis XVI, the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon. This will give you an idea of Plancus’ skills in maneuvering through the dangers of HIS day.
Plancus’ body has long vanished and the mausoleum was reconsecrated to the Virgin Mary in the late 19th century. However, recent restoration has returned the focus of the artifact to Plancus. As best as my research has shown, this is one of the few great Roman tombs to survive to our day in a recognizable state.
Another site Michael wanted to see was Montagna Spacatta (“Split Mountain”), which takes its name from three grottoes that, well, split the mountain as it enters the sea. Roman Catholic tradition holds the mountain was torn asunder at the moment Jesus died in Jerusalem. Chapels are built in the grottoes; another remarkable feat of engineering that is both beautiful and inspiring. Seeing the rocks tower above you and the endless sea sweeping in under one chapel that spans the grotto testifies to the devotion of those ancient Christians who built it.
Perhaps more moving (if you can believe it) are small, iconographic Christian symbols carved into the rock as you descend the stairs to the grottoes. The symbols and the rock they are carved into are worn to a glass-smooth polish from the hands of Christian pilgrims touching them in reverence for well over a thousand years.
Gaeta has its share of great churches and cathedrals. The bell tower of the Cathedral of Assunta e Sant’Erasmo (Cathedral of St. Erasmus, or St. Elmo) is generally considered one of the city’s greatest works of art. The upper level brick work is simply stunning as it still towers over the city…and quite amusingly is the early recycling program the base demonstrates. The builders used cast off and scavenged Roman stones to fabricate the bottom level. There are Roman floral motifs carved into certain pieces. Most amusingly is a block with clear Latin writing carved into it…only the cathedral builders put the block into place upside down!
Mike and I finished the day’s damp hiking by having proper Italian-style pizza in Gaeta’s mall. It’s small, but it’s a nice, modern mall. Gaeta itself has evolved into a sleepy, seaside town that will come alive in the warm summer months. In winter…it’s quiet, but offers its treasures to those few willing to brave the elements. It’s not Rome or Naples, but Gaeta is WELL worth the time to explore!
And Naples…for me it always seems to come back to Naples…
Odd how Naples and its environs have been incredibly important to my life (mainly my professional life) on three occasions now. In 1999 Naples was the site where I decided to pursue photography as a profession. Last year, 17 years later, I “found” my camera here again (reference my first post in this series). Now, 18 years later, Naples is playing a pivotal role in my life for yet a THIRD time. If ever a man’s life was mystically tied to an ancient land, mine is tied here.
More on that later…
For now–my shipmate Michael: thanks for Gaeta. THAT was an incredible adventure!