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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
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).
(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
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
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".]
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