We had big plans today to see the Roman port city of Puteoli, now called Pozzuoli, Baiae (an imperial resort town) and Cumae, an ancient city founded in 1050 BC.
Getting to Pozzuoli was not difficult, but finding the port itself was a bit more complicated. Don will explain our travel details more fully, but we were lucky to happen upon the ruins of the ampitheatre, which rivals the Colosseum in Rome and those in Capua and Verona in size.
Up and down the hills we went next, hoping to find the tourist office, as our guide books were singularly mute on the details of Pozzuoli. But finally it appeared, and an amusing but bleak picture of our options emerged. That led us to the walk along the harbor and a chance to soak in some sun and salt air.
The second must-see of Pozzuoli was the Serapeum, a marketplace dating from the 1st century CE. The ruins seem to have sunk and risen over the centuries after various seismic events. Today they are just above sea level, which allows one to imagine the trade that must have poured through the port into this huge commercial hall, once covered.
Don’s Food and Humor Corner
Travel isn’t always easy, or pretty. We knew that today’s plan was going to be more confusing than ever because the guidebooks were a little skimpy on the details. But I saw in each of these otherwise reliable books that there was a tourist information office in Pozzuoli and I was confident that the staff could fill in the information gaps and send us on an efficient itinerary of the nearby sites that we wanted to visit. (The guidebooks offered that all the sites could be seen in half a day — by car. We, however, were attempting this by public transportation.)
We had a hard time finding the tourist office because, for one thing, there are two different train stations in Pozzuoli with two different train lines. I didn’t know which line we were getting off of relative to the tourist office. The train ride alone was somewhat of a challenge when the train we were on suddenly announced that it was terminating two stops before the stop we wanted. The passengers unloaded, confused and angry, and had to hustle the other side of the platform to wait for another train to arrive. This ride from Naples, ordinarily about 30 minutes, turned into an hour. When we finally got to the tourist office, here is an abbreviated version of our conversation:
Me: We would like to see the sites in Pozzuoli and then go on to Baiae and Cumae by public transportation.
Agent: You can’t do that.
Me: Could we at least get to the museum in Baiae?
Agent: No, it closes at one.
Me: Could we at least get to the acropolis in Cumae?
Agent: Not easily. There is only one bus that runs every hour.
Me: What time does the bus leave?
Agent: That depends. There’s no real schedule.
Me: How about the ancient section in Pozzuoli?
Agent: That’s only open on Saturday and Sunday by scheduled tour.
Me: Can we see where the original harbor dock was?
Agent: That’s a parking lot now.
Me: Well, we’ve seen the amphitheater. If we go see the ancient market hall, will there be restaurants around there for lunch?
Agent: Many. All kinds.
Me (looking in the guidebook I had): And then we can take bus 152 back to Naples?
Agent: No. No more bus 152.
The availability of restaurants was at least one comforting bit of information. The plan reduced from seeing three important ancient cities to seeing a little bit of one and having a long and luxurious lunch.
But then there was lunch. We looked around at the various choices — all suspect, to be honest — and selected one because there was a kindly-looking lady setting up outdoor tables. We assumed it was “Mama” getting everyone ready for lunch. Feeling we could now read the signs of a decent homey restaurant, we plunged in. As soon as the single water-stained menu was brought to be shared between us — we knew we had made a mistake.
Lacking the gumption to get up and leave, we tried to make the best of it. I had my heart set on some fresh seafood. Jo thought she would settle on something “safe” like spaghetti carbonara. I decided to have a go at a whole fish of some indeterminate species to be roasted at a high temperature. The results were decidedly mixed. Jo’s carbonara looked more like scrambled eggs with a little cream thrown in. My fish, proven to be whole by the presence of the head on the plate, was delicately tender and sweet. We didn’t linger as we had hoped and caught the closest and fastest – and most colorful – train back to Naples.
We made up for a rather bad lunch experience by later, back in Naples, searching out one of the places promising to serve the “best pizza in the world.” Since it was just a few blocks from where we are staying, we thought it was our responsibility to do it. We went early to avoid what are usually long lines. Named Antica Pizzeria da Michele, some may recognize it as the pizzeria featured in the movie Eat, Love, Pray, where the character played by Julia Roberts was supposed to be working. (Papa who was supposedly the founder is at the top of the post, clearly filled with good intentions.
(No women work in this pizzeria except the woman at the cash register, who I suspect was a drag queen.) The pizza? Well, it was certainly like nothing we’ve ever tasted before. The crust was a spongy affair, almost like a thick crepe. It was easier to cut into wedges and fold it all up unto itself to eat than to try to eat in pieces or hold up as a slice. It wasn’t exactly soggy, but it sure was floppy. It is made very quickly at very high heat in a wood-burning oven. The bottom and sides were almost completely blackened. It was the first time I felt that I tasted the scorch on one of these high-heat pizzas. When we left, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. I’m not sure it would have been worth a wait. But maybe I’m missing something here.
Not to undone by the “best pizza in the world,” we then walked a few block to the “best Neapolitan pastry shop in the world.” Here the specialty is sfogliatelle, a multilayered pastry shell filled with a rich cinnamon-flavored cream — served hot from the oven and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It works!
So, ultimately, we didn’t go hungry today, although we didn’t experience our full daily quota of ancient sites.