One of the best reasons for living in a place rather than just being a tourist is the opportunity to take advantage of the lesser known places and events that are known only to the locals. I think of this as the “Unexpected Italy”, and one never knows when it will appear.
Last week our daughter Marta and her fiancé Dan arrived for their visit to Italy. They spent four days with us before leaving for their own tour of the big sites. On their first day here, we did the expected Italy; Pompeii, Sorrento and the historic center of Naples. On Sunday, we did the Unexpected Italy; a tour around Lago d’Averno, a visit to a vineyard with Neapolitan entertainment, and then a walk across an active volcano!
My niece is a member of Siti Reali, a group dedicated to protecting and promoting the amazing gifts that southern Italy has to offer. They planned the day’s activities, which started with an adventurous drive out to Pozzuoli to get to the Lago d’Averno. This is a crater lake, formed in the crater of a now extinct volcano. It’s quite small, a pond by our standards, perhaps even a puddle, but it is very deep and quite lovely. It’s an easy walk around the entire circumference, with ruins of a temple to Apollo and lots of vineyards and terraced hillsides. Our guide explained some of the ancient myths and stories linked to this place, including the belief that it was the entrance to the underworld. There is a good sized hill right next to the lake called Monte Nuova, new mountain. This “mountain” sprang up out of nowhere in three days almost a thousand years ago, a testament to the instability of this whole area.
After our walk around the lake, we were treated to some entertainment in the traditional Neapolitan style. A trio of singers, two women and a young man, sang some old songs from this region, in the old Neapolitan dialect. The music was lovely, even though the lyrics were hard to understand. This dialect is challenging! After that brief interlude we proceeded on to the vineyard where we were going to have lunch. We were greeted with lots of bottles of their wine and some water, plates of local cheese and salamis and were given the opportunity to relax in the shade of their arbor. This was followed by a tour of the vineyard where we saw vines over 200 years old, fig, peach and pear trees and, my favorite, nespole trees.
I, like most of you, had never heard of nespole before moving to Italy. My husband was thrilled to be here at a time when they were in season, because they were one of his favorite fruits as a child. But every time we bought them at the market or from our green grocer, I found them to be overly tart and just not worth the effort. The nespole that we picked at the vineyard made me realize that he was indeed right and that this little fruit is an amazing tasty treat. These had the consistency of an apricot but the flavor was more that of a pear/peach combination. They were sweet and juicy and made me crave more and more of them! As we toured the vineyard we continued to pick these lovely little nuggets off the trees until we were sated.
After our tour we went back to our arbor for baked pasta (cooked in a wood-burning oven fueled by grape vines, grilled sausages and salad, and finally more nespole for dessert. The wine that we drank was light and refreshing and we were happy to buy a case to take home.
At that point we were tired and full, but our day wasn’t over. Another piece of Unexpected Italy awaited. Pozzuoli is, as mentioned before, a very unstable area, with a history of earthquakes and eruptions. The last major earthquake was in November of 1980 and at that time much of the city was damaged and many of its residents were forced to evacuate. One of the remnants of that instability is “La Solfatara”, an active volcano that is the smelliest place imaginable.
La Solfatara is a volcano that has a relatively thin crust of earth plugging it up. As we walked across this barren moon-scape, the smell of sulfur was at times overwhelming. When you take a rock and throw it hard onto the ground, the sound is not one that you would expect. Instead of the dull thud of rock hitting solid ground, there is more of an empty hollow sound, similar to knocking on a big pumpkin. That is because it is empty underneath that crust of earth….walking across the Solfatara is like walking across an island, floating in a sea of lava and hot gasses!
There is a large area where mud bubbles up to the surface, boiling hot. Another area is filled with hot steam that works its way through fissures in the earth. It is nature’s sauna. Then there are the “stufe”, the ovens. One is called purgatory and the other is inferno. They are small tunnels dug into the side of the mountain. One can walk in a foot or so and can stand it for maybe five seconds before being overcome by the smell and the heat. These spots are not for the faint of heart.
All in all, our day in Unexpected Italy was a joy. It provided us with beautiful views, good food, wonderful company and lots of new experiences. What more could we ask for?