Diving the Ruins of Baiae, Naples by Allie Boler
Baiae was the Las Vegas of Ancient Rome. When the rich and famous of the Senate and the Imperial Family wanted to let their hair down and have a truly decadent time, they would come to their lavish summer homes clustered in terraces all around the Bay of Naples, especially to Baiae. It must have been quite a sight: ever more lavish marbled villas cascading down to the sea, their ornamental fountains and pools twinkling in the sunlight. Many people believe that Pompeii was the most important Roman town in the area but in fact Baiae and the northern part of the Bay was both far more famous and more important in the early Empire. Julius Caesar, Nero, and Hadrian all had villas here. The Roman Navy was stationed nearby at Portus Julius.
Unfortunately, the area around Baiae – the Phlegrean Fields – is subject to a form of volcanic activity called bradyseism which over the course of two thousand years has lead to ground level rising and falling up to 7m, an enormous amount in geologic terms. Levels around Pozzuoli have risen over 3.5m in the last 40 years alone. The Phlegrean Fields – the Burning Fields – were thought in ancient times to be the entrance to the Underworld because of the exposed volcanic activity. The magma chamber is very close to the surface here (around 4.5 km) and still very active. In fact it is expected that there will be a seismic event here within the next few decades.
This seismic activity has proved disastrous for the villas which clustered around the shoreline and over the water as the sea level rose and covered them. Today the only way to see Baiae and visit its luxurious villas is to don scuba gear and swim amongst them, and this we did in July.
The area around Baiae is now an archaeological marine park regulated by the archaeologists in tandem with nominated dive operators. There are approximately eight dive sites open to the public in the area although the whole of the north of the Bay from Pozzuoli is an historic area with much as yet uncovered. In addition to pleasure dives, some of the centres run underwater archaeology courses of varying levels of complexity and length.
We contacted Kair at the Centro Sub Campi Flegrei www.centrosubcampiflegrei.it and arranged our two dives. They are perfectly positioned on the beach just outside the protected area at Lucrino. It was easy to get there from Naples where we were staying. We could have travelled by local metro train but as time was pressing for us, we took a cab which cost us 40 euros return. Kair is a lovely lady who grew up in Yorkshire but has spent a lot of time diving in Germany and now Italy too. She was extremely efficient with our arrangements and everything worked like clockwork. Two guided boat dives were 60 euro and full rental kit was 20 euro extra – there was a good selection and it was in good order. Both steel and aluminium tanks were available. As most of the sites are in around 5 – 7m, gas is not a particular issue. With air temperatures in the 90s, the sea was very warm and 3 – 5m longjohns were more than adequate.
Our first dive was on the site of the Thermal Bath complex and the Nymphaeum of the Emperor Claudius. The nymphaeum was a large basined fountain surrounded by seven statues of mythological figures and gods. It is part of a large bath complex still visible as are roads and pavements leading to it. The original statues are now in the museum housed in the Aragonese Castle on the headland above, but they have been replaced by excellent replicas. It was just amazing to see the ruins open up as soon as we began our descent – the site is huge with the bottom few feet of building structures all still clearly visible as are paving slabs, pieces of amphora and other debris all over the area. Visibility was poor on the day we visited – maybe 5-7m due to a change in the wind in the previous days. Whilst this removed the possibility of seeing the “whole” of the area in panorama, it added a mysterious quality to the dive as the statues and buildings loomed out of the green water. Kair had given us a thorough, illustrated briefing before the dive and was an excellent guide, pointing out every feature underwater and ensuring we understood what we were looking at. We spent about 45 minutes exploring the area around the Nymphaeum but you could spend days there if, like me, you enjoy fuddling around looking at bits and pieces and exploring the crannies. Fish life is good and we saw several octopi hiding in the ruins – they’re protected too!
Our next dive was of similar length on the nearby Protiro Villa. This villa is named for its portico or porch found over the door, a rather unusual feature. It’s a large villa, with rooms arranged around a central atrium which would have been open to the light. The rooms have beautiful black and white mosaic floors arranged in geometric patterns – simply stunning to see. Most of the floors are protected under sandbagged tarpaulins inspected regularly by the archaeologists, but sections are left exposed to give visitors a very good idea of the wonderful features. These villas were centrally heated with underfloor heating provided by hot water, and the systems are still visible in this villa. It was set in quite an urban part of Baiae and outside you can follow the paved streets and see the remains of little shops and taverns. Time just went far too quickly. Again, it was somewhere you could explore endlessly with so much of interest.
Access to the sites was easy from the dive centre. There is a wooden pier for loading the boats and most sites are around 5 – 10 minutes away. Other sites include Portus Julius itself, the villa of Piso, an important Senator in the time of Nero, an area of underwater volcanic fumaroles, and other structural areas. The centre has showers, changing rooms and loos. There is a beach cafe on the same area of private beach, making it a pleasant place to spend some time.
We all thoroughly enjoyed our fascinating day amongst the villas of the Roman elite – it was certainly a cooler experience than the heat and dust of Pompeii. I would really recommend a visit here if you are spending any time in Naples and are looking for something a little different. We would certainly love to return and visit some of the other parts of the park and also the terrestrial area surrounding it.
BSAC Travel Team Leader