Thursday 17th November, 2016

The Roman ruins at Baia feature often in travel writings by nineteenth century tourists. After reading their rapturous accounts, full of pathos borne from glimpses of sunken palaces, I longed to see them for myself. Located along the coast of Naples about 20 km west of the city centre, Baia is no longer a popular tourist destination. The mosaics and marble relics beneath the surface of the water are notoriously difficult to see, especially outside of summer. There is talk of a glass-bottom boat that leaves only at weekends. Snorkelling and diving excursions are more common, though are obviously not for the casual visitor.

After travelling to Naples for meetings and research I decided to go to Baia one afternoon to see what I could find. I took the Circumflegrea from Montesanto to Lucrino, which took roughly an hour. As we moved toward Pozzuoli the train slowly emptied. It was surprisingly hot for late October. Shards of bright sunlight cut into the quietened carriage. When I got to Lucrino I found myself on a beach with grey volcanic sand. The path leading to the road was hemmed by closed bars and vacant pizzerias, adding to the air of faded splendour that already suffused the landcape. I tried to find a bus along the coast to Baia but, after waiting on the side of a busy road for about 30 minutes, I decided to continue by foot. I walked round Lake Avernus, a volcanic crater filled with water surrounded by ducks and a few fishermen. Re-emerging onto the main road I noticed that most of the coast was colonized by private resorts; wherever a patch of sand was designated for public use it was caked in layers of rubbish and had signs up warning people against swimming in the sea.

With little sidewalk and cars, trucks and scooters whizzing by in both directions and the sun beating down, the walk would have been unpleasant were it not for the incredible view of the cliffs in the sky before me. Eventually I arrived at the port of Baia. I could feel the energy radiating from the underwater city but was not able to traverse the long, thin boardwalk leading out to the site as it too is owned by a private company. After a moment of distanced appreciation I went instead to the expansive above-ground ruins in the archaeological park just off the port. This site was once a bathhouse and a wonder of Roman engineering. The geothermal waters of the region made Baia a medicinal spa with pools of different temperatures and doctors on hand to treat a variety of complaints. But Baia was no cure for the everywoman. Here the Roman elite bathed, enjoyed lavish parties on the once-unspoiled beach, and prayed to Mercury, Venus and Diana, whose temples are nestled within the structure of the spa. 

There was no one else at the ruins besides me and two cats. It felt far-flung, remote, forgotten. As I walked under the arches I could feel faint strings of cobwebs against my face. After a couple of hours in the archaeological park I headed back to Lucrino. For the rest afternoon I was at the Stufe di Nerone, a still-functioning thermal bath frequented mostly by Neopolitan couples and older men. Here, surrounded by plush but modest greenery, the healing waters of Baia are still in use, and I left feeling far more attuned to the history of the region than I would have done otherwise. Indeed, while there is lots to say about Baia from the perspective of classical history, my time there was an embodied research trip in which I sacrificed thought for impression and physical sensation. This photo essay illustrates my journey into an ancient land where modernity itself lies in ruins, enduring only as a barely audible echo bouncing off the Temple of Mercury onto the littered grey beach.