Since my archaeological surprises in South Turkey, I should say I developed a keen interested in finding new destinations with archaeological diving experience. While doing some research, I spotted Alexandria in Egypt and Pozzuoli in Italy. This is how, just before moving to Scotland, with six free days, a miles reward flight to take, in less than a week, I decided to fly to Naples in Italy to discover Baia Underwater Archeological Park, a kind of underwater Pompeii!
Naples Bay: Roman history and delicious food
The bay of Naples is in South Italy, and nestled within it a group of charming islands: Procida, Ischia, and Capri. From Baia to Sorrento, expect high-density urbanisation mixed with Roman ruins, Medieval and Renaissance historical buildings and churches… a lot of churches! Everything can seem a bit chaotic, but an unplanned mix of old and new along with the strong local culture give Naples a vibrant atmosphere. Everyone in town agreed to say Naples was not Italy, “too different”, even young people speak Neapolitan among themselves. Naples was under Spanish reign from 1504 to 1714, so it is no wonder why it almost sounded Spanish to me and especially Catalan, and why with my mix of French and Spanish without actually speaking Italian I could sort myself out of any situation.
But above all, Naples is world-famous for its millenary ruins of Pompeii and its fascinating archaeological museum. Having visited Pompeii in high school, I decided I should spend more time strolling around the narrow streets in the historic centre of Naples while tasting all of its exquisite specialities. Pizza… I thought I had already eaten a good pizza before…. I was wrong! The taste of the simple recipe of Neapolitan pizza with only tomato, basil, and mozzarella, freshly baked in a wood oven and eaten from the box in the street on the roof of a car, taking a quarter that you fold into 2 to make a sandwich out of it…. yummy, crusty but soft inside, incredible flavours of fresh tomato sauce… I think I could keep writing about it! Besides, there were so much more to try: seafood in Pozzuoli, limoncello in Sorrento, and mozzarella di buffala of the Campania countryside… Italian gastronomy is poetry to me.
I spent hours in the archaeological museum of Naples, mesmerised by the refined mosaics, sculptures and mural paintings of people who lived thousands of years ago! I was very curious about the many churches and cathedrals from the Renaissance period; I had the chance to attend two processions of local saints and in the end, could witness the strong attachment to Catholicism here. In a nutshell, these 6 days were a great mix of Italian dolce vita with my favourite underwater activities.
I mostly used public transport during the week I stayed there. Very convenient, the two main lines take you on each side of the bay. The Circumflegrea goes to Baia from Montesanto station, and the Circumvesuviana goes to Sorrento from Garibaldi station. In 20 to 60 minutes, you can be anywhere you want. Often, people would help me lifting my scuba diving bag in the trains which have high steps to climb. Fans of street art will appreciate the Circumflegrea line as the line looks like a large open-air exhibition. To go scuba diving in Pozzuoli, you need to stop at Arco Felice station on the Circumflegra line. If you get off one stop before at Pozzuoli station, head to the harbour and hop on a ferry to Procida Island. The town, the colourful houses and the views will catch your breath away. It was by far my favourite spot in the Bay of Naples.
The “Campi Flegrei “ (Phlegrean fields) and the Bradyseism phenomenon
While everyone is rushing to take the east train to the busy site of Pompeii, I took the west train to Pozzuoli. Obviously, if you are coming here for the first time, you absolutely need to visit Pompeii. Down the Castle of Baia, 5 to 10 m below the surface lies another incredible testimony of the wonders of the Roman era in Naples: Il Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baia (Archaeological Underwater Park of Baia).
From the neighbouring city of Pozzuoli where you can take the ferry to the islands of Procida and Ischia, a couple of scuba diving centres can take you to discover its treasures. But for what reason was this village of luxury villas and thermae loved by Caesar and Nero submerged by th sea while Pompeii was buried in the ashes of the Vesuvio and Herculaneum swallowed by mud?
A unique phenomenon occurs in this area called “Campi Flegrei“: bradyseism. Unlike an earthquake which makes the Earth move horizontally, bradyseism makes the ground move vertically, up or down. And this is how this Roman luxury resort went underwater due to the vagaries of the Earth. But it seems that today a reversed phenomenon has been observed so that the ruins could be above the water one day!
The Underwater Archaeological Park of Baia: an underwater Pompeii
The Parco Sommerso di Baia is quite large and is divided into 5 main scuba diving spots: Portus Julius, Secca delle Fumose, Ninfeo di Claudio, Villa dei Pisoni and Villa a Protiro. From an archaeological value point of view, the 2 most eye-catching ones are Ninfeo di Claudio and Villa a Pprotiro. Secca delle fumose has an entirely different interest: it is a kind of natural jacuzzi. You can see the volcanic activity while some sulfuric gas bubbles are released. No doubt why the Underwater Archeological Park of Baia made it to my list of the best diving in Europe.
“Ninfeo di Claudio” was my first dive in the park. I was lucky to meet this group of scuba divers from Milan who warmly recommended I join them for this site. This magical spot gathers not less than a “triclinium-nymphaeum” (a kind of relaxation room) of Emperor Claudius, a paved road of almost 200 m, the “Via Herculana” and the “thermae” Roman baths. In the nymphaeum, you can admire Roman statues underwater. Unfortunately, these statues are not the original ones. They are copies of the ones found in 1969, 10 years after the first discovery of the nymphaeum. The original ones are now well-preserved and protected in the archaeological museum of the Castle of Baia. Nature has been quick to integrate them, as if they have always been there. Covered by seaweed, they are now the new shelters of some cuttlefish. I should say I was a bit disappointed. However, when I saw our guide removing the sand from an area to show us marble floor or mosaics, and carefully replacing it after we could all see it. I understood that the park’s location, near to the shore, meant these treasures needed to be protected from some careless visitors.
The statues represent the Cyclops of Homer’s Odyssey and some are a benediction by the goddess Minerva to Claudius’ accession to the throne. This is the most photogenic spot of the underwater park! The “Via Herculana”, excavated on a length of 180 m, is a long pavement stone road that is well-preserved. In the thermae, you can easily navigate through the different rooms as the base of most walls are still there. If you know where to look, you will be able to see marble floor, mosaics and remains of potteries.
Villa a Protiro is clearly the highlight of the underwater park. Although I had moved on the other side of Naples Bay, I came back one morning to Pozzuoli just to make sure I could make that dive. The 1h30 train journey was totally worth it. The villa had an internal courtyard with a large black and white geometrical mosaic floor. This mosaic is still there and in perfect condition, and this time, this is not a copy! Once you know where to find it, you have to spend a bit of time gently pushing away the sand to reveal it. The conditions of diving were not the best that day, but I am sure that on a beautiful day with very clear water which is not so hard to get in Italy, it would be worth spending an entire dive to clear it fully to take pictures of a scuba diver over it.
If you want to enjoy some more diving in the area, I recommend you to go by boat a bit further away to Procida and Ischia. I had the opportunity to scuba dive a site called La Corricella, which is right down the most stunning view of Procida. Down there I could see the volcanic origins of these islands as the rocks had clear layers of solidified lava. A cuttlefish tagged along at the beginning of the dive and then we followed deep walls covered in sponges and red gorgonians. If you want to live the same adventure, contact Centro Sub Campi Flegrei in Pozzuoli!
Where to stay in Pozzuoli or Naples?
During the first part of my trip, I stayed in Pozzuoli, at the hotel recommended by the dive centre: Hotel La Tripergola. The decoration was a bit old fashioned but I liked it this way, it felt homey! My bedroom was huge, and this view of the sea was everything I was looking for! You have to know that Pozzuoli in the evening is super quiet so if you’re looking to party, it might be better for you to find something in Naples directly. In my case, it was just before moving to Scotland, so I needed some rest on the first days of my trip. I enjoyed the excellent seafood and pasta of the hotel restaurant and good night sleep. I loved that the hotel was only 5 minutes walking away from the dive centre so I could sleep a bit more in the morning!
On the last two days of my stay, I went CouchSurfing in the eastern suburbs of Naples, in Portici, to enjoy an authentic Italian experience with a delightful host who enjoyed sharing his best cooking recipes with me while he validated my skills at mushroom risotto!
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