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La Dolce Vita by the Bay of Naples

If Rome was the New York of antiquity, then the Bay of Naples was the Hamptons.  Every summer, the Mediterranean heat (with its attendant banes of typhoid and malaria) emptied the imperial capital of its bella gente, and the entire fashionable world allied forth to recreate itself one hundred miles south, by the craggy, sun-drenched shores of Campania. That was where, within sight of the smoking funnel of Mount Vesuvius, surrounded by a hypnotic sea of diamond blue, the Emperors had built their luxury palaces, the millionaires their most sumptuous villas.  Every patrician owned two or three slices of Neapolitan real estate, and many boasted half a dozen: According to the Greek geographer Strabo, who visited around 10 AD, the whole gorgeous beachfront south to the Sirens’ Point (now Sorrento) presented a continuous glistening wall of marble-colonnaded mansions—each one lavishly frescoed with images of Neptune, arching porpoises and gangly octupi.  The Romans loved to swim in these warm,  protected shores, far from the sea-monsters and evil sprites that prowled deeper waters, and the sculpted courtyards of their retreats, engraved with the patterns of waves, all had direct pathways leading down to sandy coves. Even more fabulous developments crept up and down the jagged cliff-sides, crowding one another out for the most commanding sea views. Some had five tiers, with sculpted gardens that stretched for acres. The most ostentatious villa was built by a status-crazed retired army general named Lucullus, who had a private tunnel carved through a mountain to fill his fish pond, an engineering eye-sore that earned him the nickname “Xerxes in a toga.”

In this ancient enclave of glamour and privilege, the many meanings of ‘holiday’ were first explored.  At first, the Bay provided a sun-drenched setting for otium—a sort of cultivated leisure, relaxation through self-improvement.  Celebrity residents like Julius Caesar, Pompey and Mark Anthony—the CEOs of the Republic—had taken time out from their hectic schedules in Rome to read poetry, write philosophy, debate with fellow aesthetes, work out on the beach. This ‘active vacation’ by the sea put Juvenal’s classic healthy-mind-in-healthy-body formula into practice. But by the imperial era, wealthy Romans were given less opportunity to participate in politics, and the pleasures of the flesh took precedence over those of the spirit. Soon enough, on hot summer nights, the hills of the Bay were echoing with the sounds of drunken carousing, as revelers jaunted from one cove to the next, quaffing fresh oysters at nude swimming parties.

The town of Baiae (pronounced Bay-eye) had become the world’s first great seaside resort, with a reputation for truly Herculean debauchery—a free-for-all atmosphere that resembled less a Martha Stewart soiree than spring break at Daytona Beach. By these steamy shores, the mythic connection between sexual abandon and the seaside, which is such a staple of tourism advertising today, was first forged. Even in the late Republic, Cicero was using Baiae as a rhetorical metaphor for licentious, depraved behavior; the prudish Emperor Augustus, although he had a vast villa nearby, frowned on his aides and Senators dropping by the town for a dose of its sensual delights.  It was already a lost battle.  The scholar Varro complained that in Baiae, “unmarried women are common property, old men act like young boys, and lots of young boys like young girls...”  Martial wrote a satire about a chaste Roman wife who spent too long in Baiae’s famous hot baths, lost her inhibitions, and ran off with a handsome slave boy: “She came to town Penelope/And left it Helen of Troy.” Such lapses of the once-austere code were commonplace in Baiae. It was “as if the location itself demanded vice,” mourned the old moralist Seneca, noting that otherwise respectable citizens found themselves inviting prostitutes out on barges, garlanding the waves with rose petals and competing with one another in drunken singing competitions.

In the first century A.D., egged on by the excesses of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, the Bay of Naples really came into its own as the great classical theater of the senses—a “Crater of Luxury,” where Romans of all classes came to let down their hair, attending a sophisticated literary debate one night and a sandy group-grope the next.  Protected by jagged cliffs, caressed by cool sea breezes, citizens could get down to prodigious bouts of eating, drinking and fornication.  This was the logical setting for ancient literature’s most famous feast, the dinner given by a shameless paragon of bad taste, Trimalchio, in the Satyricon by Petronius.  The exclusive world of patricians was infiltrated by nouveaux riches, and spiced up by raunchy pockets of ancient low-life. The port of Puteoli, where much of the fragmentary Roman novel is set, added an enticing element of rough trade to the scene: Upper class revelers often went slumming with sailors, footpads, actors, pimps, thugs and sleaze-balls. Noblewomen went incognito as prostitutes. Nero himself liked to explore the seediest waterfront taverns in disguise.

This round-the-clock bacchanal was notorious around the Empire, and tourists came in droves—to participate in its pleasures, but also to gawp at the elite at play. Travelers could rent rooms in the many boarding houses that were clustered near the shore; they could hang out in beach restaurants and popinae, or bars; and when they wearied of self-indulgence, they could select from armies of multi-lingual guides to show them the more edifying attractions: As in any seaside resort today, from Copacabana to Bondi, the sybaritic decadence was leavened by more noble acts of sightseeing. Geographically isolated, this arc of southern Italy had been settled by Greeks when Rome was just a village, and there was a smorgasbord of key locales here on the grand cultural trail, to be visited either on foot, in a litter, if at all possible, by sailing boat. Every self-respecting social climber had to acquire at least one trophy yacht, so that whole days could be blissfully whiled away sailing in sun-drenched circles.  Silk-canopied ferries, rowed by teams of slaves, went out to the islands of Capri and Procida, whose magically steep shores rose on the horizon like monstrous shark fins; day-trips ran to weather-beaten Doric temples, overgrown shrines, the Vineyards of Bacchus, where sea nymphs were said to climb from the waves to nibble on grapes each night.  The idyllic little city of  Neapolis—Naples—was the world’s first artists’ colony, where Romans could meet world-famous writers or attend a raucous poetry reading.

And yet, on the dizzying roundabout of high fashion, conspicuous consumption and self-gratification, nobody could quite forget that this was also the land of Vesuvius. The earth regularly shuddered with tremors, plumes of gas steamed from volcanic vents, and the sulfuric scent of potential disaster hung over the same hot baths where oiled lovers slipped off for secret trysts.  Partygoers never seemed to worry over-much; in fact, the ominous proximity of the Underworld felt almost appropriate, since for the Ancient Romans, death and pleasure were always inextricably linked.  The great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD was only a momentary interruption to the carnal hurly-burly.  A fraction of this gilded coastline was petrified for posterity—along with some 15,000 luckless Pompeiians—but the fiesta went on the next season with added determination. As one cheery song goes in the Satyricon:

“O woe, woe, man is only a dot:
Hell drags us off and that is the lot;
So let us have a little space,
At least while we can feed our face.”

Who could stay away? Any red-blooded Roman traveler, setting out on the Grand Tour would have paused on the road for an infusion of home-grown, meat-and-potatoes decadence.

*        *        *

Two thousand years later, the Bay of Naples still survives as one of Italy’s sunniest pleasure gardens.  Glamorous resort towns like Sorrento, along with the vertiginous islands of Capri and Procida, are regarded as pearls of the Mediterranean, backdrops for Grace Kelly and the Talented Mr Ripley, where the voluptuous delights of summer can be enjoyed to the full.  

The city of Naples—geographically, the most logical base for a visit—has not fared quite so well. Roman Neapolis has bloated into the largest and most troubled corner of Southern Italy, while once-thriving towns like Puteoli and Baiae have withered or disappeared. It’s as if the world has been on a vendetta against Naples for antiquity’s sins:  For century after century, it has attracted the A-list of rapacious world conquerors, leaving it today the poorest city in Western Europe, the most backward, the most crime-ridden. It even managed a cholera epidemic in the 1970s. It is also deliriously beautiful.  Seen from the water, the baroque waterfront shimmers like a color-saturated mirage, its exuberant tutti-frutti framed by medieval fortresses.  But of all the world’s great cities, only Rio de Janeiro looks so alluring from a distance, and so wounded up close.

This baffling contradiction was already proverbial in the eighteenth century, when Naples was described as “a paradise inhabited by devils”—especially by northern Italians.  The stereotype of Neapolitans, one local noble complained, was of “ignoramuses, assassin, traitors, pederasts… charlatans and buffoons,” whose criminal tendencies were innate. Today, the local reputation has hardly improved: the men of Naples are said to be lazy, spoiled machistas (an old Italian joke: Christ must have been Neapolitano: He lived at home until was thirty, thought his mother was a virgin and was convinced he was God).  The women are supposedly enslaved by ancient superstitions, addicted to lotteries, obsessed with death.  Everyone is under the thumb of the brutish local mafia.  Drugs, extortion, miseria are the grist of news reports from the city.  Goethe had famously gushed, “See Naples and die.” Northern Italians have changed that to Vedi Napoli e scappa—see Naples and run away.

And anyone whose first glimpse of the city is the central railway station—as it is for almost all modern travelers coming from Rome—might be tempted to agree.



We stood on the crowded Naples train platform and stared, open-mouthed.

With its shattered floor tiles and nebulous gloom, Napoli Termini looked less like a gateway to the legendary Crater of Luxury than a prison detention center in Panama City, circa 1935.  An army of pickpockets was circling around arriving passengers in the shadows, like overfed vultures taking their pick of abandoned lambs. We had no idea where to even find a hotel in Naples, so made a quick dash towards the railway tourist office.

While Les was minding the bags by the door, a character with dried blood on his face came up and stood two feet away, peering at her with a cheerily predatory expression.  His left hand kept working furiously below his trousers, until a policeman shooed him off.

When I came out to check what was going on, Les h