By Barbara A. Noe
In Italy, Roman ruins sprinkle the landscape like Parmesan cheese on pasta. In a twist of the typical, terrestrial way to see them, I recently donned a snorkel mask and fins on the Bay of Naples.
Heading out in a Zodiac some 400 yards off the coast of Pozzuoli, six miles north of Naples, I study the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, which doesn’t give any hint of what hides beneath. An orange buoy marks the spot. Overboard I go, splashing into the cooling waters. When I open my eyes, I spy tiny blue-black fish darting among broken pillars and foundations covered with centuries of undulating growth. Purple sea urchins grow all around. The fishes’ crunching on the coral and my own snorkel-hindered breathing break the ethereal silence.
I survey beneath me the remains of the Portus Julius, the home port of ancient Rome’s most important fleet—commissioned in 37 B.C. by the great engineer and military leader Agrippa. Nearby the Roman seaside resort of Baiae prospered, where Emperors Nero and Julius Caesar are believed to have had elegant summer villas and hedonism flourished in the area’s famous thermal baths. In the 16th century, volcanic activity caused a change in the sea level (called bradyseism), so that parts of ancient Baiae were submerged. Today the region is an underwater archaeological park (Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baia), with several different areas that can be explored by snorkel, scuba, or glass-bottom boat.
I watch our energetic, scuba-tank-clad guide, who had plunged ahead of us ten feet to the seafloor, sweep a brush across a section of mosaic floor to clear it of sand and silt, and reveal white marble that gleams in the glory of a bygone empire. Just northeast of it, she clears a wine-colored floor, speckled with black and white decorative dots.
I kick after her 40 yards away, to an underwater maze of columns and foundations, and I try to imagine what that ancient seaport looked like. In its heyday, the bustling port boasted warehouses, dry docks, a Temple of Poseidon, and, yes, brothels. In a mind-boggling tidbit of information, it was from here that rescue galleys were dispatched to evacuate Pompeii’s survivors of the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
But perhaps the most astounding thing of all—my guide brings up an amphorae shard and hands it to me. I hold this piece of terra cotta imagining the wine it once held, the toga-clad Romans who had imbibed it. She then brings up a white marble tile, about three inches by three inches. It’s light and bright, but refusing to reveal anything about the sandals that once trod across it.
I release each one, back into the pellucid depths, watching them descend silently, gracefully. As they settle gently amid the ruins, I turn, paddling back to the Zodiac, the splendor of the Roman Empire ever hidden beneath the sea.
Go: The Bay of Naples is an inlet of the Tyrrhenian Sea, just southwest of the city of Naples. The bay is noted for its scenic beauty enhanced by the surrounding volcanic hills including the infamous Mount Vesuvius.
Getting There: The Bay of Naples can be accessed by the port city or via the bordering coastal towns of Pozzuoli, Torre Annunziata, Castellammare di Stabia, and Sorrento.
How to Visit: Book a snorkeling tour with Centro Sub-Campi Flegrei, Via Napoli 1, 80078 Pozzuoli, www.centrosubcampiflegrei.it.
Barbara A. Noe is a senior editor for National Geographic Books. Her last post for Intelligent Travel was “Carmel-by-the-Sea for Kids.”