Since we were approaching the Phlegraean fields – the second largest volcano in the world, which lurks just west of Naples – I was not surprised when we experienced a major eruption.
What was unusual was the location of the epicentre; a truck in a campsite in Gaeta, a small seaside resort to the north.
I couldn’t tell you how we got there. We arrived by an exceedingly long and devious route. It happened because the satnav directed us to a motorway slip road that not only had a 7.5 tonne limit, but corkscrewed around like a helter-skelter. Even if we considered the narrow spiralling bends a possibility with our ten-metre length, at sixteen tonnes, we weren’t brave enough to try.
This one missed turn resulted in a cross-country epic on tiny lanes. We passed through a chequerboard of fields bordered by deep ditches, and performed many more U-turns when the satnav routed us down more weight-limited roads.
When we arrived at our campsite, Mark decided enough was enough. He set out to update the satnav, which turned out to be A Bad Idea. Hell hath no fury like a man whose satnav suddenly loses all its maps. Despite its occasional flights of fancy, the satnav is a most essential piece of kit. While Mark rampaged like Godzilla let loose on Tokyo, the pups and I sought shelter. We kept a low profile as we waited for the tremors and aftershocks to pass.
With beautiful beaches, a long history, and a few culinary surprises, Gaeta, or Cāiēta as the Romans called it, was a two stop town. Like its neighbours, Sperlonga and Formio, its temperate climate has attracted tourists from Rome since classical times. Our first campsite, Quirino, was a few kilometres outside the centre, right opposite a tranquil stretch of golden sand.
Our arrival in a six-wheel truck usually creates a stir, but the long narrow entrance and tight manoeuvring once inside coaxed every resident out of their campers and tents. Half came to marvel at the majesty of The Beast; the other half to monitor their vehicles as we reversed around an obstacle course of mobile homes and stately pine trees.
Owners, Luciana and Bruno, welcomed us with open arms, and repositioned their classic camper to fit us in. Once assured their RVs were safe, the crowd of onlookers swarmed around to photograph The Beast, and queued to inspect our interior. Within hours, a chap called Gianpedro told us the picture he’d posted on Facebook had attracted 176 comments! As happened when we were touring in the UK, our progress through Italy had been tracked. Gianpedro showed us a series of remarks like,
“I saw this in Saturnia!”
“We passed that on the autostrada!”
The following day, Luciana and Bruno invited us to a seafood dinner. Along with a Roman couple and their Jack Russell, Bruno drove us in his camper to a real local’s place down the back roads. Without Bruno, we would never have found it, although that wasn’t the only thing that made the drive interesting. We had to cling on tightly to The Fab Four as he slalomed his seven-metre RV through a maze of slender backroads as though it were a Formula One Ferrari.
Our four-course extravaganza of fresh fish with wine was amazing. First, bruschetta, accompanied by plump, brine-cured Gaeta olives, a renowned local delicacy. Antipasti was a plate of the freshest mussels, polpo (octopus), calamari (squid) and crab, followed by calamari pasta in a sweet and tangy tomato sauce. Then, a whole grilled sea bass and a dish of delicately battered calamari fritti.
We shared our table with the Romans and their little dog. They didn’t speak a word of English, so it challenged our rusty Italian, but we had a lovely evening with them. All the pups behaved impeccably. Five dogs in the restaurant – and no one knew.
I couldn’t believe that €20 covered everything, including Bruno’s high-octane camper-taxi ride!
We learned later that Gaeta olives are lauded as ‘the black pearl of Italian olives’. Gaeta and Kalamata olives from Greece are the subject of a long running ‘which is best’ debate, upon which the jury is still out. Olive connoisseurs – shall we call them Oliviers or Olivetti? – consider them interchangeable.
Besides olives, Gaeta has another staggering culinary claim to fame. An archive called the Codex diplomaticus Caietanus, discovered in the nearby Abbey of Montecassino, contained a Latin document from 997 AD. It notes that a Church in Gaeta accepted ‘pizza’ as payment for the rent of land ‘featuring a vine and mill’. This thousand-year-old text is the earliest known reference to pizza, although Gaeta produces pizza with a difference. Gaeta’s traditional tiella is more like a pizza pie; a circular dough base and lid, filled with seafood and vegetables.
A local housewife reputedly invented tiella during a famine, when she wrapped everything she had in dough and baked it on the embers of the fire. Tiella is easy to share and keeps for a few days, so like Britain’s Cornish Pasty, it is a complete and highly portable meal for fishermen, farm hands – or the refugees who left famine-struck Gaeta to seek work.
It was a wrench to leave Camp Quirino, especially when everyone – and their dogs! – came out to see us off. The only feature I was glad to escape was the plenitude of sand. Beach life with the many paws meant that, between alternate bouts of fury and patient attempts to restore the satnav, Mark took to sweeping out the bed with a dustpan and brush!
We moved a full four miles to a car park beneath Monte Orlando, a rounded peak that rises above Gaeta and her port. Almost next door was Gaeta’s NATO naval base. We prayed Putin wouldn’t attack.
Myth and legend surround the peak. On its western side, Monte Spaccata – the Split Mountain – has three deep, vertical clefts. Local folklore suggests that at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross, an earthquake ripped the mountain apart. In the eleventh century, Benedictine Monks crowned Monte Spaccata with their Sanctuary of the Holy Trinity. The mythology and the monument have since attracted a veritable Who’s Who of bishops, kings, and popes.
One fissure, The Grotta del Turco – Turk’s Grotto – has a glassy hand print in its rock wall. This was reputedly made by a Saracen pirate who used the area as a hideout. He ridiculed the earthquake theory and said that if it were true, the mountain must be made of cheese. When he touched the rock, it miraculously softened and his fingers left an imprint. According to my interpretation of the Italian translation of the Latin inscription beneath the Mano del Turco, “An unbeliever refused to believe what tradition reports, to prove it, this rock softened at the touch of his fingers.”
The second cleft contains the sixteenth century Chapel of the Crucifix, built atop a huge boulder wedged between the walls. Next to the chapel is a stone ledge, known as The Bed of San Filippo Neri, which was supposedly used by the saint, who lived inside the Split Mountain.
As we sauntered to the summit to take in the panorama, we passed a clowder (that is the correct term!) of cutesie kitties, lounging in the shade. Little did we know we’d encountered the feline form of Fight Club!
Watch out behind you!” Mark warned as he saw a dainty black-and-white pussycat with an adorable pink nose rise like a liquid spectre to stalk me, Ruby and Lani.
Even when I turned to face it, it continued its hissing advance, with its back arched and a malevolent look that said, “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” You’d imagine a human armed with two dogs might deter a miniature mobster moggy, but outnumbered and deprived of the key element of surprise, it remained defiant. It took a few steps back when I rushed it, but kept its beady eyes on me, spoiling for a fight. If I’d dropped my guard for a second, this pugnacious pussy would have pounced like Cato in The Pink Panther!
On the summit of Monte Orlando, we discovered a lighthouse, and the huge cylindrical mausoleum of Roman Consul, Lucio Munazio Planco. Planco served under Julius Caesar, and founded the cities of Basel and Lyon. He gained many honours, and had a commemorative gold coin struck when he was made Prefect of Rome, although he was not well loved by his contemporaries. More than 1,500 years before the Maestro of Malfeasance was a twinkle in his father’s eye, Planco out-Machiavelli’d Machiavelli. His self-serving shifts of allegiance not only kept him alive through very dangeous times, but had a major bearing on some of history’s most pivotal events.
When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Cicero, the famous philosopher, orator, and Republican statesman, made Planco swear alliegiance to the Republic. Planco aligned himself with the Second Triumvrate; a three-man dictatorship appointed to govern the Republic. It comprised Caesar’s heir, Octavian, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Marc Antony. Between them, the Triumvrate compiled a ‘proscription list’ of enemies of the state, who were to be killed and have their property siezed. This hit list included Planco’s own brother, as well as his mentor, Cicero.
Cicero made a dash to escape to Greece via the port at Gaeta, but was murdered on the Appian way near his villa in Formia. His severed head and hand were displayed on the rostrum in Rome. Cicero’s tomb is a major monument in Formia.
Planco continued his perfidious ways. After Lepidus was expelled from the triumvrate and exiled, Planco betrayed his friend and comrade-in-arms, Marc Antony, to Octavian. Planco persuaded Octavian that Antony was an enemy of Rome, in thrall to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. Although Antony was married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia, he had three children with Cleopatra. Planco alerted Octavian to Antony’s secret will, which bequeathed Roman land to Cleopatra’s children. Octavian declared war on Egypt, saw off Antony, and the rest, as they say, is Shakespeare.
Defeated in battle and believing Cleopatra already dead, Antony chose an honourable suicide by falling on his sword, only to find his lover was still alive. Fatally wounded, his soldiers carried him back to Alexandria, where he died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra was captured, and famously killed herself with a venomous asp. Having dispatched all his rivals, the Senate gave Octavian the title Augustus – ‘The Illustrious One’. Thus, with Planco’s help, he founded a line of Roman Emperors that continued for fourteen centuries.
Planco’s shrewd political manouevering meant he outlived most of his rivals. He died in 1 AD, aged 90. His mausoleum was so well preserved, I thought it was modern. I thought it was a WWII gun emplacement, but it was actually founded in 22 BC! I felt such deceit was rather befitting of this unprincipled Prince of Prevarication.
Taking care to avoid the killer cats, we strolled back through the resin-scented shade of pine trees past a variety of other sanctuaries, batteries, and fortifications. In the rocks, we spotted fossils of rudist bivalves from the Cretaceous period. At 150-million years old, they were considerably less fresh than the ones we’d enjoyed for dinner the previous night. As we walked upon a Roman road, views out to sea confirmed the existence of a very specific colour – Mediterranean Blue. I imagined whose feet had trodden the same route, and could see why Planco had so loved Gaeta.
“I’d like to take a photo of the road,” I said to Mark.
“I’ll take one for you,” he said.
‘How considerate!’ you might think, but even without the giveaway grin, I knew exactly what he was up to. When we got back, I downloaded a closeup of a cobble.
Once we returned to the park up, we introduced ourselves to our dreadlocked neighbour, Mario, a local lad who was also a full-time vanlifer. We invited him in for a cuppa and discovered he was a surf instructor, who had lived for six years in a remote part of Costa Rica.
“You’re the only people I’ve ever met who have even heard of Zancudo!” he said, when we told him where we spent our honeymoon. He put to bed a niggling doubt over one aspect of our story, which had grown in my mind over the years.
“While we were there, Mark stood on a cockroach the size of a Tonka Toy truck.”
“Yeh. That would be a tree cockroach,” Mario confirmed. So. Those super-sized insects weren’t just a figment of my deranged imagination!
Mario thanked us for being so welcoming. He said most people aren’t, but I guess prejudice crosses continents.
During our drive to Gaeta, a great weight had lifted when Mark suggested missing out Rome.
“I’d love to show you Rome,” he said, “but I don’t fancy driving the truck into the centre, and dragging the poor pups around a busy, touristy city in the heat.”
“I’m so glad you said that,” I replied. “I’d love to go, but I feel exactly the same way.”
We both agreed Rome would be more anguish than amusement, and that The Eternal City would still be there for another day.
Based on the swarming mass of sightseers at Gaeta, we also decided to miss out Pompei and Herculaneum, but Mario said,
“You MUST go. They are amazing!
“It won’t be busy,” he promised. “Yesterday was Italian Liberation Day. It’s a national holiday to celebrate the end of Fascism and Nazi occupation. That’s why it’s been so packed here.”
I suspect Italian liberation is a subject very close to the hearts of the Gaetani. In 1943, King Vittorio Emanuel III dismissed Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, who allied Italy with Nazi Germany. The King dispatched Mussolini via Gaeta to a prison on the nearby island of Ponza. In secret negotiations, Italy’s new government surrendered to the Allies. This spooked the Germans, who were well aware of Gaeta’s strategic importance. Close to both Naples and Rome, they were justifiably nervous that Allied forces might storm the port, so they occupied the town and expelled all its citizens. They incarcerated those unable to leave in concentration camps.
Previously, between 1919 and 1924, Gaeta gained notoriety on the world stage by hosting the exiled Montenegrin King Nikola I and his government Nikola’s daughter, Elena, was Queen of Italy, married to Vittorio Emanuele III. Nikola was not the most welcome guest; supporting his court was costly, and his presence was a diplomatic embarrassment, since a number of Italy’s allies opposed him. While in Gaeta, Nikola issued a rare set of Free Montenegro Government-In Exile-stamps. Their purpose was more propaganda than post, so they were never actually used.
On Mario’s advice, we returned to planning for Pompei and Ercolano, although the rules for visiting Pompei concerned Mark.
“It says we’re not allowed to ‘speak out loudly’, ‘dig holes’, or ‘open gates that are closed or slightly open’. We can’t wear masks or costumes, and Rule No. 12 says, ‘Do not wear clothes that could be considered potentially disruptive’. What is disruptive dress? Plus, dogs over 10 kg are not permitted, so we’ll have to shave Rosie.”
He also suggested a pub crawl around Herculaneum.
“So far, I’ve found a Hogwarts-themed pub, an Irish bar (of course!) and the Beer Dock Lab, which serves a selection of craft beers. There’s also a place called the Ambulatorio Alcolico, which translates as the Alcohol Clinic.”
I expressed my doubts about the pub crawl.
“If we do that, we might miss Vesuvius entirely. Unless it erupts…”
Join us next time for a meeting with the world’s most infamous volcano…
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4 thoughts on “Mobster Moggies & The Origin of Pizza, Gaeta, Italy”
Your seafood evening with Bruno sounds like devine seafood heaven! And how lovely of everyone (and their dogs) at Camp Quirino to say goodbye. Now, a cat fight … that would have been interesting on who the winner would be 😉. Great post – I had a few “laugh out loud” moments while reading your story … it’s so descriptive (you’re a really great story teller)!
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I am fairly certain the cat would have won…!
Thank you so much for your kind comments! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed your lovely complliment!
😂 it all looks and sounds so wonderful, think I might be craving some beach time at the moment.
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A little bit of Vitamin Sea is always good for the soul!
We’re inland at the moment, but planning to head back to the beach in September, when it is quieter. The whole of Europe goes on holiday in August!