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Gaeta

Renting a villa under the Tuscan sun has become big business in Italy’s rolling north country. So big that the lovely family in the villa next door is as likely to be from London, Munich or Tokyo as to have lived in the Umbrian hills for generations.

For those who like their Italy a bit more Italian, the southern half of the boot holds many treasures, and few of them have been discovered, far less overrun by tourists.

One such marvel is Gaeta, a small, ancient town on its own Gulf in the Mediterranean, sitting conveniently near the train line half-way between Rome and Naples. It is about 45 minutes by express train to either city, making it a perfect base for day trips. What it also offers are enough ancient ruins, medieval alleyways and old churches to keep any visitor enthralled for weeks, without so much as a glance at the tourist-clogged cities to the north and south.

The Romans knew and appreciated the area for its beauty and its abundance of sea food. They fled to the cool sea breezes in the summer when the heat of the city became too much to tolerate. They built grand villas in the hills and on the seashore, the remains of which form the foundations of modern villas to which the Romans still escape each summer.

They call it the Ulysses Riviera, because it is mentioned in the ancient tales of Aenaeas and Ulysses as a place where the wandering sailor and his crew found fresh water at a spring – Artacia Fons -- that still bubbles up near the shore at the southern edge of the present day town.

To the east of Gaeta rises a massive silvery chain of mountains – the Aurunci -- covered in olive groves and wild thyme.

The food in the region is legendary. The fishermen set out into the gulf in the morning and return in time to set up at the fish market by about 4 p.m., so customers can choose from a dazzling array of marine life fresh from the sea, and get them home in time for supper. For those who prefer their food prepared for them, there are dozens of seafood restaurants, trattorias and pizzerias along the sea shore or in the picturesque cobbled alleyways and back streets of the town. Bakeries produce crisp foccacia, rustic loaves, and sweet pastries of mouthwatering variety, and there is an endless supply of coffee bars, sandwich shops and gelateria.

But seafood is not the only edible for which the area is famous. A few miles to the south lie the pastures of the water buffalo whose milk is turned into the fabled mozzarella de bufala. The grocery shops, or alimenari, offer the delicious cheese fresh daily. Meaty, mahogany colored Gaeta olives are exported around the world.

The beaches have also been a destination for the Romans for more than two millennia. Close by Villa Accetta is the beach of Vindicio, which was lined with Roman villas a couple of thousand years back, and is still lined with villas belonging to the present day Romans who built on the ancient foundations. Beach clubs on Vindicio also rent the requisite umbrellas and chairs to those who love to laze by the sea on a summer day.

A few miles north on the coast lies Sperlonga, a small, white-washed village on a promontory high above the sea. Its meandering and interconnected streets are too narrow for cars, leaving it much as it was centuries ago when the coast was under attack by Saracens. A scene is lovingly repainted each year by residents, showing an attack on the town centuries before. Just to the south, and visible from the heights of the village, is the site of the summer palace of Tiberius. Yes, Tiberius Caesar Augustus. The great, cool cave where the emperor would entertain his guests is still there, and visitors can tread the same ground as Caesars and orators such as Cicero. A museum holds some of the statuary and mosaics that have been unearthed at the site.

Gaeta itself is really two cities: the ancient one on a cliff-ringed promontory, and the new town on the flatter, inland areas. The ancient town is crowned by the first-century mausoleum of the Roman general Lucius Munatius Plancus atop Monte Orlando, a circular marble tomb reminiscent of the Castello Sant Angelo in Rome. Along the switchback road that climbs snakelike to the summit, is a turnoff to what is known as Montagna Spaccata, or Split Mountain, a spectacular triple fissure in the cliffs that is said, in legend, to have occurred when Christ was crucified. The site is one of religious pilgrimage, and a path along the cliff ultimately reaches a stairway to the bottom of one of the clefts. It is worth at least going to the top of the stairway, as the sight of the bright turquoise water crashing into the deep gash in the cliff is breathtaking. If you have the energy to descend to the bottom, just remember that it’s a long climb back up.

Descending back into Gaeta, another turn on the road takes you deep into the ancient town, whose history since the Roman era has seen it fly the flags of various dukedoms and kingdoms including those of Sicily, Naples, France Spain, Austria and more. The road passes the walls of the great stone castle that was home to the houses of Anjou and Aragon, and twice provided shelter to popes during times of trouble in Rome. The castle now is a military barracks, and was most recently a prison with only one inmate… an infamous Nazi officer who was found guilty of killing many Italian partisans in the latter part of World War II. The impressive castello, with its great stone walls, is being transformed into modern condominiums. The picturesque interior of the ancient city has stairways and alleyways to explore, some of which lead down to the waterfront, some of which lead to the Cathedral which rises above the waterfront. There is a marine school at the end of the promontory, and the waterfront is usually lined with sailboats and motor boats in the summer.

Via Independenzia, a narrow alleyway paved with black volcanic stone, runs parallel to the waterfront in the Borgo part of town, which is found outside the medieval city walls. Tiny shops and restaurants line the ancient street, and small market stalls offer produce fresh from nearby farms.

There are several churches to visit in the town:

The Church of Annunziata (1320) which contains the Golden Grotto, a Renaissance room where Pope Pius IX came up with his ideas on Papal infallibility. The Church of Annunziata rebuilt at the beginning of the 17th century in Baroque style by Andrea Lazzari. It houses works by Luca Giordano, Sebastiano Conca and Giacinto Brandi, as well as the sarcophagus of Enrico Caracciolo, a notable Gothic work of art. The walls of the grotto are decorated with 19 panels by Giovan Filippo Criscuolo (1531) in carved and gilded frames with small pilasters. On the altarpiece is an Immacolata by Scipione Pulzone.

Church of San Giovanni a Mare was built in the 10th century, near the old sea walls of the city. The inner pavement is slightly inclined to allow waters to flow away after sea floods.

The Cathedral of Assunta e Sant'Erasmo is an amalgam of the many styles of architecture inflicted by the many conquerors of the city, including Gothic, Moorish, Romanesque and Baroque. The Cathedral’s bell tower, nearly 57 meters tall, is a testament to recycling. The two marble lions at the base and much of the rest of the building consist of ancient roman architectural elements. The Cathedral was erected over a more ancient church, Santa Maria del Parco, and consecrated by Pope Paschal II in 1106: it had a nave with six aisles separated by columns with Gothic capitals. In 1778 two of the aisles were suppressed and the Gothic lines hidden. In the 13th century Moorish arches were added over the capitals. In 1663 the crypt was decorated in Baroque style. The interior houses a banner from the Battle of Lepanto, donated by Pope Pius V to Don John of Austria, who used it as his admiral's flag. The main sight of the church is the marble Paschal candelabrum from the late 13th century: it is in Romanesque style, decorated with 48 reliefs in 4 vertical rows, telling the Stories of the Life of Jesus. There are also paintings by Giacinto Brandi and Giovanni Filippo Criscuolo. The cathedral contains the relics of St. Erasmus, transferred from Formia.

The large church of St. Francis, according to the legend constructed by the Saint himself in 1222, was in fact built by Frederick II, in very fine Gothic-Italian style, and contains paintings and sculpture by many of the most famous Neapolitan artists.

The parish church of Santa Lucia, the former St. Maria in Pensulis, was once a Royal chapel. It had originally Romanesque and Sicilian-Arab lines, but in the 1456 it was rebuilt in Renaissance style, and in 1648 adapted to a Baroque one.

Notables from Gaeta:

Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764) Painter
Giovanni Filippo Criscuolo (1500-1584) Painter
Thomas Cardinal Cajetan (also known as Gaetanus; 1468-1534) Cardinal
Pope Gelasius II (died 1119)
Maria Pia della Grazia of Bourbon (1849-1882) A Princess of the Two Sicilies
Scipione Pulzone (also known as Il Gaetano; 1550-1598) Painter
John Cabot discovered Canada
Tommaso De Vio Writer
Giovanni da Gaeta (1448) Painter