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Campania, Ancient Places and Spirits

Now here is a strange and mysterious land. The people speak a version of Italian that many other Italians can’t understand. It is a badge of honor the Neapolitans and Campanians wear to distinguish themselves still.

Because the history of Naples and Campania is quite different to the Italy most of us are familiar with. The secret lies in the names of many of its towns and places, for they appear in the annals of the past well before Rome was birthed. Naples – Napoli – was settled by Greeks as a major town just about the same time Rome was a collection of wattle huts. Truly then it was a new city, and called such: “Nea Polis” to the Greeks. Naples was the newcomer too, for towns like Cumae, Paestum and Herculaneum were already bustling port towns, rich with the commerce of the Mediterranean.

Campania is a Latin word, and means the countryside. The whole region was, and still is, agriculturally very productive. The Romans couldn’t wait to get their hands on it: it was one of the first regions they expanded into once Latium had been incorporated into the Roman Republic.

The region is, of course, famous for places like Pompeii, Amalfi and Capri. In fact, Capri, Ischia and Baiae were already tourist resorts over 2000 years ago. Vesuvius, with its two-faced menace and bounty, is a constant reminder that the whole region is still volcanically active. You just have to visit the sulphur pits in Pozzuoli to see its extended power.

Its always difficult to find enough time to ‘get under the skin’ of the region and its people. Happy, bright and full of convivial fun, the Campanians know how to mask the deep caution they have towards outsiders. After all, outsiders too often came to control them and possess their lands, almost always doing so with such destruction that Campanians have learned to hide their value and develop their own rules for living. Here was born the legend of Fra Diavolo, italy’s version of Robin Hood (but in the shape of Friar Tuck). This tension is still quite evident today: Rome and the rest of Italy are always seen as ‘somewhere else’.

Tourists in Campania also see its outward face, that of its delicious food, delightful beaches and wondrous monuments. There is another Campania behind those beaches and cascades of colored houses, tucked away on the folds of the hills behind. Here you will find places like Caserta, Nola and Avellino. Deeper in, half way across Italy, are towns like Benevento, Ariano and Eboli.

Here the forests still protect wolves and boars, the few that remain after Man civilized almost every field and gentle hill. The countryside is wilder here; a little harsher in the summertime, when the skies are hazy with heat, the olive leaves barely rustle and the cicadas sing in their shade.

The shrines and temples of ancient spirits have long given way to heavyset Christian monasteries as monks sought distance from this world to contemplate another. Spanish gold decorated churches with Baroque curlicues and rich icons, venerated to this day by a people deeply conscious of the dangerous powers that impact every day.

When you know life can be fragile, you celebrate it all the more. That is the soul of Campania, its secret and its magic. Celebrate life in Campania!

Article | Copyright © Carl Ottersen