Going (back) to Gaeta (Part 2 of Europe 2022)
Gaeta is a small town situated on a peninsula, almost smack-dab between Rome and Naples. Tickets from Rome to Gaeta were 16.80 Euro for both of us. We arrived on Sunday afternoon, just in time to catch the sunset from Monte Orlando- the green area on the GoogleEarth map is a steep mountain, dotted by buildings constructed in war-time as well as crypts and chapels. There's a trail that can lead healthy and ambitious hikers all the way to the top, and clear down to the other side where a tiny ancient neighborhood can be found.
The main church (situated on the far south end of the map) Santuario della Santissima Trinita, is where I was confirmed in the Catholic faith in the spring of my ninth grade year. To the west, snuggled right in the corner between the mountain and the beach, is Hotel Serapo. Two nights in late October were a WHOPPING 199.68.... In dollars, around $225. As a bonus, the hotel provides a continental breakfast for free. You literally can't book a Holiday Inn right off of any random highway on-ramp in the USA for that. The hotel is closed during winter months, and even though the town is a European beach destination during the summer, it is one place you can go and completely avoid tourism.
It is a little trickier, though, because this is real Italy. Everything is closed on Sundays, and the opening times of businesses and restaurants are subject to change without notice.
After checking in, I convinced my husband that the church on the looming cliff that we could see from our room (Santuario della Santissima Trinita) wasn't as far as it looked and we had to get up there and check it out. So we walked. And walked. And the closer we got to the church the more memories I had of the area. It was getting dark, and my poor husband was having yet another episode of "she has zero concept of distance" mixed with "this is how we die"- I'd led us well past the church to the crypts and ruins that I remembered exploring in my youth. The sun was setting, and we'd logged nearly eleven miles that day, only three where earlier in the day before we'd left Roma... he finally begged me to abandon the trail and head back down the mountain in search of food.
We found one small bar/bakery that was open, split a big piece of lasagna and tiramisu before heading to our hotel for the night.
The following day, the mission was to find the landmarks that made me- the places I knew when we lived there. I also wanted to go back up the mountain to show James the actual 'split', and the Turkish grotto- as the entrances to these places were already closed the previous evening. Our legs were killing us, so we were excited to find that Gaeta has adopted the electric scooter fad... we rented two of these and spent the entire day on them.
The paved roads back up to Monte Orlando are pretty steep, but the scooters did the job... we spent the morning exploring Montagna Spaccata and the Turkish Grotto- it's really hard to describe these places. I love that there was no one there- we were literally the only people on the mountain that day. I also love that, just as I remember it, when then gates of the church are open and you can get it in, there is no charge- the church just asks for a donation. There are no tour guides, no big crowds, no lines to wait in.
The legend of Split Mountain says that a Turkish man whose faith had faltered came to this church and sought the council of the priest here. That priest told him to walk through the mountain, which is said to have split in the moment that Jesus died on the cross, and to place his hand on the wall. Supposedly, the rock melted beneath his palm and his handprint was left as an imprint forever, and his faith in God was restored. Then of course he built a chapel inside of the split which actually seems like more of a miracle than the handprint considering what it must have been like to construct anything there.
I had completely forgotten about the chapel, so it was exciting to explore it again after thirty years... one of the things we found most fascinating about it was that, if this were in the US, no one would be allowed in- especially unsupervised. The walls of the building are crumbling, the ceiling is falling down, and it would seem the desire to be devout in this space could be taking your life into your own hands... and if that's not enough, you can still manage to climb to the TOP of the chapel as well! We marveled about the fact that here in Europe, you're just on your own. Safety standards a little different.
We made our way back out of the Split and back to the main church, and found the entrance to the Grotto. When I was a kid, you used to be able to get all the way down to the bottom of the Grotto, but now they have it fenced off half-way down with a gate that explicitly details that one should not attempt to scale it for fear of death. We didn't argue with that. So maybe they do kind of pick and choose their hazardous ways.
From there, we made it back down the mountain... the scooters definitely worked better on the trip down thanks to gravity and all. It was still pretty early, so we decided to explore "Piccolo Alley", the ancient road formally known as "Via Indipendenza" which dates back to the 7th century. This cobblestone alley is barely large enough in some places for three people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. It's lined with residential apartments and shops where locals can buy fresh fish, pizza, produce, leathergoods, clothes, and household items. I have memories of walking in this alley with friends, and of my brother, who used to find amusement in striking M-80s and throwing them down the narrow side alleys. The loud 'pop' would reverberate through the buildings and I'm sure scared the bejesus out of some elderly Italians and bunch of cats.
Considering that the night before, we had trouble finding restaurants that were open, we decided to stop in to one of the groceries and pick up snacks for later. It was here that I purchased what was probably the freshest cheese I've ever eaten and purchased a bottle of chianti for less than ten bucks that would have easily cost me three times that at Binny's.
Because we aren't 'those kind' of Americans, we didn't ride the scooters down the alley... we were about a mile into the alley when we decided we'd need to take our snacks back to the room before we looked for lunch, so we turned around and made our way out of Piccolo Alley. We googled places that looked like they might be open, and finally found a spot where the chef's special was a Rigatoni dish and there was a hamburger on the menu.
After lunch, we went in search of my history. When we first arrived in Gaeta, my family lived in a small apartment that was attached to a hotel. The apartment was right next to a building that we called the "DET", which was short for "Detachment", which meant this building was an extension of the Naval base we were assigned to. Inside this building, on the ground floor, was a post office that I worked at as a summer hire when I was fourteen. Above that was a medical center and above that, legal offices.
Suffice it to say, this building looks a whole lot bigger and much more official in my memories. Today, it's been turned back into a pharmacy and residential apartments. I was hoping the Pharmacy would be open so I could go in and look to see if there were any remaining evidence of a US Post office, but had no such luck.
Once we got here, my brain totally made connections and I instinctively knew which direction we needed to go to get to the apartments we moved into later, the apartment that is attached to the most profound memories I have of living here.
The scooters were a welcome mode of transportation and the day was gorgeous. I remarked to James that I was glad they didn't have the scooters back when we were kids; we all would have been in so much more trouble. I led the way up the road to the place I once knew by heart... I was happy to see that the building itself appeared to have been renovated and updated, but it was still there. This somewhat obscure, nothing-special-about-it building in this tiny town in Italy was a place I never thought I'd see again, when we left. It never would have occurred to me to think about that, back then. We moved a lot. Moving on was easy when it's a way of life.
The second skinnier window down (which was the third floor) was my room. This apartment was around 900 square feet, tiny for a family of four. I had a daybed and a shrunk- a piece of furniture that served as a closet, and I think a small desk or table of some sort. I Facetimed my mom while we were here, holding back weird tears and wishing they were with us to see this. I walked up the road and around the corner, to the place where, for two years, I showed up at 5am every morning to catch the school bus to Naples. It was a two hour ride, there and back, every single day. I took a selfie and my husband laughed at me, commenting about how, even though he's always known about my years in Italy, he didn't realize until just then how hard that must've been.
In an effort to keep this from morphing from a travel blog to an emotional vomit blog, I'll avoid in depth commentary on this moment in time, other than to say that I needed this. So much has happened in my life, things that I felt have gone without closure or true resolution, that coming here healed something that had been hurting for a good long time.
After the journey down memory lane, we agreed we were tired and it was time to relax. We finally made our way down to the beach, aptly named "Palm Beach", where we strolled along the coastline and then sat down for a drink and to watch the sunset.
We had one more night left in Gaeta, with plans to catch the train in the morning to Venice.
Between the train tickets, hotel, meals and the scooters, we spent a total of about $450. If you're traveling through Italy, Gaeta is a stop well worth making. The food is inexpensive, the lodging (especially off-season) is phenomenally inexpensive, and there are things here you'll never see anywhere else in the world.
Next stop: Venice!