Today the newer part of Gaeta straddles the low saddle of land either side of a high rugged peninsula, which was the original Roman stronghold around which a mediaeval town grew. It was one of the Mediterranean’s maritime republics and has passed through various hands over the centuries. Some of the old town still stands, crumbling round the fortress and meandering along the arc of the harbour, but much was destroyed or rendered unsafe by bombing in the war, I think by the Allies, though they are too tactful to say. Pragmatically the ruins were left to sort themselves out and new building started on the low land between the harbour on one coast and the beaches on the other. When we stopped here three years ago John’s knee was very painful, so our exploring was limited to staying on the flat, following the sea front in both directions. This visit we decided to climb up into the old town proper and across through the new to the opposite coast.
First the old town, we set out after breakfast retracing our steps of yesteryear along the sea front into town, further than I had remembered. John suggested we cross the road to browse a ribbon of street market stalls; an array of antique furniture and mirrors, second hand books, medals, tools and home made jewellery, mostly junk, which was just as well. John’s idea of browsing is to walk at his normal pace past the stalls, with the occasional sideways glance. When the stalls petered out we crossed back to the landward side of the road in time for a coach to pull up and disgorge a large party of elderly tourists, who ambled frustratingly along in front of us before turning in at the first square and heading into the large church, the SS. Annunziata, in which there is a celebrated Golden Chapel. Rather than tag on behind a shuffling tour we decided to leave that for now and carry on up to the prominent Cathedral on the hill. It took a couple of goes to find the right passage up and it was quiet a pull, to arrive at a magnificent set of steps up to the front entrance, which were railed off by closed metal gates. A notice on these gates suggested the Cathedral should be open, it being Saturday. A crumbling weed choked stone stairway zigzagged unconvincingly up next to the immaculate gated steps. We decided it was worth a try and set off up, to be rewarded by arriving at the road leading into an open area in front of the Cathedral with magnificent views over the port.
The Cathedral entrance was dolled up for a wedding, with a long white carpet extending out from the nave, down the front steps between four white polystyrene urns. The flower arrangements for these urns were lurking on the floor in the cool of the interior. Obviously the wedding party was not due yet, so we followed a trickle of visitors skirting the immaculate carpet and exploring the soaring interior. There were other flower arrangements, magnificent mounds of blush pink roses and white hydrangeas in taller white urns, a white swathed alter and in a corner a violin and organ rehearsing the bridal music, whilst a smartly dressed woman filmed them on her phone. Other tourists were wandering about taking pictures, but we felt intrusive and crept away. Back outside in the heat we turned to road. One way led back down into the town and the other receded into a track unsuitable for vehicles apart from access. We headed up that. It climbed through scrub and wildflowers with enough shade to make the helter-skelter trail bearable. At each hairpin bend to sea we were rewarded by breathtaking views across the town and over the edge. At each turn inland was a building of some kind, usually large and old behind a high wall, but one turn came to shanty arrangement, with a small pen containing goats and a white horse. There was a shack with two men stood talking in a doorway across which was strung a half skinned rabbit. The man on the inside held a large table knife. Shades of Deliverance, we passed swiftly by. Our passage disturbed the butterflies; groups of sulphurous yellow ones rising like naughty petals from the gorse, tiny crazy white ones, jerky with panic and a single larger languid individual, the colour of crème de menthe, exquisitely veined. I failed to capture any of them on my phone camera. There was a hum of insects and the occasional fragment of conversation between other walkers hidden in turns of the zigzag path. There were several false summits, at one we came to the start, start mind you, of a fitness trail. Finally we reached the top and the only view was of a large water tower and the top of the lighthouse, where a dog barked manically at us. We sat on a bench and ignored it. It seemed prudent to circumnavigate the water tower just in case it was blocking a magnificent panoramic vista, but it wasn’t. There was a different path down though, so to avoid disturbing the rabid hound again we took that and came out at the end of the fitness trail, from where we could see the white head of a statue, which turned out to be a Madonna and child looking out south over the town, so we did have a panorama in the direction we had come. There was Lyra far below in the marina, the town laid out like a model and the mountains to the south. We retraced our steps back down and this time there were no signs of other people. Back at the Cathedral we followed the road back down into town, where all was quiet. The restaurants and bars in the square were closed, hunkered down under slightly collapsed umbrellas. Gasping, we stopped for a drink at a bar on the corner by the port, where the toilet had a Roman column preserved in a corner. We went back to Hermes bar and had a late lunch of tiella, the local pie. Today’s was egg and zucchini and was most delicious.
The number one restaurant in Gaeta is the pizza bar at the start of the mediaeval street behind the sea front. There always queues in the early evening with people staggering away under a pile of pizza boxes or sat on a bench sharing large ovals of pizza. We looked in past the throng at the door at the start of our evening promenade and saw a melee of folk shouting and gesticulating over a glass counter full of toppings and did not have the nerve to attempt an order. After strolling the length of the old street and coming back along the front we headed up into the new town and found a small brown restaurant called the Cellar Door on the edge of a housing estate. They could give us a table till 9.30, which suited us. There were lots of Italian families with small children, which we took to be the early sitting. The menu specialised in steaks, but there were some interesting pasta dishes, John had ravioli stuffed with squash and ricotta in a tomato sauce I had mushroom linguini with truffle after we had shared an antipasti of cold cuts and cheeses. By nine the place was filling up, but still with families, small children, grannies, dogs, the lot. One small boy had eyes like saucers when he was served a steak like his Dad; another Dad looked bone tired swapping his ice cream for the third time. We had coffee and were all done before nine thirty, though we seemed the only people concerned. We walked back down to the port, where the benches were still full of pizza eaters.