In the beginning, Gaeta was nothing more than a steep hill, overlooking the Tyrrhenian sea. It had several names in different times and is now called Monte Orlando after the French semi-legendary hero. It is by no means the only hill or mountain in Italy bearing this name, a tribute to the time when over these places a watch was maintained to spot Turkish galleys. However, it is unlikely that Roland ever set foot on this particular hill.
The hill presents caves and fractures, the largest of which is called the Montagna Spaccata (“broken mountain”). As far as we know, the place has been inhabited since the tenth or eleventh century BC by the local population of the Aurunci. Still, the written history begins only in the fourth century BC when the Romans conquered the area. Gaeta lies fewer than 150 kilometres southeast of Rome in one of the directions of early expansion.
Monte Orlando offers a natural harbour, closed to the south by a strip of land called Punta Stendardo (“Point Banner”). The gentle slope of the point allowed for much easier building than the hill and was thus the chosen location for the village. The name of this village, Gaeta, is attributed by Virgilius to the fact that Aeneas, coming to Italy from Troy with his family and followers, would have buried here his old wet nurse Caieta.
Little remains today of the roman village and harbour because they have mainly been built over since medieval times. The most ancient buildings, or their remnants, date back to the tenth century; an example is a gate on the short street leading from the harbour to the village, called the Posterola, and nowadays embedded in much more recent buildings. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the harbour had great strategical relevance and hosted the military fleet of the Popes.
The Roman galleys that participated in the battle of Lepanto in 1571 set sail from here to join the Venetian and Genoan forces. Moreover, Gaeta is one among the cities that claim to have been the birthplace of the great sailor Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot; other cities raising the same claim are Venice and Genova with their respective hinterlands).
The harbour is today home to a small fishing fleet and has an area reserved for the Italian Navy. Walking along the street bordering the port, you may spot fishermen tending their nets or selling their catch. At sunset, you can sit there and await the return of the fishing boats. And, if you and the fishermen are lucky and the catch has been good, the boats are surrounded by clouds of seagulls that prey on the debris thrown off in the process of cleaning the nets. But even when the weather is bad, and the fishermen stay at home, the harbour and Punta Stendardo may offer you some dramatic views.
The village has few streets but many stairways because Punta Stendardo, though less steep than Monte Orlando, is by no means flat. The streets and stairs lead to the two castles on the top built by the Anjou and the Aragona kings. If you climb further, you leave the village by the road (which then becomes a path), climbing the hill on its least steep side.
The summit of Monte Orlando holds a treasure: the tomb of a wealthy Roman patrician, and former consul, Lucius Munatius Plancus who died in year 1 AD. The tomb is a very typical and well-preserved example of its kind: a large and flat tower covered with marble plates. Most of the Roman tombs were located in the more approachable places and were stripped of their marble cover for re-use in palaces and villas.
They appear today as made of stone or brick, and it is hard to imagine their former splendour. It seems that the location of this particular tomb made the removal of marble too expensive, mainly because a quarry is only a few kilometres away, close to the village of Coreno Ausonio. Near the tomb is a lighthouse, still in operation.
The pictures in this article were taken in different days, seasons and years, using an Olympus EPM-1 or a Pentax KS-1, except for the image of the Montagna Spaccata that I took from my kayak using a (low quality) waterproof camera.
All modern cameras and lenses are excellent, and the main problem I have is to carry one that is small and light enough to fit in a bag that already contains several other, photography unrelated, items. Light and luck are the real limits, and I had the fortune of going to Gaeta regularly once a week over many years because I give a course of Biochemistry at the School of Nursing in Gaeta’s hospital.