The mountain appears isolated in an enchanted loneliness. It rises, high above the sea, as a woman’s profile sleeping in the mist. She listens to the lullaby of the waves, she dreams, of a time when the sea was a place of wonders and the origin of an immortal Legend.
Since ancient time Mount Circeo is regarded as the lair of Circe1, Goddess and Witch, who tried to trick Ulysses and of Ulysses became a lover. The gentle woman’s shape of the slopes is widely considered her living memory. On its top the remains of what once was a Roman Sanctuary consecrated to Circe, daughter of the god Helios and the oceanid Perse, reaffirms the special devotion the place got over the time.
Mount Circeo is not only a source of beauty but a place where nature and culture become one inspiration. “Up there is a mystic place where the earth tell to the sea about a mysterious order where the gods and the soul of the men can lightly touch each other” (Sara)
(Homer , The Odyssey, Book X)
As the car get closer the gentle woman shape vanishes and the mountain reveals a different nature as a spell have been cheating the traveller. Mount Circeo is a 6 km narrow ridge of white rocks covered by a thick forest, running from east to west and surrounded by the sea on all sides except the North, where a vast plain opens up. The mount’s feet ascend gently to suddenly rise, as a blow of wind lifted up a wave of rocks about to smash on the shores. An irregular series of peaks make it looks a primeval stronghold. A complete isolation on the edge of the plain, sharpened slopes, peaks as cut by a blade, and the unlimited horizon of the sea behind, give it a dramatic, extreme beauty. The mountain looks immense but its higher point measure only 542 meters. We are on the Thyrrenian Coast between Rome (110km) and Naples (147km).
I get the Mount Circeo feet. From here, passing by the village of San Felice Circeo, the road goes up bending and bending till the Eastern top of the ridge. There is a small car park surrounded by the forest. The sun began to descend. It is curious, I grew up 100 km far from Mount Circeo and I used to come here with the family every summer. I remember I looked at the mountain in wonder and devotion, convinced of the real existence of Odysseus and Circe. At that time the Odyssey was the first playground for my imagination, I read, dreaming the wildest adventure of world where the edge between real and unreal was thin, thin as the page of a book. Names of places and people fell out of the story as seeds to the fertile ground of my spirit. Roots emerge, growth occurs, and the value of this sea for my personal story and for the culture I belong to, timidly took place in my consciousness. A book thousands of years old, written in a language I can barely read and not understand, is mine as mine are my hands, its echo had is own part in shaping who I am. Today I will climb for the first time Mount Circeo to pay homage to it. I leave the car and I am on the way to the top.
It began with an asphalt road that leads to some aerials property of the army. I start running gently to warm up. In few minutes I reach a concrete shed. From here a small path leave the road to dive into the forest. I speed up suddenly and I am out of the sun into the welcoming shadows of the forest.
The air is colder and wet, the winds howls and shakes the evergreen oaks singing together with the sea. The sound twists and twirls in the shadow, it surrounds me in a game of echoes as coming from every point. The gold light of the sun drains between the branches as thin blades of light and shadow. The forest is getting thicker and thicker, closer and closer, as try to grasp me and the sky is vanished behind a roof of leaves. It is easy linger on the dream, “they heard her singing, lifting her spellbinding voice” the nymph of lovely tresses sings to bewitch the traveller.
Suddenly the forest opens and the intense blue of sky and sea pierces my eyes. I stop. From here the slopes of the mountain falls straight downwards to meet the water. Seagull fly up and far of the horizon Ponza Island floats in the mist. I can overlook the whole dorsal of the mountain that resembles a giant snake of rocks creeping in between sky and sea. Its shape is so dynamic that look the rock itself is running to jump in the Sea. It is a landscape of pure movement.
I am back running and the forest close up on me again. It is the restless game of a fang, open and close, shadow and sun, a rhythmic cadence as a symphony of sky and earth, sea and landscape. One can’t overlook but just taste dramatic perspective as caught by a camera falling and rolling, down on the slopes into the sea. It gives a sort of confusion, a happy drunkenness, as me mountain sky and sea were spinning, falling, running off and playing hide-and-seek. Sometimes, rapidly as shots of visions by a window of a car running, the landscape opens up inland to a vast plain sprinkled of houses and woods.
Here and there big white rocks emerge from the green. The path, after be exactly on the top of the ridge, start to go up and down on the sloops to overcome the rocky dorsal of the mountain. Often I need to stop and bend down to pass underneath trees till I am free to run again. I have no much time, sunset is coming. I increase the speed to reach the summit before nightfall.
A cylindrical white rock stand up alone in the middle of the ridge. Strangeness of the hour or suggestion of the mind, the rock looks a ruined basement shaped by a not-human hand. Its ghostly whiteness is as fading in the air. I am arrived. I climb up the rock and I reach the summit. On both side the ridge run away. The mountain is a vessel about to rise anchor. Down my feet I can’t feel a firm ground. The sight is free to fly with no obstacle to hug the horizon. I am light as a feather.
Far away North-East Rome lights up, down the Mount the plain lights up, South-West Naples lights up, around, immense, the sea of the legend sighs. Far way, the mist makes Pontinian islands as a mirage, a vision fading away. The sky turns to the colour of a dream. A thin carpet of mist cover the sea, and makes water looks clouds’ reflections: where is the sky where is the sea now? Where is up where is down here? I am a centre, a core, the origin of.
The sun is dying into water. It gives its last farewell to the Witch, a caress of dense as liquid light on her rocks, a reddish-gold shining gift on its forest, a gentle luminous rain on her beloved place. I take out the book I brought with me, the same one I ve read over the years. The golden light of the sunset make of the white pages a bright treasure. I read aloud into the fading light of the day as an offer to “Circe of the lovely tresses”, to the blind poet, to Ulysses “the multiform hero who wandered far and wide”, to the Mediterranean sea, to my culture:
… they paused at her doors, the nymph of lovely tresses,
Circe—and deep inside they heard her singing, lifting
her spellbinding voice as she glided back and forth
at her great immortal loom, her enchanting web
a shimmering glory only goddesses can weave …
Deep in the wooded glens we came on Circe’s palace
built of dressed stone on a cleared rise of land.
Someone inside was plying a great loom,
and how she sang—in a high clear voice!
Goddess or woman—we called out and hailed her
… she hurried toward us, decked in rich regalia,
handmaids following close with trays of bread
and meats galore and glinting ruddy wine.
And the lustrous goddess, standing in our midst,
hailed us warmly: ‘Ah my darling, reckless friends!
You who ventured down to the House of Death alive,
doomed to die twice over…
I read and the wind lifts up my words, and they fall as snowflake, and they melt to become part of the place. I listen to Polyphemus shouting, I see Scylla attacking the ship. I listen to the song of the sirens and to the voice of Circe, I see islands, fortresses, gods whispering advices to men or push them to death. I see trades, white temple facing the whiteness of the waves. I see wars, acts of extreme violence, gestures of pity, friendship and brotherhoods, murderer planned in the shadows, veils tensed by the wind. Something got broken into me to let flow a deep release. I close the book. Now I know why this book bewitched me. The protagonist of the Odyssey is not the voyage of a hero but the sea. Homer wrote a book of salt and waves, of vessels and tides, a book blue as blue is the colour of the Mediterranean sea and never ending as the imagination of a child. The Odyssey told to an unaware child about the world he belonged too, taught him lights and shadow of his own culture, make him understand how the Mediterranean sea shaped his world and how strongly he belonged to that water.
I wait till the darkness overcome the Mountain and I carefully climb down. The Forest is dark, the night conceals creature of the imagination behind the trees: when the eyes can’t see the mind is free to create a new reality. I walk slowly, watching carefully where the path goes. The forest awakes, I can feel the trees as persons, and maybe they are, but with a thinner voice. The stars peep out between the branches as curious to see what is happening above the leaves, who is the walker who lingered so long in the forest. I step slowly and lightly, I fear to break this world of strange lures, fragile as the reflection on a pond that the lightest blow of wind can make tremble and crack, but soon I need to turn on the light, there is no moon tonight. They way back will be long, or not? I feel I already came back home. I am leaving what is mine, what is me, what made me, the sea, this sea, the Mediterranean Sea.
1) The lair of the witch was the Island of Ponza, just in front of the Mount Circeo
2) The mist and the presence of a lake and marshes could make the Mountain look an Island from the North, especially by the sea. The same Strabo describes the Mount Circe in such way.
At any rate the place has been connected to the goddess Circe since ancient time. The mountain have her same name since the first records we found.
A Latin inscription of an altar found in Mount Circeo listed as number 6422 in the “Corpus Inscriptionum latinarum”, states that the Emperor Caracalla, with the consent of the priests of the cult, ordered the restoration of the altar dedicated to “Circes Sanctissimae”, delegating the task to Servius Calpurnius Domitius Dexter. However, some recent studies argue that the inscription has not been found in Mount Circeo but elsewhere.
Strabo, Cicero, and Virgil wrote about the veneration of the local people of Circeo had for Circe. They stated that the sanctuary of the goddess could not stand anywhere but the on the most prominent site of the promontory.
The Greek geographer Strabo attests that at the Circeo Sanctuary the priests showed both the Elpenor tomb, the bolts of the ship belonged to Ulysses and a cup of the Hero, in his words: “290 stages from Antium is Monte Circeo, which stands as an island on the sea and on the marshes. They say it is also rich in herbs, so according to what about Circe is told us (e.d. by tradition). There is a small settlement, a sanctuary of Circe and an altar of Athena; they also show a cup which, they say, would have belonged to Odysseus … “
During a clear day from the top of the Mountain you can see the Vulcan Vesuvius.
In 1939 Palaeontologist Alberto Carlo Blanc (Chambéry, 30th of July 1906 – Rome, 3th of July 1960) found a Neanderthal skull in Grotta Guattari, one of the numerous cave at the bottom of Mount Circeo. After his discovering he explored other 27 caves finding many other Palaeolithic remains. According with the latest studies the skull was brought into the cave by the same animal that made an hole on his top: a hyena.
Close to Mount Circeo, on the shores of the lake Fogliano, there is Villa Fogliano. It was built in 1742 by Michelangelo Caetani Duke of Sermoneta and Prince of Teano to guest the Cardinal of York and the Earl of Albany, grandsons of the King of England James II Stuart. They both were passionate hunters.
Templars had a headquarters in Circeo during XIII century
Around 1570, Pope Pius IV ordered the Caetani family to build, along the cliffs of the Mount Circeo, four defence towers against the constant Saracens’ pirate raids. They were named, Paola, Moresca (Moorish), Cervia and Fico (Fig). All the towers had to be round, with three floors, with the entrance on the first floor. The problems began straight away. The workers were assaulted by the pirates and, in no time, they threw down what had been done… Nonetheless, later on the towers were rebuilt. They are still up.
It is a simpe visual map of Mount Circeo in pdf. It is in Italian so the summit is “Picco di Circe” Circeo city Hall – Map of routes of Mount Circeo
From the Ring (Grande Raccordo Anulare) take the exit nr 26 (Pontina/Colombo/eur) and go on the Regional Road 148 named Pontina. Never leave this road! After around 90 km turn right on Monte Circeo Street, it is easy you need just to follow the signs to San Felice Circeo. Once you get the village of San Felice Circeo go up to the old city. The road pass by in front of the old gate and keep going up till a crossroad. There is a lovely bar almost on the corner. Turn right to the road that keep going up hill. After 12 bends you get the car park and the beginning of the route
From Rome the easiest option is the Bus. There are Monday to Saturday connections from Roma Laurentina Station (Line B of the Subway) to San Felice Circeo. Price and time schedule at www.cotral.it . Mind that the bus will leave you in the town centre of San Felice Circeo, the beginning of the route is 1.30 hours by foot.
The closest train station is Terracina, prices and time schedule at www.trenitalia.com (note that Terracina is under maintenance so you will need to switch to a substitute bus service in Priverno station). From Terracina there are daily buses to San Felice Circeo, prices and time schedule www.cotral.com