Last time I visited Gaeta I took the leisurely stroll up and across the promontory to the split mountain sanctuary on the other side: an awe-inspiring sight that I recommend to anyone in the area. But beware of the opening times: parts of it are closed between 12 and 3 in the afternoon.
According to local Catholic tradition, the rocks here cracked in three places at the very moment that Jesus died on the cross. This is linked to a passage in the Bible, in the gospel according to Matthew, 27:51:
“And the earth shook and the rocks were split.”
A sanctuary has existed on the site since around the 11th century, originally constructed by Benedictine monks. Two of the cracks in the rock can be visited: one named the Turk’s grotto, which has steps leading down to the sea, and the second, main split, where 35 stairs lead down to the Chapel of the Crucifix, built into the two sides of the fissure. The third split is partially covered by earth and is too dangerous to visit.
I started my tour at the Turk’s Grotto, a huge arch formation in the rock. It is named after the Saracen pirates who used to hide here before emerging to terrorise the surrounding coast. Gaeta suffered pirate invasions for 60 years between 846 and 915, until local armies finally defeated them in the battle of the river Garigliano.
After leaving a small donation at the entrance, we were only allowed to descend partially down the grotto, as parts of it were closed off for safety, but the views we had of the azure waters were still breathtaking:
We then headed over to view the main fissure. To reach it we first walked down a long pathway, past pictures displaying scenes from the stations of the cross, the last events in Jesus’ life before he was crucified.
We then passed through the Chapel of St. Philip Neri, named after the saint who is said to have visited the site several times and would often spend time here deep in prayer and contemplation.
After this we walked down into the main split of the mountain, surrounded by stunning rock formations.
A plaque to the left displayed the Bible words mentioned above in Italian: “Gesu rese lo spirito, la terra tremò, le rocce si spaccarono”.
Further down, shapes in the rocks resemble a hand print. According to legends, one visitor to the site around the 15th century did not believe that it had split at the moment of Jesus’ death. He leant his hand on the wall out of contempt, and the rock softened at his touch, leaving his hand print in the mountain.
We then came to to the bed of St. Philip Neri, where he is believed to have slept during the times he came here to pray.
Next to this was the small Chapel of the Crucifix. We had a peek in here then climbed up above it, where we could admire amazing views of the seas from between the split mountain. It was a sunny day so there were also a lot of people out on their boats!
A visit to the split mountain in Gaeta is a chance to see some wonderful natural formations as well as discover the interesting stories and legends surrounding this site. Just be careful about the opening hours!