Friday, October 27, 2006

Day 11: Campobasso-Pompei

We say goodbye to Molise--it has been a wonderful eight days and we are now big Molise boosters--and get on the road towards Benevento. The road skirts the Matese mountain range but the landscape that we see as we enter Campania is still very hilly but much greener than most of the countryside in Molise. We make good time heading south but--due to a serious navigational error (we think are closer to Benevento than we in fact are), we turn off too soon and find ourselves on the road to Caserta. We could make a u-turn but there is a serious traffic backup in the other direction so we decide to keep going and take the longer, non-autostrada route.

The road takes up through apple country...stand after stand featuring local apples...and potato country---large nets with potatoes spread out under them. Reaching the outskirts of Caserta, the scenery takes a rapid turn for the worse....the area is very industrial and gritty, the traffic is increasing in intensity (and recklessness) and--worst of all--there appears to be a garbage strike. Piles and piles of garbage--in boxes, filling plastic bags or just loose--can be seen at regular trash pickup points and more garbarge is strewn by the side of the road, in parking lots and in vacant lots. It is really unappetizing to drive through...we wonder what is like to live in the midst of this garbage pileup.

It is a relief to get on the autostrada and head south around Naples. The sun is shining brightly but a smoggy haze covers the entire area....a great (and unwelcome) contrast to the clear skies and neat towns of Molise. We exit at Pompei (one "i" for the modern town, two "i"'s for the old city) and find our hotel--the Amleto, which is right in the middle of town. In order to get there, we pass the main entrance of the ruins and run the gauntlet of parking lots and souvenir shops until we enter the town. Our landmark for the hotel is McDonald's--at its corner we turn right into a narrow street and ease the van into the very tight garage entrance, inflicting a few minor scrapes on the left side of the car as we enter.

We check in--the hotel is old fashioned with high ceilings in both the lobby and the rooms. Our room is a bit tight but there is a lot of light with the afternoon sun shining...there are pretty tiles on the floor, a small balcony, ornate old light fixtures and a promising bathroom and shower. We unpack, go out and buy some sandwiches and eat them on the third floor roof terrace.

While Diana reads, I go down to the lobby to try and hook my laptop up to the hotel's high speed internet line. After several unsuccessful attempts, I finally get the right setup information entered and, with a fast connection, finish up some travel business .

Around 3:30 pm, we decide to head south to Castellammare di Stabia to visit one of the large suburban Roman villas that has been excavated there. The road from Pompei to Castellammare is pretty dreary and the traffic is reminiscent of why I don't like to drive in Naples.....but we arrive in Castellammare without incident and head up into the hills to find the villas. We are following the pretty good signage for a while...until it disappears. When we get to the next town, we realize that we have gone too far. We make a u-turn and--going in the opposite direction on the same road--find the missing directional sign to the Villa San Marco excavation. The sign points down a narrow road which ends quickly in an empty parking lot....there is no sign of the excavations.

We park and walk down the dirt road that goes past a small farm--nice looking vegetables are growing and there are some goats and horses grazing. Just around the corner, there is the entrance to the site with a ticket office, etc. The staff waves us in without having to pay anything and we go down the stairs that leads to the villa's front door.

We don't know exactly what to expect--our guide books have very little information about this villa which was buried in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius--but when we go in, we are surprised at the extent of the villa and the amazing wall paintings that are still intact. Luckily there are explanations in English about the house--it was one of a number of villas owned by rich Pompeiians which were set on a hill overlooking the sea at the port of Stabiae. These villas had sea views and were very sumptuously decorated....

It is also nice to be almost alone walking through the though we are discovering a secret place.

The drive back to Pompei is less frantic than the earlier drive and we find our way back without a problem. We make a slight detour through downtown on our way to the hotel and--aside from the traffic--the center of town is a typical small Italian city. There is a massive church that dominates the town...with a very tall campanile tower that serves as a landmark from any direction. It is a famous sanctuary church that attracts many pilgrims completely separate from the attraction of the Pompeii ruins. The main piazza (in front of the church) is actually a pleasant park with a fountain, benches and grass and there are a number of bars with outside seating around the piazza.

For dinner, we walk across the park to Pompei's best known restaurant, Il Principe--famous for reinterpreting old Roman recipes into modern versions. It is a very beautifully decorated place with wall paintings in the style of Pompeiian houses as well as very nice light fixtures with shades painted with Pompeiian scenes. There is a nice outside seating area (which we learn later has a more informal, more extensive and less expensive menu). We decide to sit inside and have the more creative, upscale menu although we choose not to have the special mushroom menu that they are offering (and it seems that most of the customers are choosing). Diana's dinner is more successful than mine......she has a truly delicious mozzarella cheese souffle with a lemony sauce and then a tempura of shrimp, lobster and string beans and a chocolate cake (baked to order) for dessert. I have a potato "gatto" with smoked baccala--pretty good--and wide pasta sauced with their interpretation of the traditional Roman fermented fish sauce...garum. It was fine but more successful for research than for its deliciousness. We have a very good local white--Fiano di Avellino. The service--which starts off very well--breaks downs as the meal goes on and, with the wait for the individually baked dessert and the reappearance of the "disappearing Italian waiter syndrome" when waiting for the check, the evening goes on a bit too long.

We recross the square--which is pretty well filled at this hour--and I stop for a disappointing gelato on the way back to the hotel.

Tomorrow we visit Pompeii.


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