Saturday, October 28, 2006

Day 12: Pompei

We sleep well in spite of the fact that Pompei is not a quiet town. It is hard to tell from our window (which looks out on an interior courtyard) whether or not the sun is out but we can tell that it is warm and it hasn't rained. The Hotel Amleto has a superior breakfast....featuring wonderful crusty "rosetta" rolls.

In fact, the sun is out but the smog/haze is so strong that it is hard to make out Vesuvius and the other nearby mountains. However, it is quite warm again as we walk over to the Porta Anfiteatro to meet our guide Ninetta, who will give us a three hour private tour of Pompeii. (We don't usually take guided tours, but I wanted to experience one for myself so I can give better advice to clients.)

The excavations at Pompeii are vast and three hours is not enough to cover it all (although it might be about as much as we can absorb at one time...especially with the temperature in the 80's.) We were here twelve years ago and used an assortment of guidebooks to help us navigate and make sense of the ruins. Ninetta gives us the usual historical background about the city (an important commercial town with a population of about 20,000...perhaps the third or fourth largest in Campania, which was still rebuilding from a major earthquake in 62 A.D.....17 years before) and the eruption (no one suspected that Vesuvius--actually known as Mt. Somma back then--was a volcano but an estimated 90 percent of the population escaped). Basically, the clock stopped on the day of the eruption and what has been unearthed and excavated shows us what the city was like at that precise time.

We start our visit in the of the largest in Italy and in very good repair. It could seat 20,000 spectators for events. We stop to sample some Pompeiian wines at a special exhibition by the Mastroberandino wine company which has been replanting grape varieties that were known to the Romans....the rose is a bit sharp and aromatic- but not really to our taste. The Romans added honey, we were told.

From there we walk past the large palestra--athletic field--and then begin visiting some of the large private houses, shops and businesses that fill the excavated area between the amphitheater and the "downtown" area--the forum, the markets, the temples and the basilica. Some of the houses are quite grand with the remaining walls painted in the various Pompeiian styles....some of the pictures and designs are exquisite. Most of the original mosiacs and sculptures are in the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which we will visit in a few days. We are becoming familiar with the plan of Roman houses--atriums with basins designed to catch and save rainwater, the kitchen and bedrooms off the atrium, and the public spaces--the dining rooms and the gardens--further off the street. Many of the interior rooms are painted with scenes of nature--animals and flowers--to disguise the lack of windows in most rooms...light came in from skylights and roof openings.

Interspersed with the houses are shops....the most common of which are the Roman equivalent of "fast food" emporiums where workers could get a quick lunch and get back on the job. There are the laundry and wool merchants...both of which use human urine--the collection of which was a business in itself--to clean clothes and process wool. The baker's shop still has the mills that ground the wheat and the ovens that baked the bread. There are taverns and wine shops with announcements written on the walls and advertising posters still on display. The Roman baths are vast and interesting, and there are two very large and one smaller--both in wonderful condition. We even get into the newly reopened "House of the Lupinare" (the brothel), where there are pictures supposedly displaying the specialties of the various prostitutes.

Roman Road

Fast food shop

Mills for grinding flour

Roman baths

Roman theater

House of the Lupinare (brothel)

The most moving site is the display of corpses that have been preserved by making casts of the found, women and children--all in their death throes...

We walk up and down and across the well paved Roman roads with the stones set at crossroads so that pedestrians can cross without getting wet (if it is raining) but which allow the wagons to pass unimpeded. We learn about the grooves set in front of shops that allow sliding doors to be opened and shut and the holes in the sidewalks which were for the purpose of holding the poles for the awnings that shaded the shop.

Since we had started at the far corner of the site, for the first hour and a half we are hardly aware of other visitors but as we approach the center, the streets become crowded with tourists---especially large groups that sometimes make it difficult to maneuver in the narrow streets. And as it gets to mid-day, it gets very hot; there is little or no shade in the city.

Our last stop is in the place that most people start.....the forum surrounded with all the public buildings--the basilica that held the law courts, the central market and the temples to the various deities that protected Pompeii.


We had started at 10 am and it is now almost 1 pm.....we pay Ninetta and say goodbye. Even though we were not too impressed with the whole guide experience, we had certainly learned some things that we didn't know and she had pointed out details that we probably wouldn't have noticed on our own. And Pompeii is get a sense of how the Romans lived and to see the sophistication of the art and the technology from almost 2,000 years ago is extraordinary. Diana has just (the day before) finished the recent novel "Pompeii" which tells the story of the eruption and explains a lot about the water system and the politics of the city.....the experience of reading the book and visiting the city in close conjunction is very appealing.

The first thing we do when we leave is to have a cold drink....a spremuta (fresh orange and lemon juice)...and then we have to decide how to get back to the hotel. We are now about a mile from the hotel and I find out that there is a city bus from the Porta Marina gate back to town. We decide to wait for the bus but after a half hour, there is no sign of it. There are no local taxis to be found....only taxis from Naples waiting for their passengers to finish their Pompeii tours. We finally decide to walk back to town.

We walk across the square and have a late lunch at Il Principe, where we ate last night. But we sit outside in the shade, cooled by a nice breeze and take advantage of their more informal, less expensive and more extensive wine bar menu. The food is very good.....caprese salad with local mozzarella di bufala, spaghetti cacio e pepe (cheese and black pepper) and panna cotta for Diana and very good carpaccio and spaghetti with clams for me....a relaxing and enjoyable lunch.

After a rest and some work back at the hotel, we take a ride into the "paesi Vesuviani"--the towns that are located on the lower slopes of Vesuvius. However, the expedition is not too successful...the towns that we drive through are very gritty and seemingly run down and the traffic is very heavy. The grime is compounded by the presence of mounds of garbage everywhere....we are thankful that Pompei does a good job of picking up trash....making the drive even less pleasant. So we cut short the expedition and return to the hotel.

We walk over to La Situla for a late dinner - it has been recommended to us by the desk clerk at the hotel. It is a very busy place on this Saturday evening....there is only one other table of non-Italians--apparently very popular with the locals. Tonight my meal is more successful than Diana's.....I have a local pasta variety called "paccheri"--wide tubes of pasta--with a seafood sauce--delicious mussels and clams mostly--and a plate of assorted fried fish, which are beautifully fried and very tasty. Diana has a nice plate of local salume and an okay dish of agnolotti with a spicy tomato sauce. The wine is very good....a local white called Greco di Tufo. In order to avoid the long wait for our check, we get up and go directly to the woman who makes up the bills and pay quickly.....the bill comes to Euro 65.00.

On our way back to the hotel, we have to walk through crowds of young people who are hanging out around the main piazza....the town has closed off the streets in the center and the young people have taken over the town. We escape to the relative quiet of our hotel......

Tomorrow we head to Herculaneum and Vesuvius.


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