Sunday, October 29, 2006

Day 13: Pompei

The weather....warm, hazy and sunny--no change yet. We have been so lucky with the weather. Saturday night had been pretty noisy in downtown Pompei--the young people were out in the streets until late--but we still managed to sleep well. This morning, we get on the autostrada for the short drive to Ercolano where we will visit the other big excavation in the area--Herculaneum. The site is at the bottom of town, near the waterfront, and the autostrada exit is at the top of the town, so we get to see a lot of the main street. It is surprisingly lively for a Sunday morning...there is a small outdoor market, some fish stores and butchers are open for business and the streets are pretty full of people--some coming or going to church, others just hanging out.

We park in the same parking lot where we parked when we came in 1995....right next to the police station. But this time--perhaps because it is Sunday morning--no one is collecting any money. At the entrance, we get the map of the site (with the various houses numbered--they correspond to the audio tour) and the small pamphlet (in English) which has a short description of each numbered location. (They have similar handouts at Pompeii and they are actually quite good--they didn't have anything like them on our first visit twelve years ago.)

There are several differences between Herculaneum and Pompeii....the first is that Pompeii was a larger commerical city and Herculaneum was smaller and a much richer city than Pompeii...most of the residents lived in villas and had money. In addition, Herculaneum was covered by a sea of mud (rather than ash) so when it hardened, the whole city was sealed up tight and kept intact until it was discovered in the mid-18th century. This means that there are a good number of two story buildings that can be visited and there is even some organic material---wood beams, doors, even some rope--that have survived and can be seen as you walk around the city. And, much of the city remains unexcavated since it is below the modern city and would be very difficult to try and uncover. So the site is much smaller and that much easier to take in on a three hour visit.

We rent audio guides for our visit and have an immediate problem. The map shows a different entrance than the one now in use so we have to take a few minutes to figure out exactly we are. This process is complicated by the presence of two different systems of house numbering. Once we figure out our location, it takes a few minutes for us to catch on to the nuances of the directions that the narrator gives as we move from house to house. But this problem is soon overcome and, in fact, the narration and the information that audioguide provides is excellent.

In many ways, we enjoy our visit to Herculaneum more than our visit yesterday to Pompeii. There are fewer tourists. Of course, the site is more compact and easier to cover. But the presence of so many two story buildings and the fact that we can see burnt beams still intact or a blackened sliding wooden door that has survived since 79 AD somehow makes it easier to envision the city when it was intact. There are some wonderful wall paintings of course and grand houses with large gardens. The baths--especially the women's--is wonderfully preserved with lovely mosaics. There are the by now familiar fast food shops and the bakery and, astonishingly, the laundry with the press that was used to iron clothes standing in the middle of the shop. There is less of the public and official Herculaneum on display...these locations lie below the town of Ercolano....but what is there is quite striking and affecting.

View of Herculaneum

Iron grating that has survived since 79 AD

One of the large houses and its garden

Mosaic on the floor of the bath

Paintings from one of the houses

Mosaic from the women's bath

Remains of sliding wooden door panel in large house

House paintings

Entrance gate with brick columns

After three hours, we have walked through the whole site and visited just about every open is starting to get a bit warm as well as getting to be time for lunch. We buy some souvenir books at the bookshop including a scholarly treatise on the Jews of Roman Campania. We stop on the way back to the car at an open (on a Sunday!!!!) alimentari and buy two large sandwiches (prosciutto and mozzerella di bufala on large crusty rosetta rolls).

My idea is to drive up to the crater of Vesuvius and stop on the the side of the road to eat our sandwiches ......but as we drive up the thin and twisty road, we find few opportunties to stop. On the lower slopes, any possible stopping place is piled with trash and as we go higher, there are no obvious places to stop by the side of the road that are not restaurant parking lots. There are a lot of restaurants on the road to the summit and on this sunny Sunday afternoon, they are very are overflowing the parking lots and along the sides of the narrow road (but always leaving enough room for traffic to get by.)

As we climb higher and higher, lava flows from the most recent eruption of Vesuvius (1944) are visible below the road and there is a lot of volcanic rock lining the road. After a while, we see two large empty tour buses parked by the side of the road and we wonder where the passengers are. Around the next curve--seemingly out of nowhere, we are in the middle of a traffic jam. A big bus is trying to go down the mountain and there is not enough room for the bus to squeeze by--because there is a line of cars parked on the side of the road. It is a slow process to ease the bus past the parked cars and the line traffic heading up the mountain.

Once past this traffic jam, we find ourselves in the middle of large parking lot.....there are probably 20 buses parked there and at least 100 cars. There are a couple of bars crowded with customers and parking lot attendants collecting a Euro 2.50 fee. What I hadn't realized is that there is still 1,000 feet to climb to reach the crater and in order to do that, you have to pay another Euro 6.50 for the privilege.

We sit in the car and eat our (delicious) sandwiches and, since I have always wanted to see the crater of Vesuvius, (and Diana not especially) she stays in the car while I attempt the climb. The path up to the crater is paved with loose volcanic gravel and climbs fairly steeply in a series of switchbacks up to the crater. There are a lot of people climbing up and coming down....all ages, nationalities and in a wide range of physical conditions. The climb is takes me about 25 minutes to reach the next station...where there is another bar and the chance to hire a guide to escort you the rest of the way and give you an explanation of the volcanic activity and the crater.

Walking up to the Vesuvius crater

View of old lava flow

Naples obscured by smog

I pass on the guide and walk along the edge of the crater unescorted....but not alone. It is actually quite amazing....very wide and very deep and very austere looking. There is no longer any smoke rising from the crater but I am very glad that I made the climb. It is possible to walk around the crater to a higher vantage point on the far side, but I decide that I have achieved my goal. I admire the view from the top over Naples and the bay...although it is fairly limited due to the hazy smog.....and head back down to the parking lot.

Two views of the crater

We make one more stop on the way back to the town of Torre Annunziata, where we want to visit another of the Roman villas that has been excavated--this one is Villa Oplontis. The drive through the coastal towns of Torre del Greco and Torre Annunziata is pretty depressing...they are both quite shabby and drab, especially so since there is little or no street life on this late Sunday afternoon. And it is hard to believe that we are only two or three blocks from the waterfront...the main streets are almost completely cut off from the sea.

The villa is definitely worth a is the largest of the villas that we have seen and the paintings are wonderful and, for the most part, in wonderful condition. We enjoy being one of about six least until we are ready to leave and a busload of French tourists arrive.

Overview of Villa Oplontis

Villa Oplontis painting

Large atrium of Villa Oplontis

Another painting from Villa Oplontis

View into garden at Villa Oplontis

It has been a long day but very enjoyable.....we make our way back to the hotel to rest. The town is completely mobbed and the streets are crowded.....not with tourists, but with locals out for a Sunday passeggiata. The main square and the main street are wall to wall people and most of the them appear to be teenagers out in packs--boys and girls mostly separate---giving each other the eye.

We walk up the street for a pizza at Zi' Caterina.....surprisingly the crust on my pizza with sausage is better than the crust on Diana's pizza with salami--I actually like mine very much. We stop for a quick gelato and then hurry back to the hotel to escape the crowds of teenagers.

Tomorrow we head south for Paestum and a switch from Roman to Greek.....


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