Monday, October 30, 2006

Day 14: Pompei

Today it is still sunny....but breezier and a little cooler than before--still nothing to complain about.

Today's destination is Paestum, located about an hour from Pompei--south of Salerno. There are three beautiful and wonderfully preserved Greek temples as well as a very good museum of Greek and Roman artifacts from the area. When we visited Paestum 12 years ago, it made a very strong impression on us and we have always wanted to return. Paestum is also the headquarters of some of the best mozzarella di bufala cheese producers and you can sometimes see the water buffalo grazing in the fields.

The drive from Pompei takes about an hour...we make one brief stop to admire the view over Salerno, the bay and the Amalfi Coast from an autostrada parking area. The Paestum site is located close to the beach but supposedly it was completely lost--some accounts are skeptical of this--from the Dark Ages to the mid-18th century when some road builders stumbled onto it. The city of Poseidonia had been created by the Greeks as a stop on the trade route across the peninsula from the far south to the area on the Bay of Naples. Its importance declined as better ports were developed near Rome and Naples. As it became more deserted, malaria became prevalent and the temples completely disappeared into the forest.

The site itself is spread out on a long level area surrounded by three miles of nearly intact walls. One smaller temple sits on its northern edge and two much larger structures are on the south end of the city. In between there are excavations of houses and stores, an amphitheater, a large forum, several smaller temples and other buildings common to a Greek and then Roman city.

We find Paestum to be extremely compelling...the buildings are elegant and moving, even more so because of the wonderful state of preservation. In ancient times the limestone columns would have been covered in stucco and painted to look like marble, but the buildings that one sees today, albeit of brown, pitted stone, are still very compelling. The site is very peaceful and free of crowds, so there is no commotion or crowding to divert your attention. It is a wonderful place to sit and admire the architecture and watch the clouds, the butterflies and the birds.

We walk from one end of the site to the other....Diana strolls leisurely and I make a more concerted effort to investigate the remnants of the houses--some with traces of mosaics on the floors--and the palestra, with its very large swimming pool. But for most visitors, the rest of the site is just background for the temple structures.

Temple of Athena

Temple of Neptune (with basilica on the left)

The basilica

Temple of Neptune (the other side)

Columns from an atrium of a house

Plane tree on the Paestum site

The intrepid explorers

We spend about two hours leisurely poking around the site and visiting most of the buildings....we are reluctant to move on---the brisk breeze moderating the temperature also contributes to our stamina---but we want to visit the museum, which had been closed on our last visit. It is housed in a large Mussolini style building but inside there are rooms of beautiful exhibits, nicely displayed. The history of Paestum is laid out in detail...both in Italian and very good English....but it is a bit too dense for us at this hour--after two hours of walking around and as lunch time approaches.

Map of the Greeks settlements in Italy

An example of the explanatory materials in the museum

Highlights of the holdings for us are the details from the temples--the facing of the pediments, statuary that served as waterspouts and the decorative tops of columns, the incredibly beautiful Greek vases from the 6th and 5th century BC and, most amazing of all, the tomb paintings that decorated the insides of the coffins of the dead. Richly detailed, playful and wonderfully painted, they look like they could have been painted ten years ago rather than more than 2,000 years ago.

Marble statue of the goddess Hera (with photographer in reflection)

Detail from the frieze of one of the buildings

Water spout from a temple roof

Tomb painting of a diver (leaping into death)

Detail of friends painted on tomb wall

Picture showing how paintings are arranged as walls and top of coffin

Greek vase - 5th century B.C.

View of museum garden, fields and mountains in distance

Leaving Paestum, we look for one of the recommended mozzarella producers in the area so we can buy some to eat at a picnic lunch. (We've brought our plastic plates, knives, napkins and water, in anticipation.) We find the producer we are looking for--Vannulo--and get two fresh balls of cheese as well as a picture of the water buffalo.

Our challenge 1 to find a store that will sell us some bread and fruit to complete our picnic menu. Agropoli is only about 6 kilometers away; it is a pleasant beach town with a centro storico that overlooks the beach on one side and the harbor on the other.

Agropoli Harbor -- where we had a picnic lunch

After passing a few closed stores, Agropoli comes through for us. We find a bakery that is open and sells us some of our favorite rosetta rolls and a link of salami and then---our food finding karma in good shape on this day---a fruit stand where we buy oranges, grapes and tomatoes. With the food in hand, we try and retrace our steps to the beach but are frustrated by the town traffic patterns. We do find the port however--a protected harbor--with benches lining the promenade just perfect for our lunch .

All is delicous...the bread, the fresh mozzarella, the salami, the tomatoes and the fruit....a great picnic. We sit and enjoy the view for a while....

View across Agropoli harbor to Amalfi Coast

...and then start back toward Pompei. We try to hug the coast road but, for the most part, there is a dense pine forest between the beach and the road, so the views are sporadic. We stop for a coffee at a bar on the very pleasant waterfront of Salerno but unfortunately we don't have time to explore much of the city on this visit.

The drive back to Pompei is memorable only for a near collision when a car pulled out into the passing lane right into us.....fortunately I hit the horn and had enough room on my left to swerve and avoid the other car--but it was very close.

We eat dinner at Al Presidente, recommended by Antonio at the hotel. The food ends up being very good but the evening is somehow a bit bizarre. The proprietor is very welcoming but his affect (in English) is off-putting.....a sort of fawning oversolicitousness. The restaurant is pretty stylish and very comfortable--candles on the table, doilies on the plate (it seems to be in this year) and nice curtains on the windows. When we arrive, there is only one table occupied--four Swiss (we think) businessmen and two Italian colleagues (both women).....the common language is excellent English. They are having a lively discussion about their business between courses.

The menu is bound in a thick leather cover and is very large...but inside there are only about two choices per page. The wine list is also handsomely bound and about 4 inches thick. We have a bit of a difficult time making choices--some of the choices and combinations are a bit odd--but, in the end, we thoroughly enjoy our food. Diana has a pumpkin risotto with mussels followed by filet of fish with potatoes in a lemon, olive sauce. I have a very delicious bean and clam zuppetta and a very good pasta dish--mezzi paccheri with mussels. We drink an excellent local white wine--a Falanghina.

While we are eating, a party of five comes in and we spend the rest of the evening trying to figure out who they are and what they are doing. There is one Italian-American man (who speaks English with a New York accent and Italian with a American accent--perhaps Neapolitan dialect) who we think owns a restaurant in Brooklyn. There is a younger woman who doesn't seem to speak Italian but is also in the restaurant business...we think her husband (who owns a restaurant where she works) left for the States yesterday). There are three Italians at the table...only one who seems to speak English; they all speak heavily accented Italian or dialect. There is a lot of discussion about wine and food and Diana concludes that the American restauranteur is on a wine discovery mission and the Italians are their "local contacts" and are probably "connected". It's hard not to evesdrop - they are very loud. Listening to the discussions is sort of like a floor show....and it would be nice if we could somehow figure out how close we are to what was actually going on.

By 9:30 the restaurant begins to fill up with regulars and we are ready to leave.....well fed and still intrigued.

Tomorrow we leave Pompei for the other side of Naples....Bacoli and the Campi Flegrei (the burning fields).


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