Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Italy Part 2 - Pompeii and Herculaneum

Mt Vesuvius visible from Pompeii
I'm such a bad blogger.  I do apologise, life keeps getting in the way - in this instance an incredibly busy month with school activities and currently school holidays, but I've sneaked away from the children for a little while!


Its been a few months since instalment 1… but I haven’t forgotten!  In the last instalment we were last in Rome with next stop Pompeii….

OK.  Picture this.   The main railway station in Rome.   Bus/coach stop nearby.   Cars zipping to and fro at maniacally speed.  Cars parked wherever humanly possible (and sometimes possibly not humanly possible by us, but definitely possible by an Italian).  Maxiumum 2 lanes, give or take with buses, cars double parking and so on.

Now picture a grey Lancia Delta (hatchback) double parked in the right lane (in front of where the buses pull out), with the boot open and 5 people milling around the sides back while the man valiantly and not so calmly tries to shove 5 suitcases (3 medium and 2 small) into the rather compact sized boot.   In and out go the bags.  The temperature rises, particularly in close vicinity to the man.   A bus toots its horn wanting to get past.   Cars keep zipping past.   Eventually with much pushing and shoving, success!    

Everyone hopped in and off we dash.   Of course, we’d no idea WHERE to go.  We went down a couple of streets and saw a “pop up” fuel  stop on the other side of the street.   Thankfully it was siesta time so not fanatically busy, but it was a dangerous effort to do a u-turn and there was much beeping and some finger wagging by the locals (the finger wagging is due to inadvertently driving on the left hand side of the road.  Momentarily).   While hubby filled up the car, was frowned on by the attendant for paying by credit card and put off guard by the attendant asking for a tip, I managed to set the GPS (fondly and occasionally not-so-fondly by the end of the trip, called Jane) to Pompei.   Of course we had to turn around.  Another hair raising experience.  And one that contained quite a bit of swearing by the driver.  Even the children mentioned the swearing in their diary that night – a fairly obvious sign it was noticeable.

Surprisingly quickly we found ourselves on the autostrada and set off at a good pace with full confidence in Jane.  We ignored the beeps that sounded like Jane warning us of speed cameras, but as we couldn’t seem to see anything that LOOKS like our speed cameras we thought Jane must be over reacting and off we went.   The journey was fast at 130km per hour.  The speed limit was 110km/hr but everyone else was going 130 or faster so we gathered that’s just what you do.   

We passed the signs to Naples and Jane got us off the autostrada in plenty of time for Pompei.  So much time in fact that we ended up having more hair raising experiences down narrow streets that only had room for one lane of traffic due to the number of cars parked on the sides and adjoining footpaths of streets.   It appeared Jane had taken us on the scenic route, something she was apt to do, as we found out, more often than not.

The hotel Vittoria didn’t have a number and we pulled in for directions – imagine pulling in asking for directions about 100m from the hotel.  Hmmm.  Well.     The hotel was delightful.  A villa from the 18th century, built just before the Pompeii ruins were found, it was ideally located right outside the ruin’s entrance, and just off the autostrada exit.   The one that Jane didn’t use.     The receptionist was pretty, constantly smiling and spoke some English.   The porter, in black suit and bow tie, collected our bags on a large gold trolley like you see in the movies, and we took the sweeping staircase to the next floor after the receptionist who led us to our very roomy, comfortable rooms.   
The Hotel Vittoria, Pompei

There were masses of stalls set up outside the hotel aimed at the thousands of tourists that start their Pompeii journey here.   Souvenirs and refreshments abound and we found the most delicious drink that was a mix of fresh orange juice, fresh lemon juice and crushed ice.   The children of course had gelati.

We had dinner in a restaurant about a kilometre away.  The food was OK, but it was overpriced compared to Rome and compared to most places we ate at during our stay.  Hubby reinforced his language skills using both birra grande and aqua naturale while ordering that evening.  
The waitress spoke excellent English and corrected my pronunciation of a few meals we had ordered.  I had studied Italian at school for 2 years.  Actually the word ‘studied’ might be a slight exaggeration.  But I sat in class for 2 years and obviously inhaled some Italian even though the teacher was appalled at my efforts in Italian grammar.   One thing that I had forgotten was that Australians as a rule are lazy speakers.  Perhaps it’s just the English language?  But Italians really put effort into their pronunciation.   And of course, you use your hands to enhance the words.   It sounds over the top to our Aussie ears, but it’s the way they do it.   My memory of Italian slowly returned from 30 odd years ago, but it didn’t really come back in full sentences … the best I got was something like … like “Bona sera.  Due piccolo gelati – uno ciccolata, uno niccola, per favore…. Grazie”  Usually I had a few English words thrown in for good measure!

A very comfortable night’s sleep, another cold shower.  What WAS it about the lack of hot water in Italy!?   And down for breakfast which was stunning! We had a table set up for us in the dining room and the waiting staff in black suits and bow ties again.  White linen tablecloths and napkins.  A brioche at each setting.   Cereal, milk, juice, yoghurt, salami, ham, cheese, more pastries, a few types of breads/dry toasts, jams and honey and probably more.  The waiter asked us if we wanted coffee or chocolate or something else and I asked for a hot chocolate which was so thick I’m sure it was just melted chocolate with a little milk added for colour!  It was yummy though!

We rolled out of the breakfast room, climbed the stairs, donned our sneakers and hats and went forth to Pompeii.  (By the way, you may notice my spelling of Pompei/Pompeii varies.  Apparently the modern town has one “I” and the old town has two.  FYI. ) We ascended to the ticket office, paid quite a hefty sum in entry fees (EU citizens get a good deal, but others not so much), purchased a book on Pompeii and set off.  

It has quite a grand entrance into the city – part way up a rise, there are three arches and small tunnels with cobblestoned roads.  The smaller entrances on the left and right were for pedestrians.  The centre, larger entrance was for chariots and carts.   We walked up through the tunnels and past a temple or two and a bath complex,  topping the rise and saw both the distant views (including Mt. Vesuvius, which doesn’t loom as much as I had thought it would) and the vast city spread out before us.   

Part of the Forum area at Pompeii

The forum area is large and impressive and we found some barred storage buildings that had numerous artifacts – lots of vases, urns and the like, a little furniture and some of the original casts made when they found the hollows in the ash, including the memorable dog on his back, locked in a pose of pain.

The famous cast of the dog, Pompeii
The large buildings give a good indication of how the Roman’s built.   Whilst they aspired to the grand styles of the Greeks, they didn’t have the quantity of stone to be able to build in the same manner.  So instead they built with bricks and concrete and then rendered the outside with more concrete to make it look like stone.   Many of these would then have further decoration or architectural painting.  Clever, those Romans.

We continued on past these buildings and found ourselves in a quiet section of Pompeii.  The streets were narrow, but all had paved footpaths and roads, high gutters and at the intersections, stepping stones that were wide enough apart for chariot and cart wheels to pass through, but close enough for people to use them to get from one side to the other and keep their feet/sandals/hems away from the mud or dirt on the roads.

Many of the buildings have only half the original wall height, hardly any have a roof unless it has been restored.  There were many small dwellings and shops (many of the shops can be identified by a half wall and large round hole at the front of the building along the path which would have been the storefront and the hole would have contained a large earthenware vessel for their produce, water etc.   
There were also the larger, graceful homes, built on the typical roman layout.  We went into one that had had its roof replaced  (all wood was burned in the hot ash that fell on Pompeii during the eruption in 79AD and roofs for example would have fallen in with their supports gone) and saw generously proportioned rooms with frescoes and intricate mosaics.   The people who built Pompeii – whether slaves or free were definitely craftsmen.  Most of the treasures of Pompeii have been removed over time by nobles and visitors in early days and the large museum in Naples.  

A semi restored villas in Pompeii

Celia tripped on a footpath cobblestone in the first hour there and ended up with an impressive graze on her knee.  Known as the “Pompeii graze” for the next week, she soldiered on bravely, aided by a couple of tic-tacs proffered by a little English boy who saw her fall.  To use Langdon’s words from his diary that night, the city went on “forever.  It was hot and it was all grey stone.”  No truer words were spoken!    

We found our way to one of the edges and skirted round the wall of the town and back in to go and see the amphitheatre, the military training ground and some of the larger villas that were built later in Pompeii’s history.  These had more extensive gardens and combined indoor and outdoor living spaces.   They appeared quite rich too with highly detailed mosaics and large, colourful and rather fanciful frescoes.
A fresco, Pompeii

One downer for the day came when Langdon realised his camera was gone.   Either he had inadvertently put it down and it was picked up by a tour group walking through or he was the victim of a pickpocket.   We put in a report and whilst they were helpful they told us the chances of getting it back were close to zero.  They were right.

Way down the back of Pompeii
We eventually staggered out of Pompeii in the early afternoon, heading straight for the refreshment stand we’d found the day before and downed a couple of fresh icy lemon/orange juices, granitas and gelati!  Still hot, we retired to our airconditioned rooms for an hour of rest.

Looking down into Herculaneum

 Then, up again and out to nearby Herculaneum.  Herculaneum was a seaside town when the eruption hit and it was buried in mud.   Only found this century when a local farmer was digging a well and he broke through the roof of the theatre, it sits right on the edge of present day Ercola and partly under it.     
A small street in Herculaneum
 
Far more manageable to navigate around size wise, it is in better condition than Pompeii and not everything has been taken away to the Naples museum.   

Original charred wood beams visible,  Herculaneum
  
As it was buried in mud rather than ash, some wood beams that held up windows, doorways and even roofs and eaves, have survived.  The frescoes and mosaic abound and there is even a pool, partially excavated, that you can access by going underground on one side of the site.  Whilst the theatre is still there, it is still under the current city (underground) and only accessible to researchers and officials.   The front of Herculaneum has some rather grand residences at the top of the town that would have had waterfront views over the beach and sea and arches at the base of the city on the sea –side is where the residents would store their boats.  A large number of remains were found here – those that didn’t escape in time sought shelter here.

A mosaic in Herculaneum
 
All in all, Herculaneum is definitely worth a visit!

We let Jane lead us a merry dance on the way back to Pompei, but after ending up in one too many dead ends, selected to go back on the fastest route and so eventually found our way back to the hotel.  Fortunately Jane also let us off the autostrada right near the hotel this time!

We ate dinner at the restaurant adjacent to the hotel and had a lovely chat to the waiter who told us he had gone to Australia for the sheep.  We started asking what stud, thinking he was talking about merino sheep and after about 10 minutes of confusion realised he had gone there working on a SHIP.  We had a good laugh, he didn’t quite understand but was a lovely, helpful man.    Meredith broke her first glass and quickly learned mi dispiace  “I’m sorry”, to which he replied it was OK, it would be all forgotten by morning.  A good creed to live by for all those little things that go wrong.

Another night in our comfortable rooms and another generous breakfast and the girls headed off to pack and shop in the souvenier stalls outside the hotel while the boys set off to conquer Mt. Vesuvius.  

From Mt Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples

By about noon the boys were back, impressed with the journey to Mt. Vesuvius.  We loaded up the car (with much relief that the driver had worked out how to move the back seat slightly forward so the bags didn’t need to be hit with force to fit in) and headed off again, saying farewell to Pompeii.

Next stop… the Amalfi Coast.
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