Saturday, October 3, 2009

Boom Boom Vesuvio

It is a spectacular day to be alive in the beautiful bay-side town of Sorrento. The city is spread across the side of a mountain that drops gently into the bay of Napoli. Today the water is a deep blue and the sky is crystal clear, the rain having pulled out all the moisture. Our hotel (Hotel Angelina) is about a quarter mile up a narrow winding street and is bordered by very old homes. Going down for breakfast, the windows on the side of the stairway have been left open, and off in the distance we can see the bit of topography that dominates every view in the area - Mt. Vesuvius. It looks so benign.

Saturday - October 3, 2009 - Sorrento, Italy

We had a very aggressive schedule laid out for ourselves. We were going to visit both Herculaneum (Ercolano) and Pompeii, the two major cities buried under twenty feet of ash back on August 24, 79 (weird to write a date with a 2 digit year). But first we took advantage of the included breakfast at the hotel. We generally skip the Italian breakfasts, but the Hotel Angelina does it right. There were fresh fruits and breads, cereals, eggs, and a nice assortment of yogurts, cheeses and meats.

As we found last night, it is a short walk to the train station, and since we are on a peninsula and close to the last stop on the rail line, it was easy to buy the tickets and take the right train in the right direction (towards Naples). We decided to go to Herculaneum first as it was the farthest away, and then backtrack to Pompeii before returning to Sorrento. With the bay of Naples to our left and Mt. Vesuvius to our right the 45 minute train ride was relaxing and pleasant.

Exiting the train station in Ercolono, there is really only one way to go, and that is down toward the bay, and toward the once buried town of Herculaneum. We passed through the large park gates and descended the tree lined path to the ticket office, paid the entrance fee and entered another world. What really caught our attention was looking back at the demarcation line where the paved streets of the new city rested meters above the extant roofs of the old city. It made us wonder what we had walked over as we made our way down to the entrance gate.

Not as famous as Pompeii it doesn't draw the crowds, and like Paestum we had the place mostly to ourselves. There are very few off limit areas, and there are a minimum of modern era distractions (handrails, covered walkways, and plastic domes over open skylights). The effect is that you think you are either in 1st century Italy or some Disneyworld creation. I had to keep reminding myself this stuff was original.

There are statues in the squares, and marble faced atria (I thought it was atriums but looked it up) with inset pools. On some walls the frescoes are vivid (red seems the favorite color of the period), and on some the cursed graffiti miscreants have ruined what 1900 years and 20 feet of ash couldn't. There are public baths with intact filling and draining troughs. There are two story houses, with original wood in some. The flows of pyroclastic rock that covered Herculaneum preserved materials that the ash in Pompeii destroyed.

The mosaics are wonderful, some decorative on walls, some covering the entire first floor of the home. Some of the artwork is interesting. Behind one tavern bar is a painted priapus to keep the evil eye away (insert your own joke here). A larger tavern down the road has a marble covered counter in which jars are inserted.

There is a painted sign outside the doorway of the Cucumas shop and as quoted from the tourist guide: "four pitchers of different colors, with the drinks sold here and a listing of the price of wine. The inscription "NOLA" is the announcement of a show; unusually, here we can also read the name of who wrote it: scr(i)ptor Aprilis a Capua."

It is much more interesting than I am making it sound (and this from someone who has a short attention span for this sort of thing). I left Kat to wander on looking at details as I climbed back to present day street level for a cigar and some contemplation at a lower magnification. I couldn't see Vesuvius from where I sat, and neither could the 4,000 inhabitants on that fateful day in 79. This city was buried and built upon for 1,600 years before the first digs started in 1738. There is still more to be excavated beneath present day Ercolono. Wow.

At midday we climbed back to the train station for our trip east to Pompeii. You would think this would easy. Not once, but twice did we catch the wrong train and have to wait at the little Boscotrecase train platform. One of the local train workers (we must have seemed familiar to him the second time we plunked ourselves on the bench) encouraged us by saying tourists often made that mistake, and then muttered something about never having seen one make it twice.

Pompeii. First impressions: it sits flat on a plain, consists mostly of one story buildings, and most striking to me has a perfect view of big old Mr. Vesuvius. In fact it looks almost touchable from where we stand in the center of the old town. Couldn't they have seen this one coming? It's also larger and more populated (est. at 8 to 12 thousand) than Herculaneum was back in 79. It is more organized here with lots of tour groups and a few more rules than are in my opinion, necessary (I got kicked off the roof of the very busy and very packed cafeteria style restaurant. First time I've been yelled at in Italian, and not that unpleasant). Having said all that it is spectacular and belongs on life's must see places list.

We made the rounds and saw all the main sites as indicated in the little guide book they give you with your admission ticket. We were not as impressed with the plaster cast people as I thought we would be. Looked a little too staged. Had to go through the Lupanare whorehouse (there is a warning in English that it may not be appropriate for younger viewers), and check out the "positional frescoes" (you figure it out) above the doorways. In one of the taverns there was a marble counter with embedded jugs identical to the one in Herculaneum. That indicates to me there was only one restaurant supply company back in the day. We both liked the large stepping stones in the streets that allowed you to keep your sandals dry when it rained.

Some of the houses were pretty fancy with anterooms and mosaic floors and frescoed walls. We did find the beware of dog (CAVE CANEM) mosaic floor in the House of the Tragic Poet that every guide book mentions, and dutifully took our picture of it. And that's the feeling I had after a while; we were making the rounds, seeing what should be seen, unlike in Herculaneum where we were exploring. So the moral for me was: see one or the other - there's more to see in Pompeii and if we had gone there first we would probably have been disappointed with Herculaneum.

The train ride back to the hotel gave us a little time to reflect on what we had seen this day. It was like being in a time machine and a great experience.

We really liked Sorrento. The people are friendly and gregarious and they smile. A lot. Everywhere we walked we saw people out enjoying themselves and it was contagious. Dinner was in the little restaurant (The Taverna Rossa - definitely a local clientele) just up the hill from the Angelina. The food was simple and good and inexpensive (30 Euros, start to finish, including wine). And once again the insalata Caprese was mouth-watering with the local cheese.

Following our after dinner promenade along the coastal overlook we returned to our little hotel, parked ourselves on the patio, and attempted to put some serious contemplation into our trek toward home. A difficult thing to do when you are this relaxed.

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