Pompeii and Vesuvius

Vesuvius stretched its arms out to the sea and allowed our little tour bus to climb up to its shoulder before we had to park and hike the rest on foot.  You may want to rent a hiking stick at the entrance. The ground is pebbled, steep and treacherous, black and barren. What scrub grows on Vesuvius clings in hope. There is nothing there large enough to throw shade on a hot day.

Lava flow can be easily traced In wide ravines and slopes. Large shelves of strata sit broken beside the path, tapering sharply downhill on the other side. Once you reach the crater’s lip, it’s a fascinating sight. Smooth as glass sides descend to what must be a singular sharp point at the bottom. Perfect drifts of rubble sit here or there, where they settled with a sigh at the end of it all, the last dregs in the cup of desolation.

When you tour Vesuvius in the morning and Pompeii in the afternoon, you risk the already milky sky turning to cloud and marring your view of the Mediterranean. But you also enjoy some semblance of coolness on an active volcano top and we were thankful for it. The view was a little hazy but balanced with a bright sun. Bring a hat, a water bottle, a granola bar, and your euros…because at the end of the trail, they have a souvenir shop that quite one-ups the Vatican’s rooftop hangout. It may be a tiny open shack but they serve up the local wine (from Christs’ Tears no less) and shots of limoncello. Hubby hastened to get in line. Lemons are a fruit and fruit is part of a balanced breakfast. I secured five postcards and five volcano stamps, wondering whether the Italian salesman was as enthusiastic about delivering the mail as he was about his provincial wares.

Four weeks later, those postcards have yet to be delivered.

On the walk back to our bus, we noticed seismologists equipment set up in strategic locations. We passed the remains of the funicular. Built in 1880, 1909, 1911…after being repeatedly taken out by Vesuvius, the Italians gave up. The last eruption was in 1944. We walked a little faster to our bus.

Our tour guide, Amanda, introduced us to the city of Pompeii, a world destroyed in AD79, that at once is both ancient and modern, barbaric and civilized. If Pompeii told me anything, it’s that people are the same, regardless of whether you place a stone or a computer into their hands.

The excavations are extensive.You can spend a day here, wandering the streets. They are Roman streets, though, so you have straight lines, orderly apartments, tidy rows of engineered brickwork. The streets are grooved from the wheels of traffic and the sidewalks are raised above it to avoid the runoff of rain plus horse manure plus whatever other offal will flow down the slightly tilted roads, out and away to the edge of the city. To cross the street, there are large crossing stones.

“And now, my dear groupa,” says Amanda, “What do you need to know about the take-away food stalls? Here you see the bowls formed into the counter, some held meat or honey or olive oil. The stove you see here in the back. The shops you see, over here, can be immediately known by the deep grooves in the threshold, where they pulled heavy gates closed at the end of the day.”

We walked along, hopping from side to side seeking shade as we went.

“Notice the water troughs at intersections,” continued Amanda, “These streets were not named. If you gave your address to someone, you told them “Three houses east of the Lion Fountain” or perhaps the Priestess Fountain. Each is unique and provided the public water.”

We went inside the House of Menander and photographed beautifully preserved columns, elegant courtyards, deeply colored wall murals, bedrooms, bathrooms, cooking areas. The floors set with mosaics.

We went into the baths, very modern, with a locker room, changing areas, lounging areas, sauna, different pools at different temperatures. We went into the brothel, exactly as you would imagine it, no space wasted, with full color menus along the ceiling. The theaters are cozy and the raised stage is just right for plays or a night of music. And this is how I will imagine it.

Athletic training grounds, barracks, a basilica, a mill and bakery, a forum complete with temples to Zeus, Isis/Venus, Apollo, and Jupiter, vineyard areas, garden plots, aqueduct making an appearance, it was all familiar. The space in the forum area was once lined with white marble, tall columns, graceful statues. It made a stark contrast to black Vesuvius, framed perfectly down the peristyle.

“And now, my dear groupa,” continued Amanda, “I will allow you some moments to wander this space and we will meet back here in 15 minutes.”

This space was personal. This space took more than 15 minutes. It punched you in the gut. Behind gates, were row upon row of excavated materials. Pots and wagons, anchors, birdbaths, step-stools. A large treasure chest. And under glass were plasters – not statues – of victims. A woman lying on her side, gasping for breath. A person hugging his knees to his chest, hands over his nose and mouth. An infant. A dog curling with convulsions.

Shortly after noon, on August 24, AD79, Vesuvius took them all by surprise. No one knew that it was a volcano. It hadn’t erupted in 1800 years. It was odd to see black volcanic rock used in some of the construction; that’s usually a sign. So was the massive earthquake they had had, 17 years prior.

There was no word for “volcano” before Vesuvius.

Erupting for over 24 hours, with the force of two atomic bombs, spewing 1.5 million tons of lava per second, Vesuvius took out Pompeii with pyroclastic surges. People asphyxiated from volcanic ash and gas or were flash-killed by thermal heat, depending on which scientist is speaking. Then ash and pumice began to fall, burying everything as deep as 14 to 23 feet.

And what do you need to know? That graffiti can be read, in great detail, 2000 plus years after you have etched it on the wall. Quite the way I see Facebook postings 2000 years from today.

You’ve been warned.

My dear groupa, if you don’t believe me, you also can take a two-hour walking tour of today’s Pompeii by clicking hereOr you can watch a truly cheesy and entertaining BBC documentary, casting Italians with British accents, here.

Going Up Tremors Order Up!


Zoom in on this detailing. I really wanted this to be an aviary. But it’s for the house gods (lares). Boring. So many photos, so little blog space…

Welcome to Sorrento, Italy

We took a bullet train from Rome to Naples. From the Naples train station, we took a metro to the port after walking up three flights of stairs and around a glorious castle. Luggage in tow. From the port, we took a ferry across the bay to a bus to our hotel in Sorrento.

Getting there is half the fun.

Picture the bay like La Jolla. A massive crescent holds it, with Naples at one tip and Sorrento at the other. These two cities are like comparing Los Angeles to San Diego. You will arrive in LA, but you know you want to stay in San Diego. I may be a little opinionated, here, but what can I say? It’s the same with Naples and Sorrento.

As you cross on the ferry, taking in the beautiful overview, you are being watched by a Presence. Brooding in the center of this curve, crater gaping, is Mt Vesuvius. The sunshine takes nothing away from the dramatic black hillside that slopes to the bay. Because you know what’s under it.

Certainly, it was prime real estate and still there is a townscape at its base and along the shore. We are going to tour it. Absolutely it will be an exciting place to visit and absolutely you don’t want to live there.

Arriving in Sorrento is an experience. The ferry has parked at the foot of the Cliffs of Insanity. You can see the town up there, sparkling with promise. There are three ways to reach it. First, you can hop on a little bus that will climb the road for you. This is what we did. Because second, you can walk it yourself pulling your effects behind you and gaining buns and thighs of steel. Or blisters of lava. Whatever. Third, there is an elevator hidden so well, that unless you are an intrepid explorer with nothing better to do, you will never find. I have placed the treasure map below for you, in case you ever arrive in Sorrento yourself.

You’re welcome.

Our hotel room was much larger than that in Rome, with a little balcony that let me watch the traffic go by: busses and limos with tourists, horse-drawn buggies working the plaza, a few locals trying to get to work. The street is too narrow for two-way traffic plus pedestrians…you don’t get a sidewalk and you hop into a storefront when you need to duck sideways.

The wee hub of Sorrento is delicious. Everything is a shade of yellow, the buildings, the light. It feels small, cozy and relaxing. I suppose there’s a little feel of being on Catalina Island, with the harbor below, the mountains around the backside. You can stroll down the main street (Corso Italia), closed to cars, in about twenty casual minutes. It’s lined with designer storefronts and pizzerias, perfumeries, jumbled souvenir shops, gates to museum gardens, and pubs.

But if you really want to shop, move one alley over. Or two. The narrow mazes take you up and down between the main street and the cliff. You can’t get lost, so lose yourself in delight: the smell of fresh leather purses, the dazzle of bright yellow limoncello shops, soft breezy blue linen clothing, the sound of clinking glasses from al fresco restaurant tables.

Now it’s time to sit down and put something ridiculously fabulous in your mouth. We found two spots along the main street that were so good we became life fans on day one. The first is a spot that began as a gelateria and expanded into a restaurant of sorts. We ordered a margherita pizza and one with smoked mozzarella, ham, and funghi. It was mushroom season in Italy and everywhere we went, the porcini was fat and buttery and knock-your-socks off good. Italians do not mess around with cheese. Cheese is art. Fresh, smoked mozzarella puts to shame anything America has ever plopped onto a pizza.

Which reminds me: you are supposed to eat pizza with a fork and knife. The crust is very thin, salty, chewy, and crispy where the wood oven kissed it. It reminds me of when my sisters and I used to warm tortillas over the open flame of our stovetop gas burner and snatch it off just before the bubbles began to burn. So. Good. Cooks go very light on the tomato sauce and seem to prefer sun-dried tomatoes to fresh everywhere, which surprised me.

If you wander a little further out in Sorrento, you will find their prize lemon trees, guarded and shaded from the hot summer sun. Sorrento is all about lemons in general and limoncello in specific. Samples are handed out with reverence, little shot glasses of liquid gold. There are ancient olive groves cliffside and the twisted old trees have green and black netting snaked around the trunks in preparation for the upcoming harvest. The olive oil is primo but the limoncello is specialty of the house.

Which brings me back to our table.

We ordered gelato while staring at a display case that overflowed with pastries, tarts, chocolates, flavored meringues, baba au rum, croissants, enough to know that once again, you weren’t going to be able to eat it all.

It’s heartbreaking.

The gelato was superb. But I have to tell you about the other gelato place, too. Because there is a red velvet throne outside the door and the walls inside are completely covered in photos and the people in there are not interested in the tourist experience, they are interested in gelato that is so good, you should be thanking them that they are even open and selling you any.

Later, I am going to write you an entire post on nothing but gelato.

Meanwhile, here are some photos. The first was taken around 9am – in the morning – and sums up my entire Italian experience. Glorious.

From the dock, find a tiny obscure walkway up tight against the cliff and head west. Follow behind private beaches to the elevator, 2 euros each.