Thursday, 2 April 2009

Italy - Day 3, Pompeii

Jonathan had a rather disturbed night and developed a fever and I had to keep him supplied with damp wet towels to cool him down. He was no better by morning of course so I had to go to breakfast alone and then attempt to get a refund on the planned visit to the Roman antiquities. The holiday representative wanted all sorts of paperwork filling in and a doctor’s certificate as evidence and so I concluded that it was just too much trouble and wrote the money off.

Jonathan was poorly most of the morning but by about eleven o’clock he was beginning to feel better and the fever disappeared and he declared himself fit enough to get up and walk into town. We walked along the rather untidy main road of Corso Italia and in the Piazza Tasso we stopped again for a drink at the Bar Ercolano and I had a beer and Jonathan had some more lemonade. For a Sunday morning in october Sorrento seemed unexpectedly busy and was full of people coming and going to church, filling the squares and caf├ęs with colour and noisy chatter and there was certainly no let up in the volume of traffic roaring through the narrow streets in the inappropriate way to which we had become accustomed. After only half an hour or so his health had improved so dramatically that we decided to go to Pompeii after all but with the coach trip long gone we agreed to alternatively use the Circumvesuviana.

The train station was back along the Corso Italia about a kilometre from the hotel and we arrived with about six minutes to spare before the next scheduled train and with only one man at the ticket window this seemed comfortable. But for some reason the man had obviously emptied his piggy bank and was buying a ticket with a pile of one cent coins and it was taking an age to count them all out. This was similar to the nightmare of getting behind a woman at the supermarket check out who insists on trying to find the right change in the hidden depths of her handbag and the six minutes, along with my tissue paper thin patience, started to evaporate. Eventually the ticket clerk could sense my building irritation and anxiety and fearful that I would burst asked the nuisance customer to move to one side while I purchased our tickets in the more conventional way of using a bank note and we caught the train with just a few seconds to spare.

The Circumvesuviana is an electrified narrow-gauge railway that runs throughout the Sorrentine peninsula and we enjoyed a very scenic journey as the line passed through many tunnels and over several bridges. After half an hour we arrived at the station of Pompeii Scavi, which was only a hundred metres from the entrance to the excavations. You have to hand it to the Romans, they thought of everything, even down to building this great city so close to a convenient railway line. Compare this to the French for example, Calais station, if you have ever been there, is miles out away from the town!

The site of Pompeii is a buried and ruined Roman city near Naples and is part of the larger Vesuvius National Park that was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 twenty years after my first visit. It is the most popular and easily the most visited tourist attraction in Italy with two and a half million visitors a year and I have now been lucky enough to visit the famous excavation twice. But twenty years on it was different, everywhere seemed tidier and a little more sterile, there were more fences and it was smaller too because in 1976 visitors could visit three times as much of the excavations as they can today. Once through the entrance gates we avoided the attention of the official guides who were touting for business and relying on the free leaflet that was given away with the tickets we made our way into the ruins. It was hot but not unpleasant and we followed the indicated route in the little guide.

Pompeii, along with nearby Herculaneum, was completely buried and destroyed, during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two days beginning on 24th August 79. The volcano buried the City under a layer of ash and pumice many metres deep and it was lost for nearly one thousand seven hundred years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided a detailed insight into the life of a city at the height of the Roman Empire and which at the time of the eruption is estimated to have had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants and was located in an area in which many wealthy Romans had their holiday villas.

At around one o’clock in the afternoon on August 24th, Vesuvius, which had been dormant for eight hundred years, began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky. When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who was observing from a safe distance across the Bay of Naples, to describe it as resembling a stone pine tree. For people in Pompeii, who had no idea what was about to happen, the bad news was that the prevailing winds were blowing towards the southeast which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city and the area surrounding it and the residents were covered in up to twelve different layers of soil.

According to Pliny the volcano burst open with an ear splitting crack and then smoke, mud, flames and burning stones spewed from the summit of the mountain, sending a rain of ash and rock through the surrounding countryside. The mud flowed down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas and basically anything else unfortunate enough to be in the way. Adding to the destruction were poisonous vapours that accompanied the falling debris and it was these fumes that first caused deliriousness in their victims, and then suffocated them.

We really enjoyed Pompeii and were glad that we didn’t miss the trip with many marvelous houses and buildings to visit but it proved a bit too big to see everything in one afternoon. We saw the Roman Forum and the administrative buildings, the public baths, the brothels, the shopping centres and the outdoor theatres. Most of the priceless exhibits have been removed of course to the museum in Naples but there were some copies of the most famous and there are still wall frescoes and paintings to admire. It was amazing to be walking through the streets of a two thousand year old city and to try and imagine what life must have been like here. Pompeii is a terrific place to visit and along with nearby Herculaneum, the Colosseum in Rome, the Amphitheatre in Pula in Croatia and the Aquaduct in Segovia in Spain has to be one of the best places to visit to see the remains of Ancient Rome.

After nearly four hours we were getting tired and conscious of Jonathan’s earlier poorly condition we called an end to the visit and made for the exit. There was a little while to wait for the return train but outside the station there were little bars all selling gallons of fresh lemonade so we stopped for a while and had a couple of refreshing glasses while we waited. This was the first time that I had used a train in Italy so I was a bit nervous because the railways are prone to wildcat strikes that can bring chaos without notice but I needn’t have been concerned because the graffiti scarred train arrived on time and thirty minutes later we were back in Sant’ Agnello and after stopping at a shop for some beers went straight back to the hotel.

After two disappointing meals we agreed not to risk a third so later we walked out and found a trattoria because we felt compelled to have a traditional pizza. Authentic Neapolitan pizzas are made with local produce and have been given the status of a ‘guaranteed traditional specialty’ in Italy. This allows only three official variants: pizza marinara, which is made with tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil, pizza Margherita, made with tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil, and pizza Margherita extra made with tomato, buffalo mozzarella from Campania, basil and extra virgin olive oil. We had our pizza and a couple of beers and then finished the evening at the bar opposite the Hotel Mediterraneo and watched the reflection of Vesuvius in the sea changing colours under the moonlight.

Fortunately Jonathan was completely recovered from the mysterious twenty-four hour bug and we were glad of that because tomorrow we were going to visit Herculaneum.

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