A Travellerspoint blog


A Trip to the Past: Pompeii and Herculaneum

semi-overcast 69 °F

It's Friday, May 17th, and today we're going to be heading to Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano) for some history. For those of you who don't already know, these two cities were buried during the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, entombing them until they were rediscovered in 1599.

We're going to use public transportation for our trip today, and we've purchased a set of Unico Campania 3T tourist transportation tickets. These tickets allow us unlimited use of the bus and commuter train network throughout Campania for 3 days, and are priced at 20€ each. With the number of bus and train segments we're planning on using, we've worked out that it's about a break-even proposition, but it saves us the trouble of having to buy tickets at Tabacchi shops.

We walk up the hill to the Sorrento station for the Circumvesuviana commuter train, for the roughly 40 minute ride to Pompeii Scavi.

Riding the Circumvesuviana

Riding the Circumvesuviana

Pompeii is a sprawling site, covering the space of a small city. We pick up a map at the ticket booth, but they're out of the accompanying guidebooks. It's windy (we've been told that the area is experiencing the effects of sirocco winds out the Sahara, resulting in windy, unsettled conditions), and dust devils of dirt and grit sweep across the site.

The Forum

The Forum

We come across the storage areas, where pottery, amphorae, and architectural fragments are being kept. Here, we also find some of the plaster casts of the victims of the volcanic eruption. When the site was excavated, archaeologists would occasionally come across voids in the volcanic ash covering the site. They injected these voids with plaster, and when the ash was chipped away, they would find the plaster had taken the form of the unfortunate people who had suffocated in the ash fall.

These plaster casts are moving and tragic, but also so forlorn. Here they sit, some in glass cases, some not, almost as an afterthought in a cluttered storage room.






(Some of the casts are in context at an area called the Garden of the Fugitives. We missed that area entirely during our visit.)

As we work our way through Pompeii, we seek out some of the more famous buildings. Unfortunately, due to neglect and the elements, some of the buildings have experienced significant degradation (there was a collapse at the House of the Gladiators in 2010). For this reason, some of the major buildings are padlocked or chained.


We do have the opportunity to see the House of the Faun. This is of particular interest to us...it contains two iconic artifacts of Pompeii, the elaborate "Alexander the Great" mosaic, and the "Dancing Faun". Both of these, visible in situ, are reproductions. We had the opportunity to see the originals back in 2011 in the Naples Archaeological Museum (see my blog entry "Sweet Napoli" )

Alexander the Great defeats Darius

Alexander the Great defeats Darius


The Stabian Baths

The Stabian Baths


Teatro Grande

Teatro Grande

An Ancient Bakery

An Ancient Bakery

The afternoon wears on, and we'd like to get in a visit to Ercolano (Herculaneum). Ercolano, a seaside town, was also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, but the primary culprit there was a searingly hot pyroclastic flow, rather than the slow accumulation of ash that suffocated Pompeii. It is a much smaller set of excavations, as it is under the existing modern city of Ercolano, so only a few square blocks are available to visitors.




The portions of the excavation that are open to visitors are in an astounding state of preservation. Frescoes that once adorned stately homes are still relatively intact, with vibrant colors.




Ancient infrastructure is still in place. We pass a Thermopolium, where it looks like the food counter is waiting to be stocked. A cutaway in a nearby wall shows the sophistication of ancient Roman plumbing.



In some homes and shops, the intense heat of the pyroclastic flow carbonized all of the woodwork into charcoal.



In other homes, fragile mosaics and beautiful frescoes have been preserved.




A restoration project is ongoing, and we have the opportunity to watch a conservator at her painstaking work.

Exiting the site, we pass the old warehouses beneath the town, with openings facing the sea. Many sought refuge here from the relentless onslaught of Mt. Vesuvius. Centuries later, their cracked and scorched bones were found, huddled in groups in these warehouses.


It's been a rewarding day. Pompeii is vast and iconic, while Ercolano is a small, intimate glimpse into the destruction of a community. Both are deeply affecting.

We head back to Sorrento on the Circumvesuviana. Tonight, we'll enjoy a dinner at Zi'Ntonio's again, feasting on their fine Neapolitan style pizza.


Next installment, we'll be heading to the island of Capri.


Posted by Zukini 14:30 Archived in Italy Tagged ruins naples pompeii herculaneum vesuvius ercolano scavi circumvesuviana Comments (0)

The Island of Capri

sunny 84 °F

It's Saturday, May 18th, and today we're day-tripping from Sorrento to the island of Capri. We'll be taking a jet boat over to Capri, so our first order of business is to make our way to the marina, far below the city center of Sorrento.

How do we get from here to there?

How do we get from here to there?

The easy solution is the 1€ elevator, conveniently located at the public gardens next to the Church of S. Francesco, which brings us down to the level of the marina. From there, we trek around the base of the cliff to the busy marina. We see the large jet boats at the far end, so we walk over that way. The boats are here, but not the ticket office!

We head back to where we started, and find the ticket offices at the entrance to the marina. Only one class of service is available, so we buy a couple of tickets, and then head back to, of course, the furthest berth.

The jet boat is loading as we arrive, and we're funneled into a line that brings us to the top deck, in the stern. All the seats are taken, so we are pressed up against a locked, glass door by the crowd.


It doesn't look like it's going to be a comfortable ride. We manage to turn ourselves around, and through the glare, we're able to see what beckons beyond the locked glass door.


That large empty area is the premium class seating, but there's no premium class on this sailing, so the cabin sits woefully empty. We help remedy that situation when a crew member squeezes his way out the door, and we squeeze our way in. It's a fairly comfortable ride, once we've got some nice cushy seats.

When we arrive at Capri marina, the boat disgorges hundreds of passengers, all pretty well intent on getting the funicular railway to the town itself, perched on the mountainside above us. We stand on line for the funicular, and when we reach the turnstile, we learn that we have to buy our tickets first...at the other side of the piazza. I guess it would make too much sense to sell them at the actual funicular station.


An hour later, we are back on line, and board the Funiculare.

Nearing the top of the Funiculare

Nearing the top of the Funiculare

We wander around Capri for a brief while, but our real goal is to ascend Monte Solaro, so we grab one of the little buses to Anacapri, further up mountain. There, we board the chairlift to the summit of Monte Solaro.

Going up!

Going up!

Nearing the Top of the Chairlift

Nearing the Top of the Chairlift

It proves to be a spectacular piece of real estate. A visitor center at the peak affords unbelievable panoramic views. Just relax while I share a few:





Finally, it's time to descend. Rather than return the way we came, on the chairlift, we decide to hike the path down Monte Solaro to Anacapri. The path is mostly rustic, packed earth and crude steps, but it's not particularly difficult if you're in reasonable shape. It certainly is peaceful, devoid of tourists, beautiful.




During the trip down, we see dozen of small green lizards, one of the two indigenous lizards here on Capri. The other is the Blue Lizard, but they're only found on the Faraglioni rocks.


Along the path, we find these <br />Stations of the Cross

Along the path, we find these
Stations of the Cross


Descending into Anacapri, we make a short visit to the Chiesa Monumentale S. Michele, known for the exquisite Majollica tilework that covers the floor of the church. A boardwalk is set up around the perimeter, so that visitors can view the tiles.




We catch our return bus to the Marina from a stop just prior to the main piazza in Anacapri, which allows us to get a seat before the crowd packs on. As evening arrives, we cruise back in to the marina at Sorrento, where we'll take another 1€ elevator ride to the top, rather than brave the 270 steps.

The Excelsior Hotel, as seen from the marina.

The Excelsior Hotel, as seen from the marina.

Tonight, we'll dine at Zi'Ntonios again, where I enjoy a luscious linguine with lobster, and Mrs. Z. has some great pizza with grilled vegetables.


Next stop, the Amalfi Coast.


Posted by Zukini 14:30 Archived in Italy Tagged capri Comments (0)

A Walk from Ravello to Amalfi

rain 71 °F

It's Sunday, May 19th, and it's overcast and drizzling. Today, we put a few things into a day pack, don our rain jackets, and head up to the bus station in central Sorrento. We'll be catching a SITA bus for a slightly hair-raising ride from Sorrento, along the Amalfi Coast, to the town of Amalfi. We're a little late getting out this morning, so there's already a crowd at the bus stop. It's standing room only as we careen down the coastal road.

Once we reach Amalfi, we look for the bus stop for Ravello. I ask the attendant at a red Hop-on Hop-off bus where I should be going, and she graciously offers us a courtesy ride to Ravello, since we're holding 3 day Unico Campania 3T tourist tickets. It's a relatively short ride up the switchbacks to Ravello.

We arrive in the square to find a uniformed band playing in front of the Duomo, just prior to the Catholic Mass at 10am. They march into the church, and soon, sounds of the choir start to drift out into the piazza. We take this as our cue to grab a pastry and an espresso, and start our walk through the town.

The Duomo of Ravello

The Duomo of Ravello

Caffe Duomo

Caffe Duomo

Ravello is, quite simply, beautiful. It is perched high on a mountain ridge, and the scenic overlooks are just so wonderful, they actually make your eyes hurt. Let me show you what I mean:




I could fill up this blog with nothing but pictures of the views from Ravello, but it's time to move along. We stop at the tourist office, and pick up a very detailed map of the hiking itineraries in the area. Our plan today is to walk down the mountain from Ravello to the town of Atrani, and from there back to our origination in Amalfi. The hardest part is finding our way to the trail head near the Villa Cimbrone.

Villa Cimbrone

Villa Cimbrone

The trail is a mix of packed earth, stone steps, and gravel paths, winding their way down and through lemon groves and grape arbors.


The views are just spectacular. We're surrounded by terraces cut into the steep mountainside, lush and green. Here and there, houses defiantly cling to rocky outcroppings. The air smells of lemons, and we can hear the band at the church in the distance, mingling with the sounds of the birds singing in the trees.




As we descend, we are able to see Torre dello Ziro, an ancient Saracen tower, in the distance on the other side of the valley.

Torre dello Ziro

Torre dello Ziro

Houses on the cliff below the tower

Houses on the cliff below the tower

As we descend further, we have a clear view of the promontory above us. If you squint, you just make out Villa Cimbrone at the very top, where we started on the trail. Below us is a long flight of steps, leading us down to the coast and the town of Atrani.

Villa Cimbrone sits atop this promontory

Villa Cimbrone sits atop this promontory

A long set of stairs beckons us toward the sea

A long set of stairs beckons us toward the sea

As we descend lower, we get beautiful views of the waters below, and the towns in the distance.



Atrani is just ahead

Atrani is just ahead

The stairs begin to wind through and between whitewashed buildings, and finally, we emerge into the square at Atrani, with the beach before us and Chiesa Maddalena behind.

The Beach at Atrani

The Beach at Atrani

We take a short break for refreshments, and begin climbing to the level above the main road, toward Amalfi. Little signposts are affixed to landings and doors as we wind through the maze of stairs.

Looking back toward Atrani

Looking back toward Atrani


At last, we emerge into the Piazza del Duomo in Amalfi.

Duomo of S. Andrew

Duomo of S. Andrew

The Beach at Amalfi

The Beach at Amalfi

We grab a bite to eat at Caffe Royal on the piazza. It's a doughy, undercooked pizza, strictly for transient tourists, but we're so hungry we don't care.


The bus terminal at Amalfi is a bit of confusion. Buses arrive, but don't change their destination signs. Passengers mill about, trying to guess which bus is the one heading where they want to go. When the driver is ready to leave, he announces the destination, and there's a brief scramble while people who are on the wrong bus fight their way through the throng of people trying to board. Soon, however, we're on our way back to Sorrento.


Tonight, we pack our bags in preparation for the next leg of our journey. We swing by the Sorrento Men's Club to say goodbye to the very sleepy dog that is a constant fixture there, and have our final meal at Zi'Ntonio's.

A nearby sign says "Please don't disturb my dreams....by Pisello"

A nearby sign says "Please don't disturb my dreams....by Pisello"



Buona sera, Sorrento! In the morning, we'll be on our way to Rome.


Posted by Zukini 22:02 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Rome, revisited

overcast 68 °F

It's Monday, May 20th, and today we're leaving Sorrento and heading up to Rome. The rental agent from our apartment stops by at 8:30am to return our rental deposit, and offers to reimburse us for the internet service. Once she leaves, we grab our luggage and head out of the pedestrian zone to the spot where we're to meet our driver, a short walk away.

The driver from Astarita Car Service is pleasant and professional, and not nearly as talkative as Emmanuele a few days earlier. He quickly whisks us up the coast and negotiates the chaotic Naples morning traffic. Astarita has done a good job, and I can recommend them.

We're a little early at the station, so we have some coffee and a pastry while we wait for our Intercity train to Rome.


Our contact in Rome has warned us...keep an eye on your luggage, and don't buy food on the train. We're not quite sure what to expect, but we begin to understand after we board. First, a trio begins playing music as they walk from coach to coach, soliciting gratuities. Next, a child passes through, selling pens and notebooks. As the train pulls out of the station, a woman passes through, loudly proclaiming in Italian that she is a mother with no income and hungry mouths to feed, and our Euros will earn a blessing if we donate them to her. The locals keep their heads down, the tourists open their wallets. Finally a man with plastic bags full of sandwiches and snacks strolls through...he's obviously not an employee of Trenitalia, and I imagine this is the food I'm supposed to be avoiding.

In fairly short order, we arrive at Termini Station in central Rome. We had originally planned on taking a taxi to the apartment, but things don't seem to be particularly chaotic, so we take the #40 bus to Largo Torre Argentina, and walk from there. We know the neighborhood somewhat from our visit 2 years ago, but many storefronts have changed and things look a little unfamiliar. Soon we locate the landmark of Santissima Trinita Church, at the head of our block, Via dei Pettinari (Street of the Pilgrims).

Santissima Trinita dei Pettinar

Santissima Trinita dei Pettinar

Our apartment is easy to locate, as a street artist has put some distinctive touches on the surrounding doorways.



And of course, what's the point of paintings of saints if they're not accompanied by a masked, topless ballerina:

Michelangelo would have been proud

Michelangelo would have been proud

The apartment is a very nice studio, one of the nicest we've ever rented. The owner has thoughtfully provided a lot of small touches....a library of tourist books, a DVD player with movies in both English and Italian, toiletries, portion packets of olive oil, and even a nice bottle of Chianti. It has a compact, but fully equipped kitchen, and soundproof windows that seal out the street noise below. Overhead, centuries-old beams support the upper floors.0




We stock up on a few essentials from the small grocery store downstairs, and then grab a late lunch from Voglia di Pizza near Campo dei Fiori. This was the first restaurant we ate at in Rome on our first visit, and we have good memories of it. Unfortunately, today is an off day. The owner/manager is arguing with her employee, everyone's in a bad mood, and our pizza di bufalo comes out undercooked, with lumps of unmelted cheese.

We have time for a little sightseeing, so we head over to the Basilica di San Clemente, near the Colosseum. What we have here is a pre-Christian Mythraeum, a shrine to the god Mythras. On top of that, a Christian church was built in the 4th century. In 1099 AD, that church was covered over, and a new church was built on the same spot.

Today, you can enter the 12th century church, descend down into the 4th century church, and then descend further into history to the ancient Mythraeum underlying it all. If you like "dark" tours, this should definitely be on your list. No photos allowed inside, unfortunately.


We walk back, and eventually wind up in Piazza Navona, while there is still daylight. Street artists, performers, and vendors are all set up, and there's a party atmosphere in the square.


Dusk is starting to fall, so we head back toward our apartment. The tiny piazza nearby is crowded with long tables and people crunching on batter dipped fried fish. We have stumbled across the famous Filetti di Baccala! This little place serves just one thing...batter dipped fried codfish, to sit or to go. I inquire about getting a couple of pieces to go, and I'm directed to head to the kitchen, in the very back of the narrow restaurant. There, I find a sweltry room where three people are standing over bubbling cauldrons of oil, frying wedges of cod by hand. I ask for two pieces, which are wrapped in rough paper and handed to me. We munch as we head back home. We don't eat fried food often, but this was worth every calorie.


We retire for the evening. Our plan over the next few days: see some of the parts of Rome we missed on our first visit, and take a day trip to the nearby Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. Tomorrow, we plan to visit the Palatine Hill, but who knows where else we may wind up.


Posted by Zukini 14:30 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

The Palatino

The sites less traveled.

overcast 68 °F

It's Tuesday, May 21st, and today we're planning on catching up on some more of the sites we missed on our first visit, 2 years ago. The main item on our agenda today is the Palatine Hill, the area of ruins adjoining and overlooking the ancient Roman Forum.

We head out of our apartment, and decide to walk up to Via Arenula to Via Florida, and from there to the entrance to the Palatine. Along the way, we get some excellent views of the massive Vittoriano monument from Piazza Venezia.


As we walk along Via dei Fori Imperiali, we start to see the familiar street hustlers. There are the ubiquitous vendors of fake Fendi purses, and this year's trend, "jelly monster" vendors. These guys have a blob of colored material that looks vaguely like a bulbous monster, that they fling to a board on the pavement with great gusto. The "monster" is instantly flattened into a puddle of goo, then slowly reconstitutes itself into its original form. I can't believe anyone buys these things, but there must be money to be made, because vendors selling them are found literally every 20 feet from Venice to Naples.

Another fixture are the living statues. Some of these "street performers" take their job very seriously, covered from head to toe in bronze paint, standing or sprawling, still and unmoving. Others are less formal, wrapping themselves in layers of gold mylar in an impression of King Tut's mummy (not very Roman, I know). Then, there was this guy:

Absurdity needs no explanation

Absurdity needs no explanation

We pass by some of the classic sights of Rome, including the Arch of Constantine, and the Colosseum.


At last, we reach the entrance to the Palatine Hill. Since we're holding Roma Passes, we are able to bypass the enormous line and enter the site. We decide that we should spend a few euros on an audio guide rental, since we don't have a map for the site. For the first time, we realize the single drawback of the Roma Pass...since we didn't pass through the normal ticket booth, we weren't presented the opportunity to obtain either a site map or an audio guide. In order to get one, I have to exit the site, and stand on that enormous line we had just bypassed.

An hour later, audio guide in hand (or in ear, as the case may be), we begin touring the Palatine Hill. At first, we're enchanted by the views of the Forum from up here, but then, as we approach the Teatro, things start to go awry.


The Teatro is covered with scaffolding and green tarps, and is under construction. The pathways that the audio guide is instructing us to take are blocked off. We wind up wandering in the gardens behind the Teatro.



As we try to get oriented, the audio guide is prattling on about sights that we can't pinpoint. Each time we attempt to bet back on track, we're confounded by blocked areas. There are no placards indicating where you are, or what you're looking at. Even the usual numbered cards to coordinate with the audio guide are nowhere to be found. We take photos, but we have no idea what they're photos of. "From here, you can yourself witness the majestic view of the Forum that greeted the senators each day, " says the disembodied voice of our guide. Where?? WHERE ARE WE SUPPOSED TO BE STANDING???


At last, we reach the Domus Flavia. There's supposed to be an octagonal fountain here, surely a sound landmark to orient ourselves upon. We search, but can't find it, despite signs saying that we're right on top of it. Finally, taking a few steps up, we realize why we're having so much trouble....the weeds surrounding it are so high, it's nearly impossible to spot from the pathway.


Our final stop is the Stadium of Domitian, which, at least, is identifiable, even if one end of it is scattered with statues wrapped in white plastic.



It's a shame that the Palatine is so poorly marked, and so poorly maintained. Granted, Italy is experiencing some serious fiscal difficulties at the moment, but the admissions to the sites are not cheap and yet, as we've also seen in Pompeii, the money doesn't seem to be going toward upkeep and maintenance of the sites.

Because we have the audio guide, we have to trudge back to the entry point to return the (worthless) equipment we rented. Since we had to backtrack, it's a long uphill walk to our next stop, the Piazza Campidoglio at the summit of the Capitoline Hill. On our way up, past the Mamartine Prison, we get a beautiful view of the Roman Forum.


The Piazza Campidoglio was designed by Michelangelo, and it shows. Broad steps lead up to an expansive piazza with a distinctive inlaid design, facing the Palazzo del Senatorio. A replica of the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius occupies the spot once held by the original (now indoors in the Capitoline museum).




Continuing our journey, we wander down toward the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and catch a look at the sculpture "Elephant and Obelisk". This 17th century sculpture incorporates an authentic ancient Egyptian obelisk. Why is the obelisk being carried by an elephant? Well, why not?


Speaking of obelisks, we also stop by the Pantheon, and get a photo of another ancient obelisk erected there, in the Piazza della Rotunda. The Romans sure enjoyed plundering those obelisks from Egypt, didn't they?



With the afternoon wearing away, and admission to another free site still available on our Roma Pass, we stop by the Crypta Balbi. We have no idea what this actually is, but it's got "Crypta" in the name, so we anticipate it will be interesting, right?

The site is actually a museum. It's built on top of the long-buried portico of an annex to the Theater of Balbus, fairly recently discovered and excavated in 1981. The museum has a nice collection of artifacts, but the main attraction is a tour of the excavated areas below. Tours are given at specific times, and language is not an issue, as your guide is utterly silent, descending into the crypt with you, and pointing to placards on the walls without uttering a sound. I am reminded of the Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing to the inscription on Ebeneezer's tombstone.

The area is atmospheric, but photos (as usual) are not permitted in the underground areas, and the descriptive placards are pretty dry. It's hard to visualize what you're really looking at and how it relates to the original structure. We do snap one photo, before we descend into the crypt, but, honestly, since there was no placard, I have no idea what it is or what its function was.


As we head back toward the apartment, we pass through Largo Torre Argentina, a square that serves as a main bus hub. In the center of the square is an area described as the "Area Sacra". This area houses four temples, and the ruins of the Theater of Pompey. It was nearly paved over in 1927, but then historians realized that this was the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated. E tu, Brute?


Tonight, we head over into the Trastevere district for dinner at Al Fontanone. This small place is not very touristy, and we have some wonderful bruschetta misti, our first taste of cacio e' pepe ( a deceptively simple dish of rigatoni with black pepper and romano cheese), and roast pork and veal.

Tomorrow, we'll be taking day trip to the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. It should be interesting, so stay tuned!


Posted by Zukini 13:57 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

(Entries 16 - 20 of 35) Previous « Page 1 2 3 [4] 5 6 7 » Next