Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lost in Pompei and lost in time

The morning began well enough, albeit a little later than we had originally planned. After sitting up until 2 am'ish, it was 9 am before we lifted the weary eyelids. The staff at the Hotel Piccolo Sogno are really lovely - very helpful and friendly and full of good advice, but this morning there was no hot water in the shower and Helen did not have a good night's sleep on her 'Rock of Gibraltar' (although we loved our very firm mattress) - not a good combination! We are late for breakfast - in fact I didn't even go to have any - I'm suffering with a tummy bug. But the staff are really obliging and make fantastic coffee and bring Helen and Michael croissants and juice. Hels is happy - coffee is good.

We leave and head to the Tourist Information Centre where the lady who served us could not have been prouder of her city or more helpful. Not only that, but the amount of information in her head was amazing. She knew the times that all the places were open, the prices and the best ways to get to them. Not only the local attractions either - she gave us just the right information for our trip to the Isle of Capri in a couple of days. She knew where to buy the Buffalo Mozzarella locally that arrives twice daily from the processors in Caserta - one of the two traditional areas of production, the best and the best local bread shop to get supplies for our day in the ruins - there is no restaurant inside and she explains a little exasperated that if we leave the site we cannot return without buying another ticket.

We thank her, leave the office and turn left to find that bakery, almost walking past it. The shopfront is tiny and there is a curtain of beads covering the door. When we walk in it is very obvious that this is not an establishment that caters to the tourist trade, having prostituted themselves for the almighty dollar. No, this is a local bakery meeting the daily needs of it's population. Popular by the number of people dashing in and out while we are there trying to take it all in and decide what to buy. There is such an array of delicacies that we have trouble choosing. First up is a pastry encasing a wurst, patate and fromaggio - kind of like a hotdog with chips and cheese that smells just divine. Next, a packet of dry biscuits with chocolate (that later turns out to be savoury biscuits with nuts!), and the BEST choux pastry balls with little dots of icing on them. Peach juice in small popper boxes (so nice!) and chilled water completed our purchase, oh and a packet of chips - all for the pricey sum of €8!

So, set with our provisions, off we set. First stop is in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in the main square. It sits within the area known as Pompei Mariana and is bordered by the Campanile Il Santuario. We enter in awe as the whole church is covered in the most amazing frescoes - some of the nicest we have seen. As I sit here typing the blog, we are amazed to learn that the church is a very modern one - having been built from 1934 at the express command of Pope Pius XI and was completed in 1939. Surely this can't be correct! But after checking a few sources, I guess that it is. Now THAT is amazing as the church in its entirety displays many baroque elements that I would have thought would have been lost in today's arts. For more info click here! All in all though, it is a magnificent example of the work of artists and builders. While we are here, 12 noon strikes on the campanile bells and The Angelus devotion begins in the Church. We stay for a while and Helen and I get the feeling that this is something that we have heard before (dredging up memories from Catholic school days), but as it is in Latin, we can't follow it. Anyhows, there are sites to be seen and time is marching on.

As we leave the Church, we pass the Campanile. Michael gleefully reports that there is indeed a lift to the top, so we all ride up the 80 metres to see Pompei from above. And what a majestic site it is. Below us we see the cupolas and dome of the Church sitting in the square with the modern city (as referred to by the locals) spreading out across the plains to the foothills of the Appenine Mountains. And there, in the middle distance is the Old City of Pompei with the remnant of Mount Vesuvius, clearly showing the top that it so dramatically blew off in the eruption of AD 79. This is what has brought us to this part of Italy. How truly amazing it is to stand here and see with our own eyes the evidence of everything that we have read about. I never studied Ancient History so I can only imagine how much more special it is for Michael and Helen who both studied it right through high school. And to add to the experience we are accosted by a friendly Italian who tells us that Pompei is the place of his birth and spends some time pointing out the local sites and explaining all about the eruption that made the city famous in the first place. It certainly makes us want to get down and in it.

Back down in the lift to the street, we walk towards the closest entry gate - Porta di Nocera (stopping for a dopple espresso, iced coffee and granita on the way given that we won't have a chance for anything else for much of the day). The entry is quite understated for what we are expecting. In fact the quote of the day is "We are not sure what we were expecting, but it wasn't this!" Maybe we thought we would see flattened ruins with an odd pot or standing column here or there. In fact, what we marveled at was the completeness of the City from the ground level to the first floor level. It is a city without roofs, without ceilings. It is like looking at an architect's floor plan model with the top removed - almost like a doll's house in many ways, standing on the outside and looking in through windows and doors.

The roadway into the Anfiteatro (amphitheatre) and Palestra Grande (Grand gym) is blocked and needs to be accessed from the outer perimeter road. At this point we decide to forgo this walk and instead head down passed the main Necropolis (cemetery) of the city with its now empty mausoleums and saved statues.

At first glance the city is a drab place devoid of much colour - a basalt grey with the under-skeleton of terracotta bricks showing classic roman building structure peeking through from a thick layer of plaster that had been applied. The road is a marvel of engineering set with large irregular rounded flagstones which as first glance look impassable but are surprisingly easy to walk on as they almost seem to be paced out in a regular walking stride width. There is shallow guttering, deep grooves where the wagons of time have passed and higher pavements for the pedestrian traffic. And at regular intervals and at the intersections of the streets there is the forerunner of the modern pedestrian crossing. They are raised blocks that are at the height of the pavement at stepping distance across the streets allowing people to cross easily when water was running and I guess it also provided some form of early vehicle control. The photo does not really tell the story - most of these blocks and their neighbouring sidewalks are about 1.5 feet higher than the roadway!

But it is not long before we begin to see signs of the magnificent decorations for which the city has become eternally known. The first real sign is of a mosaic guard dog in the entrance
doorway of a home that led into more intricate patterned mosaic floors. Perhaps he is was a warning to those entering without the welcome of the home owners!

Just a little further up the street is the first of a number of bakeries that we see with their ovens still complete, awaiting the first loaves of the day to feed the population that was at its peak nearing 20,000 souls. And at the remains of the Taverns, whose counters are cased with large mosaiced pieces of coloured marble into which are set rimmed holes into which scraps of food would be thrown. Helen longs to use some of her precious water to wash the dry dust from the counters and see the marble in its true beauty of colour. But common sense prevails - the day is hot and there are few opportunities to refill our bottles from public fountains within the ancient city. Hmm, and me with a tummy bug, think I will stick to the commercially bottled water, although normally I would be very happy to drink the local water.

We continue to walk up Via dell' Abbondanza, one of the main streets through the ancient city stopping time and time again to wander into the insides of the former buildings that once played home to the people from a time long past. There are inner courtyards with atriums, building facades with layers of columns adorning the various floors in various stages of conservation works, evidence of richly frescoed internal and external walls, and gardens that would have been the private joy of the family. Some of these gardens have been restored, but as to their initial plantings there can only be guesses - these were destroyed long ago under the 10 m of ash and lava that fully encased the city in the famous eruption of AD 79.

There are thousands of tourists here right now, most being led along in big groups, tagged with their group number like sheep in a flock and following the bright umbrella or silly looking fake flower of their 'shepherd' guides. (I have often wondered at what would happen if more than one guide had the same silly flower!) And just about now, we become separated. I know that Michael is behind me with the camera, trying to soak up every littlest facet. Helen I am pretty sure is ahead of us. She will sit down at some point and wait for us to catch her up! When Helen and I do meet up about half an hour later, she was unsure of whether we were still behind her or not and as the crowds continue to grow, was getting a little worried that we might miss each other. All's good though.

But she and I are growing tired of the sore feet, the sore stomach, the sore eyes and the sore heads! We have nearly reached our fill and yet I know that Michael is really only just beginning to warm up. So we make a pact . . . we will walk with him past the Forum, the Temples of Apollo and Venus, the Basilica and the municipal buildings to the Porta Marina where we will leave him to return to the hotel. He on the other hand will stay and drink his fill!

These are all remarkable buildings that can only just start to give us a glimpse into a time of great wealth and prosperity for the old city. And as we explore around the around surrounding the Forum we come upon the store of excavated articles that can be seen within their covered and enmeshed enclosure. In this little treasure trove there are included the casts of some of the discovered corpses, caught during sleep in the middle of that terrible night so long ago when more than 10,000 people perished. There is even a dog, twisted in the throes of its pain trying to stop the burning.

And so at about 4:30 pm we reach the Porta Marina and turn to walk dwn through the exit to either try for a bus or to walk the mile and a bit back to the hotel (and you guessed it, no bus, so we walked!)

Now I'll hand you over to Michael to continue with his tale of discovery - I'll get him to keep it short-ish (given that I have already taken so long)!!
After saying farewell to Maria and Helen I strike forward along Via della Fortuna towards two Villas we were encouraged to visit: Villa di Diomede and Villa dei Misteri. The frescoes in these villas are regarded as being the best preserved in Italy. Turning right into the Vicolo di Modestro the vision is one of amazement as the street is wide and with the heavy signature cobblestoned roadway.

The street then forks at a 'Y' junction named the 'Angulus Tabernus' (Corner of Taverns), where the remains of five taverns indicate a time when trading was brisk with patrons. Taking the left fork, I venture onto Via Consolare where dwellings change from humble lodges into residences of opulence. There are too many to provide adequate descritions, suffice to say I was entering an area which once boasted wealth.

Continuing along Consolare, I arrive at the remains of the once splendid Porta di Ercolano (Herculaneum Gate). Built of brick and marble, it would have looked magnificent gleaming under the sun with its ubiquitous 'sentry boxes' on either side of the portal. Passing through the gate I entered the Via de Tombe and Necropoli di Porta Ercolano which represents an avenue of tombs of the wealthy including the remains of a Morticians residence and workshop!

I eventually arrive at my first port of call: Villa di's closed for restoration! Oh, well, one can't help bad luck? So I walk on further to my next destination: Villa dei Misteri
... it's closed as well - yep, for restoration? Both are locked up as tight as drums... Not a problem, I'll just make my way south toward the Amplitudo Theatrum (Grand Theatre) and the Ludus Gladius (Gladiator School).

I retrace my steps whereby I make a left turn into Via delle Terme for a look at the Terme de Foro (Forum Thermal Baths). It's either an awkward time of the day or year; regrettably the baths are closed as well due to an archaeological dig which is presently underway ... Undaunted, I push onward and repress my disappointment towards the theatre. As I continue my journey, Via delle Terme becomes Via delle Fortuna and on my left is a splendid looking villa called Casa del Fauna (House of Animals). The gods are smiling - what a splendid residence; from its mosaic threshhold to its frescoed walls depicting daily life and obeisance to a pantheon of Roman gods. Midway within the structure is the remains of a central courtyard which would have been adorned with shrubs and/or poplars.

Leaving this gem, I retrace my way back through the Forum and visit the Marcellum (great food market) which I had previously overlooked. Adorned with two communal altars, large quadrangle and restored frescoes; this marketplace must have been a hub of industry and close brokering. However, the clarity of Pompei's demise is brought into stark reality with the remains of two victims displayed where they had met their end.

Finally, I arrive at the Amplitudo Theatrum (Grand Theatre) and the Ludus Gladius (Gladiator School).... AND THEY'RE BOTH BLOODYWELL CLOSED DUE TO RESTORATION! Ah, shit happens - took a couple photos of the exterior of each of the buildings and headed off to the Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre). Time is getting on, so I have to hurry and return the audioguides by 7 pm as it's now 17:45. If you've ever walked the streets of Pompei, then you'll understand the need to have ample time up your sleeve.

Hop-scotching my along the via's and vicolo's I arrive at the Anfiteatro and considering this IS the oldest structure of its kind (older than the Colosseum at Rome) it is in a good state. Most of the original seating for the 20,000 spectators has gone and replaced by grass, however, this doesn't dilute the structures original use - hosting bloody Spectaculums (spectaculars/events). It was built with the private funds by two of Pompei's leading notarians Quinctius Valgus and Marcius Porcius - their generosity flamed through mercenary needs. So, saying farewell to the amphitheatre and ancient Pompei, I make my way to the stall and return the audioguides.

(Me again) As I am working on this blog, Helen is soaking her feet in the bidet, giggling as she does it, and planning to shave her legs there as well! Think she must have more than a touch of the sun today!!! Tonight we are again heading up to the Pizza and Pasta Restaurant. It is close, we have done enough walking for the day and the food is great!
We begin with the house special Antipasto Piazza with fresh Buffalo Mozzarella, Proscuito, bresaola (dreid beef), olives, fresh artichokes, tomato slices, roasted aubergine and peppers.
Then Michael gets to eat the Pasta e Faggioli con Cozze (Pasta with beans and mussels) that he wanted last night but was told took too long to cook while Helen and I settle for lighter dishes - she for the Spaghetti alla Carbonara (spaghetti with egg and bacon) and I had the Scallopinne a Limone (Veal with lemon sauce). We added an Insalata Mista (mixed salad) and a serving of Patate Fritte (chips). And when we ask for dessert, there is only one on offer - small pieces of pizza dough baked so that they puff up which are then drizzled with melted choclate and dusted with icing sugar - gosh, who needs choice when this is on the go?!

Back to the hotel where the owner Fabio is watching Napoli play the International team at football. He of course follows Napoli! And his team is losing. We chat about Australia and he tells us of his friends on Melbourne. Off to bed some time later - and Fabio reports that Napoli lost!

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