Monday 23rd March
Back in December I thought it would be nice to treat myself to a holiday to celebrate my 30th birthday. I had started exploring the idea of staying in Sorrento in order to explore Pompeii, Herculaneum Mt Vesuvius and the Amalfi coast. At the age of two this region of Italy was according to my dad my first trip abroad but I remember nothing except throwing my favourite red ball in to a river and watching it float away and being scratched by a cat. Since then I’ve fallen in love with Neopolitan Pizza (partly due to Santa Maria in Ealing 5 mintues walk from my house), been to exhibitions on Pompeii and watched countless documentaries. Over the past 5 years the significance of Pompeii has grown on me for personal reasons and it was always on the list of places I wanted to visit.
Other events took priority and planning for Berlin and Morocco meant by the start of March I’d not booked anything even though I had the annual leave confirmed. At the TNT travel show I tried to see if any tours of the area were running but they weren’t. I decided to leave the trip for another time and instead decided to try something completely different by using a company called “Mystery Breaks”. The general idea being you gave them the dates, your budget, the type of holiday and 3 cities you didn’t want to visit and they would book flights and hotel to a mystery city. It was exciting not knowing where I would end up and in the built up they gave a few clues which only added to my anticipation.
Eventually on my birthday I discovered it was Rome. I’d been before but who can possibly be disappointed with visiting Rome? As I said in my last blog Berlin is probably the city for modern European history and Rome is one of the best for ancient history. On a personal level I realised how perfect and symbolic it was. It had to be Rome. I love Italian food, I love Roman history and it was the city where I broke my arm on my first solo trip abroad. True I’d ‘ticked off’ the main sites but I had unfinished business with the city and knew there were many Roman archaeological sites, Catacombs and churches just waiting for me to explore.
I didn’t finish packing until midnight and so it wasn’t until the journey to the airport and the flight that I could start thinking about how best to spend my time. My trip to Stanstead whilst longer than Gatwick was simple enough and the flight uneventful though we did get an amazing view of the Austrian Alps. My rep had given clear and concise details for me to follow in order to find my hotel. It was centrally located and less than a 10 minute walk from the main coach and train station. I checked in, found my room unpacked everything (no sharing this time!) and crashed out on the bed as I still had about 2 hours until dinner.
I was still in two minds about taking a day trip to Pompeii as most didn’t spend much time and fitted in activities which were of little interest to me. I had asked my “Mystery Break’ rep out of curiosity not really expecting anything different and it was only at this point I checked the link. I was impressed. It had a local guide, didn’t go to Herculaneum but did include over 2 hours at Pompeii, traditional pizza lunch and a walk to the top of Mount Vesuvius. Whilst I knew 2 hours at Pompeii was still a bit on the short side I thought it would at least be a good introduction and so I booked it for the following day.
Eventually I got ready and followed the directions to Trattoria Coriolano for my ‘introductory meal’ which had been pre-booked for me by my rep. It had quite a rustic feel about it with antique furniture and white table cloths. The menu looked fantastic and eventually I settled on fried vegetables as a starter and spaghetti carbonara as my main along with a glass of white wine. When in Rome and all that. Shortly they brought a small plate out which had a breaded mushroom and a piece of bruschetta. Assuming I’d misread the menu I ate it feeling slightly underwhelmed.
Then another plate arrived which didn’t look like spaghetti carbonara and I realised it was my actual starter which contained various fried vegetables such as zucchini. It was enormous but delicious. I finished it and was thankful my bowl of spaghetti looked so small. But I had forgotten that appearances can be deceiving. It was incredibly rich and filling. I just about had room for gelato and thought a lemon sorbet may help. It didn’t and I realised I had over indulged like never before and never will again. When the waiter gave me some complimentary biscuits I could only stare at them with horror before smuggling them in to my bag as I figured they would make a good breakfast or snack on the coach.
I had a early start to get to Pompeii and knew I was already in need of catching up on sleep after two busy weekends with two more to follow. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly I had difficulty sleeping due to all the food i’d eaten and when the alarm went off the next morning I wasn’t full of energy despite my destination.
Tuesday 24th March
I made my way to the Piazza del Poplo and even though I was on time it appeared everyone was already there. Our coach had been split in to two tour groups and our two guides took it in turns to share their knowledge and local recommendations. I could tell instantly it was going to be a good day due to their enthusiasm and passion.
First they explained the significance of our meeting place the obelisk in Piazza del Poplo which was imported from Egypt by the first Roman Emperor Augustus in 10BC. It was originally located at the Circus Maximus however in 1589 Pope Sixtus V decided to place obelisks around the city to guide people. Piazza del Poplo was one of the locations chosen because it was the northern gate to the city. There is also a church in the square called Basilica of Santa Maria del Poplo. We were told the original was funded by Rome’s people because black crows were settling in a walnut tree on the site that Nero (the murdering Emperor who now has a coffee chain named after him) and his families tomb was located. Many of Rome’s citizens therefore believed he was still haunting the city and the destruction of the tree by the Pope and the building of the church was meant to exercise his ghost.
We stopped at a service station in a place called Cassino for breakfast and I ordered my first ever espresso and a cornetto (a chocolate pastry, not an ice cream). Leaving Cassino we passed the Abbey of Monte Cassino which is a perfect reproduction of the original. At the end of the 4th century Saint Benedict set up an order and wanted to build a abbey in complete isolation. This became the Abbey of Monte Cassino and he is buried in the crypt which is only original part. The original was completely destroyed by American troops in 1943 because the general was convinced German soldiers on the Gustave line were hiding there. They weren’t, they were hiding in the nearby mountains and instead mostly civilians and monks were killed.
Our guides had been testing us over the day but as I’d answered the very first one wrong I now remained silent when asked questions (I’d incorrectly named Caesar as the first Emperor in a “QI whaa-whaa/siren” moment. Caesar was according to the guides a dictator and not an official Emperor. It seemed none of us knew the story of the countries unification in 1871 and that prior to this there were 20 regions (separate kingdoms) in the area of Italy which included the territories of Sardinia and Sicily. Spanish berbers ruled in the south, the French ruled areas in the North and few if any parts were controlled by Italians.
The unification of Italy was started by Giuseppe Garibaldi (Risorgimento) in Sicily however as he was born in Nice I think we were all wondering how someone from France had been responsible for unifying another country. It was then explained that Nice and the surrounding region had been part of a region that is now in Italy however the residents had a referendum after Italy was unified and they opted to remain under French rule. Rome was eventually made the capital and there is a statue of Garibaldi on a horse at the top of Janiculum Hill south of the Tiber which the guides recommended had a beautiful view even though Janiculum Hill itself is not one of the ‘Seven Hills of Rome’.
As we entered Campania and passed Napoli/Bay of Naples the two guides told us that it is the mostly densely populated region of Italy. Naples means new city and it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world which was originally founded by Greeks who realised the soil was very fertile (due to the volcano). When the Romans arrived they called the region Campania because that meant countryside in Latin. The area is famous for food, the most famous obviously being pizza (and the word probably came from the greek word pitta). Legend goes that in 1889 pizza was still considered a street food however when the new Royal family came to Naples a pizza maker called Raffaele Esposito made 3 pizzas for Queen Margherita of Savoy. He named the most popular one after her and from then on it became a popular dish with all the classes.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred on August 24 AD79. Historians and archaeologists are lucky that the writer Pliny the Younger sent letters to the historian Tacitus which recorded in great detail the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder was the fleet commander based in Misenus across the Bay of Naples and is believed to have been killed by poisonous volcanic gases when his rescue fleet was stranded by winds during the eruption. Such was the level of detail in the writings of Pliny the Younger as he observed the eruption he is regarded as being the first volcanologist and the type of eruption that occurred is now known as a plinian eruption. Pliny records the explosion (20 miles in height) which formed a mushroom cloud (described by Pliny as a umbrella pine because he’d never seen a mushroom). Pumice and ash fell on Pompeii for 3 days and 3 nights and culminated in a pyroclastic surge which buried the city. No lava flowed which is why the cities were preserved under a deep layer of tephra.
There had been a large earthquake in 62AD and a series of small earthquakes after which meant Pompeii was still in the process of being rebuilt in 79AD. The volcano hadn’t erupted in centuries so the civilians had no idea ‘the mountain’ was going to explode. Unfortunately they didn’t heed warnings when the daily earthquakes began on 20th August, when the water levels dropped or even when animals tried to flee. Whilst Mount Vesuvius still towers over Pompeii experts believe that prior to AD79 it was originally double in height. The last eruption was in 1944 and it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Europe because up to 3 million people live between the green zone and red zone. It is monitored regularly and experts believe they could predict an eruption up to 72 hours in advance but I have to admit I was skeptical about that claim.
We were walking to the top of the crater from the top car park which I thought would be easier. Very quickly my hamstrings and calf muscles were feeling the strain. I had 1 hour and 30 minutes to get up, walk around the crater and to get back. I wasn’t sure if the rest of the coach were behind or in front of me so I had no way of gauging how I was doing and no one to encourage me. Even though it was arguably out of season there were still quite a few coaches all of which seemed full so I can’t imagine how busy it must be in the height of the peak season.
Recently I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for my knee and I would love to use that as an excuse but the honest truth is I haven’t helped myself since my gorilla run. I am not currently at a respectable level of fitness and I had to take a couple of rest breaks which I disguised as photo shops. But I eventually made it to the top and actually in good time so I was able to properly explore the top. The views of the Bay of Naples were stunning and even though it wasn’t a hot day it was certainly clear. Steam was rising from gaps inside the crater which was a reminder that Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano and due an eruption (I admit I hadn’t expected steam). I met a German couple at the top who happened to be on my coach so we walked down together and we made it back to the bus with a bit of time to spare.
After the hike I was feeling quite hungry and I was looking forward to my pizza lunch. A drink was also included and I opted for a nice white Italian wine which surprised me because in the past it would have been in a beer. Perhaps it’s age but I actually like some wines now though and as I was in Italy it seemed appropriate. Victoria had asked me to grab a quick picture and I only remembered when I’d devoured about half of it. At the top of Vesuvius the German couple had been joking about how people take photos of their food and when they next saw me all they said to me was “We saw you” *wink* All I could do was laugh. I couldn’t deny it but I agree with Victoria that food abroad is part of the cultural experience and if it’s a special meal it’s worth recording.
After lunch I wondered around outside as it was still sunny and there was as nice garden with a view of Vesuvius in the background. Leaving the restaurant we made the short trip to the archaeological site where we had a 2 hour guided tour. The population of the town was around 12000 though it is unknown if this included slaves/prisoners as they may not have been on the census. To put it in a modern context that is roughly half the population size of my home town. 1/3 has not been excavated however I believe studies are still taking place, either way the current site is still substantial.
After entering the site our first stop was a four-sided colonnade which was the Gladiator training area. Whilst during the eruption most of the roofs had collapsed the roofs on one of the sides and been restored as had some of the doors to the various rooms. Pompeii had three theatres (including an Amphitheater) and the the gladiator training area was linked to one of these known as the big theatre which could hold up to 5000 people. It seemed quite well preserved and we had a few minutes to explore so I was able to climb to the top for a good view. Next we made our way next door to the small theatre which could be covered and could hold up to 1000 people. Both appeared to have been influenced by the Greek style of theatre though it is believed they were built before 1BC
We then walked along one of the main streets which had stepping stones because sewage would have run down the street so people needed risen crossing places. Later on we did see another street which didn’t have the stepping stones and our guide explained it would have been one of the newer roads which used the Roman drainage system. Along the streets we could see shops and a bakery before making our way to a Villa where the door had been preserved and which contained nice frescoes.
We carried on through the town and arrived at the Stabian Baths where two bodies that had been preserved using the plaster cast method were on display. This was quite haunting as it was clear the victim had been in distress and it brought the human element of the tragedy sharply in to focus. Shortly after we came to the Lupanar (the Roman word for brothel) which meant a wolf den (a prostitute was called a lupa). Our guide stopped us and pointed to an object sticking out of the the wall which allegedly was a penis to and it certainly looked like it could have been. There were pictures of different sex positions on the wall which have been interpreted by tour guides as being ‘a menu’ for people visiting and and graffiti on the walls leaves no doubt to the rooms function.
Eventually we came to the main forum which contained the Temple of Jupiter and Temple of Apollo. The Temple of Jupiter looked particulary impressive and still contained a bust of the God and there was a clear view of Vesuvius in the background. Around the outside of the forum were a series of storage rooms which I assume held the artifacts that weren’t currently in museums. The two hours was a good length of time and the guide had kept it interesting but really it had felt like an appetiser and perhaps one day I will get the opportunity to explore the site more thoroughly in future.
After arriving back in Rome I made my way to a restaurant called St Ana which was recommended to me by the coach driver of the tour and one of the guides. The restaurant itself was underground and had a really good atmosphere and unlike the previous evening I kept it simple with a pasta dish called ‘Strozzapreti’ (cheese and pepper with crispy artichokes) accompanied with another glass of wine.
This blog is dedicated to the victims of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525