Wednesday 2 October 2013

Our Pompeii Adventure

July 29-31, 2013

 THE MUST SEE in Southern Italy is the ancient ruins of Pompeii, uncovered reasonably recently after over 1,500 years of being buried under thick layers of volcanic ash. We certainly weren’t going to miss it so we were up early for our foray around the Bay of Naples to the foot of the Mount Vesuvius.

A small section of one of many incredible mosaics uncovered in Pompeii
Our first problem was where to go ashore as the entire area around us seemed to be all private waterfront. We decided to take the direct approach and take the dingy straight into the small beach nearest us and see what happened. We hauled the dingy up the narrow beach and tied it off against the sea wall. The only sign of life at this early hour was a guy hosing off all the paths and paved areas in preparation for an influx of paying beachgoers so we hoped he could persuaded  to let us leave the dingy. This is Italy, so our strategy was for Karen to go and ask the question. You’d may not be amazed to hear that a female gets a more friendly reception than a male when seeking help in this country but it is very marked difference in success rate. We’ve even got to the stage of having Karen radio or contact marinas when we’re looking for a berth because she seems to get a lot more assistance than Rob. Our new friend with the hose had very little English but through the use of Karen’s limited Italian, mime, and lots of smiles he reluctantly agreed to let us park the inflatable. Italian men do have trouble saying no to a pretty lady. Fortunately it was not still the weekend or we’re pretty sure we would have been out of luck regardless.

Karen talked our way into scoring  a Possilipo dingy parking
spot directly in from the boat
Our next task was to get to Naples’ central station. We had loaded its address into Maps on the i-Phone and jumped on the first bus coming past. We rode it for as long as we could see it was headed in the general direction of the station then jumped off when our little blue GPS dot on the screen started to head in the wrong direction. We were still a couple of kilometres short of the station so found another likely looking bus stop and grabbed the next one along.  The GPS soon confirmed we were now headed the right way again and this time made it to within a block of the station before it turned away. We were off at the next stop and were soon buying our very cheap tickets for the train  to Sorrento which also stops  right at the entrance of Pompeii.

There's now grass in the foreground at Pompeii's entrance where once the
waters of the Bay of Naples carried trading galleys.
It’s believed that the town was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC and was captured by the Romans in 80 BC. By the time of its destruction, 160 years later, its population was approximately 20,000. Pompeii, along with nearby Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area, was mostly destroyed and buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Evidence for the destruction originally came from a surviving letter by Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from his position across the Bay of Naples at Misenum and described the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, who tried to rescue citizens. It is believed the initial eruption occurred on August 24, just one day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire, including that from volcanoes.

An artist's impression of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii
The site was lost for about 1500 years until its initial rediscovery in 1599 and broader rediscovery almost 150 years later by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. The objects that lay beneath the city have been well preserved for thousands of years because of the lack of air and moisture. These artefacts provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city. During the excavation, plaster was used to fill in the voids between the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allowed one to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died.

Karen in the remains of one of the grander residences of Pompeii
Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years. Today it has UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors every year.

We arrived soon after opening time and only needed to line up for about ten minutes to get our tickets. Tripadvisor reports wait times can stretch to well over an hour in the height of the summer season. Once again we were making use of one of Rick Steve’s fantastic audio tours which we’d been able to download free on Karen’s I-Pad. The first thing that struck us as we entered the ruins was that we were passing docks where sea going trading boats used to load and unload their cargos. The waters of the Bay of Naples are now many kilometres away demonstrating how much the world can change.

The wheel tracks of chariots clearly visible along with the stepping stones
for pedestrians in this paved one way street in Pompeii.
The second thing that struck us very quickly was what an advanced and well ordered society had existed at Pompeii before tragedy struck in the year 79 AD. The whole city had a very efficient water fresh supply fed from mountain springs along a major viaduct and into storage reservoirs and cisterns. Rather than the mish mash of twisting, turning streets, lanes and alleys we’d become used to seeing in medieval towns a thousand years  or more younger than here, Pompeii had a well planned grid system of two and one way streets with reasonably wide pedestrian footpaths each side. The streets were almost half a metre lower than the pedestrian level and sloped away from the central forum area of the city located at its highest point. This allowed them to be flooded every morning which washed away the previous day’s horse droppings, urine and any other general grime. They were also designed with raised stepping stones to accommodate chariots which were all built with a uniform width wheel track.

The interior of the communal baths and sauna in Pompeii

Fertility symbol or erotica.
With Rick Steve’s audio tour guiding us to and explaining highlights such as the, temples, law courts, markets, large amphitheatre, extremely ornate communal baths and saunas, commercial sized bakeries, taverns, bordellos, takeaway food stalls located virtually on every intersection, the mansions of the rich and the more humble but still significant housing of the average citizen Pompeii emerged from its 2000 year slumber and came alive for us. Without an audio tour to explain what you’re surrounded by we’re sure all your eyes would see is little more than a pile of old stones. Thank you Rick.

Take-away food outlet Pompeii style
Pompeii's main street with Mount Vesuvius in the background.
By the time we’d spent three hours exploring the ruins, the summer heat really started to kick in so we were quite happy to retreat back to the station and head back into Naples for the next stage of our Pompeii experience. Through the Tripadvisor website, we had become aware that a vast number of the real treasures discovered during excavations of the city over the years now reside in the Naples National Archaeological Museum located just a couple of stops from Naples’ central station. These even include complete walls and floors containing large frescos and mosaics literally carved off building and removed. We’d seen the ruins now we made our way to see the recovered art it had contained.

Many of Pompeii's mosaic treasures are in the Archaeological Museum
Huge frescos were removed from house walls in Pompeii
We were certainly not disappointed. Truly going to Pompeii without also viewing the huge range of artefacts in the museum would be like visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and only looking at the building and not the paintings. The huge number of frescos and mosaics depicting Pompeii life gave us a much more complete insight into how the general population lived during the height of the Roman Empire. We actually spent as much time here as in the ruins themselves.

It was interesting to learn that a clash of cultures between the Pompeii era and the ultra-conservative prudishness of the 17th and 18th centuries led to an unknown number of discoveries being hidden away. It’s been suggested that when some of the famous erotic frescoes were discovered during this time, they were reburied in an attempt at archaeological censorship. Even many recovered household items had a sexual theme. Such imagery and items indicates that the sexual mores of the ancient Roman culture of the time were much more liberal than most present-day cultures, although much of what is described as erotic imagery was in fact fertility imagery.

Those Pompeii peeps were a saucy lot. These are a couple of the less
graphic examples in the Secret Cabinet exhibit.

Incredible that this fresco pre-dates Botticelli's Birth of Venus by over 1,000
years yet was still buried when the Reformist artist produced his masterpiece 
A wall fresco which depicted Priapus, the ancient god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall. In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals". Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, it was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s, the time of the so called sexual revolution. The Secret Cabinet exhibit was finally re-opened for general viewing in 2000. The graphic nature of many of the items, mosaics and frescos displayed sees minors only admitted in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.

In addition to those from Pompeii, the museum contained many other treasures.
By the time we relaunched the dingy and made our way back to Alcheringa we were two very impressed cruisers. The city of Naples in general may be a very grimy, unattractive and even depressing, but our Pompeii experiences at the ruins and museum made this stop one of the highlights of our time in Italy.

We upped anchor and farewelled Possilipo next morning, making our way across Golfo di Napoli to  Marina di Stabia on the southern part of the bay. We moored in this recently built, very large marina about lunchtime and were dwarfed by some of the huge super-yachts around us. Some would have probably qualified for the mega-yacht title. We spent two nights in this horrendously expensive marina topping up with water, getting our overflowing laundry bags back under control, reprovisioning for the coming couple of weeks and most importantly, welcoming Karen’s parents on board. It was fantastic to see them after such a long time away and, with the highlights of the Isle of Capri and Amalfi Coast next on the agenda, we were very much looking forward to their company on the next leg of our Italian adventures.

One of our neighbours in Marina di Stabia
MARINA REVIEW: Marina di Stabia – Naples  **

Nightly rate for our 43 foot (13.2m) yacht – 130 Euro (including VAT, water. Metered power)

This is a very large, well equipped, brand new marina however it is hard to understand why this location surrounded by derelict, abandoned commercial buildings was chosen for it. The township is a long walk from the marina and taxis are few and far between.

The marina does offer excellent protection from all weather. Fuel dock on site, a small but reasonably well stocked chandlery is located approximately 1k from the marina and other marine services are available at the boat yard adjacent to the marina. An expensive, upmarket restaurant is located in the yacht club within the marina.  No other shops or cafes are nearby. Bathroom facilities are modern and clean. Token operated washing machines are located next to the bathrooms.  A supermarket is located in the township about three kilometres from the marina.

As good as the facilities are, the location and exorbitant price means only two stars on the value meter.

 Sometimes we’re so busy out doing things we don’t have enough time to write about doing things and our blog slips a little behind time. We’re working at getting it all back to current at the moment.

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If you have only recently discovered our blog and would like to read how it all started, or work through our previous adventures, click the link to go back to our first blog entry. Stuff it. Let's just go sailing anyway.  We hope you enjoy reading the previous posts to catch up on our story.

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