Friday, April 11, 2014

An unburied treasure

As we approached Mt. Vesuvius, what really got me were all the houses and hamlets climbing its sides.  Living on the flank of a live volcano -- is this ignorance, indifference, a death wish, or what?  I felt the same way about the people living on the island of Santorini, when I visited there.  There’s no question that Santorini is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but its inhabitants are living on the rim of a live (if presently dormant) volcano’s caldera.  Its last eruption was 1950, and the sleeping dragon could awaken at any time.

Ah well, we all have to live someplace.  And is anyplace really safe?

There is a small, modern town of Pompeii; what we saw of it was the street that lies at the foot of the ruins, along one side of which runs a line of cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and kiosks.  We were provided with a fairly pedestrian lunch at a fairly pedestrian restaurant (and according to Rick Steves, there is nothing but, along this tourist-trap of a street), but at least we were fortified for our two-hour exploration of the ruins.

When we came out of the restaurant, I realized that with the hot sun blazing down, I really should have a hat.  There was a fellow across the street selling exactly that, along with a lot of other stuff.  I walked over, and immediately saw just the thing, a cut little straw hat, with a few flowers in the front.  But I couldn’t see how I looked in it.  “No mirror.”  I said to the young vendor.  “Ah!” he looked around, then with a triumphant expression, led me to a nearby motorcycle.  We all laughed, I peered into the mirror, and a sale was made.  (And I was very glad I'd gotten that hat)

As usual, we had a local guide, taking the place of our regular tour guide.  He was a very old man, very knowledgeable, who nonetheless kept moving us along at a quick pace because (as he mentioned more than once) we had a lot more to see, and not much time.  At the end of the tour, I admitted to myself that the fellow had impressed me with how much ground and information he had managed to cover, without flagging, under a hot sun, and with a lot of straggling tourists in tow (eventually he stopped trying to make sure we were all with him, and just kept going, leaving us to catch up as we could).

So first of all, Pompeii is huge.  Much larger than I expected it to be.  But after all, it was a thriving city of 20,000 when Vesuvius buried it in 79 A.D.  Everywhere it is a matter of grey roofless walls, the grey of rock and stone used to build the shops and houses -- the finer houses and public buildings would have been faced with marble.  In a few cases, parts of homes have been restored to give you an idea of how the building looked in its prime.  But even so, you can't really get a good idea, because some of those houses had many rooms -- 10,12, one even had 40! -- but you're seeing only a very small part.

There were a number of things that really caught my attention.  The way you could stop in the middle of a street, look to the right and left, and see ruins stretching away from you on either side.  The high stepping stones that enabled people to cross the streets when they were being flooded with gushing water, to clean them.  (Carts that went down the streets straddled the stones.)  One stone in the street indicates it was a one-way street, two stones means there was two-way traffic, three stones, a major thoroughfare.

    City of Stone       

Lupanar -- Wealthy clients upstairs
The fact that the brothel area is now (as it probably was then) one of the most popular areas among visitors.  People crowding into the doorways of the small, dark rooms to let their imaginations take over.  One building, Lupanar, -- which is the latin word used for brothel, but literally means “wolf den” -- has been restored, and we passed through its dim interior, to gaze at small bits of barely discernible, but very explicit, erotic mosaics on the walls. 

And the way almost everywhere you are, there is a view of the deadly mountain, seemingly not that close, but obviously close enough (it’s five miles away).

We went through one of the public baths, seeing several rooms, very cool and dim, whose names suggest what they were used for: the frigidarim -- no doubt especially appreciated on a hot summer’s day -- the tepidarium, the calidarium.  There had been colorful friezes on the walls; in some places you can just make out some faded color.  We were seeing just a small part of this bath -- it would have contained many more rooms -- changing rooms, the female side of the bath,  even rooms for gymnastics (a little exercise, before washing off the sweat with a bath).

Eventually we reached the forum, once the political, commercial and religious center of the city, now a large open grassy area -- which would have served as the marketplace -- surrounded by suggestions of the temples and public buildings that once stood there.  In one of these is to be seen a glass case containing the plaster cast of one of the carbonized victims of the disaster.  It is disturbing to look at the figure lying on its side, its face screwed up in agony, its hand reaching out.  It would be far worse if one were looking at the actual body.

Two hours is really not enough time to see all the places mentioned in ones guidebook -- as with so many other sites we visited I longed for more time -- but even this taste, this glimpse, made me happy.  I had seen one of the most unusual, fascinating places in the world.
The Forum, with Vesuvius, clouds like smoke, in background

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