Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Heading south

All right, I’d seen one ruin that I had been eager to see, but there was still that ruin of all ruins, Pompeii.  Sunday was our free day, and while most folks had someplace around town they wanted to visit – most planning to go see the Pope when he made his weekly appearance in the square in front of St. Peter’s – the one Jewish couple in the group (who were Pat’s and my ages, were blond, fit, and looked at least 10 years younger than we, which we thought very unfair) were off to see the Jewish Quarter – some opting to just rest and relax at the hotel.

But I and about four other people were going to Pompeii.  Indeed, that had always been one of my primary objectives in visiting Italy.  Those of you who know me know that the older something is, the more I’m interested in it.  That’s why I so loved visiting Greece, because so much of what one sees there is so old, it’s nothing but a bunch of stones.  But stones that let your imagination take over, and fill in the blanks.

But initially it looked like we weren’t going to be able to go, because Perillo Tours’ tour did not “make;” not enough people signed up.  The people at the front desk did have a brochure put out by Green Line Tours, which offered a day trip to Pompeii (and which, I later learned, got mainly scathing reviews on TripAdvisor).  The problem with it was that it lasted 12 hours! 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., an excruciatingly long day for someone who tires easily.  Mainly the trip was so long because it included a stop in Naples, which I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing (who has ever heard anything good about Naples?), as well as at the inevitable gift shop, officially a “factory” where cameos are made.  Now cameos I do like, but as I knew I wouldn’t be buying any, I felt impatient at this addition. (Note that when it came down to it, the stop actually proved enjoyable, if too long.  We were given a little explana-tion/demonstration of how cameos are made, and then allowed to wander through two rooms full of beautiful jewelry and other objets d’art, which delighted the eye, even if one could not afford to purchase any.)  

Well, there was no way I was going to come all this way and not see Pompeii, so I signed up.  Gloria and Diana, two ladies I have previously mentioned, also signed up, as did the assertive Bonnie and her silent husband, Bud.  Patricia decided not to go, and ended up having a very pleasant day doing essentially nothing with her friends, the IRS couple.

When we left Rome we passed a huge ghetto of high-rise apartment buildings that made me think of the low-income “projects” that mar the southern tip of the Bronx.  But once we got past this dismaying bow to modern city planning, the bus ride south was as pleasant as the ride from Florence to Rome had been.  There is no question that Italy is a beautiful country – at least those parts we saw!  Leaving Florence the highway had curved its way down out of the hills that surround that city (which is in a kind of bowl); the landscape that rolled by was thickly forested, with occasional glimpses through the trees of farms down in the small valleys.  It was much like what we had seen between Bologna and Florence.

Then the land opened out, green farmland stretching toward that backbone of Italy, the Appenine Mountains, on our left.

Traveling south from Rome the Appenines appeared as blue hills on the horizon; separating us from them were green valleys with their tree-dotted slopes, the now-familiar ochre-colored farmhouses with their red terra cotta roofs, the plowed fields, and inevitable vineyards.  By the time we stopped for breakfast (which no one had had time for, since we had to leave the hotel at 6:30, in order to get to the Green Line office to catch our tour bus by 7) the hills had moved in, and were suddenly serious mountains, with fat clouds resting all along the tops.   It occurred to me that visiting those mountains might immerse one in a more rugged landscape than the lovely but very domesticated one we were seeing. 

As we continued our journey, I noticed that the precise cone shape of some of those mountains made their volcanic origins apparent.  And I thought, but of course, we’re moving toward one of the most famous volcanoes in the world; there would certainly have been other volcanos in the neighborhood, once upon a time.

Naples itself surprised me.  Coming into it you are driving past acres and acres of unprepossessing apartment buildings that look like stacks of ice trays.  I realized that look was produced by all the dark brown balconies jutting out; they make it seem like the story above is set on a “tray” below.  Everywhere there are clothes drying on those balcony railings, or on small lines stretched across a family’s section of the balcony. 

However, parts of the city are quite impressive.  We drove down to the bay, for a photo op.  Beautiful view, though the bright sun was in the wrong place to get a good shot of Vesuvius, across the bay.  But the slumbering volcano was big, looming, a dark blue.  Knowing what it was capable of made it seem sinister.

Behind us, across the road from the bay, was a long, narrow park full of people and palm trees.  When I faced that way I saw buildings piled upon buildings, climbing the crescent of hills that curve around the bay.  They say Rome is built on seven hills, but you’re not always aware of them.  The hills of Naples are very evident indeed.

Farther along the curve of that road were the huge cruise ships, parked at docks that lay at the foot of a genuine medieval castle.  Castel Nuovo was built 1279-1281 by Charles of Anjou (i.e., a Frenchman), when he became king of the kingdom of Naples.  It’s had a vigorous and interesting history, and there it stood, in 2013, surrounded on three sides by thick, handsome, Victorian era apartment and office buildings, and building cranes.

The bus drove in a circle around the fountain of Neptune (we saw lots of fountains), and then it was time to move on.  I decided our short visit to this ancient city (first settled by the Greeks in 600 B.C.) had not been such a waste after all.  But now it was on to Pompeii, 17 miles down the road.
Castel Nuovo (Professional photo)

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