But the impressive sight that greeted me when I tried to check in at Heathrow was a truly enormous check-in queue twisting out into the concourse, with only one desk open. The queue also sported a goth metal band, Fields of the Nephilim, a bunch of lively lads who were forever on the verge of queue-jumping to catch their flight. Being a thorough geek, I timed my journey to the check-in desk (sad I know): 58 minutes. But on the plus side the Italian girl at the check-in desk was decked out in that extra-smart green Alitalia jacket. So, to sum up Alitalia: typically Italian in that it wasn’t very organised, but partially mitigated by staff uniform hotness.
The flight quickly crossed the snowy Alps and circled down over the densely populated northern Italian plains. In the brief stopover in Milan – one of its aircraft hangars is crowned with a neon sign for Emporio Armani – one moment of weirdness brightened the day. As the crowd milled around the gate a soft ‘scuzi, scuzi’ emanated from the rear of the scrum. A woman dressed as a comedia dell’arte clown wearing a Chinese coolie’s hat emerged through the crowd, pushing an airport baggage trolley towards the gate. On the trolley another clown was dressed up as an Eastern mystic with white robes and turban, and seated on a suitcase in the lotus position. They didn’t try to board, they just moved through the crowd, while we all exchanged bemused glances. Could this be the perfect way to de-stress an airport experience? Should airports all employ a Designated Clown? (Not the creepy ones though – they suck).
A little over an hour’s flight south of Milan, Vesuvius loomed in the dusky distance, overlooking the broad curve of the Bay of Naples. My bag was one of the first off the plane, and all that remained was for the airbus driver to have simultaneous arguments on two mobiles before we headed into busy central Napoli. Apparently the city’s long-standing rubbish problems, with weeks of rubbish bags traditionally lining the streets and stinking up something chronic, had been solved a few weeks ago, when they were carted off… somewhere else.
At the short journey’s end I flung myself into the hectic array of hawkers and gawpers in the Piazza Garibaldi, and boarded a couple of slow metro trains to haul me up the steep slopes to the inner city suburb of Vomero, where my hostel was located. I noted the locals’ fondness for wearing aviator sunglasses whilst travelling on the dimly-lit Metro and applauded their gusto, if not their good sense. La Controra is an ultra-modern place overlooking a disused 18th century church, and it boasts a lot of nice touches that made it one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in. I particularly liked the clear resin floor tiles with toy soldiers, playing cards or Scrabble letters embedded within, and the rather sumptuous breakfast included in the price was welcome too.
My dorm only had one other inhabitant – Alejandro from Milan. A nice chap to chat with, but I immediately marked him as a earplug-piercing snorer. Best not to get too pally, in case I had to glare at him wickedly in the morning for disrupting my night’s sleep.
Oh, wicked glares were definitely the order of the day. Definitely. But fortunately I was up and out of the hostel early, so I didn’t have to chat with anyone - Alejandro particularly - in my poor sleep-deprived morning mood. The day had turned out clear, bright and blue-skied, in direct contravention of the BBC weather predictions. With the precious good weather in mind, I dashed for the train station to take the Circumvesuviano train around the bay to the outlying suburb of Ercolano – the modern-day name of the Roman fishing town of Herculaneum, which was obliterated by boiling lava and ash flows when Vesuvius exploded in AD 79. The incendiary onrush from the volcano rapidly extinguished the lives of all the remaining inhabitants, including more than a hundred who had gathered at the shoreline hoping to escape in the town’s boats or possibly praying for rescue from the Roman fleet at Misenum at the head of the bay. Their mummified bodies were discovered in 1982:
‘Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was a coastal town, the bulk of which was situated several metres above sea level; since it was buried far deeper than Pompeii after the eruption … it took many years of excavation to reach the lowest-lying areas along the shoreline. But it was there that 51 men, 49 women and 39 children mustered, perhaps hoping to use their boats that were stored under the arches to make their escape. And it was there they would meet their end’ (Alex Butterworth & Ray Laurence, Pompeii: The Living City, 2005)
On an excavated site of four hectares, it’s easy to get a feel for the town and its inhabitants. You enter on an elevated bridge perhaps 15 metres over the old sea level, and are immediately amidst the fine dwellings of the wealthy few who could afford a sea view. The richest homes boasted a colonnaded hollow square floorplan around a central garden with fountains and statues. Further from the old shoreline the die-straight cobblestoned streets pass shops, bars, bakeries and family homes. While many of the most beautiful mosaics and murals were chipped out and shipped out in the early days of excavation over the past couple of centuries, some still remain in situ – pale and wan reminders of the splendour that once adorned every surface. In the Hall of the Augustals sumptuous murals of gods and heroes shine from the walls [pic], while on a more domestic level, in the House of the Deer a small wall painting of a plate of nuts sits beneath a pane of glass. These works of art look like they were painted a generation ago – not two thousand years ago at the time of Nero and Saint Paul.
I spent two and a half hours in the lovely Neapolitan sunshine exploring every building I that was open, including the baths with their striking mosaic tile floor of Triton [pic], and this great household mosaic:
I also happened upon a modern-day inhabitant of Herculaneum: a tiny green lizard sunning himself on an ancient rock wall:
Lastly, here's some views over the town:
Soon enough it was time to go, and I was starving too, so I found a local café and inadvertently ordered the first thing that I saw – tortellini con panna – only to realise that it was the single most boring dish on the menu. I sat chewing away, distracting myself by watching the traffic roar up and down the boulevard. A cool dude in the standard early spring uniform of jeans, puffer jacket and aviator shades kick started his Vespa, but then spoiled the with-it persona by making space for his pink-clad seven year-old sister on the seat behind him, before clattering off into the distance.
I boarded the train back to the city, and once there I paid a hefty €10 for a ticket to the National Archaeological Museum, which had a late night on. Sure, it was expensive and some of its key rooms were closed for refurbishment so I didn’t get to see the original Farnese Hercules statue (I saw a cast of it in Cambridge). But the rest of the museum was superb – a real treasure trove of mosaics, frescos, paintings and statues, most of which had been prised from the ashen turf around Pompeii and Herculaneum by questing spelunkers. The famous statues of athletes, forever striving for the winner’s wreath; a gladiator’s heavily ornamented helmet and greaves; intricate mosaics depicting feasts, gods, revellers and beloved pet dogs; and the once notorious Secret Cabinet, which contains the ruder side of Roman art – there’s nothing dramatically scandalous in this day and age, but once these works were seen as a threat to society’s morals and hidden away under lock and key. Here’s a relatively sedate example of nymphs engaging in some PG-rated nympho hijinks:
The grandest spectacle on offer was probably the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii – a vast depiction of a battle in which a proud Alexander (The Great) strives to reach and maim Darius of Persia. It is likely that the debauched Emperor Nero was shown this very mosaic when he visited Pompeii.
Downstairs the museum’s Egyptian collection was notable for its collection of curiosities, like a mummified crocodile, and a separately mummified head and bundle of feet. More prominent age-blackened toes peeped out of a theatrically-gaping mummy’s coffin – this chap could surely use a pedicure after all these years:
But the highlight for me was definitely the museum’s statue collection, which was grand in scope and high in quality. A massive bust of the sternly avuncular Emperor Vespasian guarded the entry corridor, and not one but two Aphrodites arose, mock-alarmed, from their imaginary baths. (The Romans were all very Carry On about female nudity). Surely Aphrodite would’ve learned to keep the door shut by now? One room was devoted to the hugely complex Toro Farnese statue depicting the punishment of Dirce, who was tied to a bull by Antiope’s sons, Amphion and Zetus.
But my favourite was probably much simpler – this 2nd century AD Roman copy of a 5th century BC Greek original statue of Athena. So regal and powerful, she:
Afterwards I returned to La Controra on foot and managed to get hopelessly lost for a quarter of an hour or so, walking high up the Vomero hill through rows of suburban apartment blocks. Every other shop seemed to be a hairdresser, full of female customers having an evening blow-wave, with the hairdresser often a male. By a process of deduction I finally looped back around and found the hostel, but I was certainly tired by all the day’s walking. There would be much more of the same…
Saturday started out grey but clear, but the glowering skies that developed later in the morning suggested it was going to be an iffy day. I got up early again and breakfasted quickly before heading back down to the train station to catch the Circumvesuviano further around the bay than the day before – Pompeii is about twice as far from Napoli as Herculaneum. I arrived at the site at around 10am, and it was a great feeling to finally be there in person after years of waiting. Then the task ahead became obvious – Pompeii is simply huge. The excavated area is something like ten times the size of the excavations at Herculaneum, and there are still 16 hectares of the city that remain buried and unexplored. Generations of archaeologists have built their careers working here and there’s probably several lifetimes more work to be done before the complete story will be told. So much of the western world’s fascination with antiquity stems from the discoveries made here since the 18th century.
I entered the city by the steep ramp leading up to the Porta Marina, which pierced the old city walls that had been constructed in the 6th century BC. Initially the crowds of other tourists were daunting, and I wondered if the whole site would be crawling with people. But the throngs were following a set guidebook path or being led by local guides, and had yet to make their way past the Temples of Venus and Apollo, the Basilica and the Forum, which are all close to the Porta Marina. Instead of following the masses I ducked down the side street now known as the Via delle Scuole and proceeded to roam through the many small neighbourhoods of Pompeii. The cobblestoned streets varied from wide main thoroughfares on which two carts could pass – some with the deep furrows cut by centuries of carts – to six foot wide alleys that would’ve been avoided by the locals at night-time without a bright flaming torch carried by one of the city’s ubiquitous slaves. Tiny shops rubbed shoulders with labourers’ dwellings and taverns, and artisans’ shops jostled with brothels, but most blocks also had a wealthy villa or two owned by the aristocracy or well-off freedmen who had succeeded in business. I did puzzle over the purpose of the tiny alcoves I saw in several places along the back streets – a single brick room barely wide enough for a doorway facing the street, with no windows or signs of internal furnishings.
Freed slaves often did well for themselves, as they had the mentorship of their former owners to boost their enterprises, but they could not stand for public office, which was the ultimate status symbol of Pompeiian high society. As Vesuvius erupted, burying the city, Pompeii was engaged in one of its traditionally vigorous election campaigns for city offices, and many of the city’s buildings are still marked with election graffiti, particularly those on main streets with high visibility.
‘Mostly … the message was simple and direct: the candidate’s name and the office for which he was standing, the identity of the endorser, together with one of a limited repertoire of abbreviated phrases of praise: VB, DRP, OVF. A good man. Reflecting the dignity of the Republic. I beg you to elect him’ (Butterworth & Lawrence, Pompeii)
Of course the election never came – the eruption put paid to everyone’s political dreams. It killed masters and slaves, guards and looters, priests and gladiators alike. Dotted around the city are the famous plaster casts of the eruption victims, which were formed by injecting liquid plaster into the ash cavities created when the remains of the dead decomposed away, leaving air pockets in the solidified layers. They are caught in the throes of painful and probably sudden death, but to see their twisted limbs and frightened faces grants them some small immortality that few of us will secure. And not just human remains either – in the old city granary beside the Forum there’s a cast of a Pompeii dog too. I also took a video from the western side of the Forum, so you can see the scale of the place.
As I’ve mentioned, many of the famous works of art from the walls of Pompeii’s villas have long been spirited away to museums and private collections across the world. But enough original work and copies exist to get a feel for the opulent environs the wealthy Pompeiians lived in. Some of these artworks may have been prepared to impress Nero when he visited the city - like this famous painting of Venus in one villa:
Pretty soon the skies opened and I had to resort to taking pictures with one hand whilst wielding my umbrella to prevent my camera getting wet. After four and a half hours of exploring I finally called it a day, weary and damp but elated at having partaken for one day of the lives of the first century city dwellers. And later when reading my Pompeii book I found the answer to the mystery of the tiny one-room alcoves: apparently prostitutes used them to take willing clients behind a curtain for a moment’s privacy out of sight of the busy gossip-filled streets of the vibrant and bustling city...
After emerging from Pompeii I still had several hours before dark, so I took the train to the far end of the bay to visit the resort town of Sorrento. It was pleasant to wander around and look at the shops (although one boutique selling Chuck Taylor stiletto hightops might be targeting the hookers of Italy a little too exclusively) but there were no great feats of architecture to report. So I returned to Napoli for some cheap pizza at the train station, and later I chatted to two Argentinian girls in my dorm and watched an Italian-dubbed version of the BBC’s excellent dramatisation, Pompeii.
Sunday began with even less auspicious weather than Saturday – black, black skies and the threat of a storm. After Saturday’s massive amount of walking I had developed ‘cobblestone heel’ in my left foot, which had also proved a nuisance in Andalucia. Cue a bit of limping for the rest of the day and a soupcon of feeling sorry for myself, mingled with relief that no-one I knew would see me hopping around like a poorly coordinated invalid.
I had hoped to take a ferry to visit the exotic isle of Capri, but this proved impossible: when I reached the ferry wharf at Mergellina the seaward horizon was a diabolical shade of jet, strong rain lashed the water and forked lightning was striking the bay at least once a minute. Not an auspicious day to travel the waters! So instead I used my metro ticket to visit the quiet fishing suburb of Pozzuoli (ancient Puteoli, where it is believed St Paul was brought to Italia); Sophia Loren grew up here. I walked past its crumbling coliseum and admired the ruins of the Temple of Serapis by the waterfront, which was fenced off for some impressive building work and therefore resembled an enormous construction site, and then after an hour or so I headed back to Napoli.
Once there, I took one of Napoli’s funiculars (like Wellington’s cable car, but flashier) up to the top of the city to view the art collections in the Certosa di San Martino, formerly a Carthusian monastery and now an excellent art gallery. The view of the city from outside was tremendous, with Vesuvius looming in the background. Note the beer bottle disposal methods of the locals (bottom right) – when your bus comes, chuck the bottle over your shoulder.
No pictures were allowed inside the galleries but the 16th century chapel ceiling frescos were superb. I did sneak a quick picture of one side chapel when no-one was looking (and felt guilty about it), but the main chapel was even more sumptuous.
One amazing exhibit was the (unphotographable) wax and cork nativity scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries, which depicted biblical scenes of astonishing complexity and beauty. I particularly liked the 20-foot high scene in which Mary and Jesus are just a tiny centrepiece to the huge array of townsfolk going about their daily business, chasing chickens, selling cows, carving wood, carrying loads and baking bread – but all the while a string of dozens of angels with fluttering gowns is floating down in pretty spirals from the heavens to sing the praises of the infant below.
In the open square at the heart of the monastery the stonework was adorned with a gentle reminder to the monks to heed not the beauty and glamour of the earthly vices, and remember that death comes to all. Fun chaps, those Carthusians.
Afterwards I walked down the steep streets to sea level, briefly running into the Argentinians again, and explored the city. I enjoyed roaming through the dishevelled streets of the old town, and came across the old Roman statue of the Spirit of the Nile, holding court at a tiny crossroads.
As it was my last night in town I treated myself to dinner in a proper restaurant. La Tana dell’Arte is a modern shiny white art café with plenty of signed showbills on its walls. I had a huge ricotta and sausage pizza and a small carafe of the house red and felt very pleased with myself. Although that might’ve had something to do with being able to sit down and relax after another day with a great deal of walking!
I scored a room to myself for my last night in the hostel, but the locals next door had a bongo-playing party, which curtailed the sleeping aspect of the night somewhat. I used my last morning in Napoli to explore more of the Centro Storico, the old town. It was a slightly chilly morning, but I was surprised when the light rain turned into a hailstorm, sending icy pebbles bouncing off the footpaths. It was quite good fun, actually. I entered into the spirit of it and ducked into a gelateria to buy a pistachio cone to enjoy, and then headed back out into the downpour. I made it my last mission in Napoli to photograph a Vespa in flight. Here’s a good one – a double-header including a Vespa and a Smart:
Eventually I checked out of the hostel and headed for the airbus and the flights back to England. I’d had a super break in Napoli and really enjoyed the feel of the place, and I relished the chance to visit some of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. Now I guess I’ll just have to plan another visit during a sunnier time of the year so I can visit Capri!