Ancient Rome, modern Naples

Trip Start Mar 14, 2007
Trip End Apr 10, 2007

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

For Nancy's last day in Italy, we decided to visit the ruins of Pompeii, where she and I spent our second anniversary on April 20, 1975. Braden was along for his first taste of Roman archeology, one of his goals for his trip to Italy.

School groups crowded the main streets of the ancient site, but side streets and more distant points provided some solitude to contemplate this city of preserved daily Roman life. In particular, the House of Mysteries, which is at the northern edge of the site, presented some of the most thought-provoking images -- vivid wall paintings, intact rooms and even a couple of body casts of the victims of the cataclysm that destroyed Pompeii. Braden was keen on visiting that particular building complex, having studied it in college. He was surprised and somewhat apprehensive to be able to walk across the ancient mosaic floors. Elsewhere in the world, such treasures would be roped off or under protective Plexiglas. Nancy stayed behind in the area of the forum to avoid the long walk over uneven paving stones. Together, we visited the amphitheater and theaters, as well as a number of houses and back streets.
I discovered while exploring the outside of the amphitheater that excavation of the ancient site extends to the very edge of modern streets, indicating that the modern town covers even more of the ancient city. It must have been a wonderful place to live for a while.
Very early the next morning, Nancy was driven to the airport by someone from Mami Camilla (for a nominal extra charge) to catch her flight back home (with a several-day stopover in New York to help Kirsten get her circumstances resolved). Braden and I caught the train into Naples to visit the National Archaeological Museum, which contains all the loose bits and pieces from Pompeii. I had heard and read that Naples is "Italy in the extreme," a place of congestion, crime and grime that tourists might find too intimidating. But I was motivated to see the museum, so we prepared ourselves (no valuables in outside pockets, aggressive attitude toward traffic, etc.) and plunged in.
After picking our way through vehicular traffic that cared little about pedestrians to the far side of Piazza Garibaldi in front of the central station, we were able to look around a bit and begin to get a sense of what Naples is like. Fish sellers and vegetable stands crowded the sidewalk. Mothers leaned over balconies strung with laundry as they kept a eye on their kids playing soccer in the narrow lanes below. Old guys sat in wooden or plastic chairs in front of their stoops. It was gritty and chaotic, but it was also charming in its way. It was very real, unlike Sorrento. I came to appreciate -- even like -- Naples.
Inside the museum, we headed straight for the Gabinetto Segreto ("Secret Gallery"), which was about to close and which contains all the naughty stuff from Pompeii. Very interesting and educational naughty stuff. As that gallery closed, we explored other portions of the vast collection. There was too much to see in one visit, but I particularly enjoyed the wall-size mosaic mural of Alexander the Great v Darius, the Farnese sculptures, various stellae with their serif letters and especially a couple of the burned scrolls from a seaside villa in Herculaneum that are still being deciphered by modern technology. New scrolls are still being unearthed at the site. I was very excited to see the scrolls, causing me to ponder the possibility that forgotten ancient knowledge may still rest in the villa library, beneath the ash of Mount Vesuvius.
Outside, we went looking for a pizza restaurant that had been recommended by someone at Mami Camilla, having not found the legendary Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of two pizzerias claiming to be the originator of real Neapolitan pizza in its two pure forms -- margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella) or marinara (tomato sauce, oregano and garlic). Failing to find da Michele, we settled for the pizzeria recommended by our Sorrento source.
Back at Mami Camilla, I prepared to leave in the morning by train for Bari, where I was to take the overnight ferry to Patras, Greece.
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