Today we were going to Pompeii. The guide book warned us that we were best to travel there by train to avoid the parking and whatnot. But our experience in Amalfi to this point – that the coast is deserted in January – had us thinking that we should risk the drive. The drive itself again would involve us going around the hairy roads, but it was daylight and glorious sunshine and we thought that there would be no better time.
The morning dawned gloriously again; the sun shone through our window and burned the world to day. We all rose and were going before ten, an absolute record for us. It was to be about an hour in the car, but not too far. The time was really that the roads were so torturous rather than great distances that needed to be travelled.
We glided over the mountain and through the tunnel that transforms the world from the third world horror of Naples to the remote wonderland of Amalfi. And there we were again, battling the traffic and the rubbish and the horrible conditions that are apparently Naples. What ever happened to the romance that had been associated with Naples? Even Scott Fitzgerald (who was no great fan of Italy generally) wrote a romantic story set in Naples and Capri. No where we could see it. But what we could see, what followed us to Pompeii, was the hulking darkness of Vesuvius; a big bite taken out of the right side (from where we were looking, which was coming into Naples from Amalfi) where the eruption of 79AD had blown half the mountain away and covered several cities in the process. We were going to see one, but Herculean was also buried and other towns suffered too. Pompeii is the big one though.
We were right about no one being in Pompeii. The large carpark was ours and ours alone. The attendant was keen for our business and offered us lunch afterwards. We said we’d consider it.
January is really dead here; the piazza through which you walk to get to the ruins had only one souvenir shop running and all the eateries were closed. We wandered up to the ticket window with a few Japanese tourists. They didn’t take card. Myles went to get some money. Some French tourists came to the window. They didn’t take cards. There was a drama. All up, it took us (what with waiting for the French tourists to finish their histrionics and collect their money and so on) about twenty minutes to buy tickets in a queue that really only had us in it. If this is the level of organisation here, I’d hate to by here in high season.
We went off to the tourist point and asked for a map in English. Even this was a joke, with the woman in the shop front choosing to have a fight with one of the guides rather than listen to my question. I swear, it didn’t begin well.
But finally we had tickets and maps and we went through the turnstiles to the ruins. The word ‘ruins’ is a particular one; there is a finality to it. This is the last phase of these buildings. We can only see them as dead and silent. And Pompeii is creepy. We were there relatively early and were some of the few tourists tramping about (later it got a bit busy, but there was this sense for most of it that we were more among ghosts than people).
What is remarkable about Pompeii is how similar it is to any city we might have today. There was clear organisation (down to traffic organisation; no chariots were allowed in the forum – there were stones blocking their paths; and at cross roads, there were great stones that required any chariot or wheeled cart to slow down). Large administrative buildings were around; there was the ‘good’ side of town with large houses beside one another. There was the theatre district with two theatres (a big one and a small one) and a place for the theatre goers to walk about during interval, perhaps have some refreshments. There were factories (a wool one in particular) and gardens and vineyards. And there were sporting arenas, a large amphitheatre that was surprisingly like our modern sporting grounds. Except sport then was a bit different. There were bars where the city dwellers ate lunch – long counters with holes in them where the lunch was kept. Recognisable. Ordinary. We almost knew these people. Myles liked the public baths (there were at least three that we saw). He thinks that bathing is the mark of civilisation. The kids were disappointed that there were no plaster casts of the dead. There were being repaired or something.
Pompeii is drenched in rosemary bushes. This is almost beyond a cliche, but there it is. Fingers of the dead; forget me not.
What we all liked were the dogs. There were signs saying that you were not to approach the stray dogs in the ruins. And there were a lot, basking in the sun, and trotting about. Most had collars (red ones) and we speculated that they were the official stray dogs of Pompeii. Paris liked that they didn’t drive the dogs out (which, presumably, they could have) but rather erected signs for them. One of them took a fancy to Niccolo and made him a friend. Many of them were sitting in the big theatre awaiting the show to begin. Zelda thought they might be disappointed by the shows. Great hordes of tourists coming in, listening either to a live guide or their audio tours, taking photos and leaving again. Not much of a plot.
Pompeii was a creepy but memorable experience, a kind of sobering one where you could see that not much had changed in terms of human organisation in 2000 years. Our cities are bigger. But that’s about it.
I was taken by the silencing of an entire city pretty much overnight. It wasn’t like the dinosaurs or anything – this wasn’t extinction. It was one city that had been covered and destroyed over four days about 2000 years ago, which allows us, today, to see how people lived. And we only come to wonder and hypnotise. Not to live (despite that optimistic signs ‘Pompeii viva’ everywhere), but to consider and then to leave for the living towns. Ruins indeed.
And at our shoulders, Vesuvius waits and watches.
After three hours, we went back to the car. None of us were in the mood to eat out, we all wanted to get home to eat home cooked stuff. In addition, four of us were suffering from the steps of yesterday, and were in physical pain. My thighs hurt, Zelda had painful calves, Paris had sore legs generally and Niccolo complained that his buttocks (his word) hurt. Only Myles appear unscathed by the experience.
We left Naples with no pangs. What a horrible place it is. Everything falling down or being torn down, rubbish in every corner, the most impatient drivers in the world. We sighed happily when we went through the tunnel and came out in Agerola at the other end. Even through the crazy roads awaited us. With the largest buses in the world taking corners at serious pace.
Back at our place, I cooked for a while and we ate lunch. And then, when I looked out of the window after lunch, mists had fallen all across the sea somehow giving it a new image. No longer bright and sassy, it was now cloaked and mysterious. You could not see the mountains across the sea. The sea itself was no longer blue, but now white and milky. And there were only a few black spots dotted across it to tell us that there were still boats about. So many different sides to the sea here. Another ancient site. Men would have rowed across here, or sailed across here, for centuries. And in all the moods of the sky and sea. We haven’t yet seen bad moods. Perhaps before we leave.
It was a late afternoon of rest. Most of us read, and then the kids got involved in some computer game they had downloaded earlier to my computer. Myles decided to walk the stairs for exercise; even Paris refused to go. He was in too much pain, as was I. My legs appeared to have seized up completely.
It gets dark here quickly and quite early. But five thirty it is dark and cold. We didn’t eat dinner, lunch had been late and huge. But later, Myles and I braved the streets again for some wine for late night chats. But as it happened, I was involved in a book and had to finish it. So we drank a glass of wine each in separate rooms.
This is a weird place, but probably a good one for our second last week. There is not much we can do if we don’t really want to brave the roads. And you can’t really walk for miles either in the hills or along the beach. The hills are death traps with cars, and the beaches don’t appear to exist. I like it, but it is like the Great Ocean Road, amazing to look at, but you can only access a few bits. But it does make you just relax and do nothing.