Sunday, June 14, 2009

Naples - Pompeii (Pt. XV)

Note to readers: This is the fifteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XIV here.
I awoke the next morning and glimpsed Belgian Sten (accommodating, low stress) passing by the dorm room. A silent wave and he was gone. I arose, showered and decided that it was time to press on to wherever I was headed next. The previous night's partying in Rome saddled me with a dark cloud of anxiety: not so much hangover, but concern that I might be drinking too much. It was time to go. No farewells to my friends beyond that silent wave at Sten.

I grabbed a quick ride to the train station and caught the first train out. South to Naples.

Naples harbor
I arrived at a city very different from other Italian cities I had seen to that point. Naples was not so much a destination for tourists, but a straight-up no-frills city for workaday Italians getting on with the business of life on the shores of the Mediterranean. Naples, Napoli, is older than Rome, birthed into the world by enterprising Greeks some 800 years before whatever it was that happened in Galilee that got everyone so riled up.

Back in the early days of the Roman ascendancy, Naples made a stand against Hannibal and his elephants, preventing the marauding Carthaginians from penetrating the strong stone walls of the city. Centuries later, when Rome succumbed to the inevitable, Naples was as an islet, washed over by the rising and ebbing tides of Ostrogoths and imperial Byzantines. Even later, caught in the maelstrom of hopelessly complex European politics, Naples was a prized duchy, awarded first to this, and then to that royal house. In 1266, the Church stepped in. Pope Innocent IV crowned Charles I the King of Sicily.

Charles made Naples the capital of his short-lived kingdom, building the Castel Nuovo, which is, perhaps, its most prominent memorial. Today, Castel Nuovo is the site of an unimpressive museum with few exhibits. But I got a nice photo of the facade, so what the hey?

Castel Nuovo
I spent a lot of time wandering around the streets aimlessly, taking it all in. Naples was rough around the edges: feral dogs and cats, gangs of boys, 12 to 15 years of age, running around causing trouble, harassing people, knocking things over. They accosted a young woman, pushed her up against a wall, spit on her, then ran away. Italian curses were shouted back and forth. Curious.

I spent a lonely night in a relatively luxurious hotel. But I had no plans to stay beyond that night. My journey south from Rome was to see something else . . . an historical relic preserved by disaster. In the morning, I caught the train for the short ride south to Pompeii.


Lack of skill in la lengua italiana caused me to miss the stop for Pompeii. Queries made in Spanish, which Italians understood well enough, elicited Italian replies leaving me far at sea. I didn't realize that I had missed my stop until the train was underway and I glimpsed ruins falling away in the distance.

I rode anxiously for about 10 minutes before the train stopped again. I disembarked at a lonely, dilapidated platform in the middle of vast green fields. A highway ran back to the north, toward Pompeii. I spent a long moment considering, unsure whether it would be better to set off on foot, or perhaps await a train going back to the north.

But, after all, I was a relatively young man, still strong and not afraid of hardship. I cinched up the straps on the pack, hefted the guitar and set out. I got no further than perhaps a quarter mile when, sure enough, a train going north appeared behind me. There was no time to run back to the platform. Just grit the teeth and keep walking. Wave at the train as it passes.

I took long strides, and set my eyes on the high ground to the north. I stopped at a cafe along the way where curious, friendly Italians tried to converse with me. They didn't see many foreign travelers in their out-of-the-way cafe. I did my best to tell them my story. They seemed to appreciate the effort. I bought lunch from them and was grateful for their amiability.

Eventually, I got off on peripheral country roads and began to fear I was lost. At a crossroads was a small cottage, with an elderly man kneeling in his garden. He looked up and smiled. I posed my one word query, "Pompeii?" He nodded, rising, dusting the dirt from his knees, speaking rapidly, gesticulating. Not a word did I understand. He took me by the elbow, led me in one direction and pointed. "Pompeii," he assured me.

"Grazie," said I. And I say it again, now, a decade later. "Grazie, signore." A mile or so down the road, I came upon Pompeii.


Unearthed ruins
Cruel Vesuvius buried Pompeii on August 24 in the year 79AD. But she was preserved under a blanket of ash in all her glory, awaiting discovery some 1600 years later. Now she is a genuine archaeological treasure, overrun by feral dogs and photo-snapping tourists. Here, more than anywhere else in my far-flung travels across the former Roman Empire, did I begin to sense what it must have meant to be a Roman in those days.

Street in Pompeii
These streets were broad and well paved. Houses were well built, with plumbing and fixtures for oil lamps. All the plundered wealth of Egypt, Palestine, Iberia, and Greece, accrued by conquering legions made life for Roman citizens luxurious, even decadent.  Especially when contrasted with the lives of northern barbarians in their dark, untamed forests.

Cavi Cani

I followed a tour through the ruined city; saw a tiled mosaic on the threshold of an ancient dwelling, warning "Beware of Dog" in Latin. I wandered through the house of two bachelor lawyers who loved their pornography, as evidenced by the artwork still preserved on their walls.

Ancient fresco

An unearthed sports arena, a public square, a temple, an aqueduct. It was impossible to ignore the similarities between these pampered, live-for-the-day ancients and today's television-watching pizza-eaters. Were Romans as blithely unaware of the opulence, the excess in which they existed?

Pompeii loved her sports
There was some forewarning of trouble in the days before Pompeii's destruction. The wealthy folks packed up and headed for safer ground . . . perhaps visiting relatives in Rome, or making a stay at the vacation home in Sicily. But they left behind their slaves to guard the houses while they were gone. And the poorer folk had no resources with which to make their escape.

Left behind
 The eruption rained searing ash and poisonous gases on the town. Vesuvius spewed her fury like a venomous oath. Those who remained in the city died where they fell, their lifeless figures giving testament to the end of the line for Pompeii.

Cruel Vesuvius looms behind
Just as I made my way back to the platform to catch the train north to La Spezia, a sudden black-cloud squall raced up from the sea and unleashed its angry, lashing rain, drenching all in seconds, causing everyone to run for shelter. A mild recreation of the scene that must have occurred nearly two thousand years before. But not cold rains back then. Rather, scorching, choking ash.

I made shelter and the train. Behind me, the plaster cast forms of ancient underclass remained, still recalling that terrible day.

To be continued...

1 comment:

Eclectic Dilettante said...

You didn't get suckered into visiting the Cameo shop did you?

Pompeii is very cool.