Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Italy - Vesuvian Ruins and Naples

Dedicated to Jaume, the intrepid and well-organised Catalonian

Just after that last blog post, almost everyone in the hostel gathered together around the hastily-cleared reception desk and partook in an excellent pumpkin pasta provided by our host, Giovanni. Red wine was spontaneously generated and a great time was had by all - for free!

Yesterday was spent, as planned, exploring the archaeological sites buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. I woke Jaume, the Catalonian traveller I met the previous night, and we eventually caught the right train to all the major sites. He also treated me to my first italian coffee - a cappucino in a plastic cup from the train station. It was actually much better than the Australian equivalent!

We first explored Herculaneum (love being an Austrian...). This was a village encased in a mud flow, leaving it much better preserved than the city of Pompeii, which was buried under ash and pumice. Wonderful reconstructed gardens, in-situ mosaics and small frescos. The streets felt like any modern city - just in ruins devoid of rubble, without advertising. The weather throughout the day was ideal for open-air site exploration, cloudy but never actually raining.

Pompeii was next - good lord it's vast! I think we took around four or five hours in there, constantly walking. The layout of the city is very easy to navigate, and the audioguides were helpful. (Mine was in English, Jaume got a Spanish one) By the time we got to Oplontis he was addicted and had to use my camera case, which produced suprisingly useful information! The colour scheme is grey (roads), terracotta (bricks) and pale grey (sky and mortar). Broad avenues, mansions, towers, temples, theatres and a gladiatorial ampitheare covered in lawn... wonderful stuff for the imagination. It was the first site I,ve seen were the crowds of tourists actually generated the atmosphere of an ancient city (Ephesus was not sufficiently excavated to have the same effect). We shared fruit and a sandwich in the theatres, watching tour guides perform in a few languages, and got briefly lost in a forbidden zone trying to find the Brothel Number 39. It turned out to be closed for conservation.

With an hour to go before sunset, we just managed to squeeze in a trip to Oplontis. Thanks for the recommendation Penny! Amazing floor-to-ceiling frescos and preserved palatial architecture. Oplontis was a recently discovered single-structure ruin, consisting of a mansion and a bathhouse. A high school project exhibition was opening simultaneously in the west wing. A strange object in the centre of a courtyard was dubbed the decapitation room, and if in doubt, everything was connected to the cistern or the limb storage areas.

That night, Jaume, John (of Raki Night in Istanbul fame), Vanessa (Aus), Emma and Lucy went to Guido Sorbillo,s for several of the best pizzas of our lives. Outstanding! I ordered one with four cheeses, others had things I can,t remember but the selection was exquisite.

Today was marginally less energetic. I explored the city of Naples, starting with the National Archaeological Museum. I was accompanied by Brooke, Jules and Simone (Aussie girls) from the hostel for this part. Unfortunately, a lot of the collections were closed, but we still had a great time with the Vesuvian mosiacs (Pompeii and others, some exceptionally fine), the Egyptian collection (with some very creepy mummified feet displayed like an upside-down flower vase), and best of all, The Secret Room.

That's really what it was called. It was portrayed as an intriguing history of museography, which it was, but for most visitors I'm sure it was a room full of dicks and erotic antiquities. Broken bits from statues snapped by souvenir-hunters (because they're fragile, portable and easily reached on the colossal ones), brothel menu murals, totemic talismans, priapic pagan pedestals, togas with erections and all kinds of ordinary looking artifacts with some smutty details. As well as a few fakes collected over time by accident. It was a seriously interesting little collection, and the history of it was well described. We had to book our visit in advance due to its popularity!

Later, I checked out many churches (mostly closed and locked - strange how mosques are almost never closed to the public, but 80% of the churches I've visited have been!), and the shopping streets of Naples. Plenty of strange junk shops, gelati places (oh my god it's great stuff...) and people selling complex navity scenes, or materials to make your own. Also got a great look at the sumptuous Royal Palace (very like Dolmabahce, but more tasteful), the New Castle (strangely laid out but some interesting medieval artworks), and the largely empty Egg Castle. It did have a great sunset out over fishing boats though.

Now, I am off to grab more pizza for dinner, and round up some people to join me. Rome tomorrow - Ciao!


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