10/14 Roamin’ the Mediterranean Day Ten: Naples, Sorrento, and the Ruins of Pompeii

Naples is the “redheaded stepchild” of the big Italian cities, of which it is the third largest behind Rome and Milan. It has its problems with crime (it even had some problems with organized crime like Sicily a little ways south) and there was recently a garbage collection strike, so they have a bit of a trash problem they are working out.

That being said, it is still a very beautiful city. From the port we had a nice view of a couple fortifications and some neat looking buildings. Naples is an ancient town that was a major area of the Roman Empire, as it lies just south of Rome, and much of that is still evident as with several ancient Roman ruins.

People in Italy drive like maniacs, and I am thankful I didn’t have to drive while I was there. Unlike the UK, they do drive on the same side of the road as the US, but it would still be a transition. Because gas is twice as expensive as Americans are used to, they all drive tiny compact cars. These cars can squeeze into the smallest of gaps, and believe me they try. People drive down the median and cut into any small space the car can fit, weaving in and out of traffic. My tour guide said that while a red light to us means “stop,” to Italians it mostly means “be careful.”

Looming in the background is the monstrous volcano Mt. Vesuvius, which can be seen from everywhere in the bay of Naples. Mt. Vesuvius is still a highly active volcano, and has leveled the area surrounding it several times. It averages an eruption, in various degrees of ferocity, every fifty years. It has been over sixty since it last erupted so it is due any time now. I was hoping it wouldn’t be the day I was there.

The government of Naples has actually offered 20,000 Euros to all the people living around the volcano to try to get them to move, though many won’t. I just don’t understand how people can live directly beside a volcano and just keep rebuilding right on top of the same area after their towns get leveled over and over again.

The Bay of Naples is a horseshoe-shaped bay dotted with towns around the shoreline south of Naples. I started off the day on a tour down this coastline from Naples to go to Sorrento, and “mama mia!” this was absolutely gorgeous. We drove along the Sorrento Coast on a winding road twisting through towering cliff sides. Down the cliffs were villages running down to the sea level that were absolutely captivating. These are the kinds of villages that pop in my head when I think of villages along the Mediterranean. These are the Mediterranean villages you see on postcards, paintings, and calendars. Sorrento is one of these villages.

Sorrento actually gets its name from mythic origins, as this is the area Odysseus (also known by the Roman name Ulysses) was charmed by the sirens in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” The name Sorrento comes from the word “siren,” as it was the spot of the Greek Temple of the Sirens, the only one in the ancient Greek world.

The siren is known in Greek mythology is a bird woman who was a seductress. Their powerful songs would lure fishermen to wreck their ships along the rocky coasts. The isles where the sirens were said to have lived were known as the Sirenum scopuli, and are believed to be a small set of islands between Sorrento and the nearby Isle of Capri. The sirens were also encountered in “Jason and the Argonauts” (the epic poem “Argonautica” by Apollonius Rhodius) as well, where Orpheus played his lyre to produce music more beautiful than the sirens to drown them out, so they could pass the Sirenum scopuli safely. Along with sirens, there is a lot of mermaid lore in the Bay of Naples, the half-woman, half-fish, who pops up in fisherman lore from all over the world.

Sorrento is a charming little village even without the seductive charm of the sirens, filled with flowers and palm and lemon trees. I have never seen a town with so many lemon trees in my life! They are everywhere, lining the streets and in all the little park areas around the town. It would be hard to look around and not see a lemon tree in Sorrento. Most of the trees had not ripened yet so the most of the lemons were still green during my time there, but some of them had begun to yellow quite a bit. I would love to visit the town again when all the lemons are bright yellow.

With all the lemons in this area, as well is just across from Sorrento on the world-famous Isle of Capri, one of the products for which this area is so well known is an alcoholic beverage called limoncello. During my time in Sorrento I visited a farm that produced its own limoncello from the lemons on the farm, and it’s got some kick to it for sure.

Before I went on this excursion, when I thought of “farm” I would think of a flat plain filled with crops and animals. This area was not flat at all, as this town ran down the sides of some mountains down to the bay, as I said previously. This farm had lemon and olive groves and vineyards running up and down steep slopes. It was also not very far from the city center, which lies between city walls from the medieval period.

On this farm we were shown the process of making olive oil the way it has been done since the old days. We were also shown how to make real Italian mozzarella cheese. We were told that most of the cheeses in the flatlands of Italy are produced from water buffalo milk, because there aren’t many cows in Italy. This particular farm had cows because there wasn’t anywhere for water buffalo to graze in mountainous areas, so the cheeses produced in these coastal mountain areas are from cows.

When separating the curds and weigh while making mozzarella, a by-product is the ricotta cheese used in several Italian dishes like lasagna, ravioli, and other cheese-stuffed dishes. The finished product is much different than what most people know as mozzarella. Real mozzarella is a very soft cheese, much softer than the kind you find at most grocery stores and most restaurants, and, if it wouldn’t be obvious, it tastes much better too. The farm owner, Maria, showed us this process, and her little dog got a sample.

Then came the best part, we got to sample the stuff. We had mozzarella, salami, bread, wine, olive oil, tomatoes, olives, and limoncello all produced from the farm, sitting under a canopy covered in vines and surrounded by olive and lemon trees. After all the wine and limoncello, you could tell the group was getting a lot more jolly and chatty as well. This was paradise.

With how much the tomato has played such a huge part in the Italian cuisine we know today, it is interesting to note that this is a phenomenon that happened in the 18th century after the tomato was brought from America. Our tour guide told us that even after the tomato was first brought over to Italy, it was used only for decorative purposes because they thought it was poisonous. He said it then started to be consumed after it was believed to have an effect similar to modern day “Viagra.” Once it was found not to be poisonous, the Italians adopted the tomato into their cuisine and ran with it.

One of the Italian inventions the tomato is so well known for is pizza, which was invented in Naples. The Neapolitans love their pizza too, as there were pizza shops all over the Naples region. As we arrived at the site of Pompeii we had some free time to enjoy some Neapolitan pizza, but that wasn’t the first thing we did when we got there.

The first thing we did was watch a demonstration of how cameos are crafted in a shop just outside Pompeii. Cameos are tiny carvings on agate, glass, and shell, and were done quite a bit during Roman times. It takes a steady hand to do this and a lot of skill, thus they are very expensive. Our time in Pompeii was running short, so I felt we were wasting a lot of time. This company obviously paid the tour company to bring us there so they could try to sell us stuff. However, because I was disinterested in spending 500 Euros on a tiny carving, this was the opportunity to eat some Neapolitan pizza before we departed from Naples, because the ship would be leaving right after we returned from Pompeii.

Neapolitan pizza comes in small half pies rather than slices, and it is to be folded over like a sandwich. This was premade pizza under a heat lamp because we didn’t have time to get one made, but it was still pretty good. The bread and sauce tasted different than any other pizza I’ve had, so it was worth it for the experience. I have had better pizza in New York and Chicago for sure, but I won’t base my opinion of true Neapolitan pizza on this streetside snack vendor, as I’m sure fresh pizza from a real Neapolitan pizzeria is much better.

Anyway, we finally made it inside Pompeii with about an hour to look around. Pompeii is very huge, like Ephesus, so this was not nearly enough time to thoroughly explore. Our guide was very knowledgeable about Pompeii however, so he was able to take us to the major spots in the ruin during our short time there.

After a massive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii was buried in pumice and ash, and then discovered by accident in 1798. Pompeii’s sister city Herculaneum was also buried in lava and mud at the time of this eruption (it is closer to Vesuvius), but is not as famous because it is a smaller town. This eruption created an odd occurrence because both cities were preserved in a kind of freeze frame of life at the time of their destruction, making them a gold mine of information for archeologists and historians.

As we first walked up inside Pompeii, I looked up at Mt. Vesuvius staring menacingly in the background, and hoped there would not be a repeat performance today. This was a killer shot with the Pompeii ruins sitting in front of Vesuvius, so I pulled out my camera in this moment of inspiration, and noticed the digital screen had gone out. I desperately tried to turn the camera off and back on in the hopes that this was just a freak occurrence, but alas, the screen had somehow fried.

Though this was a major blow, it was not a complete disaster (not even close to the feeling I had when I lost my laptop in England, though I was fortunate to get it back, but that’s another story). I was still able to take pictures the old school way by looking through the viewfinder, but could not go through menus or see how my pictures were turning out. Also, the viewfinder wasn’t as clear as the screen and it was harder to get the angles I wanted.

Pompeii was very impressive. The streets blocks just seemed to keep going and going in all directions once we got into the excavation site. These building foundations and streets were extremely well preserved due to their quick burial at the hands of Vesuvius, but the most interesting aspect of Pompeii is the daily lives of people captured at this moment in time, during the glory days of the Roman Empire.

Impressions were found at the time of excavation containing human fossils of the victims. Plaster casts were made of these impressions, and the results are very disturbing. These casts show exactly the body positions and facial expressions of people in their final moments of terror: some crouched over covering their faces, some laying flat on the ground in desperation, some trying to flee as best they could to no avail. There was even a cast of a dog that was chained outside a house, on its back in a position of agony.

The forum of Pompeii is immense, and you can still see stones that blocked the streets leading into it because chariots were not allowed. The forum is the main gathering area of a Roman city. Several columns are still standing exactly as they were back before Pompeii’s destruction.

The majority of Pompeii’s street blocks were laid in brick, and they are still laid out exactly like they were. The roads are also extremely well preserved, with stepping stones for stepping across draining water, and if you look closely you can see some interesting carvings in the road. One of the most peculiar are several phallic symbols used as arrows carved into the street. These point towards the brothels, which were a part of everyday life in Pompeii. The tour guide said Pompeii did not necessarily have a “red light district,” because the city was pretty much a “red light city.”

We visited one of the brothels, which is a two-story structure. Inside the brothel are several racy frescos on the walls. The tour guide said these frescos were used as a kind of menu for the various services offered by the women in the brothel. These are extremely well preserved, as are the stone beds in each of the rooms of the brothel. All over Pompeii erotic statues and frescoes were unearthed during excavation, which shows the city’s vast acceptance of sexuality.

Rome’s elite mostly populated Pompeii, and it was a very rich, pleasure seeking society. Our tour guide explained that most of Pompeii’s citizens did not work; they left that to the slaves. What they did do was feast all day long, and when they would fill up they would purge themselves and keep going. Though my tour guide said there was a room used for this called a vomitorium, my guide I had in Ephesus said this was a misconception. The vomitorium was actually an opening under the steps of an amphitheatre where mass amounts of people could spew in and out of the theatre very fast. Though the idea of a room used specifically for vomiting is false, there is written evidence that the wealthy Romans did do the binge and purge cycle to keep feasting, though it is not nearly as common as previously believed.

One way to see the immense wealth of Pompeii’s citizens is how huge several of these houses are. One of these, called the House of the Faun, was the home of a Roman politician, though no one is sure whom exactly. The House of the Faun has several large rooms, and is a gold mine of preserved statues and art. In the center of the house is a large rain pool with a statue of a dancing faun, which gave the house its name.

The faun is a creature from Greek and Roman mythology that looks partially human but has the legs, hooves, horns, and tail of a goat. The fauns (Greek satyrs) were believed to be protectors of the woodlands, plains, and mountains. The Roman god Faunus and Greek god Pan resembled fauns and satyrs.

Another area we visited was an ancient bakery, where loaves of bread were actually preserved. Archeologists have also found preserved fruit, which has actually led to the belief that this massive eruption took place around October due to the season of the fruit.

Because only about 2/3 of Pompeii has been excavated, you can clearly see in the parts yet to be unearthed exactly how far down the city was buried. There is a house still standing on this area that was constructed before Pompeii was discovered. Like Ephesus, I think this would be an interesting site to visit years down the road to see what else will be unearthed, as long as Mt. Vesuvius doesn’t bury it again.

Today was a wonderful day filled with a mixed experience of a beautiful Italian paradise on the coast, and visiting one of the best-preserved historical sites in the world. I couldn’t have asked for a better day either, as the sun smiled down the whole day, though I had my fingers crossed my pictures were turning out okay with my gimped camera. When returning to the ship I did my normal routine of sitting on the top deck as we set out back to sea, watching Naples and Mt. Vesuvius fade into the background, thankful that Vesuvius held off popping its top again for one more day.


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