Last Days Of Pompeii

The ferry from Sicily to the mainland is quite businesslike. It was only 20 euros for us and our car. There seem to be about five boats on the water at any time — you pretty much just drive on a boat and cross. When we arrived in Reggio di Calabria, the town at the toe of Italy’s boot, we immediately headed for the Museo Nazionale where the Bronzi di Riace are exhibited. Among other themes, this is turning out to be a tour of shipwreck art, in particular art bought in Greece by wealthy Romans which got tossed into the sea in an unfortunate storm in one place or another. The Bronzi di Riace are a couple of naked larger-than-life-size Greek soldiers, with nice beards, who more or less match (although they appear to scholars not to have been made as a set or at the same time, based on unimaginably subtle distinctions in posture and the style of depicting chests and backs). We went to see them because there are copies of them at one of our favorite restaurants in Palo Alto, Caffe Riace. That’s why we go anywhere, isn’t it the same for you?

Then we got on the autostrade and zoomed up to Napoli. Mostly zoomed — there was lots of freeway construction and a lot of map optimism where freeways were marked but hadn’t been constructed yet and we’d often end up behind a truck for a few kilometers. Southern Italy is totally mountains — as mentioned in the notes for an earlier trip, the autostrade was just an imaginary smooth line, made real by a succession of bridges and tunnels. At no point did the road actually follow the land itself. Driving on the autostrade gives you almost an aerial view of the fractiousness of Italian history: before bridges and tunnels there is no way that all those people could have known what was civilized even in the next valley. I guess the ones with a slightly larger vision ended up in New York.

Napoli is a busy city, but we accumulated enough maps to figure out downtown OK. My impression of Napoli after spending a day in public there, is that I have been in New York City without translation, or perhaps that I have met New York City’s parent. The people move the same and my goodness, the pizza! You must remember that pizza is a form of bread, one of the highest forms. This reality gets lost under all the toppings. And when I say that the people move the same I am not talking about the operatic gregariousness of some Sophia Loren movie. Fact is I have seen very few people in this country with the tips of their fingers held together and their lips pursed saying words that end in “issimo”. Maybe it’s globalization of something.

A kid took our picture on the bus from the hotel to the restaurant district, with his cell phone. He slouched or moved in a classic Napoli/New York way, if a gesture can be termed classic when performed with a machine that was invented three years ago. As a performance art substitute for cigarettes, perhaps: there is no smoking allowed inside in Italy, since 2003. His body language was insolent and gregarious. It’s not a metaphor to say that Napoli is the Alma Mater of New York City. So many of America’s residents came from the Southern Italy Diaspora. (New York City’s other parent may not be visited on tours any longer; it was killed in a tragic human accident.)

I’ll give you gregariousness: on the bus returning to the hotel, about midnight on Saturday Night, there was a huge number of kids moving from their first parties to their second, and they were loud and they slouched like Marlon Brando would slouch and gestured like Roberto Benigni made fun of as he upstaged a talk show host on TV a couple of nights ago; and it was all good fun and they got louder and in the movie version they were about to burst into “Funiculi, Funicula” except they didn’t, they started chanting in unison something that started with “Fuori” and ended with “Fi-Fo-Fa”.

In case you were wondering what happened to New York’s other cultural ancestor. I think it well, to be all melancholic. (You need to know that nobody else on the bus joined in this chanting. Most of them seemed bemused by the fascists. Irony perhaps moves society in the direction that Democracy tried to before it was so undercut by advertising psychology.)

(And I need to know, in principle, before slagging young Napoli or any tendency thereof, who or what it is they were telling to get out of where; although, even if they were quoting an advertising campaign on children’s television to evict litter from UNESCO World Heritage Sites lest it offend elderly Colored tourists from Saskatchewan, the yob way of encouraging this leads to a repetition of historical thoughtlessness.)

Our 10-year-old “food lover’s guide to Italy” pointed out a nice place for dinner which they said is the best possible archetype of pizza, and a place for the next morning which made the best possible example of sfogliette, a delicious shell-like pastry which is crispy and leafy on the outside (some special pastry tube attachment must figure in here) with a soft and warm filling on the inside (sugar figures in there).

Sunday, after breakfast, we headed for Pompeii. Getting there turned out to be quite a chore. We failed to take the correct exit, which had huge amounts of traffic, and took the next one instead, which also had huge amounts of traffic. We drove away from the traffic toward some other part of the site, which we actually had no idea of the location of since there are not signs to Pompeii inside Pompeii, just as there are not nerves in your brain, and indeed ended up at some back gate we couldn’t get into. A worker indicated by waving the we must go back and turn right. We headed back into town and parked as soon as the traffic jammed up again on a street which turned out to be named Via Crapolla, which perfectly summed up how we felt.

When we went through the gate, we realized we’d gone to the secondary gate. There were four automatic toilets. Three were out of order — a line formed behind us. The one that was “working” would have been laughed out of Burning Man — to say nothing of Formule1 — it was autistic. It had an idiotic procedure it intended to go through at about five minutes per customer no matter what you did in there, and it could not be persuaded. “I would prefer not to.”

They didn’t have audio guides there, so we just walked through the site being careful not to look at anything and headed directly for the main gate. Once we got there, everything got better. We discovered that we didn’t need an audio guide — they had reasonably extensive printed information keyed to the audio guide locations, and we found that we could get into both the “suburban baths” and “house of Menander”, two places that accepted only 20 visitors each half-hour for a few hours each day.

Pompeii is an amazing place. It is much better preserved than any other Roman site, having been frozen in time since 79 AD by waterproof, airproof volcanic ash. You can walk into intact buildings with painted hallways and walls. You get a reasonably good feeling of what a small Roman city was like. There were statues and mosaics and paintings all over the place that were in wonderful shape, compared to other sites. Still, it wasn’t perfect by any means — most walls and art were just fragments, but enough was there to get a good idea.

The suburban baths were cute because their changing room had paintings of various sex acts, which were presumably an illustration of services offered beyond just bathing and massage. There was a necropolis that reminded us of Petra, with little facades of buildings for the wealthiest deceased. And in a few places, there were somewhat grotesque plaster casts of people dying from ash inhalation — their bodies had left a void in the ash.

When we left the site, it was back into the huge throng of people which included not only tourists, but since it was Sunday, there were also hundreds of Neapolitans who like visiting the sanctuary located there.

So if you go to Pompeii, remember these rules:

  • Don’t go on Sunday.
  • Don’t take a car, take the Circumvesuviana Train.
  • Enter by the Porte Marina entrance, not Piazza Anfiteatro.

Monday we went to Herculaneum, a smaller site near Pompeii located on what was then the beach — the eruption extended the shore about 400 meters towards the ocean. It was fairly similar to Pompeii in terms of how well things had been preserved, but it seemed like even more of the houses were closed for renovation. Sigh.