Pompeii

Vesuvius

Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night… it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.”

Pliny the Younger, 79 AD.

 

Once you approach Naples it is hard not to notice the Vesuvius now -luckily- a dormant volcano. So we decided to risk an “unexpected” eruption and decided to stay two days at Herculaneum and then two more at Sorrento, the start of the Amalfi coast.

We were comforted about the safety of the area when our landlord at Herculaneum told us -on arrival- that the weather was very beautiful so no eruptions to spoil things would take place! Now relaxed because of this important piece of local knowledge, we decided to explore both excavation sites. Of course, the fact that the eruption was now settled did little to help me to be a relaxed driver!

The Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79 AD after being dormant for about 800 years. We know the exact date because a Roman called Pliny the Younger. Happened to be there and write about it. We even know that after lunchtime the mountain started to throw ash and stone thousands of metres up into the sky that later, because of the wind, landed on Pompeii and surrounding areas causing severe damage. Herculaneum, meanwhile, was only mildly affected but people started to flee in panic. It is hard to imagine what went on during these terrible hours.

That night, while Pompeii was being destroyed, the first wave of ash and very hot gas, known as a pyroclastic surge (1) hit Herculaneum at over 150kph. The area suffered six more of these phenomena that buried the city, causing little damage to most structures and leaving these and victims almost intact.

The intense heat is believed to have been the cause of death (rather than suffocation as previously thought). The temperature reached at least 250°C and, even at a distance of ten kilometres from the volcano, and this was enough to cause the instant death of all residents, even if they were sheltered within buildings.

After two days it was all over and not only Herculaneum and Pompeii but the whole region was buried under a thick layer of ash, lava and rock.

Although we arrived a couple of millennia afterwards, to see what the excavations had revealed. To see Herculaneum from above was breathtaking and really dramatic.

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An overall view of Herculaneum before entering the excavation.

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Another view with the present dwellings in the background to appreciate that the actual Herculaneum village was buried deep and that the remains extend beyond what was excavated.

We spent a day at Herculaneum during which wife and daughter walked it all and saw the various houses, thermal baths, etc. Although I was with them for a while, ruin-watching saturates me after a while. Yes, I openly admit my cultural shortcomings so I soon left them to it and withdrew to a shady spot to read a book hoping for a siesta that did not take place because of tourists’ annoyance, a common problem in popular areas.

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A group of people that got trapped by the eruption near the river.

After a good night rest during which I recharged my archeology batteries, we drove to Pompeii, now the bushsnob a slightly more relaxed driver that, with the help of my co-pilot daughter (also ex ed in chief) managed to navigate the tortuous way to Pompeii in the best style of the rally driving teams!

It was then easy to find our meeting place with our guide. Perhaps influenced by my absence during part of the previous day visit we had decided to have a private guide for a couple of hours to focus on the key areas and then to have the place for ourselves to explore self-guided (or for the bushsnob to indulge in a self-siesta…). It was much more crowded as Pompeii is a much larger and very popular. The decision was a great success and even I managed to last the entire guided course without getting distracted or bored!

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The much larger -and crowded- Pompeii.

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A group of visitors contemplate a mosaic replica!

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Not the verb “to have” but HAVE for “HAVE CAESAR”

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Because of the type of volcanic activity, human remains are better preserved and more “dramatic” at Pompeii.

To me the highlights of the two paces were the mosaics and frescoes that are still well preserved in many of the excavated houses and baths. Apart from the famous dog of Pompeii, now protected by a glass encasing, there are numerous other examples of mosaic-rich floors and walls that really called one’s attention. Further, careful watching can turn an apparent oil stain on a wall into a lovely small fresco.

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A second looked of an “oil stain” on a wall reveals a lovely fresco of a bunch of ducks.

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A fresco depicting what I believe is an angry hippo that reminded me that these animals were known at the time.

Then, our archeology task well completed, it was time to enjoy Sorrento, or so I thought as, somehow, we overlooked the fact that we were getting there during the weekend, a time we later learnt, better to be avoided in this city. But this is the next post.

 

 

(1) A pyroclastic surge is a fluidized mass of turbulent gas and rock fragments which is ejected during some volcanic eruptions. It is similar to a pyroclastic flow but it has a lower density or contains a much higher ratio of gas to rock, which makes it more turbulent and allows it to rise over ridges and hills rather than always travel downhill as pyroclastic flows do.

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Car rental drama

We took the opportunity of the presence of our offspring in Italy to join them for a break of our retirement routine and visit that wonderful country. Although most of our time was spent with our good friends Donatella and Carlo, we also had time to explore a bit of what the Italians know as “the most beautiful country in the world” not without reason.

So, after considering the various travel options for our Southern Italy outing, the family decided to take the plunge renting a car with the bushsnob as the driver. Although I have enjoyed driving in Italy during our earlier periods in Rome, I was more reluctant to accept the responsibility now. I tried to argue that I had not driven in Italy for over 6 years, that I needed time to re-adjust to the Italian traffic and that it would get worst as you move down South. Even mentioning my advanced age and its accompanying shortcomings failed to make a dent on their resolve.

So, a car was hired and I drove!

We planned to visit Herculaneum (Ercolano) and Pompeii (at the request of wife and daughter) and Sorrento, my favourite place in Italy at my request.

Once driver-designate, I revealed to them that I still had an Avis Preferred card, a relic from my days of work-related flying with British Airways (BA). Avis and BA had an agreement that yielded miles to your membership to the airline’s reward programme. So we went for Avis and, from decision day onwards, aware of my new responsibility, I started to watch the Roman traffic with the consequence that a knot started to develop in my stomach!

We booked a Fiat 500, well in advance. We chose it for being an economical car, but also -very importantly- to be small enough to go through the many narrow and often windy roads found in Italy, not to mention parking!

Finally the 8 June came and we were kindly taken to our car-collecting point at the Via Laurentina -chosen for easy exit from Rome- to collect the vehicle and to start our odyssey or at least that was the way it felt to me. My nerves were barely under control when we arrived to the office. We proceeded to wait for our turn as the lady in charge was dealing with another customer. Walking up and down inside the small office was also a tall and black-bearded man on the cellphone, rather agitated, arguing and gesticulating wildly.

We saw no change after having been there for a while although the attendant had seen us. Suddenly she announced that we were better off going to the bar next door to have a capuccino as she had a foreign customer to finish with as well as another serious problem to solve as the morning had not started well. The bearded man was apparently the serious problem. Slightly taken aback we obliged and took advantage to stay a bit longer wth our friend Donatella for a while longer, always a pleasure.

We estimated 20 minutes as sufficient time to solve the on-going issues and we returned to the office. Despite this, the bearded was still there and we were still ignored! As we waited for the second time, we heard that, despite the bearded man booking the car of his choice well in advance and given Avis clear specifications on the colour, make and model of what he needed, they had offered him another, quite different one!

A few minutes of evesdropping later we obtained more information. The bearded man wanted a white Mercedes coupe and Avis presented him with a grey station wagon. He was indignant and would not accept the swop! I thought he was just being difficult but then we learnt that what he was renting was his wedding car and it became obvious that his future wife was at the other end of the phone and she was not taking another car for her most important day!

After about an hour, finally the bearded man to be married departed with instructions to take the station wagon to another office in the centre of town where someone would replace his station wagon for the right car. Although the story sounded very convincing and the bearded man to be married accepted it, I had doubts on its outcome.

While this exchange went on, the knot in my stomach was worsened by the misgivings that we were facing a difficult morning at Avis Laurentina and also that it was getting rather late! I was not disappointed…

When our turn finally came we produced our booking and needed documents. Very soon we were informed that we would not have the car we booked but another one that luckily, as the seller put it, belonged to a much more expensive class, was larger, more comfortable and as a special favour, it would not cost us more! Instead of our Fiat 500 we she offered a Nissan Juke, something I never heard of until that moment. We tried to explain to the attendant that we had booked the Fiat 500 because of it being smaller, etc. But she would not take any of our reasons and she repeated three times that what she was offering was a better deal, a fact that was beginning to irritate us.

After a while, realizing that it was either the Juke or nothing, we decided to accept the change as it was now getting really late and our friend could not wait for us anymore! So, after a quick inspection we said farewell to Donatella and signed up for the “improved” offer while the lady continued repeating that it was a better deal!

Luckily the drive through Southern Italy went very smoothly and later, when returning the car we learnt that the bearded man to be married did become the bearded man married after all and that, apparently, he got the right car, eventually!