Volcanic Onslaught ~ Pompeii and Herculaneum

As we stood on our terrace in Sorrento, looking across the Bay of Naples, billowy clouds suspended in a cerulean sky draped a majestic peak.  It’s hard to imagine that such a serene backdrop was once the setting of a volcanic onslaught so massive that it is classified as one of the worst eruptions in all of human history.

The volcano that wrought such fury is that of Mt. Vesuvius, still considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  She is hundreds of thousands of years old and has erupted more than 50 times, but the most famous of her outbursts was that of August, A.D. 79, when she stopped two cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian), soundly in their tracks, quickly and decisively frozen in time.

A visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum is like taking a journey back in time to see what life in ancient Rome was like. As the archeologists began their meticulous unearthing work in 1748, they found two cities still very much intact, especially Herculaneum.

Pompeii, founded in 600 B.C., was once a thriving commercial port of about 20,000 residents.  This was a middle-class community, an example of quintessential Roman life.  Streets would have been lined with shopping stalls jammed with customers.  Chariots rivaled shoppers for street space.  Rich and poor rubbed elbows as grand homes stood alongside simple abodes. Pompeii was rowdy, raw, the place for action and shopping, with more than 40 bakeries, 30 brothels and 130 bars, restaurants and lodgings.  In contrast, nearby Herculaneum was a more dignified place to live, with traffic-free streets, lavish homes and better drainage.

August 24, A.D. 79, a fateful day in history, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, raining hot ash down over Pompeii,  burying the city under 30 feet of volcanic soot.  One witness wrote that the volcanic dust “poured across the land like a flood”. Of her 20,000 people, 2,000 stayed to ride out the “storm” and 2,000 perished.  

No one had any idea they were living literally right under a volcano, as Vesuvius had slept for over 1,200 years.  Imagine the confusion, then the horror as small rocks and volcanic dust collapsed roofs and crushed those who chose not to flee.

Herculaneum was initially spared, thanks to the direction of the wind, but about 12 hours after the explosion began, she was slammed by a deluge of superheated ash and hot gases that came roaring off the volcano.  Eventually Herculaneum was buried under 60 feet of ash, which hardened into tuff, perfectly “freezing” the city until 1748.

Archeologists initially wondered why there were so few victims found at Herculaneum.  But during their excavations in 1981, hundreds of skeletons were unearthed in the boat storage area, a sign that some of her 4,000 residents attempted to escape by sea and were overtaken by fumes and ash.  Chilling reminders of this can still be seen today.

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Some experts believe that, although Mt. Vesuvius has stood quietly since 1944, another similar eruption is inevitable, due at any time.  This would be catastrophic as almost 3,000,000 people live within 20 miles of her crater.  For now she sits silently on the horizon, smoldering.

For those who are interested in seeing how this fateful day may have played out, an interesting re-enactment can be found here.

Next Up:  Rome

The Grand Balcony Between Sky and Sea ~ Amalfi Coast, Italy

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” ~ Giuseppe Verdi

We headed to the Rome airport from Tuscany, where we were set to part ways with Winston, our leased vehicle.  He had served us well, but after doing a little reading, we all felt it was time for someone else to be doing the driving for the rest of our journey.  Given there is only one overland passage on the Amalfi Coast, the 25-mile Strada Statale 163, a winding, narrow road of 1,000 bends, this seemed like the perfect place to cut our ties with Winston.  Sorry old chap. 😦

Initially I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend time on the Amalfi Coast, but since many consider this stretch of coastline to be Italy’s most scenic, I acquiesced.  After wandering through the hill towns of Tuscany, five sun-kissed days ogling soaring rock faces, pastel-brushed villages tumbling to the sea, forested hillsides, and the azure waters of the Mediterranean sounded rather enchanting.

Artists have been drawn here for centuries, from the 14th-century writer Giovanni Boccaccio, the 19th- century composer Richard Wagner, to the 20th-century playwright Tennessee Williams.  In spite of its glitz and glamour there is a rural side here also.  Farmers still work small plots of steeply terraced land to eek out a living and their wives make cheese.  All different sizes and shapes of lemons are grown, some that become part of the famous digestif, limoncello, a blending of lemon rinds, alcohol, sugar and water…quite tasty.

View to the sea from Piazza Tasso, Sorrento's main square
View to the sea from Piazza Tasso, Sorrento’s main square

We chose a hotel in Sorrento for our base, a funky little inn perched atop a cliff, with sweeping vistas of the sea and Mt. Vesuvius.  The entire town is clifftop, looking down on its two marinas, filled with narrow alleys lined with tiny shops and restaurants, and tenants living above.  A 15-minute walk got us into the heart of Sorrento, where we spent most days exploring and sampling the local fare.

Here’s a glimpse of our time spent on the Amalfi Coast:

1)  Sorrento 

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Sitting on a clifftop, balancing above the Mediterranean, Sorrento is an attractive place to spend several days. This town of 20,000 doubles in size during the summer, and was still quite active during our visit in October.  The main drag changes depending on the time, allowing vehicles to move through, then becomes a pedestrian walkway later in the day.  And just off this main drag is a street that goes back centuries before Christ…hard to get my head around such history.

“Sorrento’s name may have come from the Greek word for “siren”, the legendary half-bird, half-woman who sang an intoxicating lullaby.  According to Homer, the sirens lived on an island near here.  No one had ever sailed by the sirens without succumbing to their incredible musical charms…and to death.  But Homer’s hero Ulysses was determined to hear the song.  He put wax in his oarsmen’s ears and had himself lashed to the mast of his ship.  Oh, it was nice.  The sirens, thinking they had lost their powers, threw themselves into the sea, and the place became safe to inhabit.” ~ story told in Rick Steves’ guidebook

This same Rick Steves’ book suggested taking a day tour of Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello with Mondo Tours.  It was great letting someone else worry about losing a side mirror trying to pass other vehicles on this winding, seriously narrow stretch of road that hangs off a cliff face like a grand balcony.  But you exchange stress-free driving with little time in villages, making for a whirlwind day and finding out you may have missed the very best some of these villages has to offer.

2)  Positano

In days gone by, Positano was famous for its fleet of ships and heroic sailors, but a tsunami in 1343 and Middle Age pirate raids zapped its power and wealth.  It flourished again in the 1700’s and in the 20th century Positano became a haven for artists and writers wishing to escape the ravages of Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Today this village is a mass of cafes and women’s boutiques, with a broad beach at her base.

It’s been almost impossible for Positano’s residents to get a building permit for the past 25 years, resulting in endless staircases that have become a way of life for her 4,000 residents.  There is only one street that allows motorized vehicles, so this village has been spared the influx of big bus tourist mobs.

3)  Amalfi

This town of 5,000 had its heyday back in the 10th and 11th centuries, when it was a major maritime republic, rivaling Venice and Genoa.  The tsunami that struck in 1343 almost wiped her off the map, and today Amalfi relies on tourism.   Her waterfront continues to be the coast’s biggest transport hub.  Amalfi’s most important sight is the Duomo, begun around 1000 A.D., and is certainly worthy of a tour.  The beautiful bronze doors, as old as the cathedral, were cast in Constantinople in the year 1066.

4)  Ravello

Sitting on her lofty perch 1,000 feet above the sea, Ravello is considered one of the most romantic small towns in southern Italy, attracting celebrities for generations.  Those who have fallen under her charms and called Ravello home are Gore Vidal, Richard Wagner, D. H. Lawrence, M. C. Escher, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Greta Garbo.  Visitors come here to visit her two magnificent gardens and estates.  Unfortunately we had time for little except lunch and a quick walk through town.  And I learned just last night from friends that Ravello’s flatware and beautiful hand-painted dinnerware were not to be missed.  Darn! 😦

Next Up:  A Cataclysmic Eruption – Pompeii and Herculaneum

A Blending of Ancient History and Culture ~ Tuscany, Italy (Part 2)

Our little farmhouse was well positioned for trips into the Tuscan countryside to explore quaint hill towns, as well as a day trip into Florence.  I had read about the Crete Senesi, which refers to the clay soil containing sediments that date back 2.5 million years.  The landscape within the Crete Senesi has been described as lunar-like, which fascinated me, so I knew a drive through that area was going to be on the agenda.  And it just so happened that a Benedictine monastery I had read about, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiorewas a stone’s throw away, so you know the expression “two birds with one stone”, and our day was planned.

I found the starkness of the landscape, with only a single villa, a few cypress, and a spot of green among rolling hills of clay quite beautiful.

In contrast, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, although still considered part of the Crete Senesi, sat tucked within a forested area.  After parking our vehicle in the lot above, we took a 10-minute wooded walk  down a long line of cypress to a medieval palace of red brick, the abbey.  In the courtyard a large statue of Saint Bernard Tolomei greeted us, holding the book of rules for the notably strict order to which he belonged.

In the year 1272, Bernard Tolomei, founder of the abbey, was born to an aristocratic family in Siena.  He had a distinguished career as a lawyer until he was called here to become a hermit monk at the age of 40.  He founded the Olivetan order of the Benedictines and in 2009 was made a saint.  This complex is the order’s mother abbey.

The beauty of the abbey and the simplicity of the Benedictine lifestyle is seen in the paintings, murals, and statues displayed throughout the monastery.

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We had spoken to those who enjoyed Florence more than Rome, but since we were flying back to the states through Rome, we decided to explore her in detail and give Florence more of a passing nod – a quick day trip.  So on another rainy day Terry and I drove to the hill town of Poggibonsi and caught the train to Florence.  With limited time to visit, we made the most of our day and tested our patience as we maneuvered through the hordes of tourists at the Duomo, then moved on to the Accademia and Uffizi Galleries.  Luckily I had made reservations for the galleries before our visit (truly a must) so didn’t have to stand in the longest of lines, but once inside, there was no escaping the crowds.  We just had to jump in and start swimming!

A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.
A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.

Florence is Europe’s cultural capital, so culturally rich that it has more artistic masterpieces per square mile than anywhere else.  It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and the modern world, and produced the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Dante, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.  As I write this I’m thinking we should have spent more time here, then I remember the mob of tourists, which outnumber the locals from April to October, and I shudder.

All sights in Florence diverge out from the Duomo.  The exterior is extravagant, covered in white, pink, and green marble, and in need of a good scrubbing. Brunelleschi’s lavish dome was the model for those that followed, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the U.S. Capitol building.  The inside, which I’m not sure yet how we managed to enter given the crowds, is underwhelming and felt empty to me.

If one must brave the Florence crowds it would be a tragedy to miss Michelangelo’s David, the shepherd boy with the perfect physique, armed with only a slingshot and five stones, who took on the giant Goliath.  All 17 feet of him is standing in naked glory at the Accademia Gallery, in a halo-like dome.  For me, seeing  David was worth the price of admission and the train ride to Florence.  Some of Michelangelo’s unfinished work, which looks to be trying to free itself from the slabs of unworked marble, line the hallway leading to the Renaissance man.

From here we headed to the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, one of Europe’s five top art galleries.  This is where the famous Botticelli’s Birth of Venus can be found.

From a window in the Uffizi Gallery you get your best views of the Arno River, second only to the Tiber River in importance in the Tuscany area.  Spanning the narrowest part of the river, the Ponte Vecchio can be seen, Florence’s most famous bridge, lined with shops since Roman times.

It seems famous statues can be seen in every plaza in Florence, and although I could regale you with so much more, I will stop here as I feel my head is about to explode!  I am not an art aficionado but it was thrilling to see works of art I had only seen in books or online.

Next Up:  A little less culture, a lot more sun…the Amalfi Coast

A Story of Cypress-Lined Drives and Hill Towns ~ Tuscany, Italy (Part 1)

Tuscany was our next destination, and like others who have read the book Under the Tuscan Sun, I too had romanticized a visit to the land of manicured vineyards, cypress-lined drives, rustic farms, and hill towns studded with towers and medieval castles.

Our little agriturismo for the week
Our little agriturismo for the week

I was determined to stay in an agriturismo and found one in the Chianti region, just outside the village of Castellina in Chianti, where Mama Daniele warmly greeted us.  Although she spoke little  English she was still able to communicate how all things functioned in this charming little farmhouse.  I think all four of us were looking forward to a slower pace while here, and that’s exactly what we got, some more than others, as Margee succumbed to a cold, which grabbed Terry a  few days later, and then Frank to a lesser degree.  It’s a wonder I avoided it while living in a sick ward so I became chief cook and bottle washer while they got their rest.

View from the terrace off our bedroom
View from the terrace off our bedroom

The weather gods had certainly blessed us up to this point in our travels so we knew our days were numbered before lower temps and cloudy days moved in, and they did while here.  It seemed to be apt for those a bit “under the weather”.  Other than one day of rain and a couple of others with drizzles, it wasn’t a wash-out.  And when the infirm felt up to it, we took to the road for some exploring.

With such profuse landscape changes, from pastoral in the Crete Senesi, to the rocky Chianti region, to vineyards clinging to hillsides and winding, narrow country roads, Tuscany is a feast for the senses, and her wines and local fare are a threat to waistlines.  I hear the gym calling my name. 😦

With countless hill towns to choose from, each with their own unique beauty and rich history, it was difficult to choose.  Since many can trace their lineage to Etruscan times, long before ancient Rome, we knew we would be experiencing quaint villages with medieval charm, no matter which we visited. Here is what we managed to cross off of our very long list:

1)  Volterra

We visited Volterra twice, with our first stop being a “wash-out”.  Its name means “land that floats” and in the winter she is blanketed by heavy clouds.  We saw a bit of this during our first visit, yet we were drawn back and it became one of our favorite hill towns.  It has managed to escape the rush of tourists, given its out-of-the-way location, and we were drawn to its sense of purity and otherworldly charm.  Twilight fans will remember that this is where the powerful Volturi vampire clan resided.

Volterra is more than 2,000 years old and is one of the most important Etruscan cities.  Impressive walls encircle the town, topped with an imposing fortress.  The Etruscan Arch, built of massive stone in the 4th century B.C., welcomed her 20,000 residents.

I read a story that on June 30, 1944, Nazi forces were planning to blow up the Arch to slow the Allied forces. Locals pulled down the stones, secured the gate, and managed to convince the Nazis to leave the Arch alone.  The blocks were put back into place and today you can walk through the oldest standing gate.

2)  Pienza

A tidy village with Renaissance-planned streets, it is where Pope Pius II was born.  This little village is great to explore with a camera, then stop for wine tastings and pecorino cheese sampling.

3)  Siena

This town that sits atop three hills, with her cozy squares and grand cathedral, once rivaled medieval Florence. In the 13th century Siena had a population of about 50,000 and was a major banking and trade center.  Then Black Death hit, the bubonic plague, wiping out a third of her people, and Siena has never recovered.

Siena is where the famous Palio horse races are held twice each summer.  Ten horse and riders, riding bareback and dressed in specific colors, represent 10 of the 17 city wards.  The first race is run early in summer to honor the Madonna of Provenzano and the second in August in honor of the Assumption of Mary.

A thick layer of dirt is laid over the bricks in the Il Campo Square and the race is run three times around the piazza, lasting no more than 90 seconds.  Often unmounted horses finish the race without their riders.  A medieval pageant paves the way, attracting spectators from around the globe.

Siena’s 13th-century Gothic cathedral and it’s 6-story striped bell tower, unlike others, was built and paid for by the people and the republic of Siena as a tribute to the Virgin Mary.

4)  San Gimignano

Some say this is Tuscany’s glamour girl, a town adorned by her remaining 14 medieval towers, of which there were once 72.  San Gimignano today is best known for cinghiale (cheen-GAH-lay), wild boar and saffron, and boasts of having won the award for gelato world champion.  Of course we had to taste for ourselves.  It was pretty yummy, even at 10:00 in the morning. 🙂

Next Up:  An Abbey and Day Trippin’ to Florence

Seductive Italian Riviera Coastline ~ Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre (Five Lands), a six-mile stretch of coastline along the Italian Riviera, seductively draws tourists, her allure building every year.  Hanging off the cliff sides, this grouping of five villages, the coastline that hugs them, and the surrounding hillsides all coalesce to form the Cinque Terre National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Leave your vehicle at your hotel, if you came in one as we did, and join the tourists who use her walking paths, trains, shuttles, and boats to move from village to village.  At least these tourists seem more laid-back than those we had seen in other large cities.

Although Cinque Terre has been “discovered”, there remains an air of authenticity here.  The enchantment of the Cinque Terre is found in the colorful houses and shops, appearing to be stacked one on top of another, running down the ravines and hillsides to the shore.  Her real charm is in the lack of corporate development.  There is something provocative about the locals refusing to give in to the trappings of the modern world.  Their philosophy of living a good life is through religious devotion, family ties, hard work, and lots of wine and laughter.  Throughout the centuries these hardy locals have terraced the hillsides, building houses, planting vineyards, olive groves, and family gardens, tending and harvesting them.

Nets tied up under olive groves awaiting a new harvest.
Nets tied up under olive groves awaiting a new harvest.

We had hoped to be spontaneous about sleeping arrangements here but the more we read of the Cinque Terre, even in the shoulder months of September and October, the more we thought an advance hotel reservation may be in order.  Knowing we might be crowd weary at day’s end, I chose a hotel above the Cinque Terre, in the small village of Volastra.   We couldn’t have been more pleased with Hotel Il Saraceno and her proprietress, Antonella. Arriving late afternoon when restaurants were closed, we walked to the market for local fare of cheeses, salami, bread, antipasto, and wine.  The terrace back at the hotel became our banquet table and Antonella contributed wine glasses for the affair.  Waking to cappuccino and a wonderful breakfast spread each morning and coming back to a quiet little hotel above the bustling villages each night made this the perfect respite.

We had planned to hike the Sentiero Azzurro (Azure Trail) when we arrived, a trail that connects all five villages. Unfortunately sections have been closed for repairs since the devastating floods and mudslides of October 2011 and are yet to reopen.  We hiked all that was available and enjoyed the views from each section.  Purchasing the Cinque Terre Multi-Service Card, which included the use of walking trails within the National Park, as well as the train and shuttles, completed the logistics for navigating from village to village, and it paid for itself quickly.

Given Cinque Terre’s location on the Mediterranean, seafood is plentiful here.  Acciughe ( ah-CHOO-gay), aka anchovies, is a local specialty and not the salty version we know of in the states.  These are fresh from the sea, cooked in various dishes.  I enjoyed a layered casserole of whole anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, white wine, oil, and herbs…very tasty!

The villages each have their own unique qualities so each draws its own special crowd. From north to south, here are the “five lands” of the Cinque Terre:

1)  Monterosso al Mare

This is the oldest of the five villages, founded in A.D. 643, when locals moved from the hills to the coast to escape barbarians.  It is the only town built on flat land, has both an old town and new town, separated by a tunnel, and is the only village with a proper beach.  It was one of two villages hit the hardest by the floods of 2011.

2)  Vernazza

Founded around the year 1000, it has the closest thing to a natural harbor and this is where the action is in town. We spent much of our time in this quaint village down at the harbor, watching old men puttering with their fishing boats and students sketching and watercoloring, as we enjoyed  sunny days, picnic lunches of friggitoria (bite-sized seafood piled into a paper cone), and gelato (of course).  Many feel Vernazza is the jewel of the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza was hit the hardest on  October 25, 2011, when 22″ of rain fell, burying much of the town under ten feet of mud.  With the affluence brought on by tourism, some locals had abandoned their land, leaving vineyards unworked and stone walls crumbling, all which slid into the village, adding to the devastation – a tough lesson for the residents.

3)  Corniglia

The quiet middle village, Corniglia is the only town not on the water, although steps lead down to a rocky cove. Some say that vases of wine found at Pompeii were those made in this peaceful little village.  Wine is still the life blood today.

4)  Manarola

Tucked in a ravine, mellow Manarola has a little harbor at its base.  It’s hillsides, blanketed with vineyards, have more grapes than any other village.  Great photos can be taken of the colorful village and harbor from a point on the peninsula.  Our first hike was from Volastra down to Manarola, a steep descent through olive groves and vineyards, with gorgeous views of the Mediterranean.

5)  Riomaggiore

Largest of the five villages, Riomaggiore was built in the 8th century by Greek settlers fleeing persecution in Byzantium.  It is the laid-back working man’s town, with colorful murals honoring the workers who built the 300 million cubic feet of stone walls, made without mortar, that runs through Cinque Terre.

I had read that Cinque Terre has a way of mesmerizing those who visit, with many planning to leave but still here. We had much yet to see in Italy so we made our escape after a fantastic 4-day visit.

Next Up:  “Under the Tuscan Sun”