urbes puellamque cano in Campania prisca*

Last week I donned my winged boots and headed for Naples, Italy. I am a Classics nerd (I’ve already written about my reasons for learning Latin at school) so it shouldn’t be surprising that my agenda basically revolved around Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mt Vesuvius. Oh, and a museum because no trip is complete without a museum – or is that just me?

P.S. I had to split my post as my final draft ended up being far too long, so this is part one of two.

For a 9 to 5 kinda gal, setting one’s alarm for 0415 is just unnatural but I had a fairly early flight and only public transport to get me to Gatwick, so…dems the brakes. The best bit was that I had already checked my luggage in the day before so I could skip this possibly time consuming step in the morning. I literally only had to roll out of bed, dress, head out the door (backpack only), negotiate buses/trains/airport security and board the flight. Easy. Tip for early morning travellers? Stay in a hostel the night before where your other inmates roommates will periodically wake you through the night. If you’re lucky like me, one of them will have a coughing fit and wake you ten minutes after your alarm has gone off. You then get to be that person who wakes everyone else up at a ridiculous time in order to catch a red-eye. This is just about as much fun as being that person who wakes everyone up after a night out and slightly the worse for wear for it. Good times.

I visited Rome last May so I already had an idea of what to expect of my trip to Italy – this included the art that is Italian driving. Red lights do not mean stop for the Italian driver, maybe they’ll slow down a bit, but a full stop seems pretty rare. Scooters on footpaths are also common (narrow footpaths can make this experience interesting). Don’t believe the ‘pedestrian only’ signs either, they just mean that you’ll be passed by more scooters than cars. All this presents something of a challenge to the pedestrian and maybe I’m a little odd, but I enjoyed the challenge of crossing the road in Naples. There was something refreshingly liberating about it, you spot the gap and just go – chances are good that you won’t get hit and the drivers don’t speed up (like they can do back home). However, for the faint hearted crossing the road amongst a herd of tourists/locals is good way to initiate yourself with crossing Italian roads.

Naples is a quite a different beast to Rome, my Lonely Planet described it as misunderstood and I can see why they used that particular description. The streets in the centro storico are narrow and chaotic, Piazza Garibaldi is down-right seedy and it’s not uncommon to come across large piles of garbage on the street (all you tidy Kiwis out there, close your eyes). Then you walk further along the waterfront and it becomes decidedly more chic and upmarket. I like contradictions, extremes that sit side-by-side and make you exclaim ‘wtf?’ while you perplexingly furrow your brow. So, it’s no surprise that overall I liked Naples, even if I did avoid the dodgy, seedy and unpleasant (which as a solo female traveller is a good idea).

Overall I had three and a half days in Naples. The first day (which was really just an afternoon) was spent acquainting myself with the city, primarily in finding pizza. Pizza alone is a good enough reason to visit Italy, I still fantasise about the pizza I ate in Rome – it was that damn good. Plus, their pizzas aren’t cheese heavy, sometimes they omit this ingredient completely, and this makes for good eats. Luckily for me the pizzeria was willing to accommodate a solo eater, though I did get that confused look of ‘you are eating out alone?!’ For clarification, I am quite happy to dine out alone but I’ve found that this isn’t the norm for most people and as a result am quite used to this reaction. That afternoon was also my first introduction to the centro storico, which quickly became two of my favourite streets in the city. They are modern examples of what I imagine ancient Rome might have been like: narrow streets, buildings that block out the sun and the chaos of people, produce and peddlers.

Day two turned out to be a trip to Pompeii. I left the hostel with no set plans other than to find either the bus to Pompeii or the train station to Pompeii/Vesuvius/Herculaneum. In the end I came across the bus station first and decided to board the coach for Pompeii. A good imagination is a must for visiting sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, especially if you don’t have either a prior interest in the site or a guidebook/tour guide/Classics nerd as a companion. Otherwise it can seem that you’re just looking a large expanse of ruins, which I guess is what they are, but really they are so much more than that. Pompeii and Herculaneum are a rare thing: towns that were frozen in time and left untouched until relatively recently. Short of obtaining my elusive TARDIS/DeLorean/Modified Puddle Jumper, it is the closest that I’ll get to walking around an ancient Roman city as it was all those centuries ago. That is just cool.

Pompeii is fairly large site, even with some streets closed off. Sunscreen, hat and glasses are a must (even in early Spring, particularly if you burn like I do). Being fairly early on in the season it wasn’t teeming with visitors and most of those that were there concentrated around the main attractions in the town. There was a strong sense of the surreal in turning a corner and being greeted by the near empty ruins of an ancient street with Mt Vesuvius looming in the background. I was struck by how it told the story of Pompeii’s destruction and resurrection in one complete vista. In 79AD Mt Vesuvius erupts and Pompeii is buried thus ensuring that it eludes the ravages of time and man. The town is then resurrected centuries later by archaeologists where it eventually becomes a site for tourists and where at that particular moment in 2011 a older gentleman sat enjoying the Spring sunshine in the cobbles of the street while I stood wondering at the chain of events that eventuated into such a moment.

Although someone must have warned the authorities that I was coming because the House of the Dancing Faun was closed and in the middle of repair – not even the copy of its eponymous dancer was on display. Oh, wasn’t I a sad Lizzie at this sight! Not even the brothel could cheer me up (well, ok, maybe it did a little). I like this faun, it is full of the mischievous, wild and spontaneous spirit of a Bacchic reveller before they have had too much to drink and can no longer stand. However, any disappointment evaporated when I was adopted by an American couple and as such took part in a tour around the House of the Golden Cupids. This house is one of the properties that visitors can only get into by reservation and it had been recently restored. Though not a large house, it was fairly complete and had most of the wall paintings still in situ. As a result you got a real sense of what this house would have been like nearly two thousand years ago and that was pretty special.

When it comes to wall painting, the Villa of the Mysteries is probably the best known house in the town. If you’ve ever studied Classical art or even flipped through a book on Roman art then you will have seen the wall paintings in the triclinium. Even when you know what to expect, the effect of this room is still breath taking. The whole experience is an exercise in contradictions and perhaps even in frustration. The media of paint renders the figures unsubstantial (unlike sculpture which is tangibly three dimensional) but their size and movement make them imposing roommates. The depiction of the scene, the expressions and movement of the figures suggest an invitation for the viewer to be an active participant in the scene but the scarcity of direct contact between figures and viewer denies any real participation. The girl combing her hair catches the gaze of the viewer, but most of the other figures have their attention fixed on something else in the scene. So in the end the viewer remains just that: a spectator of the events depicted on the wall. In modern terms it is similar to when the fourth wall is broken between the story in a television show and the viewers at home – the viewer is still a passive component to the active scene being played out but an area of greyness is introduced which clouds the passive/active relationship. Or, in layman’s terms, it is a very cool room with very cool pictures.

Which brings me to the end of day one and this post, part two will follow…

*points of awesomness will be awarded for those who recognise where I drew my inspiration for his post’s title.


urbes puellamque cano in Campania prisca* — 1 Comment

  1. Love your comments about Pompeii. I don’t think I breathed much when I first walked into Pompeii I was that struck. Totally time-tip worthy. And I’m glad you noticed Vesuvius simmering away in the distance, I thought the way it loomed was eerie and foreboding… like it could happen again.

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