Monday, 6 May 2013

pompeii and circumstance

The ferry pulls into the harbour in Napoli at about 4 in the afternoon.  It’s Sunday, we’re about five hours late, starving.  Everywhere is closed.  There’s nothing for it but to start cycling around the bay to Pompei where we know there are campsites.  I have an indescribable headache, which I won’t describe.  The only thing to make it worse would be if you asked me to cycle on those bloody cobbles on a hot sunny afternoon with no food along a one-way system that makes me cycle down to the seafront and then back up to the main road again and again and again and again.  When we get to the campsite I feel slightly disembodied.  We’ve made it.  We shower, eat, and sleep like lambs.  Next day we’re up and at ‘em.  Off to Herculaneum, a small fishing village that was buried in mud during the same eruption that wiped out Pompeii in AD79.  It’s a fascinating day spent about twenty five metres below ground level (the site is open to the sky - but that's how far down the buildings are), wandering the streets and sniffing around the houses and baths and all the incredibly well-preserved remainders of the town.  Only a quarter has been fully uncovered – much now lies beneath the modern town of Ercolano.

Back at the campsite we get to meet some of the neighbours.  The place seems crowded to us – lots of campervans parked nose to tail.  But it turns out to be all rather convivial and remarkably peaceful.  It helps that everyone goes to bed by 10, except for the Germans by the toilet block who insist on watching the footie outside.  It still takes us a couple of days to adjust to campsite etiquette – this is our first stop at one on this journey.  We meet Hans and Addie who are also bike-touring.  We work out they’re Dutch because Hans even rides his bike to the toilet block.  There’s Graham and Viv over the way from us from the Wirral – a slice of home.  Gayle drops her scouse accent and goes all posh.  And then up pull Tony and Betty from Littlehampton next door and we’re all set for a classic English sit-com.  Actually we love it.  We have nice evenings together with our near English neighbours.  We are offered camp chairs and dinner from Betty and Tony and Graham and Viv help us out with our pc and tip us the wink with regard to e-book readers – something that is beginning to obsess me every time we cycle uphill.  On the site it seems that anything goes with the Europeans and it suddenly seems normal to see a rotund mustachioed man wandering around in his bathing trunks.  

The ruins of Pompeii really do blow us away.  I cannot think of any ancient city that has been so well preserved.  I also cannot comprehend how the site was excavated - it is enormous.  As so many of the buildings remain quite substantial it is easy to imagine how the streets look as you wander around.  We have to stifle a guffaw when we overhear a guide tell one group why the Italians are still famous for their plumbing and building without a trace of irony.  They are good at pouring concrete, that's for sure.  Down at the little backstreet brothel there is a flutter of excitement, but you get a better impression of how the oldest profession in the world was valued when you see the grand basilica on one corner of the forum - this was the place where all legal matters were dealt with.  By noon the site is busy with tour groups and everyone looks slightly dazed by the mass of facts being bandied around by their guides.  But the place is so huge - and if anything the tourists bring some life to the place.  After four hours or so wandering we are knackered but sated.

We have a day out with Betty and Tony on the train to Napoli.  It deserves much more, but it's all we've got in us.  Before long we're in the old centre walking through narrow streets full of grand palazzos with huge facades which are hard to look at in the tight space.  

We spend most of our time in the archaeological museum which has a large collection of statuary and the day to day objects recovered from Herculaneum and Pompeii - many in almost perfect condition. Glassware, ceramics, kitchen pots (Gayle particularly remarks the patterned collander), frescoes and mosaics.  The latter are often of very fine and small pieces and extremely strong colours.  In the 'rude room' there's an erotic carving in ivory from India - an illustration of the silk road traffic between east and west.  One display shows a staggering collection of finds from a single villa. They knew how to splash the cash, did the Romans.  


On the way back to the station we find ourselves walking a long alley with doors open into peoples' homes - kitchens, living rooms.  We stop in the street market on the way back - Tony wants to get some large prawns for the barbecue - and once again we are royally treated to a grand tea back at the campsite.

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