Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri

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Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri

The chief impression as you approach Pompeii from the north is of the unremitting and irredeemably ugly urban sprawl of Naples. It is hard to imagine now that the former unspoilt beauty of the landscape can ever return. If you look hard, though, you might catch a glimpse of agricultural land and of a change in the colour of the soil. It is a rich volcanic soil here, nourishing cereals, olive trees, citrus fruits and vines. (Lacrima Christi wines come from here.) And still dominating the surround is the impressive, twin-peaked outline of Mt Vesuvius rising 3,890 ft from the plain, the last active volcano on the European mainland. It last erupted in 1944, doing devastating damage to the city of Naples. Of its many earlier eruptions, it is the one that buried Pompeii which has captivated the world's attention.

Pompeii  NB. No descriptions of individual buildings are given here as you will have a guided tour. The passports European offices have videos available called 'Rome and Pompeii' which reconstruct using computer graphics Pompeii as it would have been. You should show the film on the way down if you can.

Two thousand years ago Pompeii was an ordinary, prosperous Roman town. It was a decent-sized place with a population of about 20,000 people, a market town with a big working port and industries of more than local interest (wines, prefumes etc.) It had all the various aspects to it that one would expect in a town that size: sports and leisure facilities, theatres, places of worship, administrative buildings, plenty of shops and markets, richer and poorer neighbourhoods. It had a particularly beautiful site on a small rise overlooking the Bay of Naples (the sea has receded since then), beneath the dramatic shadow of Mt Vesuvius.

And then something happened on August 24th 79 AD which left the town deserted. Almost years on, what remains is a unique picture of daily in the Roman world and of the aftermath of disaster.

Five miles to the northwest Vesuvius erupted. The whole city was shrouded in 8 ft of pumice stone and then a layer of ash. This ash was what killed. About 2,000 people died, mostly suffocated by its sulphurous fumes. The rest of the population, those who could, had already fled. The writer Pliny the Younger witnessed the scene. He described the volcano as smoking and bubbling for three days before a sudden massive explosion. And then the clear summer sky turned "black as a sealed room." Nearby, the town of Herculaneum, or Ercolano, was covered in a layer of molten lava.

After Pompeii disappeared it was quickly forgotten. It wasn't rediscovered until 1748 when some statues were found and the site began to be explored, unsystematically at first by amateur archaeologists in a frenzy of excitement. Today the excavations, now obviously much more scientific, are still going on. About 15 % of Pompeii remains to be excavated. The impact of the discoveries was incredible, giving a whole new insight into life in the Roman world. It also changed the fashion for interior decoration all over the continent. Suddenly the beautifully painted houses of Pompeii became the new blueprints for the fashion-conscious designers of eighteenth century Europe.

Today, in spite of the hordes of tourists, Pompeii remains a haunting place. What makes it so vivid, and the event so tragic, are the intimate details of daily life. See, for example:

The mosaics reading Cave Canem ("Beware of the dog") and Ave ("Hello"or "Welcome")
The raised pedestrian crossings to stop people getting their feet wet and dirty
The pizza ovens
The niches for putting your clothes away while you took a bath
The beautiful gardens
The graffiti
The pools for catching rainwater to cool off the air.

Perhaps the most evocative image of all, though, is that of the bodies of the dead who for some reason or other could not or did not escape in time. A pet dog is among the victims.

A few miles after leaving Pompeii you will turn off the A3 towards the peninsula that forms the south side of the Bay of Naples. Beyond Castellammare di Stabia the endless dull development finally recedes. Here begins one of the most celebrated tourist destinations in Europe. (NB You should leave plenty of time. The road S-145, which more or less follows the Circumvesuviana railway, is narrow and winding and in summer especially it is bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Sorrento peninsula, Capri and the Amalfi coast are the favourite weekend destinations of Neapolitans and are now also firmly established on the package tour trail.) The area enjoys a perfect microclimate with temperatures rarely falling below the 70s. The roads are dotted with attractive holiday villas. The colourful flora is sub-tropical. The views on to the Bay of Naples are breathtaking. According to some, this bay was the home of the Sirens in Greek mythology. These were mysterious creatures who lived on the rocky shore, perhaps half-women and half-birds, sometimes all-knowing, temptresses, singers whose irresistible voices charmed sailors and led them to their death. In Homer Odysseus is forewarned of the danger, stops up the ears of his crew and ties himself to the mast in order to resist the beautiful deathly call of the Sirens on the shore.

Sorrento  A delightful resort in a spectacular setting, perched on tall cliffs and surrounded by orange and lemon groves. It has pastel-coloured houses and quaint small squares. The main square is named after Sorrento's most famous son, the renaissance poet Tasso. The view from the public gardens above this square is magnificent. If it's a clear day you can see Naples itself 20 miles away on the other side of the bay, the slopes of Vesuvius and the islands of Ischia (beaches and spas) and Procida (epitome of the picturesque) closing off the bay to the west. In Sorrento's heyday towards the end of the last century Nietzsche used to stay hereand Wagner and the Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Hendrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt while he stayed here.

As you leave Sorrento town centre descending the cliffs towards the Porta Marina Piccola for the hydrofoil to Capri you have to take a rather dramatic and entertaining hairpin turn. The group will inevitablt burst out in admiration for the bus driver's skill.

The hydrofoil takes about 20 minutes.

Capri  This is one of the glittering centres of international tourism. It may be slightly diminished by the crowds nowadays but it still enchants. It has been a luxury resort island since the time of the Romans. Emperor Tiberius retired here in one of the twelve villas he built on the island. More recently it has been a favourite resort of celebrities from Europe and the States. The English especially have colonised Capri. The singer Gracie Fields was a resident here, as is the writer Graham Greene. D.H.Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw came here to visit. So did Lenin. The two beautifully kept towns of Capri and Anacapri are full of chic shops, art galleries, villas, restaurants and hotels. The white houses in narrow, often arcaded streets have an exquisite charm.

The appeal of Capri is primarily scenic. It is a small island, about 6 miles in circumference. It is entirely mountainous. There are two settlements, Capri and Anacapri, both delightful. Unless you have plenty of time to spare, ignore Anacapri. When you arrive on the island at Marina Grande the small pebbly beach is on your left. (Capri is not really a beach resort) and the town of Capri is above you. You can take the funicular if it's working, otherwise the public bus or a very hefty walk up the hill. After wandering around the little town whose charming centrepiece is the Piazza Umberto I, walk out towards some of the many belvederes. The views constantly change and always take your breath away. The smell of rosemary and jasmine is everywhere. If you have the time and inclination you can take the long but rewarding walk (about 2 miles) on to the Villa Jovis, Tiberius' retirement home. Again, the views are magnificent.

The most famous of Capri's sights is the Blue Grotto or Grotta Azzura which is reached from the Marina Grande below. First you leave by a biggish boat, then you transfer into fishing boats to gain access to the tiny, low entrance to the grotto. The luminescent blue colour of the water is truly extraordinary, created by the sunlight refracted through the water to the surface. You're not really supposed to swim there but if you plead nicely enough and get someone to pout at the fishermen, there shouldn't be a problem. NB. If the sea is rough these boat trips will not operate.

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