Rome Naples Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast

Kurian Joseph
June 14th 2014 After spending an hour or two at Saint Peters, the four of us walked across the Tibre to Piazza Novona and then back again across the Tibre to Trastevere where we ate an early dinner at the pizza place John, Nicky and I had eaten at two evenings ago. Pizzas and beers later we walked through the labyrinth lanes to the Piazza Della Santa Maria and rested by the fountain while street magicians and musicians performed to appreciative audiences. After sunset we rode the tram (my first time ever in a tram) to Piazza Venezia from where we took a public bus to the Termini station and walked the remaining distance to Fiesta. At the hostel I packed and showered. Our train to Naples was early hours and we needed to leave the hostel by 5.30 am, requiring a 5.00 am alarm call. I said my goodbye’s to Rodrigo, a top bloke, and invited him to stay with me in India if he ever made the trip east. Manuel was asleep before I could say goodbye to him. So Rome. Unlike Singapore or New York, this isn’t a flashy metropolis with glass skyscrapers, multi-level flyovers and underground malls. The highest point of the city is the top of the dome of Saint Peters and the newest building looks like a reconstructed WW II era structure. Unlike London or Mumbai whose expressways are choked with a rush hour deluge of automobiles, Rome has busy streets. Unlike Bangkok or Berlin, the nightlife isn’t wild, but vibrant. Its Wine Bars and Cafes and not Nightclubs and Strip Joints. You’re certainly in the wrong city if you’ve come to sample the sex, drugs and EDM lifestyle. Camel the tour guide said that ancient Rome was exactly where present Rome is, the majority of it under the surface. The air hasn’t changed; Caesar breathed it, Saint Peter breathed it, Michelangelo breathed it and so did I. The same air! Thick with the energy of the souls that passed through. History is everywhere; behind the side street you just crossed, up those stairs by the fountain and under that building ahead. You pass Bernini’s masterpiece on a casual walk to the pharmacy and the convenience store is located in a building that has its foundations in Nero’s amphitheatre. I wonder if the residents of Rome realize what they’re in the midst off. What goes on in that lady’s mind as she walks past the Pantheon every morning on route to her job at the bank? What are the evening joggers in the Circus Maximus thinking about? What about the bus driver who shuttles commuters every day past the Colosseum and over the Tibre? Do they know I drive by an unfinished flyover complex (that has had one man working on it for the past two years) and an artificial lake choked with water hyacinth on my way to work? Rome made me feel good. I like Rome. * The Regional reached the port city of Naples at 8.15 am, the journey south from the Capital of Italy to the Capital of Campania taking two hours. Sheila had done a cursory internet search for hostels the previous day and zeroed in on ‘Dreaming Naples’; the establishment published available accommodation and moderate tariffs. The two of us walked the short distance from the train terminal to the very swanky Piazza Garibaldi metro station where a series of shiny switchback escalators took us down, down, down to the platform. We alighted from the metro six stops later at Piazza Dante, and after getting a little lost and asking for directions, Sheila and I found ourselves outside the door of Dreaming Naples Hostel, a converted apartment in a residential building set back from the main street, Via Tommaso Caravita, by the cobblestoned Piazza Carit. Our budget was 20 Euro for a dorm bed, but we were offered a private double room with ensuite facilities for 25 Euro a pop. We pondered over the extra 5 Euro and after weighing the circumstances decided to rent the private room, which proved to be an excellent decision. Our spacious, airy, accommodation was on the first floor of the quaint old building with a window the size of the main door that opened to views of the cobblestoned square in the foreground and the main street in the background. Naples days’ were off to the best possible start. From the moment I got off the metro at Dante I knew this was my kind of town. The kind of town where the tourist is incidental, not central though we didn’t venture from the historic quarter. It’s busy, it’s rough around the edges and it’s angry. It’s South Asian civic sensibilities juxtaposed on mix race Italian demography in a medievalesque urban bazaar. It’s the city of crime and it’s the birthplace of the pizza. We came to see about the pizza. The hostel manager gave us directions to the tourist office where an extremely helpful employee handed us maps and dispensed information on the must see’s and do’s. ‘Sorbillo’ was where we were headed first, reputably a Pizza place sans compare in the heart of the old city on Via dei Tribunali, a district of Naples that reminded me of the back streets of the Avenue Road area in Bangalore where crisscrossing narrow lanes channel counter currents of pedestrians and skilful scooterists (with their overloaded scooters) manoeuvre through. Replace the grubby tar surface with cobblestone, the hardware and stationary establishments with pizzerias and fresh produce markets, the boring uninspired construction with charming residential architecture, the advertisement hoardings with those ubiquitous bougainvillea balconies, the temple with the duomo, the stray dogs with pet dogs, the Activa with the Vespa, take out the trash but not all of it, don’t change the weather and there you go- Balepet to Centro Storico. Sorbillo wasn’t open for business as yet but I was too hungry to wait. I bought myself a slice of margherita pizza and a stuffed croissant from a street vendor (3.5 Euro, pizza good, croissant not) and stood by the street eating when we noticed a small board that said “Subterranean Napoli” with an arrow pointing to the dead end of a small lane flanking a piazza just across from where we were. Curious, we walked over to investigate. Prior to the Roman era, during the Greek period 2600 years ago, the city of Naples, or Neapolis (‘Nea’ meaning new and ‘polis’ meaning city) as it was then known, was expanded to a centre of prominence in Magna Graecia. The primary building material employed in the proliferation of the new city was a porous volcanic stone, removed from under its surface. This easily manipulated rock, called tufa, was used to construct the city walls, temples and buildings, leaving underground cavities at the sites from where the stone was excavated. With their advanced engineering acumen, the Romans expanded these underground quarries into an intricate network of subterranean aqueducts and walkways that served as the primary distribution system for water until as recently as 1881, when a cholera outbreak caused the authorities to shut the underground waterways permanently. Large portions of the aqueduct were sealed off while other parts were used as dumps for construction debris. It wasn’t until WW II that the underground channels came into prominence again, this time as bomb shelters, with Naples especially being a target for sustained aerial bombardment. The arrow pointed us to the starting point of a guided tour of subterranean Napoli, a 1km section of the underground network that was illuminated and open to tourists. The one hour tour cost 10 Euro and commenced at a tunnel that led 40 metres underground into a freezing 15 degree centigrade environment. Our short, not unattractive, pixie-like tour guide with carrot hair, herself protected in a quilted jacket, explained the process by which the tufa stone was extricated and shaped. Even further underground were the improvised bomb shelters with graffiti on the walls and strewn with toys and other mundane articles left behind by the air raid survivors; eerie reminders of a not so distant but unfathomable past. Later, we were led walking sideways with candles through a narrow passageway, which once channelled water, to a Roman cistern (presumably an underground quarry from the Greek period) that had a network of aqueducts leading in and out of it where the guide explained the process by which workers kept the water clean. Through all of this I suffered in silence from the bloody cold and frequently considered cooching up to Sheila, but I was shy, only managing on occasion to steal packets of warmth. The last part of the tour was at the ground level a little distance away from where we started, in an apartment that until recently had a family in residence. Archaeologists ascertained that the erstwhile living space was in fact the backstage of a 1st century A.D. Roman theatre that could seat 6000 spectators and was said to have staged a performance by Nero (the whackjob) even as a great earthquake shook Naples. Like a sunken ship that becomes a nucleus for micro marine civilizations as it morphs into an unrecognisable colony of swaying coral and colourful fish, the foundations and structure of the ancient theatre are the backbone of the urban locality that has organically sprouted around it, swallowing it whole, allowing only glimpses of its original intention. Sorbillo was open when we returned following the interesting tour. We ordered a pizza each but I wasn’t hungry enough to return an objective culinary assessment. Sheila ate most of my pizza however and bestowed an A+ rating on the famous pizzeria. I particularly enjoyed the occasion when two talented street musicians, one on the accordion and the other on guitar, sauntered into the restaurant and sang for the patrons taking lunch, all of us summarily swooped by the high octane environment created by the duo as we sang along with gusto to popular Italian songs. Me too, the morose monkey that I am, would have contributed vocally if I had known the words but instead clapped ferociously as I kept beat and tipped them generously when they departed. With “Volare, Cantare...” ringing in my head the two of us walked a fair distance through old Naples to a Contemporary Art gallery that was open to the public for free that day. On the long walk through the chaotic quarter we talked about our lives, homes, relationships and dreams and I was floored by how well travelled Sheila was, having already visited every country I’ve imagined and haven’t imagined. If I ever travelled so extensively in my lifetime, I’d pat my back and say ‘well done’. The Art Gallery was more impressive than the Art itself and the two of us mooched around for a while amusing ourselves with illegal Arties (selfies with Art in the background). We traversed back through the old quarter past Castel Nuovo and the Piazza del Municipio to the Naples waterfront and it was here that I got a sense of how enormous Naples really is, its numerous districts occupying the vast swathe of tiered land between the Bay and the rising hills, lorded over by moody Mount Vesuvius. It was a little after 7 pm when we returned to our room from the waterfront. Sheila was a little under the weather and retired for the day after popping a pill. I showered and stretched out for an intended shut eye, looking forward to taking in the nightly sights later on, but when I woke again it was 2 am and like that my day too was done. * At 9 am Sheila and I walked on Via Tommaso Caravita from Dreaming Naples to the Piazza Dante metro station. We explained to the ticket vendor what our transportation requirements for the day would be and she recommended a 12 hour pass, valid for all modes of land transport in the Campania region for 12 Euro a head. The pass fit nicely with our ambitious projet du jour – a visit to the ruins of Pompeii, living the beach life on the Amalfi Coast from Sorrento to Salerno and back. It was only later in the day, at Sorrento, were we informed that our passes were invalid. We rode the metro from chic Dante to uber chic Piazza Garibaldi and Napoli Centrale, the train terminal a short distance away. The Circumvesuviana, a commuter train that runs south along the Gulf of Naples to Sorrento on its southern headland, stops at Pompeii Scavi, the station just outside the site of the Pompeii ruins in the shadow of Vesuvius. An hour after leaving Naples, the slow commuter reached Pompeii Scavi where we alighted and walked to the entrance of the walled ruins. Sexually mischievous Pompeii, spread over 170 acres, was a prosperous city in the Roman Empire with a population of 20,000 at the time of its abrupt decimation in 79 A.D. Under Roman administration for 160 years prior to its end, the city, popular with wealthy Romans, saw vast public infrastructural development with the laying of paved roads and the building of sanitation systems, aqueducts, baths, forums and an amphitheatre. Historians are divided over the date of the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and the surrounding region. Traditional accounts publish the date of the eruption as 24th August but modern research suggests that the event most likely occurred three months later, in November. In any case the end was swift, the residents killed instantly from the searing heat and volcanic ash spewed from an exploding Vesuvius. In a very short span of time the city was buried under 20 feet of rock, abandoned and forgotten. It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century, when the region was under Spanish occupation, that a sustained, intentional, excavation of Pompeii was undertaken that continues to this day. The fascination with this UNESCO World Heritage Site is that the ancient city was preserved, more or less intact, due to protection from the elements of deterioration under layers of rock. Exceptional insight into the workings of a Roman era city at the height of its prosperity was gleaned through the study of the well preserved material remains, discovered as the excavations progressed. Entry to the Pompeii ruins cost 13 Euro and though we didn’t pay for the services of a guided tour we did rent an audio guide for 10 Euro. The site is vast and there is much to see, a full ancient city really, that it is prudent to hire the audio guide at the very least to lend a sense of perspective and reference. Slip into that slice of time when the city was abuzz with residents, not tourists, and imagine yourself as one of them as you walk by Apollo’s temple, past the Forums and through the wealthy residential quarters. Hopefully you wouldn’t have collapsed in the merciless sun or been trampled upon by a tour group before you had enough of Pompeii yourself. Two vesuvies (selfies with Vesuvius in the background) and three hours later we were back at Pompeii Scavi station waiting for the Circumvesuviana to take us to its southern terminus, Sorrento. On the half hour journey south I couldn’t help but think of Mrs. Abraham, my history teacher in standard 8, who taught us about Pompeii and the events surrounding its destruction. Understandably, I’m unable to recall the exact circumstances of that particular lesson but I’m pretty certain we boys would have had our eyes on our watches or the cricket match in progress on the field outside, utterly disinterested, while Mrs. Abraham in all her enthusiasm would have attempted to make the afternoon history discourse as interesting as possible. Maybe I should write her a letter on my return, I know she’d be thrilled to receive it. Sheila and I ate lunch at hilly Sorrento in a restaurant not far from the SITA bus terminal, a service that runs shuttles to Amalfi. We weren’t allowed to board the shuttle with the daily pass purchased in Naples, the driver informing us of its validity for permanent residents of Campania only. Mildly annoyed, which we wouldn’t have been if we had known what was in store, the two of us bought regular tickets (6.80 Euro) and took window seats in the bus mostly occupied by wealthy Chinese tourists. We waited in anticipation to be driven to La Dolce Vita. I particularly had imagined this moment for many months. The Amalfi Coast stretches south from the southern flank of the Sorrentine spur (Sorrento is on the northern side) for 50 kilometres to the city of Salerno. This jagged verge that is Italy’s most breathtaking coastline proffers a dramatic encounter between mountain and sea, their confrontations demonstrated through a succession of majestic headlands and pebbly coves, through defiant precipices and eroding grottos, through the revolt of rocky outcrops and the ingression of piercing fjords. Ridiculously photogenic towns sit like spectators in an amphitheatre to this beautiful, infinite engagement, tiered vertically amongst lemon gardens and strung together by the winding, almost suspended coast road, obedient to the relief of the inconstant edge. Unfortunately such beauty is seldom uncapitalized and the posh, picturesque towns are mostly the haunt of the well heeled. Bottom line – there is no affordable accommodation. Someday I’ll return and subscribe to the hedonistic character of this indulgent coast. I’ll take residence in the terraced suite of the finest address and wear white linen as I drive a Ferrari, top down in the Tyrrhenian breeze, the backseat scattered with purchases of Oscar de la Renta’s latest couture and the beneficiary of my largesse, Anna perhaps, in oversized shades and a printed scarf, by my side. La Dolce Vita, surely, someday. In the current reality, Sheila and I had to make the most of the free sunlight before the trains stopped running and we couldn’t return to our hostel in Naples. We got off the bus at marquee Positano following a visually exhilarating 35 minute journey from Sorrento and walked the million steps down through the steeply tiered boutique town to the free, grey pebble beach, finding a spot among scores of vacationing Italian families, young couples, ripped dudes and a gaggle of topless women. It was a hot, cloudless, perfect beach day that the tanning Caucasians unabashedly encashed. My Dravidian discernment caused me to do the opposite and when I wasn’t cooling off in the water, I wore my t-shirt and lay face down with my sitter to the sky and my bag over my head, much to Sheila’s amusement who was basking about in her bikini. “Does it bother you that those girls over there are topless?” she enquired at one point. My heart began to race. “Oh no, not at all. You can go topless if you like” I assured her, appearing to remain calm. “I was asking because topless sunbathing isn’t allowed in India and was wondering if you felt offended” she clarified, returning to her book and leaving her top on. Talk about epically wrong inferences. Eat me beach, eat me up. Sheila partook in a ritualistic South American tea drinking tradition with a group of Argentinean oldies she got talking to and at 5 pm we gathered our things to leave, not before she clicked a perfectly focused fakie (fake selfie) of me with the topless girls in the background that I urgently whatsapped to the boys back home. Up the million steps at the bus stop atop Positano, the two of us waited for the SITA shuttle to take us to Amalfi, a 45 minute drive further south along the arresting, meandering coast road. The bus dropped us at the main roundabout by the waterfront which thankfully meant that there wasn’t any climbing to be done. We had a little over an hour to explore Amalfi and having arrived at the cusp of the lighting regimes, observed in wonder as the beautiful town gracefully essayed out of daylight into the evening hours. With gelatos and pizza slices we strolled the neat, touristy streets where natty young ladies walked their boutique dogs and sun tanned vacationers considered restaurant menus even as the glitzy Prada store closed its doors for the day. The 8.30 pm shuttle to the port city of Salerno took an hour and passed the magically lit towns of Minori, Majori and Vietri sul Mare before