Thursday, March 26, 2009

Naples, Vesuvius, and Herculaneum

8:45PM March 21

I didn't see any of my four new friends again Saturday, as I as up by 7:00 for the beginning of the complimentary breakfast. I checked out by 7:3 and headed up the sizable hill to the west en route to Castel San Martino. It was a bit of an adventure getting there, as the roads to it looped well behind around the backside of the hill. The face to the hill was all grass, so there was no direct route, and many of the streets that appeared to be heading towards it terminated as parking for private communities. All the way to the top I passed through some interesting neighborhoods, getting great views of Vesuvius and the city below. Not surprisingly, it cost money to enter the castle, and I declined, opting to see other sites around Naples instead.

Walking through Naples to Castel San Martino, seen above on the hill.

Graffiti covering monuments

Overlooking the Bay of Naples from halfway up the hillside

An interesting modern-day obelisk

Looking down on the city from Castel San Martino. I walked up the large hill, starting around the center of this picture, and then climbing up around the backside to get here.

To descend the hill I took a staircase which switched back and forth straight down the grassy face. My next destination was Castel D'ovo, an imposing fortress still in use today, which sits on a small island in the bay, just barely out to sea, at the foot of the large hill on which Castel San Martino sits. On the way, I saw more great neighborhoods, some which ended abruptly to accommodate the terrace structure to the hill, and eventually the waterfront. There wasn't much to do at the castle except stare at it in awe from the shore. Vesuvius was even more majestic there, at the water's edge, rising straight up from across the bay. I next made my way past a few other notable Naples sites, such as Piazza Plebescito, Galleria Umberto, and Castel Nuovo, before heading off to the train station.

The switch-backs down the hill from Castel San Martino

A neighborhood abruptly stopping at the terraced hillside

Castel D'ovo

Piazza Plebescito. A tour book described this as a combination of the Pantheon and St. Peter's Basilica. Of course, it isn't quite as grand as either but still a nice sight. I had no idea what the stage and fences in front were there for until the next day when I found out that in the afternoon there was a 150,000 person anti-mafia protest in the plaza.

Castel San Martino, as seen from Piazza Plebescito

Castel Nuovo

My ultimate goal for the day was to ascend Vesuvius, but that can only be reached from Ercolano--built over top the ancient city of Herculaneum--so I hopped back on the Circumvesuviana. The bus service that takes people to the top was right outside the station, and I bought my ticket. The whole business looked a little sketchy, with a group of smoking older men hanging around the station, looking as if they were out to make an easy buck. Autographed pictures of celebrities, whom apparently loved their trip, hung on the walls of the station. It seems that Nicolas Cage, Clint Eastwood, Sharon Stone, and Sylvester Stallone all had the same reaction too, writing, "thanks for the great time. With love..." I even found that part a little funny, but if I had a choice, I wouldn't necessarily have chosen that bus service. When I asked what time to return, they told me 11:30. One of the signs in the station seemed to indicate that the bus departed at 12:45, and I motioned towards this, but they told me that was another service which would not return me from the top of the mountain, so I made sure I was back on time.

This gave me a bit more than an hour to explore Ercolano. I immediately went down the hill in search of the sea. This was surprisingly difficult to do though, as few streets extended that far south. The shoreline used to be much higher up on the hill, and in the intervening period, they have not preserved the beach, but rather filled the land with a set of commercial nurseries, and then blocked the shore with a set of raised train tracks. After about thirty-five minutes of searching for a way south and east to the sea, I finally found a break in the nurseries and the train tracks through a storm drain. I was pleased to find that all of the breakers were large black volcanic boulders. I took in the scenery for about a minute before scrambling back to make the bus. I though it would be easier returning, but the nurseries blocked the way back up the hill, and by the time I found a road north, I was well west of the station. I ran bits of the way back, as I didn't want to be late, reminding myself of my experience in Pisa. I did take note that all of the roads were laid the same way as they are in Florence, but with black volcanic rock was the material of choice.

Climbing through the storm drain to the sea in Ercolano

Volcanic-rock breakers lining the shore

Like Pisa, the transportation was not ready for me when I arrived. In fact, I waited well over an hour before the van finally arrived. It did in fact leave at 12:45, but there was nothing I could do about it by that point. I shared the ride with an Australian couple, a Bulgarian man, and an Indian woman from London. I had a great time talking to these people as well, and as we all came from diverse backgrounds, our conversation strayed more towards our cultural differences.

The van left us off about 200 meters below the summit, or so we were told, but including the numerous switch-backs and elongated nature of the path around the side of the caldera, it was probably a kilometer of walking before I reached the summit. That was all for the best though, as it lengthened the experience of climbing the mountain, which was much more difficult than I imagined it would be. The path wasn't terribly steep, but even at 4000 feet, the altitude change was noticeable. I tried walking at my usual New York pace, but before long, I had trouble breathing. Once the path flattened out around the summit I did all right again, but I hadn't realized I would be affected at all.

A deposit left from the last eruption of any significance in 1944, which took down all eighty-eight planes in a U.S. bomber group making an attack during World War II.

The switch-back laden path to the top

The view of Napoli below. The first little peninsula to stick out is where Castel D'ovo sits, and if you look very closely, you'll notice a grassy hill to the right of that, which is where Castel San Martino sits.

Although a majority of the rocks had a purplish-red tinge, the slopes were covered in stones of a variety of colors, ranging from black rock like I'd seen at the foot of the mountain, to more textured gray and white chunks. I even found a deposit of fresher-looking brown rock near the summit. (I'll have to ask my geologist mother what all of this means later on, but I found the large range of color quite fascinating.)

All the way up I got incredible views of the cities below, and looking inside the fuming caldera was awe-inspiring. The path leads about halfway around the rim on the western side of the mountain, facing the bay. Towards the middle of the rim path the wind started whipping much harder, and it came right at my back. On the return journey, it was even more difficult, as it blew head-on. This all would have freaked me out when I was younger, but I quite enjoyed it now, taking it as a part of the true summit experience. Without further ado, I'll let my pictures finish telling the story of Vesuvius.

Souvenirs made out of volcanic rock, sold at exorbitant prices at the summit.

The Bulgarian man asked me at the top if I wanted him to "make a picture" of me. I did try to smile for the photo, but that was quite difficult given the strong wind.

Multi-colored rocks on the path leading to the summit

By the time I started walking back, my fingers were freezing through a pair of gloves, as it is significantly colder at the summit. They were numb much of the way back to the van, but even as I approached the parking lot, they began to feel much better at that slightly lower altitude. I can only imagine the cold that climbers of Kilimanjaro or Everest endure. Even at 4000 feet, there was snow to be found. The experience was absolutely unbelievable though: definitely one of the best things I've ever done.

On the way back down I had more great conversation with the people in the van, and I decided to join Aalujah, the British woman, and Pavel, the Bulgarian man, on a trip to the Herculaneum ruins. I did not know much about these ruins before hand, but Aalujah informed me that, unlike Pompei, which was wiped out by ash, Herculaneum was smothered in mud, and thus better preserved. In fact, the ruins we visited sat in a pit at the foot of Ercolano, a wall of earth surrounding the entire site. Excavation first began in the thirties.

I'm so glad I went, as the city shed more light on the Roman culture for me. Unlike Pompei, many of the integral wood elements to the buildings were not burned, and roofs remained on a good number as well. In particular, I had been stumped by the sight of three or four stairs, which abruptly stopped, in many of the houses at Pompei. They weren't nearly tall enough to reach a second story, and most buildings in Pompei showed no sign of having a second story, as the large majority were knocked down. I thought they might have been some sort of built in step-stool, but this didn't make much sense. In Herculaneum I found the same thing, but in at least one house, there were still the remains of the wooden stairs which continued onto the second story where the stone ones left off.

Pavel and Aalujah made great company, as we were all equally intrigued by the ruins, and we worked together to find meaning in each structure. We were able to deduce the purpose to the pots the Romans implanted in their bars. Pavel, having seen similar structures left by the Byzantines in Bulgaria, believed they were used to store grain, but we also figured they would work well as stoves by placing hot embers at the bottom of the pots. I was happy to find that I mostly understood the Italian tour guide that soon came by, confirming our ideas about the bar, and then explaining that the building was a sort of ancient fast food restaurant where Romans could grab a snack in between meals. It was a wonderful afternoon at the ruins shared with newfound friends.

We had great fun watching the progression of Roman building techniques. We eventually figured that walls such as these, with various stones held together which large amounts of concrete followed the original method of construction.

Later on, they started to pack more equally sized stones in together.

And eventually, they chiseled the stones into long slabs, which would fit nicely together and focused their weight outwards. In order to main clean lines for doorways and windows, they then used bricks to support the edges.

An ancient fast food joint

Murals like this used to line the walls of most every building

Wooden stairs to the second floor

Once there were second story balconies like this that lined the whole street

My friends Pavel and Aalujah in a staging area behind the Palestra

Looking up from the pit of ruins

Overlooking the ruins of Herculaneum

We all rode the Circumvesuviana back to Naples, continuing our discussion on cultural differences and the state of the world as a whole. We also exchanged business cards, with the thought of keeping in touch. Aalujah was on a weekend trip to try and feel out her comfort level when traveling alone before taking on a more ambitious adventure abroad. Pavel seemed to travel quite a bit for his research as a parasitologist, but he also played drums, recently transitioning to more hand-drumming. He had to leave the following day to get back to Sofia for a gig with a guitarist.

The two of them joined me on brief walk near the station as I tried to find some pizza in Napoli, where it supposedly originated. At 5:30, it was an odd hour to find food, and there weren't any decent-looking places open, so we three parted ways, and I headed back to the train station to return to Florence.

My two days in Naples far exceeded my expectations. It is a much dirtier and grittier city than others I've visited, and it stands as the major commercial hub for the much poorer south of Italy. The people all have a stern look about them and are much less accepting of tourists. I definitely felt that my blonde-haired, fair-skinned, Germanic presence was noted as out of place to the locals I passed on the streets. I imagine that Aalujah felt that even more. Graffiti was everywhere, even on landmarks, little of it done with any artistic purpose. And yet, I had a wonderful weekend. I found the whole experience quite charming.

Piazza Garibaldi, outside Napoli Centrale.

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