Naples, Pompeii and the Sorrento Coast

The first thing that struck me about Naples is what a modern city it is. After travelling through Italy for almost 2 weeks I had spent most of my time wandering through ancient cobblestone streets and visiting Historic buildings. As you drive through the lush farmland you suddenly see the city’s skyline off in the distance.  Of course as I got closer to street level I discovered the history of this 3000 year old city, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  It was a stark contrast among the stalled traffic as drivers made their way past the ancient fort near the coast. As we wandered through the history of the city; the main square framed by the colonnade, the church of San Francesco di Paola, the opera house and municipal government offices.  When we arrived there was a small protest of workers demanding jobs, but as we got closer to the Galleria, an even larger group of noisy demonstrators went past on their way to join the protest over unemployment.  They all want jobs but this was just an ongoing reminder about the problems this city faces.  Just weeks before I arrived, Naples was hit with a lengthy and divisive garbage strike.  The city also has the reputation as one of the highest crime areas in all of Italy. I had heard the warnings ‘leave your valuables on the bus’ although I had also heard about one woman who lost 600Euros that she left in a bag on the bus, so take that for what it’s worth.  I asked one of my guides about it and why our group didn’t get ‘the warning’.  He kind of brushed it off saying that we should ‘always be careful with your valuables’ which he  announced to the whole group.  It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your things and to be careful in any city and I didn’t see any trouble when I was there so I don’t know how much of the warning is a myth or a reality.  Still Napoli is a beautiful, modern city with a spectacular port where I saw the largest ship I have ever seen. It stood almost 12 stories high and I had to ask if it was a ship or a building.

But Naples was just my jumping off point before heading to Pompeii.  I had studied the ancient city at various times during my school years, buried and preserved under the lava from Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, discovered 17 hundred years later.  Turns out it wasn’t buried under lava but under tonnes of ash and rocks thrown during the eruption. And the bodies that were ‘preserved’ were actually plaster casts made by the indentations left by their bodies.  Still the half dozen or so  figures are an eerie archive that puts a human face to this historic natural disaster that occurred almost 2 millenia ago.  They were captured huddled over, with their hands over their mouths just as you would expect.  What is surprising is to learn it was a city of about 25,000 at the time of the eruption and that while 2 to 3 thousand people died, most managed to escape.  You also visit the brothels (the most popular tourist site), obvious by the phallic symbols on the building or on the street outside, and the erotic artwork (at least by ancient standards) left behind on the stone walls inside.  Our guide told me there were 18 brothels and 22 bakeries in the city at the time, giving some insight into the day to day priorities.  After a sweltering few hours exploring the ruins I headed to Sorrento for the night before my trip to Capri.
I had met up with another solo traveller on my Neopolitan tour. Lisa is a young Aussie travelling around for 3 months, but not your typical backpacker often staying in very nice hotels.  We hit it off and made plans to meet later to attend a local performance.  I had a meal deal with my room so I dined in the hotel but there was a problem with my attire. I wasn’t prepared for more than hiking around the ruins of Pompeii and maybe the beach in Capri so I didn’t even have a pair of long pants with me.  I had to (sheepishly) ask the maitre’d if he would allow me to dine in my knee length cargo shorts.  He said ‘of course’ and led me to a table on the patio where I had a front row seat to a spectacular sunset with Mount Vesuvius and the lights of Napoli off in the distance.  The food was the best I had eaten on my trip through Italy.  A mushroom risotto starter followed by turkey escalopes on a light and fluffy polenta and finished off with a coffee mousse.  After dinner I wandered to the nearby town square to meet up with Lisa.  We got our ‘squares’ mixed up but met up anyway and headed over to the theatre for the show.  It basically tells the story of Sorrento in an operetta format, through the songs made famous in the city; O Solo Mio; Faniculi, Fanicula, as well as several others. I also got to see them dance the famous ‘Tarantella’.  This wasn’t your concert style level of opera, but it was well done, very entertaining and everyone had a lot of fun.

I bid farewell to Sorrento the next morning but not before making a promise to return one day… soon. 

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