Tag Archive: Mediterranean cruise Italy


Pompeii unearthed

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

With only two days remaining after the cruise ship docks for the final time at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, I opt to spend one of them visiting Pompeii, which 3 hours away via the autostrada just below Naples.

A travel oasis along the way looks far more like a page out of the Dean & Deluca catalog than an Interstate eatery.

Cured hams hang in the window and a bank of glistening espresso machines sits behind a long marble counter.

There seems to be no such thing as fast food in Italy, and taste confirms that it’s for delectably good reason.

 

 

 

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

An hour or so outside of Naples the road passes a hilltop crowned by the monastery of Monte Cassino.

Founded by Saint Benedict on the site of a former Roman temple to Apollo, it has been repeatedly sacked by invading armies and destroyed three times, the last during a bloody four month siege of an entrenched German army early in 1944.

 

 

 

 

About 15 miles short of Pompeii, the route passes through Naples.  The old part of the city is the vintage Italy of ‘50’s cinema.  Palm trees line the harbor and ferries carry day-trippers to the Isle of Capri clearly visible on the horizon 30 miles away.

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Tenement streets climb hillsides

Tenement streets climb hillsides

Narrow streets climb hillsides through ancient tenements broken from time to time by the uninspired concrete architecture of post-war buildings that mark the scars of more than 200 Allied bombings. Poverty is rampant in many of these neighborhoods, where over 100 clans of the Camorra – the local version of the Mafia – control not only criminal activity, but thousands of legitimate businesses.  Visitors are warned not to wander unfamiliar streets here alone. There’s no lingering here; Pompeii beckons!

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius squats between Naples and Pompeii, towering nearly a mile high and squeezing the coast road against the sea.  It’s experienced more than 30 major eruptions since the one that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., the last occurring shortly after the arrival of Allied armies in 1944.

Many buildins survive intact

Many buildings survive intact

The first sight of Pompeii’s streets is breathlessly arresting.  Unlike other often-vandalized ruins, it was protected for 17 centuries by a cocoon of volcanic ash.

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

 

The power of this place is not just the number of buildings left remarkably intact, but the distinctive window afforded into the daily lives not only of well-to-do Romans who vacationed there, but the service workers who supported their leisure. Artifacts excavated over the last 300 years and now on display are personal and intimate.  Makeup cases and hair combs.  Pocket change.  Beautiful mosaics and frescos in still-vibrant colors adorn the floors and walls of spacious villas, many featuring portraits of their owners.

Fountains and pools are abundant

Fountains and pools are abundant

This city of 20,000 boasted an amphitheater, forum, gymnasium and hotel.  Fountains and public baths were once fed by an aqueduct.

A bakery stands idle

A bakery stands idle

 

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

At vacant curbside food stalls, brick ovens stand at the ready and empty stands await the arrival of wine amphoras.

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tracks are worn into stone streets by chariot and wagon wheels.  The cubicles of a bordello stand open in invitation and graffiti and pornography adorn street walls.

 

 

 

By far the most startling of artifacts, though, are plaster castings made of victims – residents and even household pets – entombed in volcanic ash by the tragedy, their flesh long ago wasted away to leave only vacant impressions. It’s otherwise hard to dismiss the illusion that the residents have just stepped out, to shortly return.

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Before the long ride back to Rome there’s dinner – and an obligatory taste of the local limoncello liqueur – at a charming hotel restaurant in nearby Sorrento, which marks the beginning of the hairpin thread of highway that travels the scenic Amalfi coast.

By the time I step again onto Rome’s Via Veneto and pass through the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior17 hours have passed, but it’s a delicious exhaustion! In the morning it’s on to Da Vinci Airport and the flight back to the States, the fresh memories of a week-long Mediterranean cruise still playing in my head.

If you’ve missed any of the earlier posts for this cruise – or want to revisit any –  you’ll find them here:

 

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Roaming thru Rome

Ancient images evoke Fellini's Satyricon

Ancient images evoke Fellini’s Satyricon

What can be left to write about a place that’s been called “The Eternal City” for most of its nearly 3,000 year history?

The city’s been so widely photographed and the world has come to know it so intimately through films ranging from Biblical epics to Fellini that no stone seems to have been left unturned.

What came alive for me as I walked its streets was not only a sense of Rome as the thread upon which so much of Western history is strung, and its unending paradoxes.

There are few places in which the past co-exists with the present so seamlessly as in Rome.

St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

Here it’s common to see trendy new boutiques and restaurants installed in centuries-old buildings.  Legions of Vespas circle Baroque fountains and Classical ruins.

Romans seem at once an unconscious extension of the rich past which surrounds them and at the same time casually indifferent to it.

The cruise line has booked everyone into the Excelsior Hotel as the trip winds to a close. The Excelsior is famous as the travel residence of choice for celebrities from Mark Twain to the Rolling Stones.

As I walk through its lobby and out onto the Via Veneto I can’t help but recall scenes shot here for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Many of ancient Rome’s surviving structures – worn, weathered, and vandalized for nearly two millennia –  stand in stark contrast to  the architectural grandeur of Renaissance Rome, some of which is built of marble stripped from their facings.

 

Roman Coliseum

Roman Coliseum

 

 

 

 

The Roman Forum survives only as a disappointingly bare skeleton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even stripped of its façade, though, the Coliseum engulfs visitors walking the arena floor with its sheer size.

I can’t help but reflect on the fact that it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that man first built stadiums to eclipse it in scope.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A notable exception to ruined Classical Rome is the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

Its simple, geometric perfection seems to leave nothing left unsaid, and to stand beneath its dome looking up through the circular eye open to the sky was for me a far more spiritual experience than walking among the gilded angels of St. Peter’s.

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

St. Peter's Square, The Vatican

St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican

 

 

The Vatican is an embarrassment of riches.

Swiss guards, The Vatican

Swiss guards, The Vatican

 

It’s impossible not to be awed by the endless tableau of master works in St. Peter’s basilica.

St. Peter's basilica

St. Peter’s basilica

St. Peter's basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter’s basilica, The Vatican

It’s also hard not to be left with a the sense that the intent of this place is to dwarf its awestruck human visitors and to glorify not so much the deity as the institution of the Church.

Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

Only the Louvre can compare with the Vatican Museum for the number and quality of its works, and the building itself is a work of art, solid and imposing and classical in its detail.

Here the works of old masters seen before only in art books leap out of the frame, larger than life and richly colored.

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

It seems that every inch of every ceiling is covered in art, ornately framed in gold leaf.

 

 

The Trevi Fountain, popularized in the U.S. by the movies Three Coins In A Fountain and Roman Holiday, seems ever so familiar.  I’m startled, though, to see this monumental structure rising out of a residential neighborhood rather than as the anchor of a grand piazza, which was planned but never built.

The fountain also famously appears in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and when he died in 1996 the fountain was turned off and draped in black… a testimony to the way in which Rome’s old and new not only coexist, but constantly intermingle.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

The spire of Trajan’s column, adorned with carvings depicting Rome’s Dacian Wars victory, instantly evokes an image of the similar column erected by Napoleon in the Place Vendôme.

Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

The walk back to the hotel leads up the Spanish Steps, which on this day look more like the Spanish Bleachers, buried as they are in a sea of seated tourists.

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

With the date of a return visit in some vague future and my time in Europe drawing to a close, I make the decision to skip Rome’s catacombs in order to carve out time for a day trip to Naples and Pompeii before flying back to the States.

If you’ve just joined this account my Mediterranean cruise, you can still begin at the beginning:

Days 1-2:  Barcelona

Day 3:  Montserrat Monastery

Day 4: France’s Languedoc

Day 5: Monaco & the French Riviera

Day 6: Italy’s Cinque Terre gateway

Italy’s Cinqueterra gateway

Footpaths connect the five villages of Italy's Cinque Terre

Footpaths connect the five villages of the Cinque Terre

Call it luck, but in years of travel I’ve rarely experience an upended itinerary that didn’t have a silver lining, and my luck again held when heavy seas prevented our ship from docking at Portofino.

 

The alternate port was a placed called Porto Venere, gateway to Italy’s Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) where five villages that hug cliffs along the Ligurian coastline are unreachable by auto and connected only by footpaths, trains and boats.

Approaching Port Venere, Italy from the harbor

Approaching Port Venere from the harbor

 

The sun isn’t long risen as the launch slices through the waves toward the village, which is just awakening from its slumber.

 

Porto Venere is the imagined picture postcard against which all of my European visits are measured, and it easily exceeds expectations.

Quay at Porto Venere, Italy

Quay at Porto Venere, Italy

 

The lower village wraps around a bay that was once the home port of the Byzantines’ western Mediterranean fleet.

Fisherman dry & mend nets, Porto Venere, Italy

Fisherman dry & mend nets, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

Here fisherman just returned with the morning’s catch are drying and mending their nets. Above them a women hangs laundry from a porch railing and suns herself as it dries.

Drying laundry, Porto Venere, Italy

Drying laundry, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

 

The single most striking landmark here is a church that sits on the promontory of a finger of land that reaches out to gather the bay.

 

Its appeal is irresistible, and since much of the village clings to the steeply pitched hillside or is perched along its summit, the climb to the church the route winds through narrow, ageless village streets.

Narrow streets of Porto Venere, Italy

Narrow streets of Porto Venere, Italy

 

The village may be ancient and its buildings well worn, but everything here is infused with a tastefully simple Italian style that lends to it a casual elegance.

Visitor paused in front of a meat market, Porto Venere, Italy

Visitor paused in front of a meat market, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Stone streets have been washed and swept squeaky clean, and bright flowers sit in window planters along the lanes.

Bakery window, Porto Venere, Italy

Bakery window, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Local and tourists alike browse local businesses, and the tantalizing aromas of cured meats and freshly baked breads and pastries drift out into the street.

Restaurant, Porto Venere, Italy

Restaurant, Porto Venere, Italy

Harbor view, Porto Venere, Italy

Harbor view, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Through an open door a restaurant is polished and groomed in anticipation of lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the summit I look down through the telescope of an alley entrance that caps a steep stone staircase.

 

Through it I can see the village gathered along the wharves and my ship riding at anchor in the harbor beyond.

Cemetery, Porto Venere, Italy

Cemetery, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The church is finally close at hand, but I pause first to wander through a small cemetery where centuries of graves are stacked atop each other in the ever-shrinking space.

 

As I look down onto the town, church, and coastline stretched out below it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting in which to be buried, or one that could give more comfort to visitors.

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At last the massive doors of the Church of St. Peter are within arm’s reach.

 

Completed in 1198 A.D., this striking Romanesque structure stands on the site of a fifth century Christian church which itself replaced a Roman temple to Venus built there in the first century B.C.

Italians on holiday, Porto Venere, Italy

Italians on holiday, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

By now the sun is high in the sky and along the harbor below Italians on holiday are picking out places along the rocky shore to sun themselves with typical European immodesty; Speedos are here in abundance!

Lovers play in Porto Venere, Italy

Lovers at play in Porto Venere, Italy

 

As the visit draws to a close, a bikini-clad young woman caresses the face of a young man seated on a quintessential Vespa.  It’s a scene that’s undoubtedly repeated itself again and again over the last 50 years, and it reminds me that la dolce vita is still alive and well in the land of Fellini’s birth.

 

 

As I scramble back aboard, though, I’m already contemplating the next port of call and it also recalls Fellini:  Roma.

 

If you’ve just joined this account my Mediterranean cruise, you can still begin at the beginning:

Days 1-2:  Barcelona

Day 3:  Montserrat Monastery

Day 4: France’s Languedoc

Day 5: Monaco & the French Riviera