Posts Tagged With: italy

Pompeii yes, Pompeii no

One of my major regrets from my trip to Italy 15 years ago is that I never made it to Pompeii. As somewhat of an archaeology enthusiast, I think I made a terrible mistake. So this time, I decided to take a day trip from Rome to visit the city and nearby Vesuvius, the volcano which erupted and buried the town so many years ago. I took an early high-speed train (yay!) from Rome to Naples and listened to an impromptu Italian music playlist on my iPod. I soon remembered that I have next to no opera on my iPod as the playlist proceeded directly to my awesome Italo Disco Party mix. Say what you will about Eiffel 65 (yes, I am aware that they they wrote songs about blue aliens and PlayStation and that you think they’re “dated” or “cheesy” or “having no musical talent whatsoever”), but I like them, and I still listen to them on a somewhat regular basis. Embrace the cheese! I also will never get tired of Gigi D’Agostino.

I had a little bit of spare time in Naples before catching the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii, so I did a quick walk around the block of the train station in search of a grocery store to buy some inexpensive snacks and lunch to bring with me. However, this was easier said than done, as most of the area around the station was filled with rinky-dink souvenir shops, tobacco shops, and black market salesman. The streets appeared especially grimy and filled with garbage. I’m sure that there are other parts of Naples that are much nicer, but this area was pretty dingy and borderline creepy. Color me unimpressed.

I caught the Circumvesuviana, which was jam-packed with locals and tourists alike. Upon arriving in Pompeii, I realized that I had no plan. Again, I had failed to do much additional research on the site, and I had no guidebook with me, leaving myself at the mercy of the swarm of tour guides at the train station. I met a Scottish couple about my age, and they told me that they were taking a bus tour to climb Vesuvius. The staff at their hotel had recommended doing the climb first before entering the Pompeii ruins. “Eh, why not?” I said, and shilled out the €22 to join them on the bus. Now, a smart person would have turned her head slightly to the left before paying any admission fee, noticed that the peak of Vesuvius was shrouded in a thick veil of fog, and declined the offer.  But as I am not a smart person, I went ahead, taking a comically turbulent bus ride up the side of the volcano to an unpaved parking lot, where we were released into the fog.

It took another 15-minute walk up a slippery gravel path to reach the summit of Vesuvius.  Not that I could tell much of a difference between the view into and from the volcano.  Fog to the left.  Fog to the right.  The views of the Amalfi coast are supposed to be spectacular on a clear day, but this was a no-go.  The small summit cafe was selling overpriced drinks and weird knick-knacks made of volcanic rock.  (Anyone want a glittery blue lava dragon?  How about a turtle?  I didn’t think so).  I killed some time taking Monty Python-themed photos  We were supposed to spend an hour up here? The wind whipped us around, and I was thankful that I had brought a long-sleeved shirt.  I loitered near the top for as long as I could, but after about 20 minutes, I headed down to catch an earlier bus back into town.image

Fabulous view into the volcano

Fabulous view into the volcano

What is your name?  What is your quest?  What is the capital of Assyria?

What is your name? What is your quest? What is the capital of Assyria?

image The rest of the afternoon, I explored the Pompeii ruins, kicking myself for wasting so much time at Vesuvius when I could have been avoiding the bigger crowds at the ruins.  I underestimated how much time it takes to see the ancient site, but I still was able to view a lot of it.  My audioguide was a bit tricky to follow:  the numbers at each point of interest did not always correspond with the directions given by the audioguide, so I found myself making a lot of wrong turns.  Even so, the ruins were amazing.

Roman baths

Roman baths

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City block

City block

Sitting in the amphitheater

Sitting in the amphitheater

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Exiting the city gate

Exiting the city gate

I needed to catch the Circumvesuviana back to Naples in order to make it back to Rome that night, so by late afternoon, I started to head back to the train station.  As I walked along the street to the station, my jaw dropped in disbelief when I saw a familiar face.  “Spencer?”  I asked.  It was a classmate of mine from dental school!  We had not seen each other in over eight years.  He was currently on vacation with his entire family in Italy.  What a small world to run into a schoolmate near some Roman ruins!

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It would have to wait until I got back to the hotel....

It would have to wait until I got back to the hotel….

 

Back on the the train, I was dumbstruck by the beauty of the Amalfi coast.  Tell me again why I decided to stay in a big city instead of on the beach?  I enjoyed a slice of traditional Neopolitan pizza at the train station before returning to Rome, anxious to wash my dirty feet and sandals after a long, long day.

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When in Rome

My flight out of Santiago left at 6:45am, but the buses from town to the airport don’t run that early. Since I really didn’t feel like sleeping in the airport overnight (which several pilgrims did; no thank you!) I splurged on an early-morning taxi. I almost had a heart attack going through security at the airport. Something kept on scanning in my carry-on bag, and the woman who worked there repeatedly asked me with suspicion what I might have that was setting off the sensors. “A knife?” she asked warily. “No, I don’t carry a knife,” I answered, confused. I frantically rummaged through the compartments of my daypack to see what the offending item could be. To my horror, I slipped my hand into a small interior pocket and pulled out my little Swiss Army knife. “Oh nooo…” I moaned, knowing that it would probably be confiscated. I have no idea how my knife could have gotten into that pocket (unless I had maybe placed it there for the Finisterre trip in case we decided to buy supermarket food for lunch). Luckily, she measured the largest blade, and somehow it was small enough to fall into what must have been the “bread and cheese” category and not the “serious threat” category, and I was able to keep it. (I still do not understand the rationale behind this, but I was not about to argue with her; I like my knife!) I sheepishly threw it back in my bag, knowing that I was now That Stupid Passenger At Security that I had always mocked before, and headed to the gate.

My flight was not direct but flew through Madrid, where I had a few hours to kill. The design of the Madrid airport is gorgeous. Airy and modern with plenty of natural light, it puts other airports to shame (ahem, Boston Logan Terminal E).

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On the flight, I had to begin the process of switching the Spanish in my head to Italian, which proved to be no easy feat. I sat next to a Spanish woman who for some reason tried to converse with me in Italian even though it was apparent that neither of us spoke it well. She would also proudly answer me in whatever English she knew. I would offer her something while speaking in Spanish, and she would accept, perk up, and beam, “THENK you VER-y MUCH-a!”

Once in Rome, I took several trains to reach the subway, which took me to the neighborhood where I would be staying the next four nights. I had booked a place online at booking.com (which, by the way, I quite like. They offer the option of looking for a single room for one person- including or excluding dorm beds in hostels depending on your preference- and frequently allow cancellation or changes in reservation at no cost). I had reserved the most reasonable accommodation I could find; no 10 Euro pilgrim albergues here! The place was a casa religiosa, which appeared to be a mix between a school and a seminary with conference rooms and a large chapel inside. When I reached my room and saw a crucifix and picture of the Annunciation on the wall, I smiled: it felt like I was still on the Camino.

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I had been in Rome 15 years earlier, so my goal was just to take it easy but see some of the sights that I had missed the first time around. My first night, I took the metro to the Spanish Steps and sat there eating a piece of pizza and a Coke. Gelato in hand, I wandered past cozy restaurant patios and came upon the Piazza Populo, where a MASSIVE free concert was going on. I was amazed at the relatively relaxed security: I was able to walk up the street behind the stage and watch the show from amidst the statues on the nearby hill. In the US, my guess is that the whole area would have been roped off and guarded, so I appreciated the opportunity for a good view!

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On Saturday, I took a bus down the Via Appia to the Roman catacombs. The tours there are brief (around 30 minutes) and are offered periodically in several different languages. Even though we only saw a tiny fraction of the underground passages, I can understand why they do not allow entrance without a guide: it would be nearly impossible not to get lost! The cold subterranean tunnels also provided a welcome break from the heat of the afternoon. Many members of my tour group were priests and seminarians from Nigeria, so I spoke to them for a bit after the tour. On the way home, I decided to take the scenic route, buy a gelato, and walk past the Coliseum on the way to a different subway station. It was kind of pleasant to sit next to Roman ruins and just read a book!

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So I had dropped the ball when it came to planning my Rome trip. I had intended to go to the Sunday Papal Mass but didn’t realize until it was too late that you need to reserve a ticket to even get in. Oops. I settled for going to St. Peter’s on Sunday at noon to hear the Pope pray the Angelus. I got there around 11:40, which was not nearly early enough, because the square looked like this:

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That square gets crowded, man! I was forced to decide between two options: a direct view of both the Pope and the scorching sun, or a spot beneath the columns in the shade that was in, uh, earshot of the Pope. I thought like a dermatologist and stayed out of the sun but was able to get this shot by extending my arm around the column that blocked my view:

20140730-231528-83728492.jpgYayyy, Papa Francesco!

[Fast forward: Two days later, I returned to the square and was able to take a normal tourist shot of myself without the massive hordes of people:]

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But those hordes were all there on Sunday, when I waited in line for 45 minutes just to get into 5pm Mass. I had forgotten just how enormous St. Peter’s Basilica is. Beautiful, but enormous. It’s like a holy airplane hangar. Sometimes I can feel almost overwhelmed in such a large space, so I focus on little details. It helps keep it in perspective for me.

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Back at the hotel, I had met another solo traveler at breakfast, Julia from Russia. As much as I like to travel alone, it is always nice to have someone to share a meal with. We went to dinner at an inexpensive restaurant around the corner from the hotel. The waiter brought us our silverware, glasses, and one lemon-scented wet-nap.

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When Julia kindly reminded him that there were two of us and asked if he could bring another, we ended up with this:

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We went shopping for souvenirs on my last day in Rome. In addition to the standard Rome/Italy offerings, there was a plethora of Pope-related memorabilia for sale: some of it pious, some of it funny. I saw delicate rosaries and prayer cards, but in the same store I also saw cigarette lighters of the Pope giving the thumbs up sign like the Buddy Christ :). Satisfied with our purchases, we stocked up at a grocery store (note to self: prepackaged salads are cheaper in Spain) and, with the addition of some of Julia’s leftover pizza, had a feast for lunch back at the hotel.

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In addition to all the fun in Rome, I took a day trip to Pompeii. But that’s a story for another post :).

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