Sunday, February 24, 2013

Arrivedercci Italia

Our last day it was blowing a small gale and raining buckets. The south Asian umbrella and plastic poncho hawkers were making a fortune. We borrowed some umbrellas from the B&B and walked/ran to the Church of San Clemente, a 15th century church, that although small, by roman standards, was beautiful in its own right. But it's what is hidden underneath was fascinating, excavations in the 1870s revealed a 4th century church that had been partially raised to build the present day church. Some of the frescoes, inlaid marble floor, and marble columns were still intact. New walls and vaulted ceilings had been built to to support the structure above. It was clear that the walls were built from rubble of the old; there were fragments of intricately carved marble in the rough masonry.
Then in the next level down there were the remains of pre-Christian roman buildings including a Mithrian cult meeting place and a house with running water either from a spring or an aqueduct. It was the first place this trip that the layers of Ancient Rome and the transition from the pantheistic empire through the Holy Roman Empire, the fall, and then the Renaissance to the modern Rome was so clear.
After a wonderful lunch at what was obviously a very popular local spot we retrieved our bags and jumped on the Leonardo Express to our sleep and fly hotel in Fiumincino, closing the circle.
The last Italian experience was L's dive into Grappa as an aperitif...although quite interesting the one small glass left me feeling a little rough at our 0400 wake-up to catch our flight.

Ci vediamo dopo...


Our goal for the day was to visit the Museum of the Vatican and the Sistine chapel. I can't say much more then everything exceeded our expectations... The collections of art from ancient to the Renaissance, the scale and grandeur of it all is beyond belief. E and I are each of two minds when we visit cathedrals and other sites, and now here at the center of the Catholic world... I'll stop my heathen rant now, before I forget the art and architecture on display at the Vatican is simply magnificent. Wouldn't we all want a Raphael or a Michelangelo fresco in our study?
We did find a bathtub we would like to get on loan from the new pope!
After the museum we went out to Piazza San Pietro for a picnic lunch at the foot of the massive colonnade ringing the piazza. We watched the ebb and fill of the equally massive line waiting to get into the basilica. We chose to forgo the line and just enjoy the architecture from the outside.

Ancient Rome

We visited a different Rome today, the one of Julius Caesar to Constantine. We stood on the spot where Julius had the occasion to say "e tu Brutus?". At another point we stood in the remains of the immense cathedral that was built by Constantine upon his victorious return after finding an opportune time to convert from persecutor of Christians to being the first Pope.
Then we marched down the main roman street of the forum between two triumphal arches and found the Temple of Vesta where virgins (vestal, of course) kept the symbolic flames burning. Right next door was the palace of the vestal virgins, which was quite luxurious and had a fine central courtyard line with statues of V.V. Maximi of the past to inspire residents of the palace that wealth and fame awaited awaited them if they stayed virgins until their 36th birthday.
We wandered around the ruins of the forum some more and then had our picnic among the opulence of Palatine Hill where the emperors lived, looking down on the mere mortals below.
After lunch we went to the Coliseum. Lots of crowds, but an impressive place, we could feel the ghosts of the gladiators, slaves, Christians, lions, etc who were killed here solely for spectacle and pleasure of the more fortunate residents of Rome. At least in our culture we allow the gladiators in the football stadiums to live until they die a slow death of dementia from repeated brain trauma.
So with that in mind we decided to feed the lions in our stomachs...

All roads lead to Rome did ours. Our first day in Rome we wandered from our lodging near the heart of Ancient Rome to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a 2000 year old concrete dome of immense proportions that was originally a place of celebration of the pantheon of Roman gods, subsequently looted and then adopted and redecorated by various popes. It is now a church and of the burial place of Raphael and two Italian kings.
We had a glass of wine at one of the cafes around the piazza at in front of the Pantheon and watched the throngs of tourists from all corners of the world. Then we went to the Trevi Fountain which was more thronged and then to the Spanish Steps for he sunset throngs.
It seems everyone's road leads to Rome!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Napoli Sotteranea

We visited a really old part of Naples on Monday. First, lunch at a stand up cafeteria on via Toledo, then we wandered our way into the the old part of the city. The streets became narrower and the buildings taller and more crowded; the only place to really see the sky was in the small piazzi in front of the churches. The place was vibrant -- shops of all kinds, butchers, fish markets, bakeries, green grocers, artisans, etc. Pedestrians, cars, trucks, scooters, and bikes all trying to be in the narrow alleys at once.
We encountered one church that was built in the 6th century. Then there was another church that was built in the 16th century by a cult of the Catholic Church dedicated to helping souls caught in purgatory to reach salvation. There were two levels of the church, the upper level in baroque style with beautiful but slightly creepy artwork ( lots of depicted skulls and bones). The church in the basement (closed to the public) is where the cult carried on their practice of each member adopting a skull from a crypt and caring for it until the skull's soul could be saved. Needless to say the Vatican frowns on the practice.
We found the subterranean tour and went down into the system of cisterns and narrow aqueducts built by the Greeks and expanded by the Romans. The system was in use until it was blamed for a cholera epidemic in the 1890s. After that it became a handy garbage dump and then an air raid shelter during the Allied bombardment of WWII. Now it is part of a tourist attraction and is being explored by spelunkers and archeologists. The tour ended with a visit to a neighborhood that was built in, around, and on top of a 2000 year old Roman theater . More than anywhere so far, this tour showed us that we Caucasians think of history in Alaska is just a blink of the eye.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Campi Flegrei in a day

The sulfur smell struck before we exited the Metro Tunnel into Pozoulli...It was quite strong at the train station. We walked up the hill towards Solfatera, and along the way encountered an excavation of Roman ruins right under the street, and then further along realized that the retaining wall and part of modern building walls were actually re-used Roman walls. Talk about remodeling!
We spent a couple of hours wandering around "Volcano Solfatera". Plenty of steam emitting from fumaroles with delicate needles of sulfates along the walls of what appears to be an old tuff ring. Some simmering mud pots and hollow sounding ground on the floor of the crater. The most activity were a set of loud jets escaping at a temperature of 160 C. Yellow and orange suffer and arsenic deposits coated the rocks, pretty impressive really.
Later we walked around Pouzzuli at the waterfront, port and old town. We saw the 100 A.D. Roman amphitheater and the "Temple of Serapis" which at one time was below sea level and then reemerged to its present position above sea level; you can see the holes that had been bored by clams. It looks like 10 to 20 meters of up and down motion. This is apparently due to hydrothermal expansion of water saturated layers in the first 1-4 km below the surface. The Campi Flegrei caldera seems to be pretty active. Indeed, as we left town, there was a good view of Monte Nouvo, so named because the 300 m high cone on the edge Pouzzuli is the result of a 1538 A.D. eruption.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Domingo en Napoli

Our first day in Napoli, we visited several of the architectural sights including the Gallaria Umberto in the main part of town along via Toledo. It seemed that most of Napoli was out enjoying the fine day. Families crowded the large Piazza Plebicito with small boys playing soccer with their parents. We arrived right at noon so the church bells were ringing. We walked up via Toledo lined with cafes, pastry shops, shoe stores, and clothing stores, amongst throngs.
We spent much of the afternoon in the archeological museum which had a tremendous collection of mosaics, frescoes, statues, and everyday objects that had been recovered from the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. We were most impressed with the artistry and beauty of the mosaics and the blown glassware that managed to survive the heat of the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption.
After a few challenges buying metro tickets and walking through some sketchy neighborhoods we managed to get on the train and arrived back in the lovely Mergallina neighborhood to our home in an 1890s apartment block complete with courtyard and stables.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Punta Campanella

The day was bright and clear, so we launched our plan to walk out to Punta Campanella. First, the bus to Termini, then a gentle walk in the shade and then sun along what started as a narrow steep road and ended as a wide rough trail to the 16th century watch tower that is now a modern lighthouse that marks the southwestern tip of the Sorrentine Peninsula. Along the way we met a new friend, Enrico, saw another 16th century watch tower that has been renovated to a modern summer home; and had another wonderful picnic of salami, aged provolone, and crusty Italian bread (and of course vino rosso). After enjoying the views of Capri and due Golfi, we started up the sketchy trail that leads up the ridge to Monti San Croce. It was quite a climb among limestone outcrops with fossil coral decorated with patches of wild flowers. The views were tremendous. However we could see the gathering storm clouds, so Elizabeth set a blistering pace to get to the top. We finished the day back at the little bar owned by Enrico, where he served some local red wine, home made mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, olives, and limoncello. The stories and friendship were wonderful, but the food was "not especially cheap".

Arrividerci, Sorrento

We enjoyed our stay in Sorrento, especially our home at Casa Astarita and all the wonderful food that we had at all the restaurants. We found that Elizabeth had brought the perfect outfit to be in-style: black leather boots, tights, skirt, and down sweater!
After a hydrofoil ferry ride we arrived in Napoli at thei height of Saturday afternoon on the coastal promenade and enjoyed the scene while we walked along via Caracciolo to our new lodgings at Hotel Ausonia in the Mergellina Port district.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Festa di Sant' Antonio Abate

The festivities honoring S. Antonio started early today, with a procession including all the civil authorities and religious authorities in Sorrento, it was quite long and included lots of bell ringing, bands playing, banners, crucifixes, incense, and cannons firing. It seemed like all the town tried to fit into the local cathedral. Even for a heathen like me, it was a moving event.
Afterwards, we trotted up the steep hill sides above Sorrento with the sound of cannons and bells from all the churches around Sorrento. We walked through Sant Agata Sui Due Golfi, perched on the ridge with views of both the Golfo d' Salerno and Golfo d' Napoli. Then we had a very private and scenic picnic at the old convent at il Deserto.
The day ended with dinner in the Piazza d' S'Antonio, at the end of the evening mass.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Vallone dei Mullini and other sights

Within the heart of Sorrento lies the Vallone dei Mullini, a steep walled canyon that cuts into the >100 m thick welded tuff deposit known as the "Ignimbrite Campagna". The tuff deposit is from a major eruption of the Campi Flegrei caldera 37,000 years ago. All of Sorrento is built on the deposit, and the dramatic
cliffs separating the town from the sea are all of a tuff breccia of ragged scoria bombs in a gray porous, welded matrix.
Enough geology... We spent the day waking around and exploring Sorrento and Sant'Agnello.
On our return from an afternoon ascent of the limestone cliffs above Sorrento we discovered a wine shop that sold local wines by the liter, bring your own jug!
Later we watched the activities around the church of the Patron Saint Antonio d'Abate as part of the week-long festivities associated with Ash Wednesday and the Festival of San Antonio.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pompeii and Herulaneum

These two famous sites are worth two days time. The crowds were thin, and we rarely were crowded, often we had a particular building to ourselves. The trade- off is that we were quite cold, and wore lots of layers.
The sky was clear and the snow covered summit of Vesuvius dominated the skyline with Beauty and majesty that belies its deadly fires. Pompeii is tremendous in its sheer dimensions and location on top of a hill -- it is easy to imagine the crowds and commerce that went on within its walls. Herculaneum, on the other hand was amazing, we were transported back 1950 years. The detail and preservation of the frescoes, mosaics, and even the charred remains of wooden beams is astounding and is a testament of the heat of the volcanic avalanche that sealed the towns fate. Looking back at the excavation of the ancient city several meters below the the street level of the modern Ercolano, one has to wonder how many people would be killed if Vesuvius were to come to life today.

Punta del Capo and Marina Grande

Domenica, a day of rest. Sorrento is festive today, all the children are in costumes and there are special children's events around town. We walked out to the point 3 km west of town to the site of the ruins of a 1st century roman noble Pollio Felice. Locals were fishing off the point and it was a lovely sunny day. It was interesting to see olive groves growing on a terrace supported by 16th century fortifications which are in turn built on 1st century Roman ruins.
On the way home we detoured into Marina Grande for a late afternoon snack of pizza and wine at quay side restaurant . We wound our way back to Casa Astarita via a winding alley.

Sunny?! Capri

Ah well! A steep and wet place with not much open. If we had not brought our own provisions we might have suffered like some of the locals. Despite the sometimes torrential rain it is a lovely place. Well worth the hydrofoil ride on gale force winds to see the little buses on the seemingly overhanging roads!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Shower in Amalfi

To get to Amalfi from Sorrento, one takes a bus over the crest of the Sorrento Peninsula. The road is mostly carved out of steep cliffs and passes through small towns that are perched above small coves on the Mediterranean Sea. Fortunately the bus drivers are skilled at the dance between other vehicles and pedestrians.

Almalfi is as spectacular and lovely as the the guide books say. This time of year there seems to be many more locals than tourists. After lunch we started up the roads, steps, and foot paths to Valle di Molinos. It started raining, hailing, and lightning so we took shelter under the doorway to the ruins of the aquaduct. After the rain tapered off we retreated back to Amalfi and explored the the stairways and passages of the neighborhood between Almalfi and Atrani, the next town to the south.
We watched a spectacular sunset on the Mediterranean during the bus ride back to Sorrento.

Massa Lubrense -- Perfecto!

The Sorrentine Peninsula is a rugged ridge of limestone that protrudes from the shin of the boot of Italy. The north side of the peninsula fronts the Bay of Naples and the south side is the northern part of the Amalfi coast.
The less precipitous parts of the peninsula are covered in citrus and olive groves, with a few scattered houses and towns. This was the setting for our walk today from Sorrento to Masa Lubrense. We had pleasant sunny weather on the part to Masa, mostly on cobblestone-paved cart-tracks flanked by stone retaining walls and orchards. The last bit of road was well traveled and required us to hug the building walls while small European cars went past.
After some discussion of our options at Masa, we ate the most delightful lunch while a spectacular squall blew through. Perfecto!
We took an entirely different path home, which required some narrower trails with some slippery steep sections and arrived home (Sorrento) feeling enchanted.
Ciao !

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Fiumicino more than an airport!

After long flights we arrived at the Rome - Fiumicino airport. After a lunch and checking into a room, we saw sailboat masts a couple of blocks away, so of course we had to go look.
Fiumicino, as it turns out is a fishing port at the mouth of the Tiber River. There are all sorts of work boats and pleasure craft along the river. There is a substantial dike, which is important because the entire town looks like it is at sea and river level.
There was a lot of activity as the local fishing fleet was coming in and selling their catch to wholesale and the public. Each boat had shell fish, eels, sea bass, sardines, shrimp and rays separated into trays. It was pleasant to stroll thru the commerce of locals under sunny blue skies.
There was a glitch in our planned lodging, but ended up at a much nicer place with a perfect restaurant across the street.
the next day: to Sorrento via Roma and Napoli!