Italy

Pompeii – The City Frozen in Time

Pompeii – The City Frozen in Time

Why is Pompeii so fascinating? We know that it was an ancient Roman city that was destroyed in a volcanic eruption when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. We also know that it was a city frozen in time at the instant of the eruption because the volcanic ash covered everything as the blistering hot gas cloud killed everything alive, then burned all that stood above the ash. And that, in a nutshell, is why we find it so fascinating. Not considering the agonizing death and destruction that rained down on this relatively large and sophisticated city, it’s our chance to observe something as it was, without the effect of time interfering with our interpretations of how things were. We’re reminded of our first visit to the famous ghost town of Bodie in the Eastern Sierras of California, where you walk through this gold rush era mining town that looks as if the residents simply walked away and left the city as it was.

You may see reference to Pompeii as “Pompei” because that’s the proper spelling of the new, more modern city of Pompei. The original city that was destroyed in 79 AD was spelled Pompeii. It’s also spelled Pompeji, depending on the language you’re viewing your Google Maps in.

The Volcano

Vesuvius_(erupting),_Brooklyn_Museum_Archives

Mount Vesuvius erupting. By William Henry Goodyear – Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain, Link

Mount Vesuvius has erupted many times in the past and continues to be a dangerous volcano. Our tour guide told us that there are at least 1,200,000 people living in what the Italian government calls “The Red Zone”, which is the area that needs to be evacuated in the event of an imminent eruption. And what’s the likelihood it will erupt again? Here’s a quote from one Wikipedia article that talks about past eruptions:

“Mount Vesuvius has erupted many times. The famous eruption in AD 79 was preceded by numerous others in prehistory, including at least three significantly larger ones, the best known being the Avellino eruption around 1800 BC which engulfed several Bronze Age settlements. Since AD 79, the volcano has also erupted repeatedly, in 172, 203, 222, possibly in 303, 379, 472, 512, 536, 685, 787, around 860, around 900, 968, 991, 999, 1006, 1037, 1049, around 1073, 1139, 1150, and there may have been eruptions in 1270, 1347, and 1500. The volcano erupted again in 1631, six times in the 18th century (especially in 1779 and 1794), eight times in the 19th century (notably in 1872), and in 1906, 1929 and 1944. There have been no eruptions since 1944, and none of the eruptions after AD 79 were as large or destructive as the Pompeian one.”

Condos and Mount Vesuvius

These structures are thought to be homes like our condos, with Mount Vesuvius in the background. Photo by Bonnie Fink.

It’s thought—based on core samples of sediment and carbon dating—that Pompeii was originally founded between 800 and 600 BC. In its present location, it was originally much closer to the ocean, but we’re not sure if the distance it now sits away from the ocean is a result of lower ocean levels, sediment from nearby rivers filling in the Bay of Naples, or volcanic ash covering the shallower depths of the bay. The original Pompeii, while it was on the shore of the Bay of Naples, is only five miles from Mount Vesuvius.

The population of Pompeii was between 11,000 and 20,000 people, depending on which account you read. The first number is based on the number of households in the city and the second number seems to account for the transient population as well. Pompeii was a major commercial center and probably had a great many non-permanent residents within its walls at any particular time. There were hotels, restaurants, baths, marketplaces and exchanges, and even brothels that all catered to the large transient populations.

At the time of the eruption, approximately 2,000 people died, which suggests that much of the population heeded the initial warnings from Mount Vesuvius and fled the city. The eruption took about 24 hours to run its full course, and evidently started with earthquakes and a large ash cloud exploding about 20 miles into the sky, giving people an indication of what was to come. In the interest of accuracy though, we should point out that the 2,000 number is an estimate of the people who died within the city itself. Our reading also tells us there is a substantial number of bodies located along the area that was once the shoreline of the Bay of Naples, and most of them have not been excavated. This suggests that an unknown number of people were trying to flee but were caught up in the eruption and unable to escape by land. They met their fate waiting, hoping for rescue from the sea.

Plaster Cast

A plaster cast of one of the many bodies found in Pompeii. The plaster casting was made by locating a cavity in the underlying volcanic ash, indicating a place where a person had perished. The cavity was then pumped full of plaster, revealing the shape of the person as they were when they were overcome during the eruption. Photo by Bonnie Fink.

Archeologists were able to make several plaster castings of the people who died in the eruption by locating the cavities in the ash where people had died, and injecting those cavities with plaster, creating the shape of the people as they were at the moment they died. It gives a very clear picture into the life in Pompeii during the time. It also shows the agony that these people—and their animals—must have suffered in the last moments of life during the eruption.

As we walked through the restored areas of Pompeii, our first impressions were of a place that, given the level of sophistication and civilization, we could have managed a life here in 79 AD. The streets were paved, there were pipes that carried water to various places throughout the city, and while the sewer basically ran down the street, there were sidewalks and stepping stones to get across. Yes, civilized as Pompeii was, the Romans hadn’t quite worked out a sewer system yet. Chamber pots were basically thrown out in the street, and everything ran downhill. And of course, those pipes that carried drinking water throughout the city were made of lead.

With all the death and destruction in Pompeii, and with the virtual certainty that it will erupt again, the question is, are we going back? The answer is, absolutely. With a town as well preserved as this one, it’s a window into how the Romans lived, worked, and played. Many of the paintings on the walls are as they were in 79 AD, the building ruins for the most part are easily worked out in terms of their purpose, and much of life around the city was well documented, either through careful examination of these ruins, or other documentation from the time. With the certainty of eruption, it’s still hard to pass up a chance to see this place. After all, what are the chances? Right?

Posted by Donald Fink and Bonnie Fink in blog, Travel, 1 comment
Florence – City of the Renaissance

Florence – City of the Renaissance

On our recent cruise in the Mediterranean, our ship stopped at La Spezia, a small port along the western coast of Italy. It was in close proximity to Pisa and Florence, and having been to Pisa once before, we elected to take a ship’s tour to Florence. The bus ride was about two hours through the northwestern parts of the Tuscany Region of Italy and we had the opportunity to see a good deal of the Tuscan landscape. Florence, of course, plays a big part in a great deal of our modern world, but it’s almost staggering how big that part really is. It’s said that the Renaissance began there, and with great minds like Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo all hailing from this one place, it’s hard to argue to the contrary.

Florence is the capital of Tuscany, which is a Region of Italy. A Region, in case you need a refresher, is like a state, or a province. Of course, just to confuse things, a province is an administrative area inside a region, sort of like a county in the U.S. Cities are referred to as Communes for Italian administrative purposes. Got that? We’ll move on then.

Tuscany Landscape

The Tuscany Landscape is not unlike that of California. Image by By Lucía García GonzálezTuscany, CC0, Link

The countryside in Tuscany, based on our trip from La Spezia to Florence, is not unlike California. Sort of a southern California meets the Napa Valley kind of place. With Marble Rock quarries located in the hills in the backdrop. The climate looks to be kinda dry, and there was evidence that Italy suffers the same forest fire problems that much of the western United States does. The trees tend to be smaller, but the fire danger seems to be very real. This was even more evident on our visit of Pompeii, but we’ll talk about that more in a future article.

The History

Florence goes way back. More so than many European cities, but it got its start to stardom with the Romans. When Rome took responsibility for the area, they brought in roads, aqueducts, sewers, and constructed a number of public and private buildings. The city was established in 59 AD by Julius Caesar as a military post for the Tuscan area. With the improvements from the Romans for largely military reasons, it didn’t take much time until the city began to flourish as a major commercial area too.

Rome fell in the Florence area around the 5th Century, and Tuscany reverted back to Kingdoms, but Florence continued to thrive, serving a growing travel business as a major stopover point for people traveling from Rome to France.

Giovanni di Bicc _de' Medici

Giovanni di Bicc de’ Medici, founder of the Bank of Medici. By Cristofano dell’AltissimoPalazzo-Medici.it, Public Domain, Link

More or less concurrent with the Renaissance—which began in Florence—was the rise of the House of Medici, also from Florence. The Medicis were a family of bankers that, while considering themselves “citizens” rather than royalty, were far from ordinary. They were responsible for much of the progress in Europe from the 15th century, when Giovanni di Bicci de Medici (c. 1360-1429) founded the Medici Bank. The family has a colorful and convoluted history as they intertwined their family into the most important circles in Europe along their rise to power. They managed to produce three popes, two queens, and a number of other local royal figures. Also, the family, through their bank, financed much of the progress from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance in Italy and a great deal of Europe in general.

 

What to see in Florence

Where do we start? First, the idea that we could come to Florence and see any significant part of the sights in an afternoon from a cruise ship was just plain silly. Florence was ground zero for the entire Renaissance. Much of what we hold as important in terms of art, music, literature, and especially science, originated here in Florence at the end of the Dark Ages. Some really important stuff happened here. And if the whole Renaissanceidea isn’t important enough, some of the most influential ideas in banking and commerce originated here in Florence with the rise of the Medici family and their world bank. 

Dante

A statue to Dante who also lived in Florence sits in front of the Basilica of Santa Croce. Photo by Bonnie Fink.

Some of the important sights include the Uffizi Gallery where several important paintings of the Renaissance are displayed, or the Accademia Museum where you can see Michelangelo’s David. We enjoyed the Museo Galileo, a science museum near the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) in the heart of Florence. It wasn’t the most popular museum in town judging by the fact that there was no line to get in, but science is our interest above art, so it was a good fit. And it was very interesting to learn that of the scientific discoveries being made as the world emerged from the Dark Ages, Florence was in the middle of the action.

Did you know that when the Church placed Galileo under house arrest for life for claiming that the universe did not revolve around the earth, he chose his home in Florence to spend the rest of his life? That’s because he had his main observatory at his Florence home, and since he was going to be under house arrest, he wanted to spend his time continuing his studies in astronomy.

You can see more about Florence in the images we have below. But the problem is, how do you prioritize your time in Florence and see the things that are the most important to you? For many people, any number of museums displaying art from the Renaissance might be important. In our afternoon of free time from our ship’s tour, we found lunch, then made our way to the Museo Galileo because we had heard that Galileo’s original telescope was there. If it was, we didn’t find it, but we found nearly every other notable astronomer’s telescope from the period in the museum. We also found a number of other scientific instruments whose purpose escaped us. We’ll need to return to spend a bit more time just to ponder the things in this one museum.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio is a medieval stone arch bridge over the Arno River, built in 1345. When it was built it housed fish and meat markets. Today it consists of jewelry vendors. There’s an interesting story about the bridges over the Arno River in Florence. There are several versions of exactly why the Ponte Vicchio was spared destruction by the retreating German army in world War II, but the fact remains that it was the only medieval bridge to be left standing after the war. Photo by Donald Fink.

One way to see Florence might be to consider a private guide. We had a guide that took us from the ship and around Florence. Her name was Valentina Bassi, and we learned that she also has a private tour business, giving custom designed individual or small group tours of Florence and Pisa. Her web site is at www.florenceandpisatours.com. We plan to re-visit Florence one day in the future, and we think an ideal plan, at least for us, would be to contact Valentina and tell her what we want to see, and arrange for our first day as a private tour with her. We could then plan subsequent visits by ourselves as follow-ups.

The point in using a tour guide to show you the sights is not that we think we need someone to hold our hand as we make our way through the city, but rather, the fact is that a competent guide—as Ms. Valentina most certainly is—has literally years of experience seeing the sights. She has knowledge that would take us time to uncover, and she possess anecdotal stories that we might not ever discover on our own.

Florence today continues to be an interesting center for art, architecture, engineering, or just about any emerging field of study, but for us, that’s not the reason we want to visit again. The history is so full of colorful stories, and so many of the things we’ve heard about all our lives originated in this historical city, it’s rewarding and fun to be able to come here and see where many of them started.

If you have a chance to visit Florence, whether it’s a destination or just a day visit from a passing cruise ship, this is one stop not to miss.

Posted by Donald Fink and Bonnie Fink in blog, Cruising, Travel, 1 comment
Amalfi – A Coastal Oasis in Italy’s Campania Region

Amalfi – A Coastal Oasis in Italy’s Campania Region

Not long ago we spent a day touring the Campania region of Italy’s west coast. We’re sailing aboard the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas and stopped for the day in Naples. From there, we took a ship’s tour focused on a visit to Pompeii, but before the tour of the Roman city near Mount Vesuvius, we stopped in the small coastal town of Amalfi.

The bus ride to Amalfi was interesting. We were in an almost full sized tour bus and drove south from Naples along a coastal road that wasn’t more than 1 1/2 lanes wide, with cars parked along the side of the road here and there just to make things interesting for the driver. Much of the road was carved out of rock and cantilevered out from the side of the cliff. It reminded us of Highway 1 along California’s west coast, except in this case the road to Amalfi made Highway 1 look like a super highway.

When we arrived in Amalfi, we were surprised to see that there was quite a bit of room for what we thought was a little town. All along the coast on the way south there was barely enough room for the scores of small houses and hotels we passed by, but once we arrived in town, there was ample room for this small village to have a thriving life.

As is the case with many of the Ship’s tours these days, we were given “free time” to wander about the city before we headed out on the rest of our journey. We made a quick survey of the area and finally settled on a small café in the city center for some coffee, and to watch the people pass by, going about their tourist business. We also had a crepe that was interlaced with chocolate, ice cream, and cookies. It was the best crepe we’ve had so far this trip, which included most of Germany, Brussels, Disneyland Paris, and Barcelona. It was what we thought a crepe should be like; thin and light, and full of flavor. The ice cream and cookies was not the result of understanding enough Italian to order food, but rather, it was more or less random selection of something from the crepe menu, about halfway down the list and in the middle of the price range.

Cafe in Amalfi

We enjoyed a crepe while in Amalfi. It was filled with a cookie, ice cream, and chocolate. Sounds odd but it was very good. Outdoor cafes in Europe are also a great place to people watch, as was this restaurant, located in the central part of town. Photo by Donald Fink.

After thoroughly enjoying our coffee and crepe, we wandered around town a bit longer and grabbed some more images of the town.

Amalfi was first mentioned in written documents as early as the 6th century. In the 8th century, it began to rise as an important trading port, doing much of its business with ports in northern Africa. The town at one time was thought to have between 60,000 and 70,000 residents. They even used a financial system involving gold currency when the rest of Italy was still bartering for their commerce.

A tsunami destroyed much of the lower town and the port in 1347, and the town never recovered as a shipping center. In the 1920s and 1930s, Amalfi was a tourist destination popular among British elite. Now, it’s just popular with everyone.

This is a town that would be worth returning to at some point in the future. Renting a car and driving from Naples or Salerno-the two closest big towns-would seem to be a last option based on what we saw of the road from the tour bus, so we asked our tour guide how locals came to this little village to vacation. There seemed to be several great looking hotels in town and folks have to get there somehow. Our guide said that many people actually did ride the public transportation bus, but they usually took water taxis to get to any of the little villages we found along the way from Naples. For us, being people who usually gravitate toward a rental car as a first option, the bigger question would be finding adequate parking once we arrived if we brought a car.

In fact, we took a boat from Amalfi to Salerno, where we again met up with our tour bus and made our way to Pompeii. Expect more about Pompeii in the next couple of days. In looking for a ferry, we were able to find a scheduled boat from Salerno to Amalfi, but not a ferry from Naples to Amalfi, so a return trip might require some planning. Here’s a look at the ferry schedule.

Our brief stay in Amalfi convinced us that we want to spend more time in central and coastal Italy, including trips out to some of the Italian islands in the Mediterranean. The food was great, based on our crepe of a lifetime, the coffee was good, and we were thrilled to see that many of the buildings dating back to the days right after the Roman Empire are still there, still inspiring us to learn about the past. With towns like Amalfi, with their old world charm, friendly people, and spectacular surroundings, it’s hard to decide where the next trip will take us.

Posted by Donald Fink and Bonnie Fink in blog, 2 comments