The Early Bird Gets the Croissant
This may surprise you, but I’ve never woken up in a convent before, so opening my eyes to a crucifix on the wall was momentarily disorienting. We’d slept well so I shook off the unsettling feeling and got out of bed.
There was only a single power outlet in the room. I’d managed to find a power bar the night before so we managed to turn one wall outlet into enough to recharge phones and power my sleep apnea machine and a fan (which was a necessity).
Given how European outlets look like they could handle the power requirements of a laundromat dryer, an MRI machine or perhaps even a particle accelerator I wasn’t too concerned with blowing a fuse. Most wall outlets we encountered in Europe have a single plug, unlike the double plugs we have in North America.
A continental breakfast was served at the convent between 6:00 and 6:07 a.m., or maybe it was 7:06 a.m. All I know is breakfast was very, very early and very rushed so we could catch the train to Naples.
Breakfast was as basic as it could get with a buffet of flakes, grains, rolls, cheese and some processed meat slices. Click the link if you want to know that looks like, now that I’ve just discovered I can link to my own pictures. The room itself certainly had ambience.
A picture of a stern pope monitoring every calorie we ingested seemed imposing, amplified by the effect of the intricate, coffered ceiling and border. How can one not feel the guilt inducing gaze from a pope from the wall? I daresay no rolls get stuffed into pockets or purses off THIS buffet table.
After we finished we made our way to the train station without a problem. With no luggage, we’d be traveling light for the day and would buy tickets to the Pompeii site when we arrived.
Vesuvius… I Think
By now we were starting to become comfortable with the trains, but the ride to Naples provided a new tapestry of topography to take in. There was also the anticipation of actually seeing Mount Vesuvius.
I’ve was an avid reader as a kid. The story of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 a.d. was riveting as an eight year old living in Montreal and thus began my fascination with volcanoes.
The excitement grew the closer we got to Naples, ever craning my neck to see if I could get a glimpse of this volcano which had fascinated me as a kid. There was heavy overcast and rain with low visibility as we arrived in Naples. We were umbrella challenged and attired in summer wear. Not good.
In order to get to Pompeii, one has to take a 75 minute train ride around the base of the volcano on the Circumvesuviana. This is actually a private rail line and not a medical procedure. We bought our tickets at the station in Naples and they cost €3.20 each from Naples to Pompeii. There are a couple of cars, but I swear they stop every 139 feet along the way to pick up passengers. It really felt more like a bus.
As we got closer to Pompeii the weather and visibility worsened. No amount of rubbernecking would allow me to see the volcano. We’d have to get above the weather if we wanted to see Vesuvius and I hadn’t the foresight to budget for a dirigible. I resolved myself to the fact I wouldn’t see the volcano itself… but that still didn’t stop me from staring hard out the window in the direction of Vesuvius trying to will the weather to change.
The Rain of Caesar
And change it did! As the train pulled in to Pompeii the skies opened up. It rained with biblical intensity and I wasn’t seeing a shelter on the open air platform. We jumped off the train and followed the crowd sprinting briskly towards a blurry building in the distance.
We still had to buy our tickets to the site and out of the misty rain they appeared, like zombies in the The Walking Dead. Tour salespeople. The one that I gravitated towards immediately was the one offering a free raincoat if you signed up with them for… I don’t remember how much, but I’m willing to bet it was €30 each (this includes the site fee, which is €16).
I paid for the two of us and he directed us to the building and handed me a raincoat. Whoa Nellie! Tour for two, two raincoats, right? Nope. €10 for an additional raincoat. I paid for another coat.
I know what you’re thinking. What a SCAM, how COULD YOU??? I read this and feel the same outrage. However, we were standing directly under what felt like Pompeii Falls and I just wanted to get on with it all.
We quickly struggled to get into our yellow, Versace designer garbage bags and headed for shelter. It stopped raining before we got to the tour building.
Hey Mike! You’d Be More Popular if You Spelled Your Last Name Pompeiio!
It was a pleasant stroll along a tree lined walkway as we headed into the first site which was the seaport gate. Pompeii had been a seaport at the mouth of the Arno river in the Gulf of Naples before Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 a.d. and God decided to re-zone a half mile of sea as land with voluminous amounts of ash and lava.
When the tour guide first told us Pompeii had been a seaport I was skeptical. I looked downhill and could see water, way, way off in the distance and it just didn’t seem possible. I wondered if we’d gotten one of the Taj Mahal tour guides from Slumdog Millionaire. Just some random grifter who tells you he’s a tour guide, takes your money then free associates historical “facts” because how are you gonna know?
“A big problem in ancient Rome was toga rash which resulted in pustulent boils. Roman doctors would treat patients with a poultice made of frankincense, hummingbird tongues and mouse poop and this protocol is used to treat toga rash still to this day. Next, we’ll move on to the pen of Pegasus. He was a famous homing horse…”
But as it turns out the tour guide knew her stuff and Pompeii had indeed been a seaport. Hey, how much do you think I’m going to remember from reading about it when I was eight?
Moving deeper into the ruins we reached a large rectangular soccer sized field field surrounded by Doric columns in various states of repair. The ruins are pretty ruined.
If I had to be a Slumdog Millionaire tour guide I’d say fans tore the place apart during the great soccer riots of 53 a.d. when Pompeii was hammered by Sorrento 1-0 in the sectional finals. It was rumored that Sorrento was using a draught of frankincense, hummingbird tongues and mouse poop to enhance player performance and rioting ensued.
Our actual tour guide tells us that this was a gladiatorial school. I’m afraid to ask her what rush week and hazing would involve at gladiator school. Prior to becoming a gladiator training school it was a park in which patrons could stroll between acts in the Grand Theater which was located at the end of the field.
I’m also surprised to learn that after watching Gladiator, Ben Hur and other “sand and sandal” epics that I’m not quite as schooled in ancient Roman history as I was led to believe. Apparently gladiators rarely fought to the death.
This was due to the fact that gladiator acquisition, training and maintenance was very expensive. They only fought to the death when the games sponsor would pony up big dough. That makes sense when you think about it.
If you extend the logic to contemporary times and death is the result of a bad game, the Cleveland Browns would be replacing their entire team almost on a weekly basis.
I’m just shocked and unnerved to learn that history as related by Russell Crowe and Charlton Heston may be historically inaccurate.
Ain’t it Teatro Grande
At the far end of the field was an elevated stage, nestled at the bottom of ancient bowl seating. Welcome to the grand theatre, which could seat 5,000. No human sacrifices here, rather just plays, light orgies and what not.
The underlying stone was granite and there has been some marble restoration on the bottom levels. The timber awning supports at the top of the structure are replacements for the ones burned during the eruption.
Rich patrons had the prime, lower level seating and the proles had the nosebleed sections. Nothing has changed in 2,000 years.
This was for large public gatherings but there was a short tunnel connecting to a smaller theater next door for private gatherings. Patrons would stretch out couch style and nosh on honeyed lark organs and Cinnabons and watch plays while drinking wine. Very cozy if you ignore the fact you’re laying on bare marble.
The guide led us back to the main theater and inexplicably gave us 15 minutes to wander around and… appreciate the ambience, I guess. I sat down and Joanne made her way to the top of the bowl to check out the view. As I sat there the sheer scale of the what happened here hit me. The volcano was five miles away and it not only buried this town of 12,000 under 20 feet of ash and pumice and fill this ampitheatre 20 feet over the brim, it pushed the sea back a half mile to redefine the coast. That’s performance.
There were more revelations to come as we continued our tour of Pompeii but that will have to wait for next time.