Cities in Dust: A Visit to Pompeii
15.09.2009 - 15.09.2009
After a long night of much needed sleep, we woke to our first real morning in Italy. We had only been there for 24 hours, but already, the differences were noticeable. For instance, I was puzzled at first by the toilets. No, not the whole bidet phenomenon, which did create it’s own series of emotion ranging from shock to curiosity to an immature fit of the giggles, but rather the fact that the toilets were backless, the tank being located somewhere else in the bathroom. This left me with the question: how do I flush? There was no tank with a flusher. I noticed a panel on the wall behind my backless toilet that had two giant push buttons, one more giant than the other. What to do? What to do? I nervously bit my nails, uncomfortable with the thought that I might push a button that could cause an alarm to go off, or a wild bathroom sprinkler. Was that the flusher? Was it? What if it actually turned all the lights off or shut down the plumbing?
Do I? Don’t I? Do I? After a few nervous moments, I finally just went for it. I chose the smaller button. I figured if it did something loud or terrible, the smaller button might be less loud and less terrible.
Now that I knew the button didn’t actually summon an army of midget firefighters or sound a trumpet, I had to know what the bigger button did.
Oh. I get it. I giggled at a toilet that had a “small flush” button and a “big flush” button.
Next we came to the hairdryer. I saw a contraption mounted on the wall. It was a box with a vacuum cleaner hose attached. Surely not. It couldn’t be. Could it? It was. Again, my utter immaturity could not be held back as I laughed myself silly as I dried my hair with the vacuum nozzle.
Those things don’t work worth a damn, by the way.
Morning hygiene under control, it was time for breakfast….Italian-style.
I learned quickly that I like the way Italians do breakfast. Meat. Good. Cheese. Good. Pastries. Good. Cappuccino…..GOOD. The hotel had a very nice breakfast buffet of cold cuts and cheeses, pastries and breads with honey and jam. Cakes. Seriously…cakes. For breakfast. Vicki likes cake at any time of day. Cereals, yogurt, and fresh fruit as well as fresh juices like blood orange and pineapple. The coffee, however, was not at the buffet. I looked nervously at the Italian woman standing behind the counter next to the big, bad, cappuccino maker. I was going to have to ask for it.
It was time to order my cappuccino and I realized quickly that my shyness was taking over and all the Italian I had so carefully learned went out the window. I resorted to grunting and pointing. I pointed at the cappuccino maker and nodded. She nodded and held up a cup. “Cappuccino?” she asked. “Si.” I said. “Due?” she asked. “No,” I responded since I have failed thus far to make Matt into a coffee drinker. At that point, my two little Italian words had convinced her somehow that I was a fluent speaker of Italian. She rattled off a sentence and the only word I understood was “cioccolato.” I figured anything that had to do with chocolate had to be good, so I nodded vigorously. “Si, cioccolato.”
It was entirely possible that I had just ordered chocolate covered dog poo to go with my cappuccino, for all the Italian I knew, but I was winging it.
A few minutes later a creamy, frothy cup of foamy heaven arrived……sprinkled delicately with chocolate.
After a few croissants filled with chocolate and sprinkled with powdered sugar, I was on a supreme caffeine and sugar high and needed to walk off a little energy, lest I literally bounce myself out of the little car on the way to Sorrento that day. We took about an hour to walk around the Trastevere neighborhood, wandering through the Santa Maria Piazza and watching the hustle and bustle of the morning activities.
We had a long drive ahead, going from Rome to Sorrento, so the walk did us good. Tall buildings with chipped pink and orange paint and exposed bricks towered above us, reaching up to a beautiful blue sky. Ivy crawled upwards toward windows thrown open to expose fresh smelling sheets hanging in the early sunshine to dry. Tiny trucks made their deliveries, watched warily by shop dogs that were keeping an eye on business.
When it was time to go, we piled into our tiny car, armed with nothing but the GPS lady to get us out of Rome, onto the autostrada, and to our first destination: a small restaurant on a small street in the small town of Ercolano, just before Pompeii. Now that I had mastered the toilet flush, the hair dryer, and the ordering of the cappuccino, I was feeling like a world traveler. I was trans-continental, folks. I could do anything. Again, the overconfidence kept us from doing as much preparation as might have been prudent for our upcoming adventure.
Getting out of Rome was worse than getting in. Within 10 minutes, we were lost, confused, going in the opposite direction we needed to, and yelling at each other and the GPS lady. In Rome, lanes are merely a suggestion, not a rule; insane scooters reign; and streets signs are….well…in freaking Italian which we hadn’t bothered to learn.
“Turn right on the Viale La Spezia.”
That’s it. I yelled at Matt that his GPS girlfriend was stupid and I put her in the glove compartment.
We finally figured out the signage and made our way to the autostrada. Somehow, we got there without wrecking the car, killing a scooter driver, or throwing the GPS lady in the Tiber River. It was a boring 2 ½ hour drive to Naples. Just past Naples, our plan was to stop and eat lunch at a neat place I had read about in the small town of Ercolano. Ercolano was just minutes from Pompeii, so it seemed like a plan, right?
Matt had managed to sneak his GPS girlfriend back out of the glove box at this point and he forced me, against my will, to give her another opportunity to redeem herself. We found Ercolano without a hitch. It was a scruffy little town and Matt kept looking at me saying, “Are you sure this is right? Are you sure?” I am that person that God forgot to give a healthy dose of fear to. You know, that very good, self preserving kind of fear? I don’t have it. I generally remain blissfully unaware of potential dangers lurking around me. I was busy gawking up at the buildings and the kids playing in the streets, snapping pictures and looking around. What I was missing was Matt breaking out into another nervous sweat as the GPS lady took him into a maze of tiny alleys, eventually bringing us into what was as close to a slum as I guess we could find in Italy. Then, the road that the GPS lady told us to take ended up being closed for construction. Crap. We were on our own again, lost in a maze of confusion.
“Go down that one,” I pointed at a tiny alley.
“Are you sure about that?” Matt asked warily as he looked down the narrow street, littered with trash and boxes, abandoned cars, and lots of idle people.
“Yeah, go down that one. It points back to the direction we want to go.”
He turned. We rolled down the windows and pulled in the mirrors. The road was that narrow. We drove deeper and deeper into the bowels of the little city, the sun obliterated by the tall narrow buildings, laundry flapping in the windows, people staring after our car suspiciously.
I was happily snapping pictures and shouting, “Look at that little dog,” “Look at that pretty doorway,” or “Look at those flowers,” while Matt was sweating and near puking, having visions of the men we saw at the alley entry pushing cars in front of the exit to block the way of the stupid tourists that had stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time. My mind was in the movie “Roman Holiday” while Matt was starring in some dark and disturbing After School Special.
That was when we reached the dead end with no where to turn around. Matt gave me a look that spoke volumes and I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders. We had to back aaaallll the way back down that alley. I must say, though, the Italian people are so friendly and gracious. There were no cars piled up at the exit so that they could cut up our bodies and put us in the trunk. They did, however, smile and wave as we drove back by, embarrassed as hell.
It was at this point that Matt tried to put me in the glove box with the GPS lady.
We eventually made it to our restaurant. Viva Lo Re was a great little place, warm and inviting, the walls stacked with wine bottles, making it more like having lunch in a wine cellar than a restaurant. I knew we were in trouble when we figured out there was no printed menu and the waitress didn’t speak any English. It was hilarious. She was rattling off stuff, Matt was totally lost and looking at me mouthing “You order for me,” and I was trying to hear a word, any word, that I recognized. I heard ravioli and pesce (fish). Ah ha! Ravioli and fish it is. I nodded and said, “Due.”
See, so far I had only needed two Italian words: Yes and Two. I was rockin’ right along. I was AWESOME.
The waitress then came back and rattled off something I couldn’t understand. I looked at her and said, “Non capisco.” (I don’t understand).
“Oh,” she said. She scratched her head for a minute, obviously trying to figure out how to communicate to me. Finally she said, “Ravioli….finish.”
They were out of ravioli. Damn. She and I went through the whole menu again, with the associated nodding, grunting, and pointing and somehow we ended up with Fettuccini with seafood. What kind of seafood? I never did figure that one out.
Who knew ordering could be so hard??
The house red wine at Viva Lo Re was wonderful and after two glasses, we relaxed and let the stress of driving that morning roll of us in waves. We munched on a basket of fresh baked bread while the local lunch crowd around us buzzed. Two heaping plates of spinach fettuccini with tomatoes and cheese, as well as “mystery seafood,” were set down in front of us and all was right with the world. The wine made me warm and fuzzy, a haze of comfort settling down on me like a blanket.
We had decided to visit Pompeii that day because it was on our drive to Sorrento. The entrance was only a few miles from Ercolano and we managed to get there without a hitch. It was late in the afternoon, probably around 2:00 p.m., when we arrived and we had apparently missed the crowds. The dusty city was deserted for the most part with the exception of an inordinate number of stray dogs. I nicknamed them the “Dogs of Pompeii.” Their scruffy little bodies were sleeping everywhere.
The utter desertion of the place made it eerie as we walked down the stone streets. You could almost glimpse the city beneath the city as you walked past storefronts and homes. You could imagine the grandeur and bustle of the streets. You could hear the cries of the people as the ash fell and caught them where they stood.
One thing that surprised me about Pompeii was the color. Beautiful colors painted on buildings, in murals on the walls, and in tile mosaics. I was also surprised by the size of it. Pompeii is HUGE and the architecture of the place is remarkable for its time. I felt privileged to be allowed such a rich and beautiful glimpse into the past.
Most of the “people” have been removed and placed in a museum in Naples. There were a few, however. You could see them in terror, in agony, and couldn’t help but wonder what it had been like for them in those final moments. Looking at them, laying in desperation or fear, curled up trying to protect themselves, I couldn’t help but feel a heaviness on my heart. This was a person that lived here. This was a person that died here. This was a person.
We stayed for several hours, wandering through the maze of streets, running our palms along the rough stone columns and smooth marble, walking through the stately homes of the wealthy and the modest rooms of the poor. As the sun began to set, we said our goodbyes to the ghosts of the fallen city and headed toward our next destination, Sorrento.
Sorrento is a “larger” city compared to others on the Amalfi Coast, just after Naples and on the peninsula that sort of begins the Amalfi Coastline. We thought it would be a good starting point for our Amalfi Coast adventure. We drove into Sorrento in the dark, the hulk of Mount Vesuvius a shadow in the setting sun. The road began to twist and turn. We could see mountainous cliffs beginning to rise on our left side and plunges to the sea on our right.
We arrived at Hotel Mediterraneo Sorrento to check in and we were given a room in their sister property, which is right on the water, Hotel Caruso. They also offered us a free dinner in their restaurant that night, which we gladly took them up on since it was very late and we were very tired.
After minimal clean up time, we went to the restaurant where we were seated on the terrace facing the sea. A delicious breeze was blowing and the night air was cool. The waiter arrived and spoke blessed English. The menu was also in several languages, so ordering was easy. I chose to order from the menu but Matt asked the waiter to recommend something. Normally, this is highly recommended in Italy, as daily specials or fresh dishes are available and not on the menu.
However, instead of offering up a fresh Italian specialty, I am guessing the waiter sized Matt up, with his thick southern accent, and compared him to the closest American approximation that he could muster: John Wayne. He brought Matt spaghetti and a giant steak. Cowboy food…yee haw! The spaghetti was really good, though, just not very imaginative! I can see the waiter’s thought process: “Big American guy. He want steak. He want spaghetti. Good American type food.”
For an appetizer I ordered melon with prosciutto. The melon was at the perfect moment of ripeness, still firm but sweet, and the prosciutto was like none I had ever tasted: thick and so soft it nearly melted in my mouth. The saltiness of the prosciutto with the sweetness of the melon was perfect. I also ordered a roast salmon that was cooked with tomatoes, capers, and black olives. Topped off with a bottle of wine and fresh bread, it was enough to make my eyes heavy with sleep.
The night was so deliciously perfect, we just couldn’t turn in yet, so we wandered into the pool garden which was filled with tropical trees and flowers and softly lit. There was live music: a one man Italian show doing his rendition of your favorite 1970’s classics. It was awesome. Dancing Queen, I Will Survive, even a little Barry Manilow thrown into the mix. I sang, badly, and Matt laughed. People danced.
We enjoyed the night, the breeze, and the music until our heavy eyelids and tired bodies simply couldn’t take any more. We turned in with the waves crashing on the rocks below our window.