Thursday, January 16, 2014

I'm Moving!!!!!

To a different domain, at least. All of my content is now accessible on, which will allow me to expand the site when I feel the need to in the future. In a few days this site will automatically redirect there. Same blog, slightly different address!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pompeii Scavi: The Ruins of Pompeii

I usually start off posts with the claim that "____ is an easy little day trip from ____." That format doesn't really work for Pompeii, however. Even if you're staying in Naples - which is very close to Pompeii - getting there isn't really easy, per se... but certainly worth the effort.

We started from Rome, leaving for the Napoli Centrale train station at 7:30 am. Rome to Naples is in fact a quick little journey on a comfortable Frecciarossa train. My advice: enjoy the comfortable seats, neutrally smelling compartments, and speedy yet stable transportation. The next leg of the journey is considerably lacking in all those regards.

The Pompeii ruins are on Italy's west coast, just south of Naples. To get from Naples to Pompeii, you'll have to take the Circumvesuviana - a regional train line that loops around the west edge of Mt. Vesuvius. The tracks are hidden in the darkest depths of the Napoli Centrale station. Tickets must be purchased from the ticket counter - no handy automated machines here. Make sure you specify POMPEII SCAVI (Pompeii ruins) not just POMPEI (the modern day town of Pompei). If your journey is anything like ours was, the ticket man will shove five tickets your way and inform you that the train leaves in one minute. Your brother and dad will have gotten defective tickets somehow and will still be trying to scan them through the machine as the train comes to a stop on the platform.

Don't worry, you'll make it on.

Your relief once inside the graffiti decorated car won't last long. There are a slew of colorful adjectives that could suitably describe the Circumvesuviana train, but safe is not one of them. The anxious feeling you have could be attributed to any number of things... perhaps it's the shady, creepy look you're getting from all the other passengers, making you all too aware how very foreign (read: touristy) you must look. It could also be the very loud domestic dispute happening right behind you. Maybe it's the fact that you're not really sure if you're going in the right direction and each stop seems to have less helpful signage than the last. And even if you are heading in the right direction, the sight of the run down, abandoned buildings making up the urban jungle that is Naples isn't very heartening.

Then again, it's most likely coming from the horrible realization that the train itself feels as though it's being driven by the old man who drives the Knight Bus in Harry Potter... lurching, wobbly, and far too fast for what you suspect is less than adequate structural integrity.

Come to think of it, everything in that clip is a pretty accurate representation of what it's like to take the Circumvesuviana, particularly Harry's reactions to the entire experience.

Anyway, you will get there eventually. Hop off at the Pompeii Scavi: Villa dei Mistiera stop and follow the crowd to Pompeii's entrance. For a basic Pompeii experience, just collect your ticket and the free guidebook and explore on your own. For a bit more organization and education, hunt down one of the freelance tour guides and join a tour.

Founded somewhere in the 7th century BC, Pompeii was a thriving Roman metropolis by the time of its destruction in 79 AD. It was home to a complex plumbing system, an amphitheater, a gym, a sea port, bakeries, and the Roman version of fast food restaurants... all enjoyed by its 20,000 inhabitants.

At some point between August and November (the date is disputed*) Vesuvius began to erupt - ironically, sometime shortly after the festival to the Roman god of fire, Vulcanavia. While many inhabitants fled at the first signs of danger, others stayed behind, likely realizing their error once it was too late. Scientists estimate that those present in Pompeii during the eruption would have been exposed to waves of 482 degrees fahrenheit heat as lava and fire rolled down Vesuvius.

The most likely cause of death was probably suffocation from the heavy ash and tephra that rained down on the city for over six hours. Taking shelter inside homes wouldn't have helped, as the weight of the residue caused cave ins. When it was over, Pompeii was covered in 25 meters of volcanic ash and rock. The city was destroyed, yet perfectly preserved and frozen in time until its discovery in the 18th century.

Bodies were literally frozen in moments of agonizing death. Over the centuries they decomposed, leaving shapeless skeletons behind within the now-hollow cavities. Upon excavation, these cavities were filled with plaster and the resulting forms were dug up.

The ruins are vast and you could easily spend hours wandering among them.

If you don't want to pay for a guide, do a little research ahead of time and be sure to pick up one of the site's free guidebooks, which are full of interesting little historical tidbits to look out for. Some of my favorites are:

The raised stones in the streets. When the streets were being flushed with water for cleaning, these stones were used to cross without getting your feet wet. One stone indicates a one way street (cart wheels would pass by on either side) while three stones indicate a two way street.

The "Roman fast-food restaurants." These consisted of a smooth, L-shaped counter with holes. Inside the holes, vats of prepared food would sit and you could stop by and fill up a plate or bowl. Historians are, as of yet, unsure as to whether or not supersizing was an option.

Colorful mosaics, most notably the "Cave Canem:" an ancient warning to "Beware of the dog." Floor decorations were a sign of wealth.

The bakery, or at least one of the twenty or so that Pompeii had. Its large oven and flour grinders are still intact.

Evidence of the ancient city's advanced plumbing system (and a Pompeian zombie who roams the streets, terrorizing tourists).

Wandering around the ruins is a bit eerie, especially when it begins to hit you how similar their daily lives were to our own - maybe with the exception of the copious, socially accepted brothels dotting the city.

On the outer edge of the ruins you'll find the amphitheater. Thanks to its preservation over the centuries by Vesuvius' ash, it now has the distinction of being the oldest known Roman amphitheater.

Like each Roman arena that would come after it, the Pompeian amphitheater functioned as an area for various sporting spectacles; namely, gladiatorial fights. One such fight in 59 AD between Pompeii and the neighboring town of Nuceria escalated into a brawl between spectators, and a ten year ban was placed in effect.

Just beyond the amphitheater is a seemingly random collection of small temples, tombs, and gravestones.

Getting back to the entrance/exit requires you to meander back into the twisting streets of Pompeii and of course, getting back to Napoli Centrale requires another treacherous journey on the Circumvesuviana. It goes without saying that Pompeii is worth the effort, though. Even if history isn't a personal interest of yours, it's hard not to feel a bit humbled and in awe as you walk through the streets and into the homes of the ancient Pompeians. If history is a personal interest of yours, you'll probably find yourself wondering what people 2,000 years into the future would think if they took a stroll through one of our cities preserved in time. Would they see us as primitive and unintelligent, or would they find distant connections between our habits and their own daily lives?

*Documentation of the eruption by historians of the time, notably Pliny, point to a date around August 24, 79 AD. However, modern historians have noted that the clothing on victims was warmer than what would normally be worn in August and food remains point towards the types of fruits and vegetables that would be grown in October. Coins discovered bore an imperial acclimation that wouldn't have been minted until after the second week of September.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Pisa: Piazza dei Miracoli

Pisa is home to one of Italy's most popular sights: the Leaning Tower. Located on the northwest coast of Italy, it's an easy day trip from Florence, a quick stop on your way to another city, or a doable (but more time consuming) journey from Milan or Rome.

Of course, there's plenty more to do in Pisa than just see the tower, like a number of old churches and a few palaces. However, I think Pisa is best done as a quick day trip from Florence to see the tower and Field of Miracles in which it's located. Besides, you don't want to reach your Looking at Old Churches threshold before you get to Rome! With proper planning, you can leave Florence early in the morning and be back by late afternoon. Here's how:

From Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence, get on one of the regional trains headed for Pisa. Trains to Pisa Centrale leave about every hour while the trains to Pisa San Rossore are less frequent, but you'll save time by getting of at San Rossore. From Centrale, it's a time-consuming walk or a taxi ride to the tower. From San Rossore, it's about a three minute walk. Regardless of which station you chose, you won't see either on the big "Departures" screen; only the final destination is displayed. Check the train number on your ticket to match with the number on the screen to find your platform and once there, double check that "Pisa C.LE" or "Pisa S. Rossore" are listed in the scrolling list of stops above the platform. 

It's about an hour from Florence to Pisa. Assuming you get off at San Rossore, exit the tiny station by taking a left, then a right, then... you're there. Easy! You'll be able to see the top of the tower, the cathedral, the campostanto, and the baptistery just down the street. These are the main buildings that make up the Piazza dei Miracoli - Field of Miracles. 

The cathedral is free to enter. The baptistery, campostanto, and tower require tickets, and entrance to the tower is timed and must be reserved ahead of time. You can do this online no sooner than 45 days and no later than 15 before your chosen date. A bit persnickety, but whatever. As visiting Pisa was somewhat of a last minute decision for us, we hadn't made a reservation. You can, of course, buy tickets on the spot, but an opening may not be guaranteed. We arrived around 1:30 and were luckily able to get a spot in the 3:45 time slot.  

This will give you plenty of time to explore the other buildings and take those silly Leaning Tower photos. 

The campostanto is an enclosed cemetery. It's said to be built around sacred soil brought back to Pisa from Calvary during the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century - believe that if you want.

The building itself is a large, Gothic enclosure began in the 13th century and completed some 200 years later. The interior is lined with Roman sculptures and sarcophagi, and the walls used to be covered in biblical frescoes until WWII bombs set the roof on fire, thus drenching the walls in molten lead. 

The campostanto is certainly beautiful, but not a must-see if you're looking to save a few Euros. 

The cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta was begun in 1064 and has a strange Romanesque-Byzantine style to it...

... this is more evident inside with the copious mosaics and gilded ceiling. 

Art history buffs will want to see Giovanni Pisano's elaborately carved pulpit inside the cathedral - a good example of pre-Renaissance sculpture. I should have been in appreciative awe of it, but I distinctly recall the distress I experienced when confusing Giovanni's pulpit with the similar looking one of his father, Nicola Pisano, on an exam.

Don't forget t look up: the dome fresco is a spectacular work of art, as well.

The baptistery, began in 1153, is actually the largest in Italy, and surprisingly taller than the tower itself. The inside is rather bare but worth a visit anyway; it's said to have some of the best acoustics in Italy.

Not to mention that perfect shot of a skull and crossbones you've been looking for.

And then there is the Leaning Tower. It was the last of the structures in the Field of Miracles to be built, starting in 1173 and ending 177 years later. The long construction period and the tower's characteristic lean both result from an incident in 1178. The tower had already reached three stories high at this point when the south side began to sink into the weak subsoil below. 

Construction halted for a century while the subsoil presumably stabilized itself, and when building resumed, architects did not try to fix the tilt; rather, they compensated for it by making the subsequent stories with one side slightly higher than the other. Thus, if the tower were ever set straight again, it would probably look stranger than it does now. 

You'll want to gather at the base of the tower about ten minutes before your scheduled reservation time. If you have a large bag, make sure to get it checked in the yellow building to the right before you enter. Bring your ticket as validation. 

After a short introduction in both Italian and English, you're ready to climb! It's not a difficult climb at all, though there is a distinct, tilting shift you can feel as you make your way up. 

Assuming you arrive in Pisa mid-morning and have a ticket reserved around noon-time, you can feasibly give the other buildings the time the deserve and be ready to go by early to mid-afternoon. Like I said, a quick day trip. From the Field of Miracles, I suggest taking a taxi back to Pisa Centrale, regardless of whether or not it was your arrival station. Pisa Rossore really just a stop, not a station, and you won't be able to purchase a ticket back to Florence from there. It saves time to arrive at San Rossore, but you'll find yourself stranded if you try to return from there. 

Oh, and if you have a dog... feel free to bring him along. In his stroller. 


emilan: January 2014