Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ashes to ashes, we all fall down

"Mount Vesuvius was blazing in several places ... A black and dreadful cloud bursting out in gusts of igneous serpentine vapor now and again yawned open to reveal long, fantastic flames, resembling flashes of lightning, but much larger . . . Cinders fell . . . then pumice-stones too, with stones blackened, scorched and cracked by fire." - Pliny the Younger, August 79AD

I never got around to writing about Pompeii.

It’s been more than three months since we returned from our whirlwind trip through Lebanon and Italy (with a little bit of Istanbul), and I have not described our exploration of a place I had wanted to see my entire life. I mentioned our first trip there, the one when I was sick and there was a train strike and a two hour bus ride and I ended up in tears because we got there a half hour too late and they weren’t admitting anyone else. In fact, I stopped the tale of the trip before we even arrived to the town of Amalfi, and I skipped the trip to Positano and to Sorrento. I want to get to those. But now, I want to remember Pompeii, because Chris agreed to go back though our time was extremely limited and we wouldn’t be able to do anything in Rome before we had to fly out.

We’d spent three nights on the Amalfi Coast but our flight was leaving from Rome in the morning and we couldn’t risk missing it. Pompeii was on the way. We took our time in the morning, not ready to leave Pesce d’Oro and the cappuccinos on the Mediterranean and the lemon trees and the general contentment about just breathing. We got a ride to the town of Amalfi from the owner of the B&B and then caught a bus to Salerno, where we’d catch a train. It wasn’t too far away, certainly not the two hours it took us by bus earlier in the week. But it was far enough, and we’d had to wait long enough, and we dallied too much, so, with our luggage on our backs, we had to book it to the entrance to the ruins and practically ran the whole way from the train station. When the woman handed me my ticket, I glanced down at the corner of her computer screen and saw 3:26pm. We had made it with four minutes to spare.

It didn’t leave much time to see the ruins, as they closed at 5:30pm, but it was enough for two tired people carrying a week’s worth of luggage on their backs to get a taste of something that every person should see, an ancient city preserved because of a lack of air and moisture, leaving the ruins to show us how the Romans lived without any modern alterations. It was enough to contemplate the lives of the ancients, to imagine the bustling streets of a Roman city that was buried 4-6 meters beneath the hot lava and ash of Mount Vesuvius for more than 1500 years, its citizens suffocated in one of the earliest recorded natural disasters, ironically giving us insight into the way they lived. The eruption released a hundred thousand times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima bombing.

(I must laugh at the name of the guy who is credited with the rediscovery of the town in 1748, a Spaniard by the name of Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. Rocque! Ha! He found the city under a lot of rock! Groan! I know!)

We entered at the amphitheater gate, where a staple of any ancient Roman city stood, the stadium, the preferred sport being gladiator games. The amphitheater was full of lawn seating for plebes like us. I'm not sure if the original structure was full of stone stairs or if it had always had grassy areas, but I do know that the amphitheater was the first to be built by stone - the next one was the Coliseum in Rome nearly 100 years later. The original Yankees and Red Sox - the Pompeians and Nucerians - had a brawl in 59 BC that resulted in the banning of gladiator games for ten years. Rumor is that the Nucerians hated the Pompeians so much that they orchestrated the eruption of Vesuvius...ok, maybe not. (Groan again.)

The amphitheater was the first thing was saw as we walked through the gates after paying our €11 each to get in. We were at the end of our budget, yes, but this was the one thing I had wanted to see in Italy, the one must go to destination. I didn't know (though I could have suspected) that the amphitheater was mostly used for gladiator games. It seemed to have good acoustics, given that we could hear what other people were saying who were on the opposite side as we were, much like you can hear a whisper on the other side of a swimming pool. I told Chris to sing. He pretended. In 1971, Pink Floyd didn't pretend. They made a concert film entitled Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. Being not born yet, I don't remember this. Chris might, since he's old.

I was in awe of everything, as I always am when I visit ancient ruins. (Well, at least in my post-college days.) This vineyard in the shadow of Vesuvius took me back to Roman times. But it wasn't until this moment as I type this that I realize Vesuvius must have looked completely different then. It probably had a top instead of a crater.

An ancient Whole Foods Market

Mountains surround the city. Usually that wouldn't be a problem, but when the mountains kill you, yeah, it kind of is. I found, however, that I was in awe of Vesuvius, the first active volcano I've seen in my life. There was something profoundly beautiful about the power it held, reminding you that the Earth, not humans, are in control of what goes on on this planet. The tranquility of the scenery was otherworldly; I could almost feel the presence of Jupiter and Venus and the other gods worshiped by the Pompeians. The feeling of being powerless and at the whim of natural forces was humbling.

Wow, was it incredible to visit the nearly intact houses of people from a time before Christ. Everything made of wood, of course, was gone - roofs, furniture, etc., although a lot of it is in the archaeological museum in Naples, which we didn't go to this time and will next time. I remember marveling as I looked at these structures that these folks had running water upstairs and actual toilets. The Romans were an incredible civilization back in their democracy days, until corruption and greed led to dictatorship and eventually the downfall of Rome. I see so many parallels in America today.

Bartender Chris
An ancient bar. Sure, they call it a restaurant, a place to get lunch of sorts, but this is where the concept of the bar was born, I'm sure. I could almost envision the bartender standing there, serving wine and shooting the bull. There were a lot of these places.

Here's an academic paper on the distribution of bars in Pompeii. You have to pay to read beyond the first page. I plan on reading this one day soon, but geesh, academia needs to get with the times and stop making people pay for their thoughts. If your idea is any good, it will make money on its own merit.

The above house is extravagant even by today's standards.

Funny how the best view of Pompeii is just outside the toilet. Smarter management would build a higher tower to look down on the whole city. Beautiful, even amidst the reminders of tragedy.

Nothing but the roof is missing here. How beautiful this must have been back then. Nothing like the McMansions we see today.

Chris was tired. We did this trip all wrong. (Yes, I mean to use that horrific English in saying it. We did this trip all wrong.) But we didn't have much of a choice. When you're on a budget, you have to make compromises, and we had to make compromises in time because of the cost of the airfare, and those compromises in time led to compromises in health. We would have, had I not had the food poisoning during which we talked about several times going to a hospital, gone to Pompeii on the way down to the Amalfi Coast, earlier in daytime, with more time and the trust that if we left our bags at the left luggage we could get it back. But we were leaving the next day, and I was afraid, based on my experiences with Italians, that the bag check would be closed by the time we got out of the ruins, so we carried a week's worth of stuff on our backs.

Most of the preserved bodies are in the archeological museum in Naples. But there are some at the Pompeii site, including the guy above, who, hopefully and seemingly, never woke up.

This guy, on the other hand, must have felt it. He looks groggy, but his hand is sticking up, so he must have been cognizant of something. 

Hauntingly beautiful. Makes you think about the fragility of human life.

I bet journalists back then didn't write columns about how they hated flip flops
Burial? Cremation? How about asphyxiation by volcano ash?
Some other photos from around Pompeii:


Theater. Beautiful a couple of thousand of years later.

The concourse in the cheap seats

The theater

The lobby of the theater

This guy is holding up the whole theater. He must be tired.

The all powerful Vesuvius

I wonder if the ushers were militant in their jobs

Would love to see a production in here.

Unfortunately, the Italians seem inept at preserving the ruins. In 2010 the Schola Armatorum collapsed, and the next year an ancient wall fell. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Italy! Unacceptable!

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