Mount Vesuvius is big. It creaks over Naples from the southeast, with a threat made obvious by the fame of its former anger. This first picture, taken from Pompeii, shows its famous double peak, its soft sides and its height. It looms. Most of the time I was in the area its pinnacle was shrouded in cloud, making its connection to the wrath of the gods stronger, clearer. It pierces the heavens and it rains thunder. Emperor Nero, performing at the theatre in Ancient Naples, once attributed a earthquake caused by the tectonic unrest of the nearby volcano to the applause of the gods. Smooth.
So I ate a lot of pizza, pasta, cheese, tomatoes and ice cream… I drank a lot of coffee, wine and many cocktails, tried (and failed) to smoke all of a big, Italian-man cigar… I was offered laughing gas in the street but lost the man selling it before I could dabble… The trip was gluttonous, but not decadent. Unless you count the amount of culture I consumed!
Pompeii was where I spent my first full day, exploring the huge ruins of a whole town. What was most astounding was the size of it – by the time I first presumed I was nearing the end of my wander from one corner to the other, I had barely seen a quarter. It is HUGE. It is a whole town. It goes on, and it makes incredibly clear the real amount of death that happened through scale. This WAS a town, with shops and leisure facilities and mansions and graves and terraces and a Forum for relaxing in, bath houses, theatre, amphitheatre… It was a whole town. A whole town where everyone died. The plaster casts of the dead were particularly shocking. (See my video “Pompeii: A Documentary” for more detail: http://youtu.be/jjCA1oOxml0) Death was everywhere there. The hours whizzed by. Here’s a picture of my friends photographing each other (but not me) in the Amphitheatre:
After a long day in Pompeii, impressed by the frescoes and the engraved cocks on some pillars, we hopped off the train back to Naples at the stop for Herculaneum, which we optimistically hoped to access in the hour or so left of daylight.
Herculaneum is far, far below the level of the modern town now there (Ercolano), and though we could not descend to it, we could stand above and look down upon the three-storied buildings, the thick walls, the mosaics and the columns. The volume of ash and detritus covering the town had raised the land about a hundred metres. Astounding.
I sat on the sloping grass above the ruins, drinking Peroni and watching the sun begin to set over the island of Capri. The arms of the Gulf of Naples form a beautiful circle, Capri the island they are reaching towards.
That evening I saw this photograph in a trattoria, which was a further highlight of the day (Viz’s “Up The Arse Corner”, anyone?):
Our second full day, Saturday, was spent in some mediocre catacombs in the morning (we went far out of town seeking skulls and rotting bodies, but visited the wrong church and instead saw some shit contemporary art amongst early Christian churches hewn into rock), before three or four hours of the afternoon in the excellent Naples National Museum of Archeology.
This is where all the amazing sculptures and beautiful frescoes pulled from the ruins of Pompeii are. Red marble sculptures such as this:
and impressive frescoes and mosaics, some of which are astounding. Particularly those in the special room of Ancient Erotic art. Despite that room existing, the following fresco was my favourite. I love its colour and its detail, the fade into the background of the figure to the left mirroring his position behind the women, emphasising his disappearance from the world.
Because in Pompeii and amongst the utensils, the artworks, the furniture, the statues, the decor, the tools, the basins, the walls, the buildings, the the the EVERYTHING of Pompeii, onsite or in the museum in Naples, I saw death everywhere. Inevitable death – knowing the demise of every person who made or owned the items I was looking at pounded into my soul the pointlessness of life. Why bother creating a gorgeous fresco, why bother attaching a cock with wings to the front of your house, why bother building a bathhouse, a theatre, a temple, a grave, when eventually it will all be destroyed? As everything will. That idea I have explored in my pieces about Romans on this blog elsewhere – society has collapsed before, society will collapse again.
All anyone, anything, has is the Now. The moment. And as unpalatable as living in the present sounds to someone like me, far more concerned with books than anything else, it is, alas, all there is. All turns to nothing. Even if that nothing is venerated, nothing it remains…
The day afterwards I decided to grab life by both fucking balls and climb a mountain. Taking an early morning ferry across to Capri was a magical, half-awake experience. It rises from the sea imposing, serene, strong:
The weather was gorgeous; warm but not hot, dry but not arid. Capri, though, was an island switched off.
Famously a playground for the affluent, during the Winter almost every single shop in Capri is closed. The designer boutiques, the jewellers, the high fashionistas, the watchmakers, the yacht sellers, all were gone. Shops empty but for paper stating their closure from October to April (or maybe March) gave Capri Town an eerie feel. (Capri Town: beautiful, white, but dirty, many empty buildings in disrepair – will these be fixed up by the time the tourists it’s aimed at come to visit, or is there an edge of shabby charm there on purpose?)
We sat and looked over the sea, back towards the mainland. We ate a small lunch from the only open cafe in town that cost a comically large amount of money. We wandered, looked into the church, looked up and around us. But the museums were closed, the funiculars and chair lifts about the island were closed… Yet the buses ran, the buses ran. So we moved to Anacapri, the other town, and climbed from it to the very peak of Mount Solaro, at a not unimpressive 589m. Quite a climb for men as unexercised as myself and those I was with. This from halfway up:
Along the route are bronze plaques chronicling the Passion – somehow implying that Mount Solaro is each tourist’s own Calvary. But there was no crucifixion waiting at the end, just incredible views of the Amalfi Coast, the deep Mediterranean, Naples, the other islands of the Gulf and, most surprisingly of all, the undeveloped corner of Capri.
There is a portion of the island that is so rocky and steep that it is still as it has always been – covered in trees, full of wildlife and, though probably not untouched, certainly undamaged, by human hands. It was gorgeous, peaceful. This image doesn’t really do justify to the serenity emanating from it:
That was Capri.
Our final morning in Naples we spent visiting the huge underground water system built by the Greeks and developed by the Romans – massive cisterns, pools and wells, variously appropriated over the years as bomb shelters and, one section, a wine cellar shared between a nunnery and a monastery. The wine stored there, apparently, had the miraculous quality of being able to make chaste nuns pregnant. Wow.
Other than lovely frescoes, a terrible attempt at pickpocketing and more delicious pizza, the last day, shorter, was less eventful than the others. And it was lovely to be there.
The beauty of Capri, the aching historical importance of Pompeii, the bustle and the fun and the great food of Naples made for an excellent three-pronged attack on the holidaying mind.
All great places, all surprisingly different. Thanks, Italy!