We haven’t been to the south of Italy before so decided to do the tour that took in Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento & Capri. It was set to be another hot day and again 5 cruise ships were in port so it was also going to be a busy day ashore.
We met our tour guide Antonio and boarded the bus for Pompeii. Antonio was a guy in his 50’s who lived in Naples. He was very good – informative, animated and he had a great sense of humour. There would be no sleeping on the tour today. We got to Pompeii and with all these tours there are always the local factory visits – first up a Cameo factory. We watched a short video on how Cameo’s are made which was actually quite interesting. I didn’t know that they are carved out of shell so you do learn something everyday. After we finished the walking tour of Pompeii we visited the Limoncello factory.
We then walked to the entrance of Pompeii. The very day after the big celebration to Vulcanalia, the region’s god of fire, Pompeii disappeared under yards of volcanic ash in 79 A.D. and lay forgotten for 1,500 years. The site attracts 2.5 million visitors each year.
Pompeii has been well preserved and was very impressive in terms of ruins. I was particularly impressed with these large round stones at the intersections of the roads which the chariots could go over using the spaces between them as tracks.
Mt Vesuvius had remained quiet for 1.500 years then on the 24th August 79 A.D., nearly 30,000 Pompeians perished under as much as 50 feet of ash after it erupted. 10,000 people in the nearby town of Herculaneum watched in horror, a precursor to their own doom. The heat of Vesuvius created a flash flood of mud and ash that poured onto the town and instantly hardened to cement. Today there is a national park surrounding Mt Vesuvius which provides spectacular views to the world’s most famous volcano. It last erupted in 1944.
The ruins in Pompeii, still being excavated today, were perfectly preserved by the ash and mud and offer a portal into the past with a network of buildings, brothels, shops, theatres, artwork and mummified bodies and more. Pompeii was a commercial centre and is famous for it’s erotic / fertility artworks still intact.
In fact in 1819 King Francis I of Naples was so disgusted by the sexually explicit ancient artwork, he ordered many chambers closed to the public. To this day, by law, children may not tour some of the sites unless accompanied by a consenting parent. Several Christian groups to this day call for the destruction of the ruins.
We then took the bus for the very scenic ride to Sorrento. The coastline is quite spectacular with the limestone cliffs. It was a hot day and the heat haze prevented clear views across the Bay of Naples. Apparently on Saturdays and Sundays when all the locals decide to go to the beach the winding road to Sorrento becomes a parking lot with bumper to bumper cars. There are some private beaches that you pay EU25 per day for a space on. I am pleased it was Thursday – 5 cruise ships in town was causing enough congestion.
We had lunch at Zi Ntonio which translates to Uncle Tony’s. It was very nice with spinach and ricotta cannelloni to start followed by chicken topped with mozzarella and rosemary roasted potatoes. Dessert was a lemon flavoured cream cake. Fresh produce is in abundance and apparently they grow the best tomatoes. They also grow lemons in abundance and they grow big – lemons on steroids – perfect for making Limoncello which is a speciality in the area.
Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore Sorrento as we had to catch the boat to Capri. There were 11 groups of 50 people from our cruise ship doing the same tour so they had chartered a boat. It took a long time to get all the groups on the boat so we spent a bit of time with the sun beating down on us – everyone was sweating and feeling rather uncomfortable. When we finally got moving the sea breeze was amazing!
There are three islands in the Bay of Naples with Capri being the only one that is not a volcano. Capri has been a major shopping destination for the world’s who’s who since the day of the Roman Empire. They say Mariah Carey has a place here. It is a stunning island with beautiful grottos, rock formations, harbours and cliffs. We got off the boat and caught the local minibus up to the top of the island which is the main town area and Piazza Umberto I.
We were so hot by the time we got to the top we just wanted to cool down – a restaurant overlooking the bay beckoned us and we took solace in there until it was time to head back to the boat. What a stunning spot. We were then supposed to catch the Funicular back down to the Port but the queues were very long. There was a sign that said you could walk down in 10 minutes so we took that option. It was a wise choice for a couple of reasons – the walkway was lovely and we saw the lovely gardens of the houses we passed and we beat the rest of our group down by about 45 minutes.
The boat trip back from Capri to Naples took about 45 minutes. It had cooled down considerably by the time we got back to the ship. A hot shower was a welcome relief to wash away the stickiness accumulated throughout the day.
We didn’t actually get time to explore Naples but learnt a bit about it from Antonio while we were on the bus with him. Naples is one of the oldest cities in the world founded between the 8th and 9th century BC as a Greek colony. It is the cultural epicentre and capital of Southern Italy’s Campania area. According to where the city borders are drawn Naples has somewhere between 1 and 5 million people and is the most densely populated centre in Italy. While Italian is the country’s language, Naples has it’s own (protected by law in 2008) city language called Neapolitan, spoken by some 7 million people.
For 3,000 years, Naples has been a snapshot of life, frozen in statues and long abandoned ruins, yet alive today in laughter, music, food and saga. Almost 1,000 years before Christ’s birth, Parthenope (Naples) was a Greek colony. Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul preached here. Just about everyone except the Eskimos have been in charge of the place. It is an ancient melting pot.
Naples is the birthplace of both the pizza and gelato. Pizza was invented during the 18th century reign of King Ferdinand I of Naples. The story goes that his wife wouldn’t let him taste the common dish so he disguised himself as a pauper to test it. He loved it. Later, for years, the dish was called The Margherita after the Queen of Italy. She loved her first bite, especially because the chefs had made one in the colours of Italy.
Naples was the most bombed Italian city during World War II. It has survived countless wars over the centuries, involving just about everyone from the Vikings to the Poles. In 1656, the plague killed half it’s 300,000 citizens. Next to Paris, Naples was Europe’s second biggest city then.
The wine is also very good in this region and is referred to as Lycryma Christi which translates as Tears of Christ and comes from the tale of Jesus crying over Lucifer’s fall from heaven. The holy tears flowed onto the lava scarred fields near Vesuvius, thereby making the vineyards divine.