This series of (sometimes) relatively short posts, illustrated with photographs, details our recent holiday in Italy. Having thoroughly enjoyed it, we wanted to share our experience. You’ll get the full (well, nearly) story of our travels, activities, and experiences; warts and all, in instalments. You can read Part 1 by clicking here, and Part 2 here. Part 4.
20th September, Thursday.
The wake-up call from Reception came at precisely 05:30, as requested. A few minutes later, whilst Valerie was showering, I quickly donned pants to answer the knock on the room door and received a tray bearing croissants and cappuccinos, as we were far too early for breakfast: a nice touch by the hotel staff.
Our lady driver arrived to collect us for our trip to Naples and Pompeii. The people carrier already held five women from Sydney and one from Brisbane, also on their way to the central pick-up point for day trips out of Rome. They kept up a lively conversation, interested in our daughter’s Australian adventures, as we travelled through already crowded streets made wet by overnight rain, which had fortunately almost stopped falling.
We stood for a while on a pavement still collecting sporadic drizzle until the courier arrived and led us to our coach. Marco, our guide, invited us aboard and we were found seats at the front; helpful for Valerie when travelling. He spoke well in Italian, English, French and German as he introduced the passengers to the trip and explained what the day held. We’d booked our places, via Citalia, whilst in the UK, as we were both keen to see Pompeii.
The coach set off around 07:50 to travel the 250 kilometres to Pompeii, via Naples. We’ve all heard scary tales of Italian drivers, but they were well-behaved as we left Rome and found our way onto the Autostrada A1, nicknamed the Sun Motorway and the oldest highway in Europe. It links Milan with Naples and is in remarkably good nick. Like most highways in Italy, it’s a toll road. The coach was fitted with an electronic licence that allowed it to drive through all toll booths encountered, barely slowing our journey, and traffic on the route was light for much of the journey. Such a contrast to our frequent encounters with slow-running highway repairs and improvements on most of the motorways we’ve used in UK.
We stopped in the village of Ponte Corvo, at a hotel that wanted to sell us stuff and had too few loos for the party, for a natural break and a drink, before continuing to Naples.
This city, named Neopolis by the ancient Greeks, is now a little reminiscent of Birmingham, in that it appears to be more in love with vehicles than people. Roads soar, twist, and dive over bridges, through rows of buildings and along brightly lit tunnels. Not a place we’d wish to stay for a holiday, it currently suffers 60% unemployment among its youth (18-36), and is one of many places showing signs of Italy’s current poor economic state.
Marco provided a running commentary in English, French and German, finding humour in all 3 languages, as we wound our way toward the coast. The driver, also called Marco, stopped by the shore of the Mediterranean to allows us to stretch our legs, view the Bay of Naples, and gaze through haze to the islands of Capri, Procida and Isola d’Ischia on the edges of the Gulf of Naples. Vesuvio, the infamous volcano, was intermittently visible between buildings both ancient and modern.
Back on the move toward Pompeii, we stopped at a fairly large modern restaurant for lunch. A bit disappointing, with little atmosphere, were fed a pretty basic pizza, some salad and a small slice of cake. This is the standard ‘fast food’ treatment given to most users of organised coach tours. The first drink was free, so I had a small can of beer.
We sat at a table with a delightful French couple, M. and Mme. Romano. She spoke no English but her husband was eager to try out his, and Valerie’s French helped us converse with much hilarity. When second drinks came round, they had to be paid for. Valerie had another Orangino (€4) and Mme Romano wanted more water (€2). My €50 note was too much for the waiter, so M. Romano paid. Later, I asked Marco if he could organise some change for me, which he did easily. But M. Romano wouldn’t hear of me repaying him for his kindness.
The coach took us to the parking area and we were encouraged to visit a small local factory where they turn some of the seashells and corals found in the Pompeii ruins into works of art and jewellery, some of it undoubtedly beautiful, but not something we crave.
Outside again, we assembled for our tour of the Pompeii ruins. It’s a huge area, far too big to absorb even in a full day. In fact, they recommend three days for a serious visit. We had two hours. Our guide was Fabiano, a professional archaeologist with students working on the conservation and dig.
We were treated to a taste of the place, a flavour, with some of the more important sites included. One of those situations where we’d have happily gone without lunch and the factory visit to have more time to spend on the history, but these tours have to accommodate the wishes of the majority, so we made the best of it. And fascinating it was.
Fabiano was full of interesting information, and took us to the parts that would best involve us in the place. Somehow, he managed to avoid the huge crowds for most of the time, so he made a very good job of his tour.
Among the highlights were the high-status house and its garden, the bathhouse, the inevitable glance at the brothel, where a continuous line of tourists shuffled through the narrow corridor trying, unsuccessfully, to take pictures of the more explicit murals, and the main square.
We also visited the open fronted storage area where some plaster casts of victims discovered under the ash are on display along with other ancient artefacts.
We ended at the high point of the ruined city, with Vesuvius in the background, still active and threatening to destroy the work of the archaeologists and to drown Naples in ash with its next, inevitable, eruption.
A short break for ice cream (Italian ice cream is wonderful!) and a natural break, before we walked back to the coach for the return journey.
Fortunately, we skirted Naples, and our second break at the hotel in Ponte Corvo was much more civilised, as we were the only visitors this time. We even had change to give to the lady in charge of the loos on our return trip.
There were some lovely landscapes en route, only occasionally obscured by the very neat and varied sound baffles placed to defend local communities from traffic noise. The setting sun leant the scenery a dreamy air and I tried to capture some of it through the coach windows as we sped by. We arrived back at the hotel, via a small people carrier, in time for dinner.
We were tempted to simply go to bed, physically weary after the travel and having been on our feet in quite a lot of heat for a good part of the day, but the thought of food and prosecco tempted us into the shower and fresh clothes. We set off for Osteria Maracuja again and had another good meal there.
A longish walk back to the hotel, refreshed by the food and wine, and along the main road where the light shows were projecting their slides onto the ancient walls rewarded us for our efforts. Something really touched me that blissful night and I was filled with a sense of joy at all the beauty surrounding us. Buskers playing quiet music enhanced the whole experience and we returned to the hotel tired but happy.
I can give only a very truncated idea of the ruins of this famous city. If you ever get to Italy, this is a place well worth devoting some time to: I wish we’d had longer to see it all, as there is so much more that we never witnessed.