Sunday, January 26, 2014

Day 31-Manly MAN.

(originally posted on facebook July 12, 2013)

Ok- this is it! We're only going to stay one more week. I promise. 

The MAN I'm referring to above is the Museo Archeologico di Napoli, where all the choicest bits of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabia, Boscoreale, Boscotrecase, and several other Roman era sites from the Bay of Naples ended up. Just like us. Seriously though, this is one major collection of antique art, including sculptures, mosaics, frescoes, and bits of architecture. I had to limit myself to the frescoes and mosaics or we would have been there a whole other day! As it was I took 600 photos, including a shot of every piece of fresco that was on display (a few weren't- just to make sure I come back next time. There's also a ton of architectural fragments I'd like to shoot some day.)
Entry to the MAN is in the traditional combination of red stucco and gray tufa stone ornament. You see this combo all over Napoli.

Our last minute train station hotel was actually rather nice (and cheap- 60 Euros- Thanks Rick Steves!) (I'm planning to do a wrap up report with all the travel details so I don't forget, and so others can use the info too.) Used the metro system to go up the hill and went up to the museum for the second time on this trip- the first time the fresco collection was closed and we left in a huff.
Don't know who he is, but I like his attitude!

We first went to the hall of mosaics, culled from many famous houses of the area- the House of the Faun in Pompeii has a whole room to itself. The fineness of these pieces is incredible! The Alexander the Great Battle scene, which was on the floor in the House of the Faun, is about 8 feet tall and maybe 16 feet across, and it's done with tiles that are no larger that 1/4 inch, if that! Some of the other large pieces verge on micro-mosaic technique. The coolest thing about mosaic is how the colors don't change over time, and they can be cleaned very well, so you get an "as new" impression except for where the tesserae are missing. It also informs ones view of how good the painting must have been then.

Mosaic from Pompeii

Tucked behind the mosaic collection is the infamous "Gabinetto Segreto" the (formerly) secret room full of erotic art that until the 1960s was only viewable by special appointment, and only to men- no women or children. The presence of phalli and other erotica is now open to all, and the meaning and mythology is pretty well explained by numerous placards in Italian and English. Good stuff!

"Is that really how you feel?"

Enough with the antipasti, it's time for the main course. Had a minor moment of panic when we went through the hall of objects to where I had gone in to the frescoes last time, only to find a barricade and people doing some kind of photo work behind it. Before I completely melted on the floor, a nice museum docent explained that the bulk of the frescos were open- just go in a different door! Whew!

Even the hallways in between the galleries are pretty spectacular!

I'm not sure whether it was better to have visited the sites first and finished up with dessert or to have had this in mind as we looked at all the more weathered bits; in any case it was a treat to see all these well preserved and well documented fragments in one place. Again the fineness of the work is astonishing- there are faces that look as if they were painted with a five-ought brush, and the range of treatments from highly ornamental to accomplished figurative and landscape painting, tragic to comic, shows a complete mastery of technique and rhetoric. 

Look at how finely painted this is- it only measures about 5 inches across!

I literally took at least one photo of every piece in the frescoes section- sometimes 5 or 6! Not only is it technically very interesting, it's also work that has been highly influential throughout the history of art until this century, when most artists seem to have deliberately forgotten it. You know what they say about forgetting history, don't you?

I love the frieze supported by figures motif. I hope to use it at the Villa Tramonto if it gets back on track.
After fine tooth combing that section we perused more leisurely through the hall with household objects. This is the other aspect of Pompeii and Vesuvius' other victims. There are so many pristine 2,000 year old objects here- it really shows the level of sophistication the Romans had gotten to. All kinds of kitchen utensils and tools, drawing instruments, ceramics and glassware of incredible variety, bathroom things, they even have a couple of specula for giving gynecological exams- they look remarkably like their modern counterparts. 

Bowls of powdered pigments found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, in some cases right next to the frescos that were being worked on.
Finished up there with a spin through the wing devoted to nothing but things gleaned from the Villa dei Papiri- the mansion on the edge of Herculaneum that was copied more or less for the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. Besides the trove of papyrus scrolls that it is named for (and which they think may soon be decipherable through modern technological means without unrolling) there is a huge assortment of sculptures both marble and bronze. 
There are several rooms that have nothing but items from the Villa di Papiri in Herculaneum. It must have been a veritable museum itself.
We've now made it back to Rome and have found a wonderful replacement for the Casa Stinky; a very nice apartment in Trastevere with a real kitchen, a washing machine, and a good internet connection. We're all set for one more week of adventures!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Day 30- Back'a Napoli

(originally posted to my facebook page July 11, 2013)

Headed to Herculaneum this morning after a quick stop at the sanctuary church in Pompeii, which is actually a very nice late 19th to early 20th century interior clad in mosaics, beautiful marbles, and painted murals. It's quite rich. Many guide books will steer you away from the modern town of Pompeii. I say they're nuts! Very pleasant place to stay in my opinion.

19th century interior of the Sanctuary Church of Pompeii

Herculaneum was easy to get to from the train, and as soon as we got in I knew I was going to like it. It was so much more relaxed than Pompeii, and it's like Stabia in that a lot of it has roofs and walls that have been completed to their original height. Because Herculaneum was covered in hot mud flows rather than the volcanic ash that hit Pompeii, it's roofs were left more intact, and wood beams (and furniture, and even some loaves of bread!) were carbonized but left in place, so you can see exactly what was there. 
Buildings on the left were facing the sea in Roman times. The wall at right is the depth of the mud and ash that covered over the town and entombed it for almost 1700 years!

There are a lot of good frescoes and mosaics, as well as gardens and other details. 3 or 4 of the best houses were having restoration work, but it was nowhere near as devastating as at Pompeii. You really get a sense of how the houses were perched on a ledge above the sea (as at Stabia) even though they are now facing a large wall of the mud deposits that covered them (the total thickness is something like 70 feet!) I would recommend this over Pompeii, at least until Pompeii reopens more of the site.

the Atrium of the House of the Wooden Screen gives an idea of  the size and enclosure of the preserved houses in Herculaneum. The house is named for the screen seen in the middle of the room as it was found- the wood is carbonized but intact, with bronze bosses still in place.

We had stashed our bags in a very friendly Tourist Info office up by the train station, and on our way back we checked email to find that our place in Rome would not be available for another day. We decided to spend a night in Naples so that we could visit the Archeological Museum early, then head back up to Rome. Got in and found a place pretty easily and then spent the next 3 hours dealing with the damn bank, who managed to screw up our accounts royally, despite all the prep work Marianne had done to avoid this before hand. Very frustrating, but I think she prevailed in the end.

Atlantes on a building in downtown Napoli. 

So we set out kind of later than expected to do a little exploring and find something to eat. 

Naples is purest anarchy. If you have never been here it's hard to describe. It's dirty to be sure, and danger is lurking around train stations and dark alleys (I got pick pocketed here on our last trip) yet it also has an allure and a spirit that is still going strong after 2500 years of continuous occupation. Most of the cliches of New York Italians come either from here or from Sicily. Waving hands while talking loudly, disrespect for authority, but also very public signs of affection- everything is happening in the streets in Naples. There's pretty good street food here too- even though I can't eat the pizza (wheat allergy), it sure smells good. I did eat fried zucchini flowers and rice balls (arancini) from a street stall, and they were great. The street bars near the Piazza Dante were overflowing with young faces drinking and chatting, and we both remarked how this is something America could really use. It's almost like the high school quad continued through life. You can check in with friends without the pressure of having to make some event- it's just there every night.  

Bustling street bars are all over Napoli- great town to visit,  just don't dangle your wealth in hands reach.

I think Naples has some kind of informal contest to see who can get the most people and objects onto a scooter. We saw young teens driving three at a time, couples with young kids wedged in between, or the kid in front standing and holding on the bars, dogs, five gallon paint buckets, and of course talking on the phone. While zipping down these narrow alleys that pass for streets. Two way streets! Got back to our hotel fine after getting a bit turned around near the station. You never want to pull out your map when you need it worst!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Day 29- Stabia in the back, Pompeii (Say it out loud, you'll get it)

(Originally posted on facebook July 10, 2013)

After our disappointing day at the mostly shuttered ruins of Pompeii yesterday, we headed out to unknown quarters, the recommended but remote ruins of Stabia Castellamare, sort of the Malibu of Pompeii, where wealthy people built their palatial retreats on a bluff overlooking the sea. Just as at Pompeii and Herculaneum, the sea is now a good half mile further out due to volcanic and river deposits etc., but it is still very clearly seen from the yards of the two villas we were able to visit there. In fact, there is a great view of the whole Bay of Naples from the houses, which are nestled up against the hills that continue out to the Sorrentine Peninsula. 

delicious looking gardens abound in the area of Castellamare
The overall feeling there today was very tropical, from the warm air and afternoon rain, to the loud and warm people, who seemed to be more comfortable in the heat, unlike their northern neighbors, who run for shade during the middle of the day. As we got off the train in town, we sat down to peruse the computer map I had saved from earlier. A short, very friendly woman asked us some mostly unintelligible questions and then kept beckoning us to follow her. I could tell she had some kind of speech impediment, but it wasn't till later that I realized that she was deaf, which explained her touching us to get us to look at her so she could lip read. It was feeling a bit strange, and I could understand about one word in ten, but she lead us straight to the water fountain by the stadium, which was on the way to the Villa site, and then she turned off with some friends after friendly kisses and hugs. 

So we kept on through the thronged streets, passing lovely fish stalls and fresh fruit markets, on out to the edge of the small town, then up the street with a small sign for the site. Houses all had amazing gardens, and as we got further up the street, they turned to orchards with gardens interspersed, all full to bursting with produce: tomatoes everywhere, long purple eggplants, flowering zucchini, plums, peaches, and all kinds of citrus, including the local giant lemons, which are the size of footballs. There were a couple of tiny fruitstands where we bought some delicious peaches- I'm lamenting that my picture taking seems to be so focused on art only- these stands were so classic.

Approach to the Villa San Marco leaves you scratching your head saying, "did I read that sign correctly?"
After about 20 minutes on the road, we spotted the entry to the Villa San Marco, walking down a dirt road that led past a field of produce to a funky little assembly of shacks and farmhouses, four or five lazy dogs lying around, and a small, barely visible sign pointing to the entrance. A nice lady came out to ask us to sign the guest book (they didn't want out tickets at all) and she pointed us down the hill to the entrance.

After you pass the ramshackle entrance area, you walk down the entry of the Villa. 

This house was LARGE! And residential feeling. Unlike most of Pompeii, the house's walls have been completed back to their original height and roofed, which gives you a much better feeling for what the spaces were like, and it protects the walls (and us) from (some) of the damaging effects of exposure. We were the only ones at the site, which was also very nice. An employee came and monitored us for about 5 minutes, then she disappeared. We were free to roam anywhere that wasn't cordoned off, which was very nice. You really get a sense of how nice this house must have been, with pleasant sea breezes and a very large central swimming pool surrounded by trees (about which they know exactly how big and placement by the plaster replacement technique I mentioned yesterday). There was an outrageously nice bath area that had Marianne really pining for a spa day, which we have not managed to figure out here.

Pool area of the Villa San Marco, where we sat and ate lunch with nobody but the ghosts of 2,000 year old residents.

After about an hour here, we headed out for the other site, the Villa Arianna, about twenty more minutes down the road. They have located and mapped about 6 large villas in the area, but these two are the only ones open to the public at present. The entry to Arianna was similar to San Marco (ie- subtle!) and the house was too. Very large rooms with spectacular views. Not quite as homey feeling as San Marco, but really special. Both houses were decorated mostly with fourth style decorations, which are somewhat sparser, but the feeling overall is quite rich and varied. 

Part of the bath complex at the Villa San Marco.

Unfortunately they were also both part of the earliest explorations of the area under the Bourbon rulers in the 18th century, who had the rude habit of removing fresco bits for display elsewhere- most are now in the Archeological Museum in Naples. They have replaced the missing bits in many of the spaces with photo reproductions, which while not as good as the real thing, are certainly better than nothing at all. 
Awesome "wallpapered" room at the Villa Adriana. The panel at bottom was removed to the Archeological Museum in Naples, but at least you get some idea of the look from the copy placed there.

Still, there's plenty to see, and the lack of crowds and barriers made it really pleasant. As we were exploring Arianna, the daily rainstorm with lightning was clearly visible to the east of Mt Vesuvius, and we contemplated hanging around the villa for it, but decided instead to hoof it for the train. Fortunately, the road we were on makes a loop, so we came back into town from a different side, and since the rain wasn't really coming down hard, we decided to find the beach area. Wound through the town, which is very plain jane, and ended up on the "beach", an esplanade area with a wide, trash strewn bit of dirt and grass leading to the waters edge. Don't know why it's so unkempt- it's a pretty bay in general, and the water looks relatively clean and very calm, but nobody seems to care for it at all. Further south you can see Sorrento perched on the hill, to the north you can see Naples and the islands of Procida and Ischia. It looks like there was once a street car along the esplanade, but it is obviously dead for some time. On the way back to the train station spotted an overgrown Stile Liberty mansion with butterfly capitals and beautiful wrought iron balconies. These art nouveau houses just seem to pop up in strange places like little bits of frosting on the cake!

Detail of Stile Liberty balcony of a house we stumbled upon in the town of Castellamare.

Came back on the train and picked up our usual eat-in groceries: a bag of arugula, tomatoes, beets (cooked ones in a pouch- we both love beets), some kind of roasted veggies to put in the salad, some cheese for me, some beans, bread, and a bit of dark chocolate with hazelnuts (yum!) Later we'll still manage to stuff in a gelato somehow.

Back for the passegiata in Pompeii. I think he's thinking "maybe if I wear camouflage, no one will recognize me!"

Struggling tonight with figuring out where we're going to stay when we get back to Rome tomorrow- it's hard because we're really on a tight budget and we've been waiting til the last minute because of schedule details. My band was supposed to play a gig on Thursday night, but because the standby flight we were going to try for looks too full to get on, we backed out of it, so now I think we're trying to stay here one more week to get in those last details in Roma and the surrounding area.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Day 28 - Poopei, or is it Pompoop?

(originally posted to facebook July 9, 2013)

What a disappointment! Pompeii is almost entirely closed to visitors due to budget cuts and political wrangling. I kid you not- probably at least 80% of the interiors, and a good 50 % of the streets are entirely closed off. We saw a grand total of 4 interiors today. Half of the Villa of the Mysteries is inaccessible, most of the houses along the Via Abbondanza, and just about everything else. We visited the House of Menander, The house of the Ship Europa, The House of the Golden Cupids, and what we could see of the villa of the Mysteries. That's it- and I had a list of about 20 houses that are high on my interest.

Even with lot of closure, the Villa of the Mysteries has a lot to offer

The street closures made it really difficult to navigate too, even with my familiarity of the layout of the place. Our friends had warned us about this, but I didn't think it would be this bad. I felt really bad for anyone who had never been there before- you could walk away from it today without having seen much of interest at all. Very frustrating day! On top of that, I stubbed BOTH my big toes and then sliced my index finger while cutting a lemon tonight so I have a big bandaid on it- not easy typing. 

When life gives you big lemons...

We're contemplating a quick run down to Stabia tomorrow to get in another experience more like Oplontis. I don't know if we can swing Herculaneum as we would have our luggage with us and the site is a bit far away from the station. We might try to get back to Naples early enough to see the museum paintings before they close.

Oleander in the gardens at Pompeii

Maybe if I hadn't had such expectations of seeing some of my favorites today I wouldn't have been so down. Looking at my pics (I still managed to take 319 photos today) there are some nice ones, it's just that I know what was hidden by those closed doors everywhere, and it hurt! Maybe a gelato will make it feel better.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Day 27- To Oplontis...and beyond!

(originally posted on my facebook page on July 8th 2013)

Well, we're finally out of the the Hovel, aka Casa de Stinche, aka the Termini Turd. Adios muchachos! Trading the orderly (by comparison) chaos that is Rome for the complete anarchy that rules the south. As the graffiti on the wall in Napoli said, "This is an Anti-Fascist City!" Indeed, anarchy is the rule of law here, where twelve year olds drive their scooters down the sidewalk, and everyone ignores the signs that say "Crossing the tracks is strictly forbidden!" The only thing we were truly lamenting was the absence of public water fountains, which are mercifully plenty in Rome and most towns north of there. 
Naples is a dense crush of humanity in its purest form. 

 Took the cheap train down to Naples with the intention of seeing the excellent Archeological Museum there, which has many of Pompeii and Herculaneum's best articles. As I said before, the train system in Italy is pretty darn great- runs on time, has AC, and doesn't cost much, unless you want to ride on the bullet trains. Our ticket to Naples cost 11 Euros. The Freccia Rossa (fast train) was 43 Euros. No brainer. Time we got.

Smart and cheap (if you know how to pick 'em)

I did however, regret it somewhat after we made the climb up to the museum in Naples only to find that we had missed the fresco collection by 10 minutes! Museum is open until 7 pm, but because they don't have any money to pay the guards, they close the frescoes and mosaics (which is of course the only reason I go there) at 2. Bummer!! Lost an hour going there and back, plus we paid 10 Euros to stash our luggage at the train station and bought two Metro tickets to get up to the museum. Didn't pay on the way back down. Take that Naples!

Graffiti is much more prevalent in the south of Italy than up north.

Oh well, back to the station and got tickets for the Circumvesiana, the train that goes around the base of Mt. Vesuvius. Due to some confusion on the platform (Naples is nothing if not confusing) we ended up on the wrong train, which I recognized after we started to head up the wrong side of Vesuvius. The difference between Roma and Napoli is immediately noticeable on the train. Neapolitans are a noisy and boisterous bunch! So much yelling, gesticulating, waving, crying, laughing, poking, etc, etc. They're also pretty friendly, as we learned from a guy who helped us to determine we were indeed on the wrong train. We quickly got off to turn around, but of course the next train in the other direction didn't come for half an hour, during which time we watched a growing thunderstorm on the flank of Vesuvius and looked down at a beautiful tomato garden growing between apricot trees.

Vesuvius lurking in the background of most vistas in the Bay of Naples. Makes a nice navigational device if you get lost on the train (like we did!)

We finally got turned back around to the right direction (lost another hour there) and decided to short stop at Oplontis, where there is a remarkable Roman era villa that might have belonged to Poppaea, the wife of Nero. Whoever owned it was definitely wealthy- the place is huge! Not huge by Renaissance standards, but huge if you've been to Pompeii before. It has at least 3 large peristyles (courtyards) and an olympic size pool. And they haven't even uncovered all of it. It had begun to rain when we arrived, so we pretty much had the run of the place, and I think the darkness kind of gave some approximation of what it was like back then. 

Olympic sized swimming pool at the Villa of Poppaea (Nero's wife) in Oplontis.

Spent a good hour wandering there, taking in some very fine decorations, and then hopped back on the train to finish our trip to Pompeii, where we'll be for a couple of days. Got into Pompeii around 8, found our hotel, which DOESN'T STINK, downed a whole bunch of water, and then headed out to find some food. We love this town! Everyone here loves to party! They do the passegiata here with vigor- everyone one is out in the street for food, drink, gelati, and more. Fireworks have been going off pretty much since the thunder stopped this afternoon. When I asked the waiter at our restaurant if it was a holiday he just shrugged and said, "no, they do this every Saturday and Sunday." I mean, this is the strong stuff- the big kind you see on 4th of July! Loud reverberating booms, not little firecracker bangs. Fortunately, now at 11, it seems to have let up. Last time we were here as a family (6 years ago) we were in a hostel that was very close to the piazza, on a Saturday night. It also happened to be extremely hot, and the hostel had no AC. So the windows were open to the noise all night, and it still didn't seem to help with the heat. This place is way better!!
Passegiata in the town of Pompeii is very pleasant!

No idea, but it was half off at only 39 euros. Tempting, but....

So we'll be heading over to the site tomorrow early and I better finish this up before I end up doing my usual stay up late get up early thing. Uh oh- might have spoken too soon on the fireworks thing- a big boomer just went off! Now we're having another incredible show right out our hotel window. Hope it doesn't go all night!