Pompeii and Salerno
The lovely city of Salerno is often overlooked on the international tourist radar - which for us is a bonus. The occasional cruise ship docks here for a few hours and it’s a popular place with Italians....but with only a small beach, this historic place on the Tyrrhenian Sea is neglected in favour of others on the nearby Amalfi Coast. The city suffered a lot of damage during World War II, but today it boasts one of largest seaports in the area, a modern pedestrianized shopping precinct, plus a maze of charming alleyways in its historic centre - which we were fortunate to be in. Salerno has a great transportation network with excellent rail connections to Naples, Rome and southern Italy. Regional buses run along the Amalfi Coast and in summer ferries run from its port to Capri, Positano and Amalfi.
During our time in Salerno we took advantage of the trains and buses for out of town trips. Ferries are now closed - hardly surprising when we saw the huge waves crashing onto the rocks as we walked along the 2km promenade.....which we did daily when we were in town.
Despite the forecast of heavy rain, our first full day dawned sunny and warm.....so we set about settling in and getting to know our way around. Laundry was done and hung outside to dry and we located our local fruit and vegetable shops. We also found cafés - both old and new, that served great coffee and amazing pastries. We walked the promenade from where it ends at the huge commercial port at one side to the small harbour area at the other. Along the way, and hard to miss, we wondered about the large Ferris Wheel on the seafront, which seemed a little out of place. Later in the week we discovered it was here only for the period of “the lights” (more on these lights later).
Rain was in the forecast for the following day, but as our first day’s forecast had proved inaccurate we decided it was time to cross a big one off our bucket lists and visit Pompeii. After a 35 minute train ride we arrived at the town and after a 15 minute walk we were at the entrance. With no line-up at all...we were in! Given a paper map and armed with some downloaded information, we started our journey through this huge and ancient city....but first we had to run the gamut through the eager and friendly guys who wanted to offer their services as tour guides. They were however not so friendly after we declined - once again some swearing on their part was involved!
***Note...There are 2 main entrances to this huge archaeological site - one popular with tour groups, and the another quieter one, which we chose. The busy one is close to Pompeii’s Forum and its “wow” factor, the other is closer to the Theatre - neither one a bad place to start! The entrance which leads up to the Forum has steep steps to climb - something to keep in mind if that might be a problem. ***
This ancient site of Roman civilization is huge - areas are mapped out on the paper map, with numbered places and buildings of interest along the way.....sounds simple, but apart from tour groups or individuals with a guide, everyone gets lost! Navigating through Pompeii is confusing with pathways re-routed, some sights are covered with scaffolding and some buildings are closed for restoration - but most of all (one more time), the site is huge - far larger than anyone expects! This actually leads to a great camaraderie, as people of all nations stop and ask each other “have you seen this?” “do you know where this is.....?” Flexibility is the key - especially if you are trying to follow a pre-planned route.
Our day at Pompeii was wet! Along with a handful of violent thunderstorms, there there were a couple of rainbows too. With a constant reminder of why we were able to see today’s amazing ancient site, the very moody looking Vesuvius watched over the whole place.....the day was certainly one to remember as we walked around the area of this lost civilization. Fortunately for the few hardy and very wet visitors who were there the Romans knew how to build roads!
The basalt stones on the road are the original pavement. The sidewalks were paved with a mixture of broken pots and pieces of white marble, which created an ancient version of “cat’s eyes” - this proved to be handy for people walking around in the dark! Roads have 3 raised stones in the centre, which was extremely useful on the day we were there. Used to cross the streets, the people of Pompeii could keep their feet dry when the daily flooding of the streets took place - a regular cleaning practice. Now joined with metal grating they work just as efficiently for tourists crossing the flooded roads due to torrential rain! You’re probably thinking what about the chariots? These smart Romans made sure that all chariots had standard-sized axles so they could straddle the stones. A street with one stone was one-way, two meant both ways and three were major roads. Still on the topic of stones - pedestrianized streets had 3 large stones blocking the entrance, no vehicles allowed! These designated streets also had signs - mounted on posts - many of them can still be seen.
The main street, Via Abbondanza, was a pedestrian zone and was filled with bars and restaurants.....Pompeiians lived in small apartments and did not eat at home. We saw evidence of their version of fast food places, with their marble counters still intact. Holes in the counters held containers to keep food warm and cold. At the front of these buildings a groove can be seen where the shop would have had a folding door that opened up. Holes on the curb mark the place where pegs held cords for awnings that kept the sun off the customers.......this lively city of 20,000 people sure knew how to live! Archaeologists have discovered that there were 40 bakeries, 30 brothels and 130 restaurants.
We saw too many things to name and describe.....we saw bakeries with large pots and a “pizza-style” oven, and brothels with their tiny stone beds - frescoes above them advertised various “services.” There were Bath complexes with beautiful mosaics and large soaker-tubs, plus one room with a fountain that spilled water onto the heated floor to create steam. Around this fountain we saw lettering with the names of politicians who had paid for it. The ceiling in this room is ribbed so that any condensation would be carried down the walls and not drip onto the people bathing there!
We went into homes, both large and small, including the largest - The House of the Faun. This villa of a wealthy family covered 27,000 square feet and had 40 rooms. At the entrance are two shrines and, on the ground in Latin, is a “welcome sign” reading - “HAVE.” A lovely and realistic small bronze statue of a dancing faun stands in a small pool in the courtyard - its marble floor decorated with a geometric design.
Having wandered around for a couple of hours or more (and sheltered a time or two from gusty winds, thunder, lightening and driving rain), we entered the area of The Forum....and although one of the more ruined areas, it really does have the “wow” factor! As we could see at The Forum in Rome, it’s basically the centre of the city - for religion, business, politics, shopping and socializing. Lining the square were statues on pedestals - the pedestals are still there, but no statues. On one side of the square was the granary that today houses thousand of artifacts, including the casts of a dog and some of the victims of that day in 79 A.D. when Vesuvius erupted.
On another side of the square is the Basilica, with a big central hall and rows of unusually low columns that are equal in height .....they looked unfinished, but were actually in the process of being rebuilt after being damaged in an earlier earthquake that shook Pompeii.
When we faced Vesuvius, which on this day was partially obscured by storm clouds, we also faced the Temple of Jupiter where columns sit on top of a few steps. A small white marble head of Jupiter can also be seen. While making our way around the partially flooded Forum, it’s easy to imagine this still active volcano sending up the smoke and ash that covered and destroyed buildings, burying everything beneath it. The city stayed this way until discovered in the 17th century....excavation started in the mid 1700s.
Our last stop was the Theatre, which is built into a hillside and could seat 5,000 on three levels. In addition to the main section were marble terraces with seats for two and also the “cheap” seats at the top. Some of these seating examples are still around, but there’s a lot of grassy areas. The acoustics remain very good in this large, outdoor theatre. Although large parts of the ground were flooded with the day’s rain, we managed to carefully make our way around the large pools of water to the centre. Once there we could to try out how we sounded when making speeches, or singing songs.....everyone sounded great!
Although we were willing to continue longer, what little light this grey day had, was quickly fading....and truthfully, Pompeii cannot be seen in a day. We were there for about 5 hours and did not come close to seeing everything....we could easily have continued or returned for another full day without repeating anything.
We made our way back through the town of Pompeii - which despite the usual souvenir shops, looked quite nice. Tired, wet and pretty soggy due to the not so perfect weather, we were extremely happy.....having had the most amazing and memorable day as we ticked this one off our bucket list!