Roman & Medieval Italy

As you walked along a dark street, you suddenly spot a signage. It is a raucous figure of a neon light. Ahhh yes. This is a sign for where you can find ladies of pleasure.

Hmm…is this a sensual essay?

Oops. Nope. For you see, we are talking about our journey that we made to the unearthed city of Pompeii. Made famous by movies and all, this city was all but lost when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year AD 79. Along with its neighboring city Herculaneum, the city was covered in ash and unseen for more than 1500 years. Rediscovered particularly in the last century, this town of antiquity was one of the most important we made when we tour the ‘boot’ of Italy.

Pompeii MapIf there was one thing about Roman cities, it was that they were well planned. You’ve heard about the Roman roads. Can you imagine that they would not design and build their cities in the same way? Well, here we were after a long drive from Rome. It was sure nice to get off our butt and give the legs some circulation.

Real estate planning

Pompeii 5
Imagine if this was your villa

Imagine that you are in a lush garden. The warm summer’s here and the fountains are running… laughter is heard. That’s probably how it would have been in this villa some 2000 years ago. Might had been the scene too when the mountain erupted. For the opulence and size of the residence gives one a clue as to how the elite Romans lived. Probably they ignored all the warnings since they were well used to seismic activity here…

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Beautiful murals
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Filled with art

And these folks had a penchant for art too. The one thing that wowed us was the extent that wall murals / frescoes remain so well preserved even till this day. Partly that was because of the efforts of the excavators, but it might also had to do with the quality of material used. Perhaps the hot ash encapsulated them for such a long time that it remained almost intact! But alas as they are now exposed, it may begin to slowly erode away.

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Floor mosaics

The excavations had revealed a treasure trove of buildings and as you walk amongst the ruins, you can see road networks that direct traffic. Some archeologists contend that at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, the city was a sort of resort as well too, with many wealthy Romans having holiday homes. That probably explained why the villas were so lavish!

As the day wore on we came upon a well-preserved kiln for the bakers of those times. Imagine the roar of the fire as the breads and pizzas were made! Ok Pizzas probably were not invented at that time, but perhaps some forebear of it was… whatever, for the city was a thriving one of 11,000 so postulates some students of the antiquities.

Now you will need to know that ancient Pompeii was a port too, which handled Rome’s imports of exotics that were not produced on the peninsula. Evidence of products coming through the city on the way to the other parts of the empire had been traced, such as spices. With trade this town got wealthy, plus it had a lot of traffic coming through.

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Road crossings for people

And speaking of the roads, unfortunately ancient Pompeii did not have a proper sewerage system. Our guide told us that in those days the sewerage often overrun out into the streets.

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See that Volcano in the background?

Also recall that oxen and horses probably trotted past too. Thus the city planner were considerate enough to build “zebra” crossing of stones to let pedestrians cross potentially water-filled streets. Darn, they thought of everything didn’t they?

Sin city of the ancients?

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Yep that’s the one that smothered the place

You might have concluded by now that Pompeii was definitely a very naughty city – and it is supported by the vast amount of uncovered erotic art that were discovered. There was so many that most were actually squirreled away from the site and hidden away at the University of Naples! And the art was distinct, evident by its central “worship” (perhaps emphasis) of the phallus.

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What the?

Ok we exaggerate. It appeared that a lot of art had this dedication. This one we share was just there waiting to be photographed. It is one of the most iconic ones too we think since everyone was milling around it. Not sure why the university left this one behind on site…This art form is nominally part of the Pompeiian style says some authoritative experts, and in some ways it puts Gangnam style to shame…

The city was covered in ash for centuries and it was only in the late 1800s that it was fully ‘rediscovered’. There is said to be a better-preserved town – Herculanum (didn’t we mention this?) just a few kilometers away. But then, Pompeii is the famous one! So if we have to vote, we’d still cast it in favor or Pompeii, the city that inspired more than a few movies!

Italy’s southern Riviera?

Amalfi1
It is a fantastic drive

In any event, the climate of this part of Italy probably facilitated a luxurious lifestyle for those Roman elites coming all the way out here to escape the “heated” city that is Rome. For just a short drive of less than 20km away is the Sorrento peninsula, jutting out into the Tyrrhenian sea to form the protective gulf of Naples. Still a resort today after countless centuries, the area boasts of cliff hugging villages and the requisite clifftop hotels. On both sides of it that is.

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With many stops for photos

For we made the Amalfi coach drive taking us along the southern coast line towards the town of Positano. Take a walk in the tiny streets of the town. Being hemmed in by the sea and the towering cliffs meant real estate is precious. Hence it would not surprise us that cars are not allowed. They say that Jackie Onassis (the former Kennedy wife) had a villa here!

While we did not stop in Amalfi, we drove tantalizingly close to it. It’s amazing that this seemingly small town was once the seat of a mighty medieval maritime republic, the likes of Venice except it never quite made it into fame. That’s because it fell to the Normans (yes the Vikings again) in 1073 and got absorbed into the entity that eventually became the Kingdom of Naples.

Anyway.

We were staying for the night near Sorrento town, for which we will use as a launch pad to take the ferry to the island of Capri. You know this island deserves so much more time. And we were only there for a day trip like many of the other tour groups. What a pity indeed. When you are here you’ll understand why the emperors Augustus, Tiberius etc all had villas here for their annual summer retreat. Not only the views but the breeze that cools you from the Italian summer heat is definitely welcome. Stunning is the only word we can use and we’ll leave you to salivate over the photos.

If one comes here the most tourist trappy thing is to take a boat drive to see the ‘blue’ grotto. You know the marketing hype. Numerous grottoes dot the cliff sides of the islands as you can see from the photos. The most famous grotto has got to be the Azure, because of the colors of the water that gave its name. You might find a few of these blue grottos all over the Mediterranean… in any case our attempt at getting to it was a failure. The sea was rough on that day, though it looked beautifully sun-basked. So we only caught a glimpse. In any case our camera would not have done it any justice. Some day – yeah, we say that all the time. Some day we will be back to see it!

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Capri is actually part of the extension of the Sorrento coast and as sea levels rose after the last ice age, the 10km of sea separated Capri from the mainland. So we circled around the Faraglioni rocks as a consolation before bidding our farewell to this beautiful island.

This journey was made in July 2001

From here we made the drive northwards, heading towards the region that was once part of the Papal states. We were visiting the city of Assisi on the slopes of mount Subazio. There, a Franciscan and Claires monastery was founded by the patron saint of Italy. It’s a beautiful town and if not for the pilgrimage to see the basilica and many churches, one can still enjoy a medieval city with a massive fortress.

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