Naples, January 2018

Unlike Milano, where I had been a couple of times before (three times in 2017), I had never been to Naples or even the Naples region.

So I didn't try to look for something unusual to do, but went for the well-established default tourist attractions in the area - Vesuvius and Pompeii.

The first one, Vesuvius turned out to be a bit dull.

Unless you go on a guided tour, the usual approach is to take the train to Herculaneum and then use a bus from there.

The first part went well, but the next tourist bus up Vesuvius wasn't running for another hour, so I walked down to the Herculaneum site (it's only 500 meters down the road from the train station) and had a quick look. It is convenient in the sense that you can see most of the site from above before getting to the entrance gates. So you don't get a close-up look (there wasn't enough time for that until the bus left), but you get an overview.


The bus to Vesuvius takes about 40 minutes and then drops you at a parking spot, where you have about 90 minutes until you have to catch the bus down again. (Presumably you can stay longer and wait for the next one, as the tickets don't give a specific departure time, but they don't give you any schedule information, so you don't know when the next bus will leave. They clearly want to discourage people from staying longer and then having too many people trying to get on the last busses going down.)

I knew that 90 minutes was a tight schedule if you wanted to get around the crater.

Information was spare here as well.

There were some remarks on various sites that the trail from the parking spot to the crater rim was about 800 meters long and 'having an constant, but manageable incline', but I didn't see any information how much uphill would be involved.

It turns out that you have to walk up about 200 meters to get to the crater rim, so it's roughly like taking the stairs up to the 60th floor of a building.

I was trying to walk up as fast as possible (as I knew that wanted to get around the crater when I was up there) and arrived very much out of breath.

Then I started to walk around the crater, only to find out after about a third of it that the path was closed.

It looked like a temporary closing, not a permanent one, maybe because of it being quite windy. The path also ended next to a "rent a guide" station, so maybe you needed to go with a guide to continue. But as I would have needed to continue at a quick pace to make it all around and get back to the bus in time, getting and walking with a guide would have taken too long, even if it had been possible.

Maybe the experience is better if you get there with your own car and have more control over your schedule.

At least I then had a lot of time to walk back around the accessible part of the crater path and down to the parking place, while taking pictures along the way.

Vesuvius Vesuvius Vesuvius crater

In itself, Vesuvius is dull. While it is, technically, an active volcano, ("the only active volcano on the European mainland", the brochures boast), it doesn't look like it. The inside looks pretty much like an abandoned quarry.

Vesuvius crater inside Vesuvius crater inside

Cool if you like quarries or ar a geologist (the rocks clearly show their volcanic origin), but kind of 'so what?' otherwise. Mostly a 'checkmarking' experience. Been there, done that. Don't need to do it again.

Volcanic rocks Volcanic rocks Volcanic rocks

At least the weather was ok and there weren't any cloud around the mountain, so there were reasonable views of the surrounding countryside.

Naples seen from Vesuvius Naples seen from Vesuvius Naples seen from Vesuvius

So as a sightseeing place "up a mountain somewhere" it was ok, but as a "visit the only active volcano in mainland Europe" it was disappointing.

I had also considered staying a bit longer on the rim and then walking back to the train station. It's a couple of kilometers (and about one kilometer altitude difference), but would have made me independent from the bus schedule. But the path I knew about started beyond the "closed path" section, so even that was not an option. And walking down the street that the bus had taken seemed a bit pointless.

It would have been more interesting to go to Solfatara on the other side of Naples, which has volcanic springs and generally looks more exciting in pictures, but there had been an accident four months earlier, so the place was "momentarily closed" since then with no re-opening date given.

In any case, for what was essentially a day trip, Vesuvius was a bit underwhelming.

("Day trip", since it took about an hour to go there by train, another hour to wait for the bus, another hour to get to the parking place, 90 minutes of actual sightseeing, another hour back down to the train station and another hour to get back to Naples. If you have your own car, it's likely to be much better.)

Next day I went to Pompeii.

Pompeii forum

That turned out to be a much better experience.

I hadn't read anything about the place (except for the obvious things like opening times and how to get there), so I did not know what to expect (beyond the usual school knowledge).

So for the first half of my visit, I walked around and looked at random things, which was fun. Only then I started paying attention to the sign posts and headed for the (presumably) more important or famous buildings the signs were pointing at.

A good choice, though I should have bought a guidebook in between. I later found that I had missed a lot of interesting things, which I would have liked to see.

But the first 'walk around without any plan' part was worth it.

The most surprising thing is how big the place is. I had seen Herculaneum on the previous day and that is about the size of a shopping mall parking lot.

In Pompeii, you can walk down kilometers of streets.

It was, even by modern standards, a city.

The other noticeable things are the density of the buildings, the lack of small streets and the high walls everywhere.

There are no fences.

Houses are generally side-by-side. There's no empty space between them, no "semi-detached" suburban houses or villas in the middle of a garden (there are some gardens, but they are walled in).

Garden entrance

And there are "main streets" and "city blocks", but there don't seem to be any smaller streets within the blocks. So if you have a 100x100 meter 'city block' and, let's assume, 10 meter wide buildings, you have a 90x90 area in the middle that is not directly accessible from any street. Which is fine if it is an important building and the area is, basically, a backyard, but in most of the living areas, these places are filled with other buildings. It is hard to tell how people got to these buildings - either they had to go through a lot of other houses or maybe they had a sort of "rooftop street system", but in the midst of it, it must have felt like a cave system.

Pompeii city block Pompeii city block

From the streets, there are either shops visible on both sides or high walls. There never seems to be any open space (except for the main square and the area around the amphitheatre. All the gardens and courtyards (which would nowadays either have a low wall around it or at least some fence you can see through) are walled in on all sides.

Walking down the streets of Pompeii (especially outside the "shopping area") almost felt like going through a chasm.

Pompeii streets Pompeii streets Pompeii streets Pompeii streets

Food preparation and sales areas are still recognizable after thousands of years.

The bakery doesn't look that different from the pizza place down the road from me, even though the grain mills look a different from the better known round millstones (even though Pompeii has those as well).

Bakery in Pompeii Bakery in Pompeii

And an ancient food counter does look quite familiar as well.

Cooked food counter

While they are not directly accessible to visitors, there are also large storage buildings for amphoras, tables and other food and drink consumption related items.

Amphora storage Amphora storage

After spending some time zigging and zagging through the streets, I arrived at a large structure, the amphitheatre.

Pompeii amphitheatre Pompeii amphitheatre Pompeii amphitheatre

I probably should have entered it and thought "this place looks strangely familiar", but in fact I didn't noticed anything about it (even though I must have watched it for many hours), until I spotted a small photo exhibition in a corridor down the side about "Pink Floyd at Pompeii".

Pink Floyd exhibition

So that was the place where it had been filmed!

(In retrospect, the name of the movie should have provided a vital clue.)

I had completely forgotten about that movie, but at least now it gave me an obvious choice of music to put on my headphones while walking through the rest of Pompeii.

There's another "stage" in Pompeii, the theatre. (Mostly) unlike the amphitheatre, this has been used for performances in modern times, so the audience seating area has been restored and in places repaired. (The "mostly" in the preceding sentence is due to the fact that there were three concerts in the amphitheatre in 2016, the first public performances there for two thousand years - not counting productions like "Pink Floyd at Pompeii", which were recorded without an audience. But these are not regular occurrences, so most of the "audience area" in the amphitheatre is grass.)

Pompeii theatre

Many historic places that have been preserved over the millennia tend to have a consistent "look" as they are usually castles and temples which have been designed as a unit. But as Pompeii consists of individual houses and villas there's a bit more variety in styles of decoration. (Probably also because it was a habituated city, which has been changing over centuries. As, let's say, in London, where you can find a stone statue about 500 years old, lots of bronze statues from 200 years ago, but also art deco sculptures and modern abstract art, Pompeii also does have a wide variety of styles.)

Wall art in Pompeii Wall art in Pompeii Wall art in Pompeii Wall art in Pompeii
Wall art in Pompeii Floor art in Pompeii Decorative columns Wall art in Pompeii - probably a doodle of some mexicans sitting at the end of the bar - yes, surely that must be what it is...

Something on which I did find regrettable little information on was how much of the place was "original". Some construction parts looked surprisingly "modern" and it was hard to tell whether the reason for it was that they were.

There is also a surprising amount of brickwork in Pompeii.

Brick entrance Brick columns

In fact, more than can be seen.

A lot of the "marble columns" in buildings and backyards are about as real as the "marble sculptures" you can buy in a modern building supplies store.

In general, they are round columns made from bricks and then covered with some plaster to make the look like marble columns. Only the button and top parts tend to be real marble.

Fake marble columns Fake marble columns Fake marble columns

It seems like the important buildings like temples often had real marble columns, but most private houses used fake ones.

So there must have been a very active brick making industry back then.

But that also brings back the question or "what was really there and what was 'reimagined' later?"

There are some columns in the central area, where the brick columns are wider than the fake (or maybe real) marble ones. It looks a lot as if the whole thing had fallen down and then someone had tried to rebuild it by replacing missing bits with bricks, but neglecting to put plaster on them.

Rebuilt segments Rebuilt segments

It might have been intentionally done to avoid the impression of "cheating" and make clear that this was not original, but it is hard to tell in general which bits were there, which bits were original, but had fallen down and were put back into place and which parts were modern (in the sense of being less than 300 years old) additions.

There were some "bricked over" entrances to places and it would have been interesting to know whether these were additions made 2000 years ago or after the excavations.

Bricked over entrance

I don't worry much about this mosaic being a complete fake - at least they didn't get creative and fill out the gaps (the original is in a museum somewhere). That's like the sculptures at the Acropolis being all replicas, with the originals being better preserved somewhere else.

Recreation of mosaic Recreation of mosaic

But the real attraction in Pompeii is that (unlike most other historic sites) there is a lot of everyday life preserved (and not just the temples and palaces) and it is difficult to get a good impression when you're always wondering how much of it is real and how much is, essentially, an artist's impression.

And really, really annoying are the completely made-up things.

There is a large 'centaur' statue in the main place, which looks surprisingly modern and has an odd feature.

Centaur in Pompeii

A small face in its side.

I had never seen an ancient statue like that and started to wonder whether that might have been like an early "artist signature".

If a large part of the population can't read, it might be better to put your face on a statue instead of your name.

There was another statue, overlooking the plains beyond, which had a similar "signature face" on its shoulder. But that one also had a second face on the front side (which showed only a neck and chin) and a third one in the face. Hardly a good place for a signature.

Daedalus sculpture at Pompeii Daedalus sculpture at Pompeii Daedalus sculpture at Pompeii

But I had never seen any ancient statue even remotely like it.


Until I found out that none of these had anything to do with ancient (or even modern) Pompeii.

They were leftovers from a sculpture exhibition by an artist called Igor Mitoraj.

The exhibition should have ended in January 2017, almost to the day a year before I visited Pompeii, but some of the stuff remained on site, without any indication that it doesn't belong there.

So nothing surprising learned about ancient sculptures at all. It's stuff that looks modern because it is. (But then, for something that is this recent, it looks quite old fashioned - more like something from 1920 or so.)

Visiting Pompeii was fun and an unexpectedly interesting way to spend the day, but ultimately, after reading up on it, it feels a bit dishonest - like watching a documentary and finding out later that all the grainy monochrome footage wasn't footage at all, but a "re-enactment".

A couple of random observations:

As much as I like this mosaic, I am not quite sure how this is supposed to work anatomically. It looks like the left hind leg somehow ends up being in front of the right front leg. That might be feasible in a dog lying around, but for one that's supposedly standing, in looks strange. (And even with the foot ending up on the wrong site, it's also the left back thigh ending up on the right of the body, which is odd.)

Cave Canem

There's also the odd story that the size of modern railway gauges is somehow based on some ancient Roman standard for carts. Besides being wrong, it's also not even a plausible premise, since obviously there hadn't been a single 'proper' cart wheel distance even back then.

I also was wondering about this "Egyptian Hieroglyphs" in one of the buildings. It was quite certainly done for style and decoration, just as Japanese style gardens became fashionable in Europe in the 1930s. It would be interesting to know (but probably impossible to find out), whether these symbols still meant something to the owner as writing or whether they were only decorative elements, used because they looked 'cool' back then, but had lost their original meaning.

Egyptian art in Pompeii Egyptian art in Pompeii

And, of course, there's the question, given some of the painted "picture galleries", whether you could have made a fortune back in the day by inventing pictures that could be hung on walls, so you didn't have to paint everything new if you wanted to re-arrange the images. (But then, painted walls are harder to nick, so the inhabitants of Pompeii might have had a point there...)

Painted picture frames

Next day, I walked around a bit in Naples.

Castel Nuovo in Naples Naples port view

But didn't find enough to occupy me a full day, so I took a ferry over to Sorrento.

Sorrento port

Not because I wanted to see Sorrento (although for walking around and enjoying the view, it's probably nicer than Naples), but because that was the next ferry that was leaving (had I arrived at the port ten minutes earlier, I might as well visited Capri or Ischia).

It was mid-January and some of the winter decorations were still standing, like some slightly off Disney figures and a confused looking polar bears on skis.

I think the idea was to make them look like they are some sort of flower arrangement (like this dog sculpture in Bilbao, but they look more like something made from discarded cheerleader pom-poms.

Disney figures in Sorrento Polar bear figure in Sorrento

Well, in any case, I got to see a bit of Sorrento before taking the train back to Naples.

Where the weather was much nicer on the next day, but I had to catch an early flight home, so I couldn't use that for some more sightseeing.

Sunny Naples morning

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