I have got a few gaps in the map, so I will have to get travelling…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites; it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites in Europe. I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter.
This time in Italy I was planning to add a few more, Milan (The Last Supper), Modena and Ferrara.
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…
“At every ticket window customers were gesticulating wildly. They didn’t seem to be so much buying tickets as pouring out their troubles to the… weary looking men seated behind each window. It is amazing how much emotion the Italians invest in even the simplest transaction” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
The Circumvesuviana is an electrified narrow-gauge railway that runs from Naples to Sorrento and we enjoyed a cramped but scenic journey as the line passed through many tunnels and over several bridges. I first used it in 2004 and from memory it was clean and efficient but now it is gloriously chaotic, battle scarred and overcrowded with danger seeping out of every corner.
After half an hour we arrived at the station of Ercolani Scavi, which is barely half a mile away from the entrance to the excavations.
You have to hand it to the Romans, they thought of everything, even down to building this great city so close to a convenient railway line. Compare this to the French, for example, Calais station, if you have ever been there, is miles out away from the town!
For those short of time, Herculaneum is a good alternative visitor site to the more famous Pompeii. After the eruption the town was buried under approximately twenty metres of lava, mud and ash and it lay hidden and almost intact until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709 who dropped into an underground Roman Theatre. After a bit of inevitable plundering the excavation process began soon after but is still incomplete and today the untidy Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of old Herculaneum which prevents its complete excavation because you can’t just knock down a living town just to get to Ancient Rome.
Actually the excavation has now been indefinitely suspended to help preserve the ancient city. The volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of good preservation but once excavations began exposure to the elements began the rapid process of deterioration. This was not helped by previous methods of archaeology used earlier in the town’s excavation, sometimes rather crude which generally prioritised recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the safeguarding of the infrastructure.
Tourism, vandalism as well as inappropriate excavation methods has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the structures. Consequently the archeologists have decided that what remains buried is best left buried until it can be excavated safely.
So long as Vesuvius doesn’t erupt again these archeological endeavours can wait. No one knows absolutely for sure but it is estimated that visitors can only see only about a fifth of the city which led me to speculate on what great treasures there must be waiting to be discovered in what remains perfectly preserved underneath the foundations of the modern town directly above.
I had been to Herculaneum once before in 2004 with my son, Jonathan, this is him at an ancient fast food restaurant…
I tried to recapture the cool pose fourteen years later…
… and failed miserably on account of not having a hat.
From the entrance we had to descend into what resembles a deep quarry through the twenty metres or so of tufa and down to the site itself and it became immediately apparent that Herculaneum is most unlike the remains at the site at Pompeii.
Pompeii was destroyed and the citizens were killed by fumes and ash that were carried by the wind in a south-easterly direction from the volcano but Herculaneum was on the other side of the mountain to the west. During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius. A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of gas, ash, and rock that had reached a temperature of five hundred degrees centigrade racing down toward Herculaneum at a rate of sixty miles an hour. No chance to outrun it, a Roman chariot could only achieve speeds of half that and only over a short distance. When the flow reached the city it buried the citizens who had fled to boat houses and were trying to escape to open sea and the intense heat killed them in an instant.
This is the scientific bit. A pyroclastic flow is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano and the temperature within a flow may be so great that it is sufficient to burn and carbonise wood immediately upon impact. Once deposited, because of the intense heat, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments deform and weld together. Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.
This process of filling from the bottom in this way was important because at Pompeii most of the buildings were destroyed by the overhead weight of the ash and they inevitably collapsed but this didn’t happen at Herculaneum. Good for us visitors two thousand years later but not so good for those living there at the time.
The excavation site is much smaller than Pompeii but because of the state of preservation of the buildings I found it to be more interesting. The buildings are intact and the frescoes and the wall paintings are much more vivid and it is possible to visit the houses of important people (including Julius Ceaser’s father-in-law) and the shopping areas and public buildings and the boat houses where most of the inhabitants died as they tried to make their impossible escape from the approaching boiling lava flow.
Whereas Pompeii takes a full day to explore, Herculanem takes just a couple of hours so after we had walked the ancient streets we left and ran the gauntlet of the restaurants and bars with pushy waiters back to the railway station and a return to Naples.
Herculaneum also reveals that things don’t really change so much, this is a sign on a wall setting out prices two thousand years ago…
… and this is a modern day fast food shop in the city of Naples…
From literally anywhere in Naples Vesuvius stands threateningly close by, like a loaded gun pointed at the heart of the city…
Even eggheads find it difficult to be absolutely precise about this but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world – not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 A.D. then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around the city of Naples.
The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent.
I visited the top of the Volcano in 1976.
“Hey Mom, they have pizza in Italy too!” American tourist family overheard in Rome
There was no debate or discussion about evening meal, we were in Naples and it had to be pizza, it had to be pizza because Naples is the home of the dough based, tomato topped classic.
Legend has it that Queen Margherita of Savoy gave her name to the most famous pizza of all on a visit there in 1889.
Tired of French gourmet cooking (as you might well be) she summoned the city’s most famous pizza-maker, Raffaele Esposito, and asked him to bake her three pizzas and she would chose her favourite. Like a judge on a cookery TV programme she decided upon the patriotic version, prepared in the colours of the Italian flag – red (tomato), green (basil), and white (mozzarella) and this became the Pizza Margherita.
Everyone in Naples eats pizza, I have never seen so many pizza restaurants in one place, I tried to work out how many pizzas might be eaten here in a single day but I found the number to be so big it was so incalculable that I feared my head might possibly explode.
Interestingly I cannot see that Italy has a National Pizza Day. Maybe, and this is an interesting fact, because in terms of pizza consumption per population Italy is only fifth in the World. A lot of places outside of Naples are clearly bringing the numbers down. Fourth is Germany, third is the UK, second is the USA but first is NORWAY! I can understand that, if I lived in Norway I would eat cheap pizza because Norway is amongst the most expensive places to live in the World.
The USA has a National Pizza Day on February 9th. Over four billion pizzas are sold in America every year, 17% of all restaurants are pizzerias, including Italy at World Showcase at Disney World at EPCOT and around about three hundred and fifty pizza slices are eaten every second. Pepperoni is the most popular pizza at just over one-third of all pies ordered. Not one of my favourites I have to confess.
“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s Amore” (Harry Warren/Jack Brooks)
When I was a boy growing up we didn’t have pizza!
For my Mum preparing food took up a lot of every day because there were no convenience meals and everything had to be prepared from scratch. We had never heard of moussaka, paella or lasagne and the week had a predictable routine. There was complete certainty about the menu because we generally had the same thing at the same time on the same day every week, there were no foreign foods at all, no pasta or curries and rice was only ever used in puddings.
I can still remember my very first pizza and I consider myself fortunate that it was in Italy, in 1976, my first ever overseas holiday when I visited Sorrento with my dad.
I became an immediate fan of the Italian classic and all of its variants just so long as it doesn’t have pineapple on it. Unless you live in Hawaii pineapple on a pizza is just plain wrong. And, I am not the only one who thinks this way; in February 2017, the President of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson said and he was ‘fundamentally opposed’ to pineapple on pizzas. In his words…
“I like pineapples, just not on pizza. I do not (unfortunately) have the power to make laws which forbid people to put pineapples on their pizza.”
Today, authentic Neapolitan pizzas are made only with local produce and have been given the status of a ‘guaranteed traditional speciality’. This allows only three official variants: pizza Marinara, which is made with tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil, pizza Margherita, made with tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil, and pizza Margherita Extra made with tomato, buffalo mozzarella from Campania, basil and extra virgin olive oil.
Pizza should be kept simple but it is not only pineapple that is used to spoil it.
Canada joins in on USA Pizza Day and I nominate this Poutine (fried potato, gravy and cheese curds) Pizza as probably the worst ever variation on the famous pie.
If we had ever had pizza at home and my mum served this up I can guarantee that I would be there twenty-four hours later listening to her repeat over and again – “you are not leaving the table until you have eaten all of your dinner” or, on rare occasions that I could wear her down…” one more mouthful and you can get down” and just to make it clear that didn’t include “I don’t want to eat this shit.”
On this occasion we stumbled upon an excellent pizzaria down a predictable untidy back street and went downstairs into the restaurant. Good job we were early because within half an hour it was heaving with customers. The food was cheap, the house wine was served in a jug and I would like to tell you that I had a classic Margherita but I can’t because I added ham, olives and artichokes to the topping. It was wonderful. So good we made an instant decision that we would return again the following evening.
We walked back through the grubby urban scarred back streets of Naples to our accommodation, our senses and stomachs overflowing full to busting after an excellent first day.
I liked it here. I really liked it here!
What is your favourite pizza, do tell?
“…when the sun burst through the morning mists and fired this tinted magnificence, it topped imperial Vesuvius like a jeweled crown!” , Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad
In 1976 I visited Sorrento in Italy. The currency was the Lira and the notes were so worthless (I seem to remember that the smallest denomination was 1,000) that it was normal practice for shops to give change in the form of a postcard.
One day I went to Mount Vesuvius and came back with these to add to my collection.
My personal favourite…
“”See Naples and die.” Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently””, Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad
On Saturday it was time for another trip and after breakfast we joined the coach that was taking us to Naples. Naples is the third largest city in Italy after Rome and Milan but in the Golden Age of the eighteenth century it was the third largest in Europe after London and Paris. Until its annexation to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was the wealthiest and most industrialised of the Italian states.
There is a famous phrase that says ‘See Naples and die!’ which originated under the Bourbon regime and means that before you die you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples. Some, less charitable, now say that the city is so mad, dangerous and polluted that death might possibly be a consequence of a visit there.
To be fair not everyone is so pessimistic and gloomy about Naples and in 1913 George Bradshaw wrote in his guide ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys”…
“Naples is a bit of heaven that has tumbled to earth.”
I liked it immediately. At the Centro Storico the warren of alleys with peeling sepia walls were vibrant, chaotic and gloriously dilapidated, the architecture was glorious, the locals loud and boisterous, the balconies bannered with laundry and the driving was appalling. This was a glorious place, the beating heart of the city, raw, passionate, crumbling, secret, welcoming and corrupt
Naples, we learned, was dangerous for a number of reasons. Most obvious of all is its perilously close proximity to Vesuvius that looms large over the city. Naples is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world and is regarded as potentially one of the most dangerous volcanoes on earth because there is a population of three million people living so close to it. Vesuvius has a tendency towards unexpected explosive eruptions and as the last one was in 1946 the next one is most probably overdue.
The second reason is lawlessness because Naples has enormous problems with Mafia style organised crime. The Naples equivalent of the Mafia is the Camorra, which is a loose confederation of criminal networks in control of organised crime, prostitution, arms dealing and drug-trafficking, and the gang wars result in a high number of deaths.
The network of clans has been described as Italy’s most murderous crime syndicate, preying on the communities around it by means of extortion and protection rackets. Rival factions wage feuds as they battle to control the drugs trade.
Although we were extremely unlikely to come across the Camorra on our short visit to the city the tour guide did give strong advice on taking care of wallets and valuables and a recommendation not to buy anything from illegal street vendors. She told us that cheap cigarettes would most likely be made from sawdust substituted for tobacco, leather handbags would be plastic and whiskey would be cold tea instead of a single malt and wherever we went we pestered by children trying to tempt us into a purchase.
“I remember the back streets of Naples
Two children begging in rags
Both touched with a burning ambition
To shake off their lowly brown tags”
Peter Sarstedt – ‘Where do you go to my lovely’
The third reason is the high levels of pollution which means that Naples is a very unhealthy city. It was the most bombed Italian city of World-War-Two and today as we drove through it looked as though they were still tidying up. The streets were full of litter and there was graffiti on almost every wall. The historical tourist centre, which twenty years after our visit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was better but we didn’t have to stray far away to find the unpleasant parts and the guide discouraged us from breaking away from the group.
There was a lot of air pollution as well and although the sun was shining above it we were trapped in a layer of smog and haze. We drove to a viewing platform high up in the city overlooked by the bulk of Vesuvius and with a jaw-dropping view over the bay looking back towards the Sorrentine Peninsula where we could just about make out the ghostly apparition of Capri and although the sea looked inviting we knew that this was one of the most polluted parts of the whole of the Mediterranean Sea.
The main reason for a trip to Naples was to visit the National Archaeological Museum which is considered one of the most important in the World for artifacts from the Roman Empire. It was all very interesting and the best exhibits were the treasures unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum which filled many of the rooms.
I remember it as a curious museum without logical sequence or order and many of the valuable items on display seemed dangerously vulnerable. In one room was a wooden bed that had been recovered from Pompeii and which one visitor decided to sit on to test it out. This provoked a rebuke from an attendant but I have to say that it was their own fault for not giving it adequate protection. I expect things might be different now.
But maybe not and I like this news report from August 2013:
“A tourist snapped the finger off a priceless fourteenth century statue in Florence. The incident took place in the Italian city’s world famous Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, with the six hundred year-old exhibit believed to be the work of eminent medieval sculptor Giovanni d’Ambrogio.
The tourist apologised for damaging the priceless artwork but the museum condemned the tourist’s behaviour, saying: “In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is, ‘Do not touch the works’”.
But there is a twist to the tale – The museum subsequently confessed that the broken finger was not original to the piece, and had been added at a later date.
In the late afternoon we left Naples and drove through the untidy outskirts of the city through whole neighbourhoods that were desperately in need of some attention. After the War the Italian Government spent huge amounts of cash on rebuilding Naples and the south of the country but in some of these places it looked as if they were yet to make a start. As we moved out of the haze of the city the sun came through and we drove back down the main road that returned us to Sant’ Agnello.