On the train to Naples, I had the four-person cabin to myself for only a few stops. First an elderly couple got on board, then another man joined us a few stops later. The sun having long since gone down, I decided to catch up on my sleep, so there were no more than a few words exchanged before we all were in bed. This wasn’t a great experience—the lady in the cabin rolled onto her back and snored prodigiously for a few hours. Although this kept me awake long enough to hear the rattling and banging that accompanied us being loaded on board the ferry across the Straits of Messina, I didn’t have the energy to crawl out and take a look at the sea in the darkness.
I must have slept for at least an hour or two, though it didn’t much feel like it when the sun emerged. As the carriage had better washing facilities than the ones that had taken me across Russia almost exactly five years before, I cleaned myself up (sweat-soaked though I was) and caught a glimpse of the Campania landscape in the dawn light and my first sight of Vesuvius. From the first angle, it didn’t look much like the famous cone, even as it stood tall and lonely amid the plains.
Dropped into Napoli Centrale not long after 7am, I immediately went in search of the Circumvesuviana line and found it one floor down, where my dad had directed me. Deciding not to hang around and look for breakfast, I bought a ticket and jumped on board as soon as the train pulled into Napoli Garibaldi station. The rickety train out to Pompeii (and beyond to Sorrento) did at least give me a better notion of how Vesuvius loomed over the landscape. At first seeming a small presence, it loomed closer and closer, until by the Erculaneo station (ancient Herculaneum), it squatted across most of the skyline. Further out, at Pompei Scavi, it was less present but hard to forget.
I don’t normally enjoy guided tours, but everyone who’d been to Pompeii before me told me to take one, so I decided to spend €12 on a tour and spent half an hour until the site opened having a ham and cheese toastie and a can of coke for breakfast. This proved a poor idea (the tour, not the breakfast). I had to wait another 45 minutes for the tour to begin, half an hour late, and the harried tour guide left no time for dropping our baggage into the free storage service. As pleasant and knowledgeable as she proved to be, the tour felt slow and very selective. If, like me, you prefer to set your own pace, get an audioguide instead, or splash out on a guidebook with proper descriptions.
The one benefit of lugging my backpack around Pompeii was that when the rain started to come down, I was able to dig out the umbrella I’d bought specifically for the trip. With this in hand, the tour group hit some of the main sights of Pompeii, including the brothel, with its graphic menu of services; the forum, which was dotted with strange modern statues as part of an exhibit; the House of the Faun, where the famous Alexander mosaic was found; and several other houses and main streets.
Once I was on my own, I was able to strike out and head for the Villa of the Mysteries, on the outskirts of Pompeii itself, which is graced with some of the most beautiful and vivid frescoes surviving from Roman times. From there, I meandered back through Pompeii, to the most distant corner, where the beautifully complete amphitheatre stood (paying host to an exhibit about how Pink Floyd played there once). In short, I covered a lot more ground and saw a lot more sights in about as much time as the actual tour had taken.
My time in Pompeii taught me that we have little true notion of what it was to live in Roman times. This most complete of Roman cities is still just stone and clay, providing fragmented hints of everyday life. The archaeological work of piecing together this distant time is painstaking and will always be incomplete, but with every new element turned up, a little more is known. That said, later in the day I would learn about some elements that had rather embarrassed the original discoverers of Pompeii.
Weary, rained-on and sweat-stained, I finally jumped on the train back into town (checking out my messages courtesy of wifi from the cafe across the way). When I emerged into the Piazza Garibaldi in front of Napoli Centrale, I was in desperate need of an hour or two of rest. Especially given that it was warm and humid, after 2pm, and I was distinctly underfed. I headed out down Corso Umberto I and, after some backtracking, found the Funikula Funikulo B&B, which proved to be just what I needed—bright, clean and fresh. A shower, a change of clothes and a couple of hours of rest made me feel mostly human and ready to head out.
Following the Pompeiian/Roman theme of the day, my goal was the National Archaeological Museum, which held the Farnese Collection of Classical artworks. To get there, I skipped walking across the old city and instead jumped on Metro Linea 1 to the Museo stop right next door. The two hours I spent in the Museum were well worth the entry price—the Farnese family spent much of the Renaissance period gathering every piece of classical art they could find, and between them and the Papacy (which they held a few times), they got most of it.
The highlights of the collection include the Farnese Hercules and the Farnese Bull, which together dominate a hall of colossal statuary. However, there’s much more to be seen, including a very sceptical-looking colossal bust of Vespasian, the original of the Alexander Mosaic found in Pompeii (as well as the Faun that gave the House of the Faun its name), some of the most beautiful frescoes rescued from Pompeii and, well, an entire collection of Roman porn.
This, you see, is what so disturbed the early excavators of Pompeii. Far from being reserved and dignified exemplars of civilisation, the Romans were frank and open about sex. You won’t see many signs of this in Pompeii itself, other than the brothel in the red light district (and a few phallic roadsigns), as many of the most explicit finds have been tucked away into a distant corner of the museum. Moreover, Roman sexual art tends to be focused, to an almost comic degree on the penis. Statues with massive penises (sometimes as many as five of them), frescoes featuring similarly endowed gods, and even a winged, flying penis are some of the highlights of the display. In other words, if you ever got the chance to go back to ancient Pompeii, the second thing that would hit you would be the multitude of dicks all over the place. (The first would be the stink of the shit that flowed down the streets.)
Exhausted by this tidal wave of art (pornographic and otherwise), I eventually headed out and turned downhill, towards the Piazza Dante. Here, due to a mixup on my part with regard to restaurant reviews, I had one of the worst meals of the trip—weak beer and a flattened burger masquerading as a panini. At least it gave me a chance to rest and chill out as the sun went down, and the Piazza Dante was a pretty lively place to do so.
When I moved on, I headed downhill through a now darkened and buzzing shopping district. Not that I was shopping myself, but plenty of other people were out and enjoying the warm Friday evening. In an epic roofed courtyard, I grabbed a vanilla and fragola gelato cone, and that accompanied me all the way down to the Piazza del Plebiscito, where the crowd finally petered out. I backtracked a bit and made my way across to the massive Castel Nuovo, where a concert stage was being set up beyond the box office. From there, it was a mostly a straight line back uphill to the Corso Umberto I, where I bought myself a large bottle of water before making my way back to my B&B.
Any thoughts that I might have been too early in heading to my bed were wiped out when an impressive thunderstorm kicked off about an hour later. As thunder and lightning made a showing a few times a minute and the rain poured down, I was wrapping up a few bits of writing and getting everything sorted for the next day. When I finally turned out the lights, the show outside was still going on, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from sleep for long.
The next morning, I was up early enough to get packed, washed and sorted before my breakfast (a sfogliato pastry and cappuccino with some yogurt and toast) was delivered to my door. This excellent care meant that I was ready to get up and head out (leaving my backpack behind for the moment) to get a few hours exploring in before I made my way to the train station. The goal was the Old Town, which I’d more or less circled the evening before.
Luckily, this was a pretty straightforward process: cross Corso Umberto I and head uphill. Lots of alleys, plenty of tiny shops selling tourist knickknacks, including weird mixes of religious items and footballing souvenirs, and looming six-story buildings. I poked my nose into a few churches, both plain and baroque, before I found my way to San Lorenzo Maggiore and, more importantly, the excavations underneath it. Here, just as it opened for the day, I grabbed a ticket and headed inside and down the stairs. This would be my final Roman destination in Naples—a couple of streets and numerous shops, including a covered Cryptoporticum, giving yet another insight into Roman life, albeit much less colourfully than Pompeii or the museum.
Eventually, I headed back to the B&B, grabbed my bag and walked up to Napoli Centrale. Which is where I found that I’d made a mistake and thought it was about an hour later than it actually was. Having extra time to kill, I first sat down and wrote up my travel notes, then I headed out in search of some extra sustenance: Vesuvanilla and Fragola sfogliatos and a large bottle of water (something of a habit at this stage). There was enough time too to get some suncream (a little late in the day for this, I know) as I waited for the right platform to be shown beside my train on the timetable.
Eventually, I got on board and settled myself in, fighting with the annoying wifi restrictions in an effort to get on board. As the train powered its way north from Naples to Roma Termini and Roma Tiburtino (where we are now), I spent my time writing this and listening to some podcasts. There’s still Florence to pass through and Bologna to get off at, before the quick hop to Rimini, where I should arrive in time for an evening swim. Here’s hoping.