DM and MM's Italy Trip Diary

Day 17 - Positano, Pompei

Tuesday, 15 May, 2001

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I should mention that all the showers here in Italy seem to have a habit of not draining propery. Instead they fill up to form little pools of water until they reach a point where the water drains away as fast as it arrives - by which time you are standing two or three centimetres deep in it.

We went for breakfast at about 07:40, once again admiring the beautiful view. The sky was much hazier than yesterday and patchy cloud promised a slightly cooler day. When we left the hotel and began the climb up the steps to the through road and the bus stop, we noticed the mist on the cliffs, clinging to it and drifting down the valleys in shreds. It made quite a picture.

The climb to the top of the town was nowhere near as long and arduous as the climb from the beach to the hotel. We arrived at the SITA bus stop at the beginning of Viale Pasitea, where several other people were apparently already waiting for the bus. A nearby tabbachi supplied us with tickets to Sorrento. After purchasing them I asked when the first bus in the morning was for Salerno. The man looked confused and tried patiently to explain to me that I'd just bought tickets for Sorrento, not Salerno. After some dual-language explanation I finally explained that I wanted to know for another trip, tomorrow. Light dawned and he told me the departure time was 06:00, with the next one being 07:10.

I left to inform Michelle that the bus to Salerno should be fine, since a 06:00 departure should leave us plenty of time to get to Salerno in time for our train at 09:30, even if the trip down the road is as slow as when we came the other way. That settled, I decided to save time tomorrow by buying the Salerno tickets now. The man in the tabbachi was not surprised to see me back buying tickets for Salerno.

Tickets acquired, we waited by the side of the road for the bus. There were a few people waiting on both sides, clearly for buses in different directions. We waited about 10 minutes until we saw the bus on the other side of the town, climbing the switchbacked road to our location. It was only then that I realised we were standing on the wrong side of the road, assuming the bus door would be on the left side of the bus. We quickly crossed over and when the bus arrived we climbed aboard.

The bus journey to Sorrento was not nearly as arduous as the journey to Positano. There was a single major road snarl caused by four large tourist coaches heading our way at a particularly narrow street corner in the outskirts of Positano. After that it was smooth driving most of the way, with the road through the unpopulated regions west of Positano being wider, although still full of blind hairpins. The scenery was just as marvellous as the earlier sections of the road.

As we passed over the ridge of the peninsula we saw the town of Sorrento spread before us, much larger than Amalfi or Positano. We rode down more switchbacks, between which were planted olive trees in a scene reminiscent of the escape from the Spanish villa near the beginning of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

After a journey of about 35 minutes we pulled into a stop in Sorrento, where some passengers got off after asking the driver something about Pompei. I queried the driver if this was the stop for the Circumvesuviana train station, and he indicated it was. Some other passengers then got off behind us as well. We all walked in a follow-the-leader style across the road and down a hill to where we found the station, which turned out to be Meta, a stop a few stops from Sorrento station. This was fine though, since we were on the right line and actually closer to Pompei than if we'd stayed on the bus all the way to Sorrento.

We bought return tickets, then searched for a machine in which to validate them, as had been the routine on every other train we'd caught - validate tickets by punching them into a machine before boarding the train. Unable to locate any machines, I read the Italian on the ticket and concluded the machines must be on the trains, like they are on buses and also on the trams in Milan. The train pulled in shortly afterwards, and we climbed aboard a metro-style train full of an even mix of commuters and what looked like other tourists. But there were no ticket validation machines. Unable to do anything else, we rode the train to Pompei station with our tickets unvalidated. Fortunately no inspectors came by, and we alighted without incident, as did half the other passengers on the train.

Pompei station spills you out on to a street lined with people hawking guide books of the ruins. Along the 50 metre walk to the entry gate to the ruins, there are at least five drink stands, all selling freshly squeezed and icy orange and lemon juice, and equipped with loud spruikers. In the entry area itself are people offering guided tours, loudly, to anyone who will listen, in a variety of languages. Amidst this chaos are dozens of organised tour groups and hundreds of individual tourists. Pompei is the most popular tourist attraction in Italy, and it shows.

We waited in a pleasingly short queue for tickets. The queue for the toilets, which a sign proclaimed multilingually to be free of charge, was at least twice as long. Not feeling a desperate need to go, we entered the ruin site just before 10:00.

The walk from the Porta Marina entrance passed some interesting ruins on the left, to which neither the Lonely Planet nor a map I'd picked up back at the Italian tourism office in Sydney gave a name. Once we walked up the slope and passed through an arched tunnel, however, the full impact of the ruins site hit as we saw immense stone walls, columns, and remnants of buildings all around us, stretching in all directions.

A gaping doorway to our left attracted us into the Basilica, the remains of which still bore a resemblance to a large church. Leaving the Basilica we entered the Foro area, which contained the tallest columns and collonades still standing in Pompei. Under all these staggering ruins were hordes of people, with tour guides shouting in Italian, English, French, German, Japanese, Dutch, and Chinese at groups ranging in age from retirees to school children as young as 8 or 9.

We took a right turn past the Comitium and entered a more serene world of the back streets of old Pompei. Here, among the countless average homes of average citizens arrayed down the street cobbled with large rocks there was silence. A couple of other people passed us going the other direction, and we found a small house tended by a man weilding a broom and long-handled dustpan. He gestured at us to come into the house and proceeded to point out details such as the original mosaics on the floors of the various rooms, which were quite interesting, especially after having seen other examples in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome. The man then indicated a tip would be appreciated, so I pulled out a LIT1,000 note. I'd read in the Lonely Planet that many of the homes are locked and the attendants must sometimes be persuaded to open them up, so I was sort of expecting this, but hoping it wouldn't become a usual habit.

We continued in the same direction, walking down a road completely to ourselves, looking at the homes of the masses, which seemed to be quite small. Most of the walls were decayed and crumbled to varying heights, and no roofs were evident anywhere. The homes were overgrown with grass and weeds, though the greenery looked to be kept in some control and not let go completely.

Following these anonymous streets, we soon arrived at the Foro Triangolore, a triangular patch of grass and trees, with the ruins of a Doric temple in the middle. The ruins formed a convenient place to sit, as many people were doing. Nearby was the large theatre of Pompei, which consisted of a semi-circle of steeply stepped seating around a central stage. The seating was gone, covered by a grassy slope, but the shape and size of the building still impressed. Visible from the top os the seating area, over the stage, was the gladiator training area and barracks, now a grassy field surrounded by columns, with rooms along the sides.

After exploring the theatre we returned to the seating provided by the Doric temple for lunch, eating the leftovers from yesterday's lunch on Capri. As we finished up, two large groups of school children arrived, one young teenagers, the other around 9 years old. The younger ones made a lot of noise, and we were glad to be finished eating so we could move on. We walked through the gladiator barracks to the smaller theatre on the far side, similar to the large one, but retaining the stone steps of the seating area.

We continued walking eastwards, passing larger houses and then shops. Some of the shops still had counters, faced with marble, and often with holes in them, apparently for bowls or cauldrons. We learnt later that these were thermopolia, or vendors of hot drinks. This was along a very crowded street, so we took another detour through more secluded areas, eventually reaching the Grand Palestra, or gymnasium. This was now a large grassy field, surrounded by walls enclosing a collonade of columns all around - visible through doorways and windows in the walls.

Behind the Palestra was the amphitheatre, an elliptical theatre much like the Colosseo in Rome, though smaller. It was still impressively large, much larger than the large theatre we had seen earlier, and magnificently well preserved. Some of the original stone seating was still there, though most was lost and overgrown by a grassy slope.

We walked northwards to Via dell'Abbondanza, the "main street" of old Pompei. Along here were several houses and shops with roofs and with remnants of frescoes painted on the walls, both inside and out, some of which were quite impressive. It was amazing to see something which really should be in the protection of a museum simply stuck to an old wall out in the open like that - though some of the outdoor frescoes were protected with perspex sheeting and a little roof to divert rain, most of the indoor ones were not artificially protected.

Walking along this ancient road, it was also amazing to see standing on a hill literally metres away, above the ruins, a modern house, with power lines and TV aerial. This houses was standing close to the centre of the ruins site, on a part of the hill which has apparently not yet been excavated - a remnant of the suburb of Naples which used to stand over the top of old Pompei until systematic excavation began uncovering it.

We turned right to look at some more impressive large houses and villas. We passed the central thermae, where the ancient Pompeians used to take their baths. Around this area, several large houses and villas were open and we went inside to admire even more amazing mosaics, painted frescoes, and architecture. One, the Vettii's villa, contained magnificent artwork, as well as statuary and a garden planted with flowers in the same bed patterns as the day Vesuvius erupted and buried it. We continued through the Casa del Fauno, famous for the bronze statue of a faun found in it.

Continuing back towards the Foro area, we passed the wool market and the Temple of Jove. Near here was a display set up containing two of the plaster casts of the bodies of people killed and buried by the volcanic eruption. The gruesome expressions on their faces could be seen plainly, as well as the agonised poses of their bodies.

We walked past a large building in which were housed many of the statues, jars, amphorae, fountains, and so on which have been uncovered in the excavations. The large number of these items was staggering. As we continued on to the exit, we passed the Temple of Apollo, which contained a beautiful bronze statue of the god of the sun. Having exhausted ourselves, if not the ruins of Pompei, we left the site at about 16:00.

On the way back to the station, Michelle bought a packet of chips to snack on, while I used the "free" toilet near the entrance. Despite the sign, an attendant was happy to collect money off people entering the toilets - a habit which I discouraged by barging through pretending not to notice. A short walk past orange and lemon juice hawkers later, we were back at the station waiting for the train. It soon arrived and we boarded, finding seats next to a middle-aged couple who turned out to be Scottish.

Checking our Lonely Planet, I concluded we had changed from the bus to the train this morning at an odd location, and we might be better off going all the way to Sorrento to be sure to catch our bus instead of getting off at Meta again. Having decided this, a ticket inspector appeared on the train. The couple next to us looked a bit worried, as were we, about not having validated tickets. We discussed it and agreed we couldn't find any validating machines. The inspector arrived, and simply scribbled a couple of quiggles on our tickets and handed them back to us without a word, so we were okay. Luckily this happened just before the stop at Meta, so we could ride on to Sorrento without worrying further about being scolded for travelling beyond our stop.

At Sorrento, we saw the bus for Positano as soon as we left the station. I bought tickets quickly in the station tabbachi and we waited for the bus driver to appear and let people board. This didn't take long, and we were soon underway. As it turned out, the bus did indeed make a stop at Meta, and picked up two passengers there, but by this time the bus seating was almost full, and the passengers there had to sit separately. A bit later we passed a coach, the driver of which hailed our driver. After the two conversed for a minute, two passengers got off the coach and boarded our bus. A little further on, two young men got on after hailing the bus to stop - they said they had no tickets. The driver let them on, indicating they would have to dash off and buy some at a stop along the way. They did so, and the other couple who had boarded from the coach had to do so too.

Then it was a relatively straight run through to Positano. We arrived back, exhausted after another tiring day out. Michelle had a rest on the bed while I showered. We rested until 19:00 when Il Saracen d'Oro opened, then I went out for take-away pizzas - margherita for Michelle and diavola for me. It turned out the pizzas were about half the price take-away as when eaten in, so we scored a good dinner for a budget price.

After dinner, eaten on the balcony of our room looking out at the sunset, I went out to take a few quick photos and arrange for the hotel staff to wake us at 05:15, so we could pack and leave in time to catch out 06:00 bus tomorrow for Salerno. Then it was back in for an early night's sleep.


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