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Exploring: Pompeii and Naples, Italy

Heading south from Rome, we paid extra for the fast train, in order to make the most of our day trip. The cars are very modern, clean, and comfortable. Watching the beautiful, rural countryside zip by is interesting, too, because the trains I am used to (in the U.S.) would possibly vaporize at these quick speeds.

Pompeii is the primary destination today, with a change of trains in Naples required. The second train is a lot older and slower, but like “The Little Engine That Could,” it eventually gets you there.

Being summer and near the water, Pompeii is hot! And humid! Other than the entrance/ticket office, there isn’t much shade. In summertime, bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunblock. There is a lot to explore here, all on foot, so be sure to stay hydrated, as well.

A little back history, in 79 A.D., nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted and decimated the area, covering Pompeii in hot volcanic ash and pumice. Most of this site remained unexcavated and well-preserved underground until the 1700s. Today, mosaic floors are intact, and detailed, large murals are still shown painted on walls inside some buildings.

Painted murals are shown inside a building among the city ruins of Pompeii, Italy. In 79 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius decimated the area, with ash and pumice preserving the city, which has been uncovered during major excavations that started in the 1700s.

Painted murals are shown inside a building among the city ruins of Pompeii, Italy. In 79 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius decimated the area, with ash and pumice preserving the city, which has been uncovered during major excavations that started in the 1700s.


One of the most dramatic parts of Pompeii to see are the bodies “in situ,” or “in position,” depicting the moment some of the city’s inhabitants died. As the humans and animals decayed, their bodies left a hollow space in the ash and pumice covering them. Once archaeologists figured out what these pockets were, they started filling them in with plaster, creating casts that revealed the death poses. The molds are pretty amazing, and it’s also sad since you can imagine the agony these people experienced in their final moments.

A plaster cast of a body is shown in a crouched position in Pompeii, Italy. Many of these molds were created in the 1800s by injecting plaster into pockets where bodies had decayed under ash and pumice after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.


It’s a smaller site, but if you’re thinking about visiting Pompeii, be sure to look into the Herculaneum ruins archaeological park as an option, as well.

From here, we head to Naples. A work colleague told me before the Italy trip, “Naples isn’t a place you would want to visit until your fourth or fifth, maybe even sixth time in Italy.” We could prioritize getting back to Rome or, since we’re here, just pretend this is our fourth, fifth, or sixth trip and get a feel for Naples. We chose the latter…

The Little Engine That Could chugs along but gets us back to the city. Stepping out of the main train station in Naples reveals a grand “piazza” (plaza), Garibaldi Square, under construction and lined on the other three sides with classic, boxy, tall Italian apartments and hotel buildings. The uniform height and pastel colors of the old buildings make for a nice, aesthetic welcome to the city. Walk half a block and, suddenly, every building has been tagged with layers of graffiti. A reminder of home!

A woman coming out of a shop crossed in front of me to throw some wadded up napkins onto a large, open pile of trash accumulating on the sidewalk. There are many pungent odors, and dogs randomly run the streets. I’m starting to understand why I was told visiting Naples isn’t a big priority on your first go-’round of Italy.

Trash accumulates on a sidewalk in Naples, Italy.

Trash accumulates on a sidewalk in Naples, Italy.


Nonetheless, here we were. To lay out the priorities during this short visit, they are to get a basic feel for the energy of the city, to take in the architecture, and to also “take in” a Margherita pizza. Concerning the latter, (some of) the history books say the Margherita pizza (tomato, mozzarella, fresh basil, extra-virgin olive oil, salt) was created in 1889 for a visit by the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. The pizza was, of course, named in her honor and, conveniently, the red, white, and green ingredients are the same colors as the Italian flag. There’s nothing like paying tribute to history by stuffing your face with pizza.

One particular restaurant, Pizzeria Brandi, is most associated with the traditional Margherita pizza. (Some of) the same history books mentioned above say it was first created here, so that’s where we are going to have lunch… except we aren’t sure if that’s possible. “Is it closed? Is it open? The doors are open, but no one’s around.” Then it occurs to us: like in Rome, the mid-afternoon is siesta time.

Naples, Italy - May 31, 2012: The primary, wood-burning oven of Pizzeria Brandi is shown. This restaurant is widely credited with inventing the Margherita pizza.

Naples, Italy – May 31, 2012: The primary, wood-burning oven of Pizzeria Brandi is shown. This restaurant is widely credited with inventing the Margherita pizza.


After daydreaming of sneaking in and making our own Margherita pizza in the wood-burning oven standing right in front of us, we have surrendered to reality (and our growling stomachs) and moved on. Fingers are crossed, as we hope to find something, anything open for a late lunch. Along our stroll back to the train station (1.9 mile/3.2 km), there are some signs of life at one restaurant patio, up a narrow, random alley. It’s open for business!

We take our “all’aperto” seats (open air/outside) and, first up, order a pitcher of Peroni “bier.” Already being wiped out from the day, I look at the menu with a blank stare, and there’s no discussion about what we will each order. Janine is up first: “I’ll have a Margherita pizza.” Wait, what? Huh? Ordering that specialty in Naples has long been MY idea and goal, and surely we shouldn’t both try the same thing! The waiter patiently waits while I scramble to figure out a second choice. Pizza Bolognese it will be.

Glass after glass, the cold beer hits the spot and, after what seemed like an eternity (it was probably only 15 minutes), the pizzas arrive. The Margherita looks amazing! My order, however, looks like a meteorite hit the center, and the crater was promptly filled in with olive oil and hamburger meat. It doesn’t look appetizing at all. We sop up some oil with napkins and trade each other half of our respective pizzas. The Margherita truly is magically delicious. The Bolognese, not so much. It’s not necessarily bad, just mediocre.

Margherita and Bolognese pizzas are shown at a restaurant in Naples, Italy.


Being full on pizza and having a happy little beer buzz, we stroll back in the direction of the train station. It’s worth mentioning that Naples has maps displayed at every bus stop along the road. This simple nugget of info actually seems unusual for the major cities I’ve seen, although it’s really smart and makes getting lost a challenge.

Window shopping along the way, Janine sees some shoes she likes. We go in the store, browse around, and ask an employee if they have those shoes in her size. The employee disappears for a minute, then reports back they don’t have ANY women’s shoes that large. Her size is average in the U.S., and the store employee can only recommend looking at the men’s shoes to find something that might fit. Hah!

So far, Italy as a whole seems to have no shortages of pasticceria (pastry) shops. In addition to the baked goods, they also serve coffee and, often, a variety of booze. Somehow, we haven’t yet seen limoncello anywhere (it’s lemon zest oils infused in a rectified alcohol like vodka and sweetened with simple syrup), and we hope to try it here, since the drink is strongly associated with southern Italy.

Before getting back to the train station, we pop in a random shop. The bar interior is brightly lit and beautiful and a much-needed break from the gray, unkempt streets. “Do you happen to have any limoncello?,” we ask. “Ah, si,” the man behind the counter replies and reaches down, pulling a bottle from a freezer below our line of sight. So that’s it! Here they hide the good stuff from you!

Ah. Sweet, cold elixir. This simple drink is like liquid sunshine in a bottle and sooo good on a muggy, summer day. It doesn’t take much to feel the effects, so we take our time, drink some water, then continue on.

Taking the slow train back to Rome, we snooze along the way and wake up looking forward to a new day of exploration.

The Tyrrhenian Sea is shown from the Naples to Rome train in Italy during the evening.

The Tyrrhenian Sea is shown from the Naples to Rome train in Italy during the evening.

Until we meet again…



 

“Pompeii and Naples, Italy" - Summer 2012 Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer

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