Today we bid an early farewell to Naples. We barely got to see her, but she is a grand city. In some ways she reminds me of Detroit. She puts on no airs. She is grungy. She is a little bit dangerous. And she is, without a doubt, real. We have eaten of her foods, and seen a scant few shreds of what she has to offer. But it has also become clear the real depth that lurks underneath – depths that we will have to plumb another time, for we have reservations awaiting us in Positano and sites to explore between.
We head first to the car rental agency. As the driver drops us off, he informs us of the fare, and also informs us that we will be tipping him. This is not so much a suggestion as a threat. In Naples these threats are taken seriously – we do, in fact tip him, the prescribed amount. He is satisfied. We leave with our health and possessions intact. All is good.
We collect the car – an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. We had also considered a Ford Focus, but this being Italy the Alfa feels like the right choice. We start by setting up the navigation. First she speaks Italian, but we are able to configure her to English. Once we have set this, she informs us that “The driver must respect the road rules.” Once we agree with this (who wouldn’t?), we are on our way and off to Herculaneum.
She guides us to the Autostrada (freeway) and things are initially going swimmingly. Yes, she speaks in metric, and yes we have to learn her quirks, but we are making good progress. We exit and are following signs to “Ercolano Scavi” (the Herculaneum Excavations) while listening to her as well. We continue to follow her directions when suddenly she declares imperiously that we have arrived.
But where? There are no signs.
There is no parking!
There are just congested streets and pedestrians.
I encourage D to keep moving, while I turn to my iPhone, where I have previously downloaded maps. According to them we are on the wrong side of the excavation (yay Apple Maps!). We continue to move forward and stop for a red light. People begin honking. “Why are they honking at us?” he asks. I suggest it is because we are stopped at the red light. Casting traffic signals on the waste heap of Italian history, we barrel through the light, noting the many cars behind us doing the same.
Apparently traffic signals here are to be ignored. Or obeyed at your own risk. This is one of the local “road rules,” we decide.
We continue with manual navigation (“Turn left at the yellow road. And the next road is yellow, turn there too”) and eventually arrive at Herculaneum.
Herculaneum was destroyed in 79 AD during the same eruption as Pompeii, but is better preserved. It is a remarkable sight. This was a prosperous seaside city that was obliterated in the course of a day. Much remains. Some of the charred wood still bears the weight of centuries in its grain.
The thermopolia (lunch counters) sit cold, awaiting their diners. (Full disclosure: The above picture was actually taken in Pompeii. The thermopolia in Herculaneum look much the same.)
The ports wait expectantly, though the last boats have long since left in a desperate bid for survival.
The frescoes are mostly gone, but a few examples remain.
And most preserved are spectacular tile floors, whose timeless patterns still speak to our sensibilities across the millennia.
We are lost in the timelessness of this place, but it is a small dig surrounded by uncounted city blocks that hover overhead. It is even more impressive that so many of the local houses bear the same architectural markings of the ancient, lost city. The neighbors watch with trepidation, laundry waving from balconies, signaling a kinship and a distance. And above all menaces the dominant form of Vesuvius herself. She has born retribution repeatedly on this region and is ready to do so again.
We stop for a snack from the vending machine. I’m not sure exactly what I’m having. I would describe it as a chocolate brillo pad filled with citrus honey cream. It was … meh.
And with this we were on our way to Pompeii. Again we made the mistake of stopping at a stop sign, only to be accosted by locals offended by our insolence. We continued on, with a gradual understanding of Italian driving.
Rule one: Never stop unless absolutely necessary.
Rule two: It is almost never absolutely necessary to stop.
We occasionally encountered uninterpretable signs. D didn’t know whether they meant “do not enter,” but embracing the Italian philosophy I directed him onward. The locals, I suggested, didn’t seem to follow them so why should we? Turns out I was right enough. Despite a detour through a parking lot we eventually found ourselves on the Autostrada going to Pompeii.
So it turns out the Alfa nav system is blonde. She gets you nearly to the destination. From there you are on your own. Much like Ercolano, she got us near Pompeii, but was taking us to the backside. I took over and rerouted us to the parking lot where D parked Italian-style.
That’s plenty of room on the front end.
And so it was that we entered the Pompeii Scavi. This isn’t as well preserved as Herculaneum, but it is significantly larger. The temples are more grandiose, stretching their cachectic fingers imploringly toward a chill blue sky.
And the remains still bear witness. Voiceless souls cry out to be heard. This is the tragic story of Pompeii. As the ash fell people and their pets couldn’t escape and were buried alive. Centuries later the excavators found hollows and filled them with plaster, thus reviving the dead.
Cowering in pain and fear, a paean for mercy on his lips.
And we look on, complicit in some way, watching the last moments lived millions of times over, helpless to intervene. Pompeii is alive in this moment.
The ruins are difficult to photograph. Nothing seems to capture the completeness of what we are seeing, except perhaps my mind’s eye, where the images have burned in and will remain.
As the sun dips quickly toward the horizon in the shortening December days we leave this place to the souls who are to remain here for all time. For us the Amalfi coast beckons and we would like to make it before nightfall.
The blonde in the dashboard wants to take us directly to the Autostrada, but we prefer the coastal drive so I take over. We make roadway and ride along the shore watching the slow sunset, and then we cross the mountains to the opposite side of the peninsula. The roads here are treacherous, switching back on themselves. We push ahead and reach our hotel in Positano just as the last of the daylight is yielding to the pressing night.
We check into the hotel, which has a balcony and a breathtaking view of the bay and surrounding mountains then make our way into the street, descend four long steep flights of stairs, and find what appears to be the only restaurant in town. Positano is a place for the high season, and little is open in December. So we are happy to find food. I have the pasta with clams and mussels. This is delicious, accented with chili oil.
To follow, I have the swordfish with olives and tomatoes. The fish is fresh, and the flavors meld beautifully.
And then we are done for the day. We climb back to the hotel to settle in for the night.