Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cruise Day 6: Naples.

Pictures HERE.

Naples has something of a bad-boy reputation. It’s supposedly raucous and dirty and crowded and loud; people either love it or hate it, it seems. And it’s also the jumping-off point for a bunch of worthwhile out-of-town destinations: the Amalfi Coast, the Isle of Capri, Sorrento, Pompeii. I admit to being tempted to just see what all the fuss is about in Naples itself, but it seemed positively wrong to be so close to Pompeii and not see it. In the world of archeology, it appears that Pompeii is a singularity, an entire town encased and preserved and then left undisturbed for some 2,000 years.

None of the ship-sponsored activities seemed especially enticing, but a fella at the train station at Civitavecchia yesterday was handing out flyers for today’s activities in Naples (very clever of them). His particular company’s tour promised to do more in the same time for substantially less money than what the ship had on offer, so we bit.

We gathered outside the cruise terminal and boarded two buses and hit the road. The goal was to drive out past Pompeii and across the boot for a view of the Amalfi Coast and then go back for a couple hours in Sorrento. From there we'd head back for a tour of Pompeii and be back in time for all-aboard. As it turns out, this was maybe a touch too much to accomplish in the time allotted. But points for effort.

The traffic in Italy is… insane. The roads are very narrow (except the expressways, which naturally do not connect the little resort towns on the coasts), and people cross the center line constantly to pass—especially those on scooter. That’s not so unusual, except that the roads we were on today were incredibly winding and perched precariously on the lips of mountains with sheer drops. The guide said that there were over 2,000 bends in the stretch of road we took between Positano and Sorrento (and beyond). Tiny little two-lane roads and huge tour buses on them and seemingly no extra room. (I’m reminded of similar conditions in Hong Kong, except there you ride in the upper deck of a double-decker bus and feel like you’re REALLY going to tip to your death!)

We stopped about an hour out of Naples for a potty break at a little factory that made wooden inlays for furniture and such. Then we made a short photo stop overlooking the Amalfi Coast—an amazing collection of buildings perched on the mountainside that looked like they wanted to tumble straight down into the deep blue water at the bottom. A flabbergasting site.

Then we stopped for lunch in Sorrento, and Susan and I did a little shopping in the medieval streets there. Very atmospheric. And I had the best frickin’ ice cream cone I have ever eaten in nearly 52 years. A sugar cone with some cherry-vanilla somethingorother that defies description and even belief. I almost went back for seconds. I wonder now if I wasn't hallucinating. Susan had chocolate-pistacchio and had a similar, if entirely in-body, experience.

Unfortunately, we wasted about half our time in Sorrento trying to find a cash machine that would work. I tried an ATM in the cruise ship terminal (since the tour, inexplicably, would only take euros or dollars; cash only) and for the first time ever my card was spit back out and I was told to contact my bank. The tour guide said not to worry, there would be other ATMs in Sorrento. I said I had used the same card literally around the world and had never had an issue. “It’s Italy,” he said with a shrug. We eventually found an ATM in Sorrento at an actual bank (though the bank was closed) and I got the same response. So we caved in and got cash on our credit card, which seems so… unnecessary (and cost about five times as much). But the immediate problem was solved.

We went from Sorrento back via the same route to Pompeii. Turns out the Pompeii workers had staged a half-day strike in the morning (which explains why we had not started there), so the crowds when we got there around 14:30 were insane (perhaps they’re always that way, though we were told the strike was to blame). We were left with only about 90 minutes to do what we were told required three-four hours, and we spent a good 20-25 minutes of that time trying to get our group tickets sorted out. Buying adult tickets (with money we paid separately) was easy, but the  under-18 crowd, who got in free, were told they needed to wait in the miles-long line. Our tour guide eventually sorted it out, and we headed off with our radios listening to her prattle on in delightfully-Italian-accented English for just over an hour.

Pompeii, more so than Rome’s Colosseum or the Forum, really feels like a preserved human settlement. The streets and curbs and steps and many of the walls are, we were told, exactly as they were in 79AD when the ash came. Very little has been reconstructed, and so nothing, for example, meets any kind of modern code. And that makes it feel antique, even more than is the case with the Colosseum, which has been extensively salvaged and resurrected. We wandered the ruins for about 75 minutes (we left a little late), and she took us to some really key sites: two different theaters (a big and a small), a couple houses, a public bath, a brothel. And we walked a number of streets, which were spooky cool. There really is a touch of the Andromeda Strain about it, like we were *that close* to seeing the real place before everyone was removed and the place aged a thousand years in a blink.

Turns out the ruins are about 75% excavated, though even the excavated stuff is still being carefully combed-over to be sure nothing was missed. I feel as though we could have spent more time there, but we saw enough to get a real sense of what the place is about; and the real drain was the heat and the incredible crush of people that kept you from getting much of a good look at so much stuff. But we were part of that same crush, so I cannot complain too loudly. Still, it might be cool to come back late in the day or during the off-season (if there is one).

Tomorrow, Taormina. We aren’t sure if we’ll get off for that or not.

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