Italy Tour – Pompeii and Isle of Capri

We saw the Montanaros at breakfast and asked how they slept. “Terribly”, they replied. “Our dog died last night”. We passed on our condolences and breakfast was a rather subdued affair after hearing this sad news.

Our bus driver Enzo was waiting by the bus to take us to Pompeii. As I boarded the bus I wondered if I should be concerned that he shared his name with a Ferrari. Not far from Rome, traffic on the autostrade ground to a halt. We watched as the Tour Director approached the poliziotti to find out what was going on. She was yelling and waving her arms around and I thought for sure that she would be arrested, but the poliziotti seemed unfazed. She returned to the bus with the news factory workers were striking and had blocked the autostrade in both directions. She was confident that we would be on our way soon, but two hours later we were still waiting, and some of the passengers were getting very stroppy. Suddenly a Sicilian school group poured out of one of the buses carrying tambourines, fifes and a piano accordion. They cleared a space and started playing and dancing. Everyone was smiling and clapping and for a while the strike was forgotten. Enzo tooted the horn to attract our attention and we realised the traffic was starting to move up ahead. We piled back onto the bus, asking the Tour Director what had broken the strike. “Oh it’s lunchtime”, she explained. “The workers get a paid lunch break so why would they spend that time striking?”

We finally arrived in Pompeii. On 24th August 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted for two days completely burying Pompeii under six meters of ash and pumice. In 1592 it was rediscovered by accident, preserved by the ash as a snapshot of life in Roman times. It is somewhat disconcerting to stroll along the cobbled streets where chariots once passed. Entering the houses is like stepping back in time, some frescoes are intact, surviving long after the artist and owner perished in the volcanic eruption. We passed through the ancient ‘red light district’ so named as the prostitutes would put a red lantern outside when they were with a client. The brothels have phallic symbols carved into the walls and cobblestones. One of the Americans snapped a picture and I overheard his wife say “well you can explain that photograph to your mother!”

We heard a rumbling in the background, was it Versuvuis, or thunder or a low flying aircraft? We glanced nervously at each other hoping that our bad luck from earlier in the day had passed. I try to imagine how Pliny the Younger would have felt. He watched the eruption from relative safety across the Bay of Naples at Misenum and wrote:

“You could hear the wails of women, the cries of children, the shouts of men… others were reaching to the gods… others declared the gods no more”

His uncle, Pliny the Elder, died trying to rescue stranded victims by ship. The prevailing wind would not allow his ship to leave the Pompeii shore. According to his companions, he collapsed and died on board due to toxic fumes (they were suspiciously unaffected by the fumes). Pliny the Younger wrote a firsthand account of the event 25 years later, the poor bloke was still known a Pliny the Younger a quarter of a century after the Elder had died.

What is very clear is that the eruption was totally unexpected, thankfully we get a bit more warning today. A modern volcanic eruption might not destroy a city, but as old Eyjafjallajökull showed us recently, they can still cause a heck of a disturbance.

We left Pompeii and drove along the spectacular Amalfi coast, stopping at a scenic lookout over Positano. The views are incredible; sheer cliffs, lush vegetation and the sea every shade of blue from aquamarine to navy. This was the closest we got to Positano on this tour, so Nato and I vowed to return and see it more closely someday.

 

There were a number of smokers on the bus who had a cigarette each time the bus stopped for a break. Most were considerate about their smoking, but not one pair of middle aged ladies who we nicknamed Patty and Selma. Both were overweight, with thick leathery skin and brittle blonde hair. As soon as the bus started to pull over for a break they were on their feet, swaying down the aisle towards the door, wrinkled lips clenched around unlit cigarettes. They heaved their bulk down the stairs, one hand on the banister, the other holding a lighter to their cigarette so that it was lit the instant their foot touched the ground. This effort seemingly left them unable to move far from the door, leaving the rest of us to exit coughing and spluttering through a cloud of cigarette smoke like amateur magicians. Patty and Selma didn’t notice, so intent were they on sucking the smoke into their lungs and sending the nicotine coursing around their immense bodies.

 

We travelled by hydrofoil to Marina Grande on the Isle of Capri, then boarded the funicular which carried us up the steep hill to the city of Capri where we stayed the night.

The Montanaros were in better spirits the next morning, and we chatted with them over breakfast. Montanaro Senior asked us again if we had seen ‘The Thorn Birds’ and described a little of the plot when we said we hadn’t.

The narrow winding streets of Capri are charming. We strolled past Prada, La Perla and Salvatore Ferragamo with their beautiful but horrendously expensive wares. The pasticceria however had something I could afford, the delicious paste di mandorla biscuits, crispy on the outside but moist in the centre with a delicate lemon flavour – yum.

The only traffic allowed in Capri is the silent but deadly electric cart. You can’t hear them coming, and they can’t get around you in the tiny streets so they toot, scaring the heck out of you if your attention is elsewhere, (like on the shoes in the windows, or the paste di mandorla you are eating).

Nato and I had a hair raising bus ride up the mountain to the town of Anacapri, as charming as Capri but slightly less commercial. We grabbed some pizza for lunch and took a chairlift over vineyards and trees to the top of Monte Solaro. Up at 1900ft it is tranquil, we had a gelati and took in the magnificent views.

Capri is renowned for its lemons and lemon products, in addition to the delicious lemon biscuits there is refreshing graniata di limone to sip whilst walking around or limoncello if you need something a little stronger. Back down in Capri, we popped into the famous perfumery Carthusia Profumi di Capri to see, or rather smell, what they can do with lemons in perfume. The results are impressive and I left with a bottle of their Mediterraneo lemon and green tea perfume to spritz any time I want to remember our days on the Isle of Capri.

That night we dined with Aussies and New Zealanders. The New Zealanders knew their wines so we happily left it to them to choose from the wine list. After a few glasses of superb Semillon Blanc, the New Zealanders, who had come straight from a week in Paris, started mixing up ‘si’ with ‘oui’ which had us all in stitches. The waiter arrived to take our order, and regardless of what we each ordered he responded with an enthusiastic “fantastico!” ‘That’s Amore’ started playing and we all joined in, waving our wine glasses in the air like lighters at a Metallica concert. We finished the meal with a round of limoncello served ice cold, perfetto!

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