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May 31 2008

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European Wander ’08

Part 9

Naples to Pisa – about 640 miles

9th Map

7th July

Naples to Ercolano via Paestum, the Angel’s Caves at Pertosa and the Amalfi coast. 228 miles

The ferry got into Naples just before 6.30. We had decided to ignore the first call and it’s just as well as all the announcements were in Italian so we wouldn’t have known what they were on about anyway!

Our hotel was about 30 miles from the port but we decided that as it was so early and not quite so hot yet we’d ride to Paestum, a site recommended by another online contact. We got there about 8.15 and drove round the huge walls until we found the entrance. A couple of croissants and coffee/orange for breakfast at a nice outside cafe set us up for the walk round. Luckily we were able to leave most of our bike gear at the cafe but didn’t change into our shorts so we got very hot as the day warmed up.

Paestum is famous for having 3 temples; the external skeleton of all of them is pretty much intact so it’s possible to see just how huge they are. Seeing these structures made the ruins of the earlier ones we saw, such as Athena’s Temple in Assos, make more sense. The site of the city is quite large but manageable.

Temple of Neptune

The temple of Neptune (that small blue blob is Lyn)

Two temples

Two huge temples so close together – that’s just greedy – and there’s a third at the other end of the site!

The remains of the swimming pool were interesting – the ‘shallow end’ was furnished with a large slope and there was a labyrinth at the deep end that they used for underwater swimming

Ampitheatres are usually on the outskirts of the town but the one in Paestum is in the middle of the city which archaeologists attribute to the town’s expansion – it was on the edge of the city to begin with but as the city grew it enveloped it. Unfortunately half of the structure is buried under the road, maybe one day they’ll dig it up. One of the ampitheatre entrances has been rebuilt and is a very elaborate arch.

The Amphitheatre

The Amphitheatre

Paestum is a fascinating place and well worth a visit. Only the outline of many of the buildings remain but it’s possible to get a good feel for what the city was like when it was a thriving community. Again, we had to ask the question about why it had been deserted and there appear to be several causes – marshland that formed when the nearby river overflowed caused the area to become unhealthy, deforestation of the nearby mountains to obtain wood to build ships led to dangerous changes in the course of several rivers and new roads moved the main highway from Rome to the East away from the Paestum leading to a decline in trade (those new motorways again!).

After we looked round Paestum for a few hours we visited the Angels caves at Pertosa, a site we found from reading the Paestum guide book. The entrance to the cave is via a short boat ride which is powered by a man pulling on a wire. The guide, who spoke excellent Italian (we assume!) and nothing else, sang to us to demonstrate the cave’s echo; very nice. The caves are lit by some subtle lighting which turns off after you leave the area so there is not too much excess light and it’s possible to get a good feel for the caves. The stalactites and stalagmites are spectacular, not many of them have been damaged, and the caves are enormous.

Angel cave

One of the interesting shapes in Angel’s Caves

We finished our long day with the 100 mile ride back to the hotel via the Amalfi coast road. This road twists and turns up and down as it follows the inlets of the coast and it was very, very busy. At one point a coach got stuck in a very narrow village and completely snarled up the traffic. We were eventually able to squeeze past which meant we had our side of the road to ourselves for a while (well, apart from the traffic that was coming the other way which also wanted to be in our lane but that’s pretty much par for the course in Italy).

Amalfi Coast

The roads were twisty and narrow

Amalfi Coast

One of the interesting buildings along the Amalfi Coast

Kevin was in his element especially when we came up behind a police car. The driver really knew the road and was the best driver we’ve seen in Italy as most of them seem to slow right down for corners. It was good following him as if he braked Kevin knew we would need to too. Eventually he lost us as he overtook a car and there wasn’t room for us to follow through but we overtook him again a bit later on as he had stopped to have a word with a couple of lads on a scooter.

Amalfi Coast

Going ‘through’ one of the towns along the Amalfi coast

We arrived at the hotel hungry, thirsty and tired only to learn that they have a problem with their water supply and it’s being fixed tomorrow so they’ll have to move us out. We were a bit P’d off initially but as it happens the new hotel is nicer and in a better location so we’re happy.

8 July

Herculeneum

We spent the morning looking round Herculeneum which was about 200m down the street. This town, like its larger neighbour Pompeii, was also inundated in the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius.

Herculaneum

A street in Herculeneum

A large number of the rooms have mosaic floors – not as elaborate as at Piazza Armerina but nice all the same – and some still have their roof. We went into one building (part of the baths complex) that appeared to have an arched corrugated iron ceiling, but closer examination showed it to be original plaster.

Herculaneum

One of the rooms in the baths with intact ceiling

Another room in the baths also had an intact floor mosaic albeit somewhat sunken in places; it used to be an elevated floor to allow under floor heating but the combination of earthquake and volcano caused it to collapse.

Herculaneum

They are still digging…

It was very evocative to walk along the streets thinking about the people who would have lived there 2000 years ago. Most of the people got out of Herculaneum before the ash arrived but some 170 bodies were found so they didn’t all make it. We saw a very sad tableau of three skeletons all cuddled up together which put a very human face to the disaster.

The hotel was very close to the volcano!

Herculaneum

Vesuvius

9 July

Pompeii

Today was my turn with the tummy bug so we were rather late leaving for Pompeii. We were advised by the receptionist to catch the Circumvesuvia railway to Pompeii rather than a taxi as it ‘would be easier’. That was a matter of opinion. It took us about half an hour to walk down to the railway station, then we had a half-hour wait for the next train which was packed when it arrived. Still, it was very cheap – 5 Euros for both of us return.

When we got there we had a map to help us find our way round but even with the map it was difficult to navigate – Pompeii is huge with a labyrinth of streets. We walked round for a bit just soaking up the atmosphere. It is very similar to Herculeneum, but on a much larger scale.

Pompeii

Everything’s on a large scale, including the volcano in the background

There are a lot of locked areas, unlike Herculaneum where you can pretty much go where you like. There are also a lot fewer mosaics as most of the really good ones have been moved to the Naples Archaeology museum. It’s a shame because I think they would have looked a lot better in situ.

We found our way to the Amphitheatre which was really spectacular. It is complete and you can stand in the arena, but not go into the seating area. Standing there in the hot sunshine I thought it must have been really horrible to have to fight for your life in this heat in front of all those people.

Pompeii

The giant amphitheatre

The streets have large lozenge shaped rocks across them which were used as stepping stones to allow people to cross them as all sorts of things used to flow down the street, not just rain water, and exit via holes in the city walls.

Pompeii

Wall decoration

Pompeii was a commercial centre and there were a lot of shops including what was billed as a ‘fast food’ outlet. McDonald’s ancestor maybe?

Standing in Pompeii it was easy to see how easily it could have been inundated by the eruption from Vesuvius. It dominates the views and many streets point straight at it. It must have been very frightening to see the smoke and ash come pouring down. One of the things that Pompeii is famous for is the plaster casts of the bodies found. We only saw a few which were mostly hidden away or in areas that are currently out of bounds due to renovation work but it didn’t seem right to photograph them.

10 July

Ercolano – Pisa, 408 miles

We need to get round to southern Spain to see one of our friends before he returns to England for a few weeks so the next few days are primarily about putting in some miles so we get there before he leaves. Unfortunately this means using motorways which Kevin loathes but it’s the only way we’re going to get the miles done. We have added a few detours so it’s not all boring though.

As we pulled on to the crowded motorway Kevin’s heart sank as the SatNav announced “Continue 192 miles” but he knew we had a little detour planned which should make the day more interesting. When looking for roads to ride he came across a road called Mille Curve – 1000 bends. That sounded just the ticket so, just after lunch, we did a 40 mile loop round Mille Curve. I tried to count the bends but gave up as I was too busy taking photos. The road surface wasn’t great but, as advertised, there was bend after bend after bend and it made a nice change from the monotony of the motorway. All too soon our detour was done and we pulled back on to the same junction we had left the motorway on for the remaining 100 or so miles to Pisa.

We arrived in Pisa in late afternoon and easily found our way to the hotel which was a former Manor house and very tastefully decorated with antique wooden furniture and lots of marble (and the odd mosaic or two). The hotel was a mile or so away from the famous Leaning Tower so we walked to it. We decided to go up the tower; they have timed tickets for every half an hour. Ours was for 9 o’clock which was quite a good time as the sun was beginning to go down and we were treated to a lovely sunset.

Pisa

It really does lean a lot!

The lean is obvious when climbing the stairs inside – it’s a bit disconcerting. The guide book describes the lean as the ‘mysterious disease’, I’d say it was poor foundations but what do I know!

Pisa

Even the bells are lop-sided

The view from the top was fantastic and we were quite chuffed (not puffed!) that we got up there a lot quicker than some people who were younger than us who had to keep stopping to catch their breath. All this walking up mountains etc. must be having a good effect.

Pisa

The cathedral

Looking closely at the cathedral there was evidence of the practice of plundering older buildings for stone.

Pisa

Recycling in the middle ages!

We’re pleased to report that Kevin’s back is a lot better now – the injection has worked. Now the only wriggling is the usual numb-bum!

That’s all for now, moving on to France tomorrow.

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