We had been playing Blog Tag with Rob and Nina Blackwell for months as we made our way across the US, shipped to Belgium, and proceeded to drive through Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Meanwhile, Rob & Nina had started in Vladivostok, Russia and had come over many of the roads we would drive, including the beautiful Wakhan Corridor along the Afghan border in Tajikistan.
Now we were headed to Greece, and a slight change in our port of departure brought us to Ancona. With a time schedule looking over our shoulder and the weather in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania still under the threat of winter storms, we decided to ship across the Adriatic Sea directly to Patras, Greece and head down onto the Peloponnese peninsula. Having watched Rob and Nina’s blogs, we knew they were arriving the evening before we were leaving. What timing! Looking at the ferry schedules we figured out which line they were coming on and we were standing at the exit when their big yellow GXV Unimog rumbled towards us.
It seemed like a reunion of old friends. We parked in the staging area and spent the next several hours eating, drinking wine, and catching up on all the news we had to share about where we had been and where they had come from.
In the morning they were off towards Germany to get their ailing Unimog repaired at the factory and we were staged for loading on the huge ferry that would take us to Patras. It was quite amazing to watch the number of big semi-tractor trailers pour out of the ship’s hold even as they were boarding us. With The Turtle V safely tucked in a corner next to a big tractor-trailer, we grabbed our daypacks and headed up to our little cabin on the 8th level. This was not a luxury cruise, but there were a couple of restaurants, a little casino, a store, a bar, a discotheque, an Internet station and plenty of outdoor decks to walk around.
As we sailed out of the Ancona port we said farewell to Italy. It had been an amazing country but we were looking forward to a new adventure in Greece.
Having spent a couple of days exploring the excavated ruins uncovered after the Vesuvio volcano wreaked its wrath on Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD, we felt obliged to see what this monster looked like up close. We made the fortunate choice to NOT drive The Turtle V to the trailhead on the mountain. Hopping into a collective van, we headed up through countless hairpin corners while our very Italian driver named Salvatore entertained us with his Karaoke versions of popular hits playing on his dash-mounted iPhone.
From the parking area, the climb to the volcano rim was steep but not too difficult. The view over the cities and bay below was impressive, especially considering the future devastation that awaits them from the very alive Mount Vesuvio. As the sulfur fumes wafted over us, we hurried back down to our talented taxi driver.
(Salvatore is happy to pick you up at the train station or hotel in Herculaneum. Just give him a call. He speaks English, and is fair & honest. Cell: 346 53 61 278)
While nearly everyone has heard of the horrible tragedy of Pompeii, (If you haven’t, read our last blog.), several people had told us that the town of Herculaneum on the coast was equally astounding. Comparatively small with a population of approximately 4000, Herculaneum covered an area of about 50 acres of which only 11 have been excavated. The modern town Ercolano sits on top of it.
As Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was covered by flows of pyroclastic rock that solidified to an average height of approximately 16 meters, (53 feet). This tragic event created a phenomenal preservation that is absolutely original, nothing at all like Pompeii. Archaeological finds have included plants, fabrics and furniture, structural parts of wooden buildings and even a boat & a fisherman’s basket were recovered from the ancient Marina.
One of the most shocking areas was a line of vaulted rooms used as port warehouses and boat storage opened to the beach. In 1982, over 300 human skeletons were found along with valuables they carried with them as they sought safe refuge at the water’s edge. They were killed almost instantly by the 500°F heat wave and the blazing clouds of exploding gas from the volcano. The vantage point from a walkway over 3 stories above the area that used to be the beach, showed a graphic example of the astounding amount of ash and rock that covered this fishing village.
Wandering through the cobblestone streets we explored the luxurious vaulted Central Steam Baths for both men and women, with cold rooms and dressing rooms. Beautiful homes retained their intricate mosaic floors and well preserved frescoes on the walls. At times it felt like we should knock on someone’s door before entering or that the whole village was just gone for the day. There was a bakery with its interesting millstones and a fast food thermopolium like we had seen in Pompeii.
We even found a laundromat, well, sort of. According to historical documents, clothes were washed in troughs filled with water & soda, and barefoot men were stomping them. Then they were soaked in human or animal urine to bleach them. After they were rubbed with clay to soften them, they were rinsed and hung to dry. Next they were brushed to make them shiny and later put in a wooden crate or cage where sulfur was burnt underneath to make them smell good, (a relative term after being soaked in urine). Finally they were neatly folded and pressed in a device we thought at first was an olive or wine press, but in fact, it was made for clothes. Amazingly, this laundry press survived the disaster and is the only one of its kind preserved to this day.
Excavations at Herculaneum are ongoing with tunnels being bored into cliffs of ash. What was once a beautiful beach is gone. Vesuvius added a strip of land to the oceanfront some 400 meters wide, (1312 feet).
Heading south from Rome we were basically looking for a nice place to spend Gary’s birthday. The ancient city of Pompeii had always been on our list of areas to visit. Monika had been there with her parents many years ago and had fond memories.
Pompeii rises on a plateau of Vesuvius’ lava overlooking the Sarno River Valley at whose mouth was once a busy port. Its origins date back to the 1st half of the 16th century BC. In 62 A.D. a violent earthquake virtually leveled the city. Seventeen years later, still in the process of rebuilding the earthquake damage, Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79 A.D. and buried Pompeii under ash and rock. It was not rediscovered until the 16th century.
The archaeological area of Pompeii extends for approximately 163 acres of which approximately 111 have been excavated. It is quite amazing what they have uncovered. As we walked the streets in the early morning without the crowds of tourists, it was like strolling through a deserted ghost town. We could see were elegant homes once stood. We ducked under archways and poked around inside public baths. On many walls we marveled at the beautiful frescoes. Intricately designed brick walls and mosaic floors showed the artistic abilities of the original citizens. There were bakeries, fast-food restaurants, fountains and even a couple of houses of ill repute. The open-air great theater could seat 5000 spectators.
In the abandoned granary now used as a warehouse for artifacts, we grimaced at the plaster molds of victims who obviously died horrible and painful deaths.
For a little impression of what Pompeii is all about, scroll through the photos below. They may tell part of the story but much will never be known.
There are a few Cities in the World that truly stand out; San Francisco, Istanbul, Beijing, London, St. Petersburg. Rome, living, breathing and constantly changing, saturated with history, much of it dating BC, is surely among them, but after the Coliseum, the Forum and the Vatican, there is the City itself.
It was sound advice to absolutely NOT drive in Rome, so our trusty Garmin routed us through the narrowest, most congested, most chaotic part of the city it could find during the height of rush hour. At some length, we arrived at a safe RV parking facility just across the street from tram and bus lines, and we never moved. Drivers in Rome are even a bit humorous in their unconventional maneuvers and parking. Add to that thousands of Vespas and their clones and mix in a few hundred big bikes, 1200 cc “fat-tire” “crotch rockets” and it’s a real show.
Fortunately, the center of the city is walkable, and narrow alleys wind around sidewalk cafes and end up at beautiful plazas with spectacular fountains, including the most famous, the Trevi Fountain. If you throw a coin in, it guarantees that you will return. We did. Others, like the Fountain of the Four Rivers and Trione Fountain were positively amazing. How could these solid marble works of art be created with a chisel and a hammer? Often they were even more striking at night. Venders roasted chestnuts and street musicians entertained us.
As the saying goes, “Rome! A lifetime!” Indeed, three or four days gave us only a taste. We will come back someday.
Aside from the Colosseum, the Forum is where all of Ancient Rome happened: Temples, market, craftsmen, debates, justice courts and even murders.
Walking through the ruins that had been built, torn down, destroyed by earthquakes, rebuilt, vandalized, robbed, covered with centuries of rubble and finally, what was left, excavated and to the extent possible, restored, it felt like walking through a small abandon town, complete with a sport’s arena.
Some of the detail on the few columns and statues was amazing, considering that more than 2,000 years had passed. What we thought we could see in an hour took four, and all day could be spent wandering the backside paths.
Like the Vatican, there is only one. There are many sports arenas and coliseums in Italy, but there is only one “Colosseum”. Since the Middle Ages it has been a symbol of Rome, the Eternal City. It had been written, “While the Colosseum stands, Rome will stand but when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall, and when Rome falls, the World will end.”
Started in AD 72 on the grounds of Emperor Nero’s private Domus Aurea and inaugurated in AD 80, the multi-tiered complex could seat over 50,000 people. A wooden floor over the main arena was cover with sand to prevent the gladiators and wild animals from slipping and to absorb the blood. Animals from Africa and Asia including lions, bears, tigers, rhinos, and hippos were pitted against unarmed naked prisoners of war who were destined to be torn apart and eaten, just part of the show. Official numbers can be conflicting, but to be sure, thousands of animals, prisoners and gladiators fought to their death to entertain the cheering crowds.
While we rarely take guided tours, the one for the Colosseum gave us access to the many chambers under the main arena where prisoners and animals were held. Earthquakes and pollution have taken their toll, but one can still imagine the bloody history of this famous structure.
We might reflect on today’s professional football. Great receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks, like successful gladiators, are highly paid and become famous national heroes to fight again and again. The difference is, the loosing team gets to live another day.
To display more photos we added the photo gallery feature. Please click on the first thumbnail (which is not the entire picture) to enlarge it and then use the arrows below the photos to view others. Anytime you wish to return to the blog, just click on the photo. Captions will only display below the thumbnails.
As the saying goes,” Rome—a lifetime”. We didn’t have a lifetime so what to see in a few days? Of course the Colosseum, The Forum, maybe a few museums and the City itself. But above all, we wanted to see the Vatican.
Thanks to various tips from other travelers we easily found a comfortable guarded RV parking lot just a short walk from the bus and tram stations into town. Arriving at the Vatican, we were quite pleased to learn that we had been invited for a General Audience with Pope Francis I. Well, not exactly alone. We picked up our invitations and joined several hundred others who had been invited.
The Pope and Vatican City are guarded by the Swiss Guard, specially trained volunteer soldiers from Switzerland. This gave us a little advantage since Monika, being Swiss, could walk right up to one of the guards and start a conversation in Swiss German, and from that we learned what would probably be the best place to stand to actually see Pope Francis close-up as he drove around in his Pope-Mobile. We were impressed with his easy going and warm Latin personality. The whole affair ran into a couple of hours and we stayed for the final blessing.
St. Peter’s Basilica itself is as spectacularly beautiful as one might imagine. The Vatican Museum is nearly overwhelming with its treasures of art and historical artifacts, much of which you would need to be a master theologian to grasp all the meanings. On the top of our list was to see the spectacular, (oops, there’s that word again), Sistine Chapel painted mostly by Michelangelo. It took him four years to complete the ceiling (1508-1512). Later he returned to paint the Last Judgment which is, well, you know the word. Unfortunately there are a dozen guards in the Sistine Chapel making sure that no one takes any pictures of any kind. How strange. But when you consider that 25,000 people per day (5 million/year) pack themselves into the Sistine Chapel to tip their heads back in awe, we suppose it would be annoying to have the same crowd snapping pictures. It’s an active chapel, another reason why you can’t take pictures, and it is supposed to be quiet, but that didn’t keep the guards from yelling at anyone who even looked like he was about to sneak a shot with his iPhone.
After strolling through miles of art and sculptures and treasures it was already dark by the time we returned to actually see St. Peter’s Basilica. Fortunately it was fairly well lit and we were able to get some images to share with you.
Feeling quite lucky that we had managed to see most of the Vatican in one day including being blessed by Pope Francis, we stayed long enough to watch the changing of the Swiss Guards which was performed with considerably less pomp and circumstance than the same procedure at Buckingham Palace, but nevertheless quite impressive. Our only choice now was to find a cute café with some nice Italian wine and maybe some fresh pasta with a homemade sauce.
An Italian fellow camper in Pisa suggested we’d visit Bomarzo, the Sacred Grove, on our way to Rome. Colloquially called the Park of the Monsters, it is located in the Province of Viterbo in northern Lazio, Italy.
Quite extraordinary, the Parco dei Monstri was built in 1552! That’s 562 years ago. This alone is quite amazing. Duke of Bomarzo, Nobleman Pier Francesco Orsini (1513-1584), known as Vicino, created the Sacro Bosco (Sacred Grove) as a memorial to his beloved wife Giulia Farnese. Its location is at the bottom of a rather steep damp canyon that explains all the moss covering the larger-than-life sculptures carved out of local stone and bedrock. Unlike most sculptures where the rock is moved and then sculpted, all of the huge figures in the park were created on the spot, the boulders and stones being far too big to move.
There have been various interpretations and much speculation about this strange garden but the reality is, even with inscriptions found, much of Vicino’s precise intentions have been lost, made doubtful, or at least ambiguous by the passage of time. Much of it remains romantic speculation but maybe that is sufficient to satisfy our curiosity and spark our imagination.