Friday, June 29, 2012

A Day in Campania

Yesterday – the 27th June (an auspicious day) – was a day at sea as we sailed from Dubrovnik to Naples.

The most visually interesting part was passage through the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the coast of Italy. It is narrow and requires the direction of a pilot who came on board from a highspeed boat and left the same way after the transit.

Naples is the cruise ships entry point for this area and there was a fleet in town for the day (and I’m sure that is the case all summer). Together with land based tourists this means that there are crowds everywhere.

We sailed into Naples early in the morning – and it certainly looks beautiful from the ocean at a distance. From close up the area around the dock, at least, was not very inviting.

Southern Italy has so much to offer in the way of beauty, history and a wonderful way of life that a day here is simply a starter – have to come back for more.

Regardless, we had to make a choice among all the tour options – various combinations between Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, Positano and the Amalfi Coast. I know what Niki would have chosen!

We chose to do an all-day trip that included a morning in Sorrento at our leisure followed by the afternoon on a walking tour of Pompeii.

The drive to Sorrento from Naples is by Autostrada through the suburbs of Naples as far as Pompeii then by the winding coastal road that takes you through (and in many cases above) the seaside towns.

The peaks of the Vesuvius complex looms over the valley as we travel towards Pompeii and you can see how its eruption would have affected a large area.

The Apennine mountain range, which forms the backbone of Italy, then curves in to become the cliffs that drop down to the see and make for such extravagantly beautiful scenery.

Over the centuries the residents of Campania have learned to accommodate to the mountainous cliffs, the ocean and the climate in a way that is truly harmonious.

Marinas and beaches can be seen at the waterside wherever there is a reasonable area and there are boats – fishing and pleasure - all over, swimming areas and sunbathing.
The cliffs have then been developed in terraces – the houses with their colorful walls are built into the cliffs and rise layer upon layer upward.

Around the houses, the fertile soil and wonderful Mediterranean climate, have allowed the cultivation of an array of fruits, vegetables and plants – again on terraces.
Olive trees were very common and are grown in groves with rolled up nets between them – when the olives ripen they drop into the nets (which have been spread between the trees for the purpose) and are harvested.
Grape vines are trellised vertically to save space.
We saw all manner of fruit trees but especially, as we got closer to Sorrento, lemon trees (for which the area is famous) and other citrus.

Our first view of Sorrento and the surrounding area of the Bay of Naples with Capri in the distance was spectacular.

After leaving the bus in Sorrento we went off on our own to explore. This is a sophisticated town with that has taken advantage of all its natural resources! The seafront area is a walk down from the shopping area and a Azamara cruise ship was docked in the bay. Beautiful Hotels offer views of the ocean and access to the waterfront all along the frontage but are largely hidden from the street.

Shopping, of course, was a major motivation for those wandering the streets. The main road (Corso Italia) was lined with lemon trees

And parked scooters.

The side streets were narrow and offered all manner of choices. The sweet liqueur limoncillo originates here – it consists of alcohol that has been infused for days with the rind of local lemons then added sugar syrup. Delicious. Had to buy a bottle. Innumerable stores offered their variations on the theme.

Fruit stores selling local produce – the figs!!!!! Yum.

Took a shot of the shop that sells the cute wooden toys and items we bought in Venice

We found a place that was selling Italian made kitchen and home goods at excellent prices – the owner (Umberto) with whom we chatted – was very vocal about the recession and the fact that, because of counterfeiting in the East, anything of Italian design is very quickly copied and sold at low price. We helped the economy as best we can (have to equip Vegas, right?)

Just being here even for so short a time gives off a vibe that makes you absolutely need to come back.

Then it was back in the bus and the ride along that scary, curvy wonderful mountain road to Pompeii.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD was catastrophic and resulted in an enormous release of lava, white-hot ash and gas to a height of 20000 meters.
The sky was darkened for days and the sun was hidden but fires started by the ash were extensive. Must have looked like hell!

Falling ash buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and all they contained very rapidly to a depth of 3 meters and smothered all life. Its hard for me to imagine that it was the ash fall that killed all the people as they slept – maybe the gases as well?

Pliny the Younger was a soldier in the Roman Army stationed nearby and described the event in his writings so the tragedy was not for gotten or lost and excavations of Pompeii were begun as early as 1748.

By the time the area was excavated it had been buried, encased in ash for nearly 2000 years and provides a fascinating look at the sophistication of life in a Roman City of the time.

I am sure many of those reading this have visited Pompeii and are familiar with it. The famous things to see.

I enjoyed particularly this glimpse of the day-to-day life of a world so long gone yet so familiar (and in many ways so modern)

The streets and shops had names and were posted.

They were paved with well worn basalt and there were pedestrian crossings constructed across them to keep your feet out of the schmutz.

These raised rock crossings were low enough to avoid the chariot axles. Smart.

The steel rimmed wheels wore ruts in the rocky road

Along the streets were stores with counters where you could buy supplies – liquids like wine were kept in clay containers in the counters.

Bread was baked on site – you can see the ovens still

the sidewalks had holes drilled in the rock to tie your carriage while you shopped / stopped

Some of the houses had signs indicating their owners.

A brothel advertised with a sign appropriate to the enterprise

Some of the walls on the street bear graffiti and some even have written adverts – supporting a political candidate.

Houses of the patricians were beautifully thought through. They had a vestibule with doors to shut out the street noise. A dining and living area and a yard where a hole in the roof allowed in light and rainwater to a pool below.

The walls of the houses, stores and buildings were decorated with frescoes some of which survive to this day.

Romans were big on plumbing – we saw the original lead piping that supplied water to houses and the pools.

We saw the ‘public toilet’ and baths in many locations. The ‘spa’ building of public baths had recesses in the wall for your clothes.

The height of the doors and the clearance above seating indicates (just as you see in old England) people were short in stature.

Seating at the theater (which had different areas for people of different status) was numbered and marked. The width of the seats suggests plebeians were slim (unlike some of our fellow passengers)

Finally we saw the recently renovated amphitheater – where the slaves had a go at each other and the lions etc. stood where Spartacus did

A final thought.

When the people of Pompeii died they were encased in ash. Their bodies moulded the material around them. Over the years the moulds become solid and their bodies decayed to dust. These plaster casts were made by filling the impression created in ash.

The detail is uncanny. One man is a slave. Barefoot. Simple clothes. His belt buckle has his owners name on.

The other figure is patrician. He is wearing clothes – like a skirt. And sandles.

They say they died in their sleep. Asphyxiated.

The last major eruption of Vesuvius was in 1943 during the Italian Campaign of WW II – very well observed. hmmmmmmm 

Thursday, June 28, 2012


The confluence of the rocky mountainous Dalmatian coastline, scattered forested islands and the clear blue waters of the Adriatic Mediterranean make Dubrovnik’s location hard to beat!!

Sailing into this small port provided us another memorable experience.

The buildings of the ‘New’ city are visible from a distance with their red tile roofs and white / cream walls; climbing from sea level up the slopes and following the irregular coastline
By regulation, none can be taller than three stories and roofs must be a distinctive red tile. Some are clearly very luxurious – property here has become a hot commodity apparently purchases by wealthy foreigners are fueling the market (Turks and Germans in particular).

We sailed by this dramatic bridge (nicknamed the Golden Bridge by locals) constructed across the river at tremendous expense (and shortening the drive up the coast by half an hour we were told).

Docking at the Port was somewhat of an anticlimax – we were the only game in town at this newly constructed simple platform. It did liven up later when a market was set up with local goods for sale.

I will have to compare photos but the buildings along the road behind the dock look exactly like they did in the 1940s combat shots taken by Merle’s Dad when he rocketed German shipping here!

Dubrovnik is the main port of Croatia, which has been an independent nation again since only 1995 or so after an incredibly trying history. It is an interesting fact that there are almost as many Croats living outside the country (31/2 millions) as inside (4+ millions).

The Slavic peoples of the Balkans originally migrated from the area that is now Poland and the Croatian language is still closest in its roots to Polish. The religion they brought (Roman Catholicism) is that of over 85% of Croats while elsewhere in the area invaders have brought Eastern Orthodox and Islam.

The origins of Dubrovnik go back to 650 AD or so when Latin-speaking refugees of a Slav onslaught on the Roman City of Epidaurum set up a settlement on an island they called Ragusa a short distance off the shore where the Slavs lived.
They built fortifications and prospered through trade.

The Slavs on the mainland in the meantime had developed their settlement , which they named Dubrovnik.

Around the 12th Century these two settlements merged; the sea channel between the island and the mainland was filled in and paved; and a new set of walls was constructed around the combined settlement creating what is now the Old town of Dubrovnik.

The solidly constructed walls and well protected harbor provided a secure base for an expanding commercial empire. The hardwood forests provided the timber for solidly constructed ships and provided the basis for the city’s Slavic name (Dubrovnik means well wooded).

Ragusa had no territorial aspirations and remained focused on success in trade through its sailors and merchants and on diplomatic neutrality through skilled statesmen. Venice (a very competitive trading nation) held sway in the 12th and 13th centuries (from 1205 -1358) providing models for governance and statutes.

As a well-known port Ragusa had many visitors – King Richard the Lionheart on his return from the crusades in 1192, St Francis of Assisi, and, also presumably by ship, The Black Death (in 1348).

Uniquely in the Balkans, Ragusa managed to maintain neutrality and thus protected markets with both the Spanish and Ottoman empires until by 1600 it was hugely successful at a par now with Venice.

An earthquake in 1667 changed all – half the population were killed (including almost all the Latin descendants). It only survived because so many were away at sea during the disaster. The now predominantly Slavic city was rebuilt from the ruins and became Dubrovnik (but never regained its former success)

Napoleon abolished the Republic of Dubrovnik in 1808 and had it administered as part of Dalmatia-Croatia. It was ceded to Austria at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until Yugoslavia was formed after WW I. 

Yugoslavia was invaded and occupied by the Nazis in WW II. After liberation Marshall Tito (a Croat) led Yugoslavia as a united country but with his death that impetus fell away and the area spun out of control into civil war, ethnic cleansings and atrocity.

Croatia was occupied and Dubrovnik heavily shelled between 1991 and 1992 after which, by treaty, a free Croatia was created – a nation recognizable by its checker board red and white flag and its excellence in tennis and soccer!

Our tour guide had little good to say about Serbs in particular as a result of this painful history but also didn’t fancy Bosnia or Montenegro particularly!

Our tour started early and was scheduled to last until ships departure at 5.30pm so we could get a good look at the area.

Four major experiences come to mind after our short visit:
First, Old Dubrovnik.
The walled city is picturesque and seems very special despite its rather commercial orientation (lots of repetitive tourist shops). The walls around the town are immense and well constructed with a number of large towers – a walk along the wall provides a wonderful view of the ocean, the harbor and the mountains.

The original filled-in sea channel is now the main thoroughfare – the Placa Stradum. It leads from the entry Pile gate past Onofrios Fountain  

to the old harbor.

and a small market

Narrow passageways lead off from the Placa to the left and right.

We visited a number of the sights – first The Franciscan Monastery, named for the Franciscan Order and more directly for the visit of St Francis. Although badly damaged by earthquake in 1667 and shelling during the siege of 1991 – 1992 it is remarkably intact with beautiful cloisters, paintings and garden.

Most remarkable though is the pharmacy within its walls that has been in constant operation since 1391. Old books, laboratory gear and relics are displayed.

Second, we came across the Synagogue and Jewish Museum. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in1492 there was a wave of Sephardic Jewish migration that passed through this
area with a small community developing in the 16th century. By any criteria the community became successful – in business and trade, culture and medicine. In 1546 the Jewish community were permitted to stay within city walls and were allocated a street with four houses – the ghetto.
Fortunes of the community waxed and waned with random accusations and persecution that caused most to leave but a small group persisted

In 1652 the upstairs of one of the houses was converted into a synagogue and a cemetery was built outside the walls.

Ashkenazi Jews from the Austro Hungarian Empire moved here in the 19th century.

The Nazis instituted their racial laws immediately after taking power in 1941, set up camps and interned all Jews. Twenty Seven of the 87 Dubrovnik Jews were victims of the holocaust, an equal number participated in armed resistance.

A small community persists to this day but the old synagogue is no longer active

Third, we went for lunch to a restaurant (Konavoski Dvori) in a lovely converted mill in the Konavle valley south of the city.
This is a favorite eating place for special occasions and the food is considered to be excellent local cuisine.

We ate under an arbor of trees and vines with a stream of crystal clear water running by.

Our main course was prepared by cooking lamb and veal and potatoes for three hours in iron pots buried in coals. It was absolutely delicious and went well with the local wine – red and white.

Fourth, we visited a beautiful seaside resort called Cavtat (pronounced ‘Tz’avtat). It was lovely to sit at a bar and drink a beer at the ocean front in the bright afternoon sunlight. This was where the Duke of Windsor and Ms Simpson spent their honeymoon apparently and is considered a very romantic location

What a lovely day!  Off we go to Italy; next stop Naples.