Archive | July, 2010

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

9 Jul

Ancient ruins meet urban grunge in Rome. Everywhere the city seems to be crumbling. The faded glory of Roman temples is exaggerated by that of the tired buildings constructed last century, most in desperate need of a new coat of paint.

Humanity in all its rawness rages here in a rebellious fashion against the decline of greatness, like weeds bursting through cracks in marble and concrete. At street level Rainbow graffiti invigorates the aging apartment blocks that line the streets of Rome. There is a lack of pretentiousness here that makes the backpacker on a budget feel welcome to join in and savor the madness of the place.

Glance upwards and notice the skyline is dominated by the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, which has been preserved by law as the tallest building in Holy See. It’s beauty brings Oscar Wilde’s optimism to mind; “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

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Roman porn

3 Jul

Like most people in the world I am sure you have some knowledge of Pompeii. Yes, that’s the one. The Roman city that was wiped out by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. The volcano spewed profligate volumes of hot ash and other muck into the air, which fell on top of the Pompeii buying it’s citizens, the buildings they lived in, and everything else in the city. Last century what was left of Pompeii after this disaster was dug up and exposed for all to explore.

For me the highlights of Pompeii were the murals that remain remarkably intact inside of what once were private and public houses inside of the city walls. Some of the best preserved paintings can be found inside a tiny Roman brothel in Pompeii’s red light district.

When you enter the brothel you are immediately confronted by a number of pornographic cartoons depicting Roman men and women having sex in a number of different positions. These are displayed clearly so that paying customers could indicate (by pointing) which service they wanted to procure.

Three small rooms with large stone beds contained within the building stifle any doubt about the nature of the business that went on here.

Another intriguing site at Pompeii are the plaster casts made years ago of the remains of victims from 79AD. The hollow spaces left in the hardened ash by their decaying remains were filled with plaster by an innovative archeaologist, as to capture the final terrified moments of Pompeii’s citizens.

The plaster casts of the remains of 13 people can be seen today in the small olive grove where they fell and were discovered almost 2000 years later. Peering into the glass case where they are on display, I overheard a chubby eight year old American boy ask his father, “Daddy, were they sleeping when they died?”

The father scoffed and replied “Of course not! Look at how they are laying! These people were clearly trying to run away from the volcano”. Dad gestured to some of the figures, “This mother and her kid are trying hopelessly to cover their faces from the suffocating gases that killed them and that guy over there is screaming in terror!”

I looked in the direction where Dad was pointing. He was right, the cast of a man wore a horrified expression. Unlike this man, I decided that I will definitely lie to my children (if I ever have them) to protect them from the unpleasantness of the truth.

Just before leaving Pompeii after spending 5 hours .wandering around the ruins, we had a brief look at a storehouse where archaeologist have stored a huge amount of relics they have recovered from the volcanic ash at this site. It was odd to see so many ancient vases, statues, and even more plaster casts of victims piled up like rubbish or lost and found items in a council tip.

Sorrento

1 Jul

Cheap Easyjet flights from London and its proximity to the ruins of Pompei influenced our decision to spend a few days in Sorrento. The beauty of the town and of Italy’s Amalfi Coast was a wonderful surprise.

The Town

We made the journey from Napoli to Sorrento the only way one should – by ferry. On a gorgeous summer day the views of the coast from the sea are amazing. Small towns and vineyards perch high above the hills that slope into the Bay of Naples. The infamous Vesuvius dominates the landscape.

Even in the heat tt was a pleasure to spend hours walking through the streets of Sorrento and surrounding towns. The 40 minute stroll from our Bed and Breakfast in Piano di Sorrento to the central Piazza Tasso in the heart of town gave us the chance to appreciate the scenery.

Many old and new buildings in Sorrento are painted yellow and stand in bright contrast against the deep blue of the Mediterranean sea and the green shades of the hills. Citrus trees are abundant in private gardens and public streets, and their yellow and orange fruits add even more colour to the town. You can find a small church at every corner, and on the hour the air is filled with the ringing of their bells. Murals and mosaics of Mary mother of God and her son Jesus decorate Sorrento’s walls. Maritime imagery, of tall ships and their sails, is also prominent.

Luckily there are at least as many Gelato bars as churches in Sorrento, and all this exploring in the summer sun is best done with an ice-cream cone in hand. After indulging in rich Italian chocolate Gelato, I don’t think we will ever be satisfied again with any chocolate ice-cream sold in Australia.

Church on Corso Italia

Sorrento Street Art

The Beach

In summer Sorrento is a seaside resort. Italians and other Europeans flock here to spend hours at private beaches sunning on rows of rented deck-chairs. I don’t believe in paying to swim in the ocean (yes Billy Brag, the beach is free!) so it was lucky that I didn’t have to.

Longing to dive into the sea we ventured out to Il Capo di Sorrento, where we heard it was possible to bathe amongst the ruins of a Roman villa at Regina Giovanna’s ocean pool. We reached the site easily; after a short bus from Piazza Tasso we followed the clearly marked long and windy cobblestone path to the ruins. Underneath the crumbling remnants of the villa was a large rock pool, framed on all sides by tall rounded walls. A large arched tunnel allows the tide to flow in and out of the pool. The turquoise waters were cool and clear. At the bottom of the pool were thousands of smooth pebbles instead of the sand that I am used to.

Our B&B host Rachele told us about the legend of Regina Giovanna, Queen of Napoli in the 14th Century. It is said that every night the Queen chose a solider to take into her bed. Of course she chose the youngest and healthiest men. Every morning Giovanna would have her one-night-stand put to death so he couldn’t kiss and tell. Afterwards she bathed in the rocky pool filled by the sea, to wash away the traces of her romance and the blood of her victims which stained her hands. The Queen’s hunger for love was never satisfied by even the strongest and most handsome of her male subjects. Eventually she gave in to her desire to have sex with a horse, an act which caused her death.

I wonder why I was never told this story as a child – surely it would have brought home the message that ‘too much of a good thing is bad for you’. The legend of Regina Giovanna is certainly not easily forgotten.

After swimming and sunbaking for a few hours, which left me for once with a warm tan instead of a back burning with blisters, we walked back into Piazza Tasso. It was disconcerting at times to compete with cars and buses for space on the narrow winding road from the pool, but the views of Sorrento and the sea afforded from the Southern peaks were worth the fright.

Taken on the road to Sorrento from Queen Giovanna's bath


Tips

* Taking the hydrofoil is more expensive then traveling by train from Napoli to Sorrento, but it is worth forking out the extra five euro at least once. The views are worth it!

* It is easy to get to Regina Giovanna’s bath from Sorrento. Take bus A heading South on Corso Italia and disembark at Il Capo Di Sorrento. Walking from Sorrento isn’t too difficult and should take between 30 – 45 minutes depending on your fitness level.