Pompeii and Circumstances

By Colin McFadden
This post is part of a series called Naples 2017
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We seem to have found ourselves in Italy. An absurdly cheap airfare deal got us to Rome. From there, a Google search result for “cutest villages on the Amalfi coast” got us to Atrani, admittedly a very cute village indeed. We’re staying in a rather over-specced Airbnb, which is spread over multiple levels, including three different rooftop terraces. One imagines that in the high season, this place is pretty spendy. Fortunately, it’s the off-season, and everything is absurdly cheap.

We arrived in Atrani Thursday afternoon, and spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the beachfront, fighting jetlag. Atrani is a short walk from Amalfi Town, which is larger and more feature-rich. En route to finding overnight parking, we discovered the large impressive modern pedestrian tunnel that connects the towns. We wandered over to Amalfi and poked around the town.

We walked “up” (away from the sea) until we came upon the Museo della Carta (the paper museum). The paper museum is on the site of the (claimed) oldest paper mill in Europe, which was founded in the 13th century. It’s entirely underground, and powered by water running down the valley. Our tour guide (we were the only visitors) showed us how the original paper-making process worked, using knives that pounded and smashed cloth to make a pulp. Kat made some paper out of recycled cotton fibers. We also saw later paper-making technologies, imported from elsewhere in Europe. Amazingly, this mill was in operation through the 1960s. We were surprised by how much of the centuries-old equipment still runs.

We kept wandering up the valley, and eventually ran out of town. A set of stairs kept going up though, so we followed. In town, you can hear water running below the street. Leaving town, you can see the stream running above ground. Further up the valley, we came upon the ruins of an old paper mill, which straddled the stream to drive the machinery. The ruins were ghostly and scenic but eventually, the path became impassable, so we turned around.

We made our way back to Atrani via the original set of tunneled staircases, and stopped into a small restaurant for some local fish and pasta. By this point, we were both quite loopy, having been up for roughly 40 hours. We wanted to stay for a more extensive meal, but we were barely staying awake, so we cut dinner short and plopped into bed.

Friday morning, well rested, we woke up ready to seize the day. A few espressos and pastries, some fruit from the fruit and vegetable truck, and then it was into the car for the drive to Pompeii. Any trip in or out of Atrani involves an hour long (but only ~15km) drive through the mountains, consisting of constant switchbacks on very narrow roads. Perfect roads for an Alfa Romeo, but also pretty intense. In the morning light the landslide deposits and lemon tree terraces were much more visible than they had been the day before.

At Pompeii, we basically had the place to ourselves. Another benefit of low-season travel. We followed the tour from our Rick Steves book, poking into houses and wandering the empty streets. Kat had visited a few years ago with the family in the high heat of the summer. Today it was sunny and cool – absolutely perfect.

A highlight of the visit was the opening of the House of Vettii. This home contains some of the best preserved frescoes in Pompeii. Yet again, we had the place to ourselves and the art was stunning. Kat was equally intrigued by the building materials of the walls. A mix of volcanic rocks and ‘limestone’ which appear to include fossilized marsh reeds. Colin admired the lead pipe plumbing and the intricate architecture of the bath systems around the city.

We took advantage of the on-site cafeteria for a morning coffee and again for a quick lunch. There were a few tour groups wandering around – some older Germans, some young Italians, and a couple Chinese groups. But just to reiterate: a 60 degree spring day appears to be about the best possible case for visiting Pompeii.

After leaving Pompeii, we drove to Vesuvius. Our guidebook claimed we could drive to a parking lot near the top, and then walk from there. Reality was a bit different – the parking was a further 1 or 1.5km down the mountain, so we had quite a climb. The tour busses can drive up, but folks in cars can’t. The payoff was reaching the top though, and getting to see into the crater. Thankfully lava tubes and other interesting formations dot the mountainside along the climb up. It doesn’t hurt to grab a walking ice cream either.

The steep walls of the crater of the volcano allow you to peer through time into the long history of volcanism at Vesuvius. The only remnants of the 79 AD eruption that buried Pompeii is some light dusting on the north rim across from the pedestrian path. Most of the remaining structure that survived the famous eruption consists of much older deposits. Geologic monitoring stations dot the crater rim and are clustered around the active fumaroles on the south slope.

The journey down Vesuvius was much quicker than the journey up. We were not tempted to stop at the lines of stands selling fake ‘lava’ rocks. We tried our best to make it to Herculaneum after Vesuvius, but we were too late – even though the site is open until 5, they don’t allow new visitors in after 3:30. Bummer. We drove back to Atrani, chasing an enthusiastic Lancia Delta up the mountain. A highlight of the drive was rounding a corner to discover a herd of goats, with their corgi sheep dog and shepards. We let them pass, then continued on our way. Dinner was another local restaurant – just a few tables, and one very friendly waiter.

Tomorrow: Napoli!

One thought on “Pompeii and Circumstances

  • Susan McFadden March 18, 2017 at 1:08 am Reply

    Thank you for writing about the day’s adventures. I loved seeing all the photos of a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first learned about it as a little girl. And when you say a road was “perfect” for an Alfa, I can barely imagine the switchbacks and changes in elevation. Again, thanks!

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