Weekend with the program in Southern Italy, March 20th-22nd
Our program is beyond phenomenal: I have zero complaints about the way they run things, and I would be a spokesperson for AIFS in a heartbeat if they asked me. For example, I don’t know of any other program that would willingly take 170 college kids to the area of Italy run by the mafia, but they did.
Our weekend in southern Italy was fantastic. In three days we effectively visited Pompeii, Naples, Sorrento, and Capri: a sightseeing feat only rivaled by our stay in London.
Our buses left from Termini (the train station) at 8:00am on Friday, and I slept the whole way. I could never fall asleep in cars or on buses until this trip, but for some reason I have taken to passing out before we pull out of the parking spot. The drive was only about three hours, and we arrived in Pompeii to freezing rain. None of us were dressed appropriately—why would we have been? One would assume that the area three hours south of Rome would be significantly warmer, but alas, no. We had a lunch break and then gathered with our professors for a tour of the ancient city of Pompeii.
I had heard mixed reviews of Pompeii: some people said it was really cool, others I spoke with said it was incredibly boring. Personally, I found it fascinating. The city was buried by still-active Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Excavation of the city stated in 1773 and today in 2009 only two thirds of the city has been excavated. Most things I have seen this semester have exceeded my expectations greatly, and Pompeii was no exception. I think I was expecting to be walking around ruins like the ones in Rome, but we were literally walking through a city, on ancient city streets with buildings and houses and amphitheaters still intact from 2,000 years ago. We saw old bars, old houses, and even got to go inside a brothel, which is extremely well preserved. We saw Pompeii’s old Forum, which is designed similarly to Rome’s, although it’s expanse is much greater. We saw pottery that looked like it could still function, and saw bodies that had been buried by the ash! There was one man lying on the shelves with the pottery, a 14-year-old pregnant girl, and a dog. It really was crazy to see this kind of thing, to be walking among these people, frozen in time. We were able to make out the tracks in the streets from the wheels of the old chariots—it was so cool. Our professor also pointed out a bakery that had been open early to start baking for the day on that fateful morning of the Vesuvius eruption. When this bakery was excavated, they found loaves of bread still in the oven. We went inside the old baths, which still have the mosaic on the floor still completely intact. During our tour of the ancient city, the rain came and went, but the fog lingered. Vesuvius loomed around every corner, periodically appearing out of the fog, only to disappear a second later.
We arrived at our four-star hotel on the water just before dinnertime. Our rooming situation worked out well and I ended up staying with Dana for the duration of the trip. We unloaded our stuff and braved the still-freezing weather to grab a bite to eat. We found a little pub with all sorts of sandwiches and bar food: a nice break from our usually carbohydrate-filled meals.
On Saturday, we rose early to head to the National Archeological Museum in Naples. Upon arrival in Naples, Dana exclaimed “This is the bunkest town I have ever seen!” to which we dissolved into fits of laughter. Bunk? What does that mean, we asked her. She enlightened our uneducated minds and told us that “bunk” is used to describe anything lower than down-and-out. After learning this, there is no other way to describe Naples. Dirty and trashy with crime lurking around every corner, you immediately feel like you’re in a town run by the mafia when you enter this city. My friends were really excited to find business run by the mafia—they are all taking the “History of the Italian Mafia” class and told me how to pinpoint mafia-run stores: 1) there are people, usually men, hanging around outside who greet you excessively when you enter; and 2) if they do not give you a receipt when you finish your purchase. They were instantly pleased. We dove into a tabacchi (tobacco shop, equivalent to a 7-Eleven or something) to grab a bottle of water and were immediately ushered in by three men who were standing outside, looking like they were just shooting the shit. We also were not given receipts when we bought our water—a telltale sign this business does not pay their taxes. As soon as we got to the next block, Dana and Brenna squealed with delight at the notion of buying something from the mafia.
The museum was relatively boring, mainly because we had seen a lot of the same things in Pompeii. We toured with Franz, which never lasts less than three hours, making it difficult to pay attention for that long. There were a ton of artifacts that were buried by the lava of Vesuvius, not just ash, and were better preserved. In fact, there were some objects that did not look like they had been damaged at all, including the oldest artifact buried by the volcano: a gorgeous sapphire-colored vase.
I sincerely apologize for this, but it is something that I cannot leave out, so pardon my vulgarity for a moment. Now, if you saw a sign over a room that said “Gabinetto Segreto” (Secret Room), what would you assume was in there? And if you also knew that women and children were not allowed in this room up until a few years ago, what kind of horrifying image would your imagination conjure up? Probably not every single phallic symbol you could ever imagine, spanning form children’s mobiles to brothel “menus” to replicas of a fertility god in every size imaginable. It was quite a sight, and just further proof the Pompeiians were sex fiends. Maybe they did not have anything better to do.
So after having a tour of the bunkest city in Italy, a museum with a thoroughly disturbing room, we climbed an active volcano! Apparently AIFS was really trying to integrate us into the Italian culture by making us do all of this crazy stuff. So our buses took us up as high up as they could go on treacherous, winding roads which could have ended tragically had we hit a pebble the wrong way. We descended the buses and were hit with freezing, ski-slope-like winds. In all fairness, we were on the top of a mountain. So we zipped up our jackets and started the climb to the top, which was difficult. I thought it would be a really good idea to climb Vesuvius in my boots, which now consequently do not have a sole. We were able to climb all the way up to the crater, virtually into the crater if we really wanted to. It was certainly one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had, peering into the gigantic crater to see the smoke rising from the sides, all the while holding my breath against the smell of sulfur, painfully aware of the fact that this volcano would have the same effects of an atomic bomb if it decided to erupt today. We were able to see all the surrounding towns quietly nestled at the foot of A VIOLENT VOLCANO. Seriously though, I do not know why people didn’t take the hint when Vesuvius buried a bunch of towns the first time to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. Maybe it’s a comfort thing: maybe people feel protected by the huge volcano. Sure that is possible, if you like the thrill of living in the foothills of a volcano that could blow any day.
After suffering windburn and the worst headache of my life from the altitude change, we headed back to the buses to thaw out. When we returned to the hotel, we had some time to take a nap and rest up before taking the metro to Sorrento for dinner. Sorrento was adorable at night, I’m sure it is even more charming during the day. We hunted down a restaurant we found in Brad’s guidebook, which ended up being a delicious meal. There were sixteen of us, and we took over the entire restaurant. It was filled with soft-spoken older couples who were thoroughly confused to see twelve girls and four guys: some sort of strange date night. Surprisingly, we kept our volume under control: we’re usually the loud, obnoxious American tourists. Thankfully, there was a party of three sitting a few tables down that proceeded to get drunk and yell and scream over whatever noise we were making. We caught the last train back to the town our hotel was in, along with three-quarters of our program who went out in Sorrento as well.
Fortunately, the weather cooperated with us on Sunday so we were able to go to Capri. If it had not, we would have gone to another museum—I do not think I could have handled another marathon museum tour. We took the hydrofoil (or ferry boat) over to the island, which took about forty-five minutes. I slept the whole way over…the rock of the boat put me to sleep immediately. It was about twenty degrees warmer on Capri than it was on the mainland—I have no idea why. I was immediately blown away by the colors: the turquoise of the water provided a great basis for the brightly colored rooftops in the shops in the harbor.
We took the funicular up to the town of Capri, where we got a cappuccino to wake us up a bit. Then, on our professor Sara’s recommendation, we went on an archeological hike up to Tiberius’s villa. Emperor Tiberius built a temple in honor of Jupiter on the highest point of the island. The walk up to the villa was phenomenal—we hiked through tiny roads dotted with Italian villas and an excessive amount of lemon trees. When we arrived at the entrance to the villa, we met our professors there, who graciously paid for our tickets so we could ascend further to the highest point on the west side of the island. The views just never stop amazing me: we could see the Italian mainland where we took the hydrofoil from, outlined by the bluest blue sea I’ve ever seen.
After about an hour, we walked back down to Capri and caught the bus to Anacapri, the east side of the island. We did a bit of shopping there and had some lunch. This trip is just full of surprises—my friend got a pizza that he thought had sausage and potatoes on it, but you have to keep in mind that translations are not always literal. Brenden’s pizza came out topped with sliced-up hot dog and french fries. After lunch we went back down to the harbor and walked around there before taking the hydrofoil back to the port, where our Giotto buses were waiting to take us back to Rome.
Oh Mama and Daddy, by the way, I am moving to Capri.