Thursday, 30 August 2012

A tale of two cities

We arrive in Naples to find its picturesque dockside buildings right outside our balcony and what looks like a castle at the end of the dock. We visit Pompeii this morning - a long-held ambition of mine so I'm very excited.  We're greeted on our coach by our guide Giancarlo, an archaeologist with a really strong Italian accent which takes a while to get used to.  He explains the history as we drive and hands out radio receivers with earpieces that enable us to hear his commentary on-site even when we'e not nearby. I think this is an excellent idea.

We've told Alex this is a school day, one of the two he's going to miss at the start of term. With Giancarlo it should be pretty educational. As it turned out, Alex got more education than we bargained for! Because it was buried under volcanic ash the site is really well preserved, especially the streets with stepping stones for pedestrians to cross and ruts caused by the chariot wheels. Some of the buildings still have their second storey and the shops have counters topped with marble. We visit the baths, which are similar to those we have seen elsewhere, and then a rich merchant's house.

The big revelation is the brothel, where explicit murals depict the various delights on offer as well as the god Priapus with three penises and an amusing sign below warning "no flash". Alex was fairly nonplussed, but we've suggested he tells Mr Cooper that he now knows the Latin word for brothel: luparium, because the 'ladies' would howl from the windows like she-wolves to attract their clients.

The final part of the tour takes us to the agora, where temples were erected on each side to different deities. Vesuvius towers over all as if to remind us that only nature is all-powerful. I have thoroughly enjoyed Pompeii, and even found he obligatory vist to a handicraft factory interesting; I hadn't realised that cameos were made by carving a shell so that the lighter upper layer formed the image.

We grab a quick lunch back on board before heading out on foot to explore Naples. What a contrast: one city I couldn't wait to visit and another I couldn't wait to leave. It begins well enough, with a stroll along the waterfront and through a park (although there were hobos snoozing under the trees). There were some imposing buildings towering above what may have been the old city wall, with tall shuttered windows and an air of faded elegance. But the map indicated that the historic part was just inland so we turned back and found ourselves in a scene of post-apocalyptic urban dystopia.

The large square should have been impressive, flanked by a palace, a church, a museum and a colonnaded crescent. But instead it was derelict and covered in graffiti. The contrast with Florence could not have been more dramatic; one city proud and confident, the other totally bereft of civic pride. A lone soldier stood on guard, although I can't imagine what he was there to defend.

We persevered with our exploration, leaving the derelict square for the commercial centre. Even the supposedly upmarket shopping galleria - a dramatic building with vaulted glass roofs - was almost deserted apart from police officers. We never did find out whether the shops were closed for economic reasons or whether it hapened to be a festival.

We stopped briefly for a cold drink and then attempted to visit the castle, That turned out to be a museum and had been set up to host a comedy festival that night. We decided not to go inside as we were not sufficiently motivated by that point. We couldn't wait to get back on the ship. But at least one passenger was less reluctant to leave. He arrived with a screech of tyres in what looked like the harbourmaster's car 5 minutes after we were supposed to sail and got applauded by the other passengers.

Naples had one last surprise in store for us. As we sailed away, we had a fabulous view of the moon rising over Vesuvius.

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