9 March 2024

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to see Pompeii. I grew up in Cirencester, the Roman city of Corinium, which back then had a population of between 10-20,000 people, the same estimated population as Pompeii. In Cirencester the Roman level is just below the surface; there used to be, and possibly still is, a local regulation prohibiting anyone living within the Roman walls to dig more than ten inches deep in their garden. At my primary school, each child had a small square of garden to grow plants and we regularly turned up shards of pottery and fragments of mosaic. I once found a coin and was given half-a-crown for it by the Corinium Museum. There were several column bases in my grammar school playing fields and the groundsman knew where several large Roman pavements were, but he wouldn’t tell, not wanting his carefully tended turf dug up. There is very little left above ground, of course, as the floor level is so close to grade, though the remains of the amphitheatre and quite long sections of the Roman walls survive. At school, from the age of ten, we listened enthralled to the story of a similar town destroyed by a volcano. Here’s a mosaic floor from Cirencester found next to my junior school.

Camila and I flew to Naples from different cities and met at the airport which is only a short cab ride from the city centre. I had booked hotel rooms close to the Central Station so that we could get an early start for Pompeii. But at the hotel’s address there was just a business card giving the name of the hotels on one of the bells and no-way to open the huge double doors leading through to an inner courtyard. Thinking this maybe was how things are in Naples we waited until someone else arrived who knew the door code and followed them in. The next surprise was an elevator that you had to pay to use. Fortunately Camila had some centimes, but again, at the hotel’s floor we were met with a closed locked door, a key pad, and a small card with the hotel’s name. Then we noticed that the address on the card was different from the one we were at. We were in some sort of annex, and Expedia had sent me the wrong address. I had begun to wonder what I had got us into and was already mentally preparing to look for a new hotel. But sure enough, a few doors down the street was the perfectly nice B&B Hotel, with a friendly desk staff, tv in the lobby and clean, cheap rooms. We headed out for lunch.

I ate more pizza in one week in Naples than in the previous ten years: the dough is thin with a thick, puffed up, airy rim. The tomatoes are the famous thick-skin San Marzano variety that only grow in the rich volcanic soil of the area, and the mozzarella is from local buffalo milk. And they are half the price than they would be in London, except you can’t get anything anywhere near this good in London. Next, we stumbled upon the Galleria Umberto 1, perhaps not quite up the standard of the one in Milano, but impressive none the less. It’s across from the San Carlo Opera House.

In Naples they have a habit of wrapping buildings in netting. At first I thought it must be to protect people from loose masonry falling off and injuring people, but after seeing several examples on perfectly sound buildings, I realised it was just to keep pigeons off. The result is that the buildings all look like they’ve been wrapped by Christo and you can’t see them as they should be seen. We do it in Britain too, but with finer, smaller mesh netting that you can’t really see.

I had taken the precaution of looking up a few restaurants near our hotel and we enjoyed the food at Antica Trattoria e Pizzeria da Donato, to give it its full name, so much that we went back. We only ate pizza at lunch time, the evening is for proper food. There are two services in Naples: 7:30 and 9:00, which means you can’t linger over coffee or liquors if you book the early slot. Every restaurant we ate in had this system though if you arrive at 8:30 and your table is free they will let you start early. 

Crossing the road requires an act of faith. You have to launch yourself into the traffic, and they will stop for you, but if you wait at the curb on a crossing they never will. It’s best to follow a local and join them as they cross. It reminded me of Cairo where Rosemary and I once needed to cross six lanes of honking overloaded trucks, mouldy camels, motorcycles and buses. In the end we hailed a cab, went to the end of the street, round the roundabout and back down the other side. 

Naples is a seaport and you never seem to be far from the sea, and consequently from a view of Mount Vesuvius, looming over the city. People live all around its base despite the fact that it erupted eight times in the 19th century and three in the twentieth, the last being during the war, in 1944, when it destroyed about 80 American B-25 bombers and buried three villages. It will erupt again, and soon. 

On the 23rd, Burroughs’ magic number, we went to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. It is hard to concentrate just on the treasures rescued from Pompeii as this is one of the world’s great museums, so we saw the Farnese Bull, the largest sculpture recovered from antiquity and a load of other statures before restricting ourselves to the collection of art from Pompeii. Camila, as it happened, was perfectly colour-coordinated to fit in with the Roman wall paintings, of which there are many. 

I particularly liked the wild-life mosaics and the cat. Given how static the media is, the images are lively and full of life and fun. I particularly liked the cat. I was interested to see how much the Roman idea of beauty differs from now. Venus, for instance, is a mature woman, see below.

The museum building dates back to 1585 and is worth exploring in its own right. After Camila took a series of floor pictures of us, we looked back to find several tourists copying her idea. 

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