On August 24, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius literally blew her top. The 20,000 citizens of near-by Pompeii felt an earthquake-like shake and heard a great explosion. A huge cloud of hot ash, dust, cinders and lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone) rose 12 miles into the sky and was blown in a southerly direction for 5 miles, where it fell upon the thriving port city. 2000 of the residents died that day and the city was buried under 30 feet of consolidated ash and rock. A 10,000 ft mountain now stood at 3,000 feet. Today after another lovely breakfast, we set out to see if the excavated ruins really deserve the billing they get. We took the Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Pompeii. This 30 minute ride was an excellent alternative to fighting through that same traffic route we drove in on Monday. We emerged from the train station and directly in front of us was the famous archeological site.
Pompeii was forgotten until 1594 when the ruins were discovered while digging a canal. Excavation of the ruins began in 1748 and 44 of the original 66 acres of the city have now been excavated.
In 79 AD, Pompeii was actually a coastal city, although it is now several miles inland. In front of the ruins, you can see the stone anchors where boats could be tied. To organize our visit, we followed the Rick Steve’s self-guided tour that is included in his Italy tour book. It guided us around the site and provided a level of information that we found interesting and entertaining, but not too overwhelming.
Pompeii had 2 city gates at Porta Marina. During the day, both would be open but at night, only the smaller, left one allowed access. The streets of Pompeii are a testament to the engineering skill of the Romans. Sidewalks bordered the streets. Each day the roads were flooded with water for cleaning – stepping stones were placed at intervals to facilitate staying dry while crossing. The number of stepping stones (1,2 or 3) was dependant on the size of the street. Chariot and wagon wheels had standard size axles to ensure they could clear the stepping stones. Stones were also erected to block access to pedestrian only roads. Notice the deep grooves worn in the road by the passing of many chariots and wagons. But if you look further down the street, you can see road repair had been started and the ruts were gone (Dear Edmonton – pot hole repair!!).
In any Roman city, the Foro (Forum) was the central gathering place and Pompeii was no different. The Foro of Pompeii was flanked by limestone columns that were topped by many of the statues we saw at the museum in Naples and was surrounded by the Tempio Di Giove (Temple of Jupiter), the Curia (city hall), the basilica (law courts) and the Temio Di Apollo. The Casa de Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet) gives us a look at the home of a Pompeii merchant. The main entrance (which features a ‘Beware of the Dog’ mosaic) is flanked by two family-owned shops. Inside, we viewed the many functional rooms, the central well (which supplemented the water brought by pipe from the aqueduct) and brightly frescoed walls. A 100 mile long aqueduct carried fresh water to the citizens of Pompeii. Brick aqueduct arches, with hidden water tanks at the top, improved the water pressure in individual neighborhoods. Case del Founo (House of the Faun) was Pompeii’s largest home, with 27,000 square feet and 40 rooms.Pompeii had 6 public baths, each with a men’s and women’s section. The various rooms included dressing rooms with locker areas, a massage area and a steam-bath room with a large tub for soaking and a fountain to spout water onto the heated flood for steam production. The local bakery and flour mill featured a brick oven similar to a modern pizza oven and numerous mills for producing powdered grain (perhaps flavoured with tiny bits of rock). There were at least 30 brothels in Pompeii and the one we viewed contained several small rooms with very uncomfortable looking stone beds & pillows and some faded frescoes that perhaps were a menu of the services offered. The city included three theatres. The Teatro Grande was a 5000 seat Greek theatre, carved into the lava-rock hillside in 470 BC. Next door, the smaller Teatro Piccola was once an indoor theatre known for its acoustics.Near the city outskirts was the Anfiteatro, the grand amphitheatre where up to 20,000 spectators could watch great gladiator battles. At various spots throughout the city, and especially outside the theatres, you find the ancient ‘fast-food’ stalls. Apparently, most ancient Romans did not cook for themselves in their tiny apartments so these counters were very common- place. This made me think of today’s busy crowded cities, like Manhatten. The marble counters had holes where the pots for food were placed. The ruins of Pompeii are a definite must-see. It is amazing to have an insight to the lives of the people in this ancient city, as well as to marvel at the incredible work involved in the excavations. Leaving the area, we hopped on a train back to Sorrento where we picked up a couple of Neopolitan Paninis ( stuffed paninis – one with feta & spinach, and one with prosciutto & mozzarella) and headed back to the hotel for an afternoon rest. Late in the afternoon, we visited a few shops that we had scouted out earlier in the week to pick up some souvenirs. We spent a long time chatting with one fellow in a small shop where we picked up quite a few items and enjoyed the conversation. We returned to the hotel to drop off our purchases and get ready for dinner.
We had a dinner reservation at Ristorante il Buco. This small restaurant, set in the cellar of an old monastery, is under the direction of Giuseppe Aversa, who holds the only Michelin star in town. Peppe designs his menu around what is fresh and speaks to all of the diners to ensure everything meets their expectations. The staff were friendly, attentive and thoroughly explained exactly what was on each plate and in each glass.We started our evening with an apertif glass of sparkling rose and the chef’s welcome – a mini-octopus salad. Simply delicious!Harvey (aka Breadstick Man) was delighted with the wonderful selection of breads, as well as the fact it was later refreshed with a new selection. We decided that the smart choice would be to let the experts guide us through the evening so we chose the ‘Trust Me’ five course dinner. The waiter asked what our preferences would be – we told him just to focus on fish and seafood and we would be happy! I wish I could recall the waiter’s description of each of the courses – but alas, I was enjoying the moment and so can only record the basic description that I can remember.
The first antipasti course was a tempura prawn, on a bed of herb infused bread purée – this was way better than the way I have described it. This plating included a small clam with dabs of basil pesto that was described as a palate cleanser – and amazingly did just that.
The next antipasti course was a squid ring stuffed with mozzarella di bufala, tomatoes & shrimp, squid and spinach on a risotto base. The blending of flavors and textures in this dish was perfect.
The pasta course followed. The perfectly al dente pasta, red peppers and bits of seafood with an herbed tomato sauce were fabulous! The waiter left us to enjoy our wine before bringing the secondi – sea bass and asparagus on a potato base, covered with the most amazing foam!We had also chosen wine pairing with our dinner. After our initial sparkling wine, we were served three white wines with the antipasti and pasta courses. The wines were all from the area, and progressed in body and finish and were all wonderful. The secondi was served with a red wine from northern Italy that matched the progression perfectly.
It was now time for dessert. Which began with the pre-dessert – yogurt topped with chocolate – accompanied by a sweet Sicilian wine. Then came the dessert – a cheesecake topped with dark cherries & sauce. But that was not all, there was also my favorite – creme caramel! We of course, shared both of these. And not done yet – finally, along with our expresso came a selection of ‘sweets’ and chilled limoncello!!
It was an amazing evening! Peppe and his staff were wonderful, the other diners we chatted with were great and the food and wine were incredible! It was a perfect way to wind down our trip and once again, we felt so lucky to be able to have this experience!!