The sea between the Amalfi Coast of Italy and the island of Capri was once the haunt of the mythological Sirens. The Greeks depicted them as birds with beautiful human faces; the Romans as mermaids. Their songs of seduction proved beyond resistance to the sailors of passing ships, drawing them to their deaths on the rocks below the cliffs.
The Greek warrior-king Odysseus wisely plugged his sailors’ ears with wax, then had himself tied to the mast so he could safely experience their alluring music. However, as his ship passed the Sirens, he was transfixed by their singing and frantically pleaded with his men to release him. They refused (perhaps they couldn’t hear) and disaster was averted.
The town of Sorrento derives its name from the Roman Surrentum, indicating its ties to the Sirens. At the end of the regional Circumvesuviana train line, Sorrento overlooks the Bay of Naples with views of Mount Vesuvius and Capri. Groggy from an overnight flight, what I heard, instead of singing, was the whining of countless motorscooters.
When life gives you lemons
The region of Campania has a population of around six million. The natural beauty of the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri, along with the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum make it a popular tourist attraction.
According to legend, Sorrento was founded by a grandson of Odysseus and Circe, the sorceress. The city dates to at least the the 600s BCE. Sorrento’s cliff-side views have always attracted the famous, including Lord Byron, John Keats, Johann Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, Walter Scott, Enrico Caruso, and Luciano Pavarotti.
The buildings in Campania are painted from a palette of pale yellows, oranges, and pinks, highlighted with deep Bourbon red, a brick-like color matching the volcanic slopes of Mount Vesuvius. During my stay, the countryside was spring green. Tiny terraces stair-step up the hills, providing footing for groves of citrus and olive trees. Lemons and oranges were in season, dripping from the branches and overflowing the markets.
In Sorrento my B&B was located on Via Santa Maria della Pietà, a narrow stone passageway in the Old Town that predates the Romans. On the first morning as I stepped outside, an Italian mom on a motorscooter swerved around me, chatting on her mobile phone while chauffeuring her child to school.
At a railing I gazed deep into the Valley of the Mills, a gorge resulting from volcanic activity thirty-five-thousand years ago. Some of the walls and steps in the rift date to the 400s BCE. In the 1200s CE, mills were built at the bottom, some grinding wheat and some sawing wood. The abandoned mills are now eerily overgrown.
I visited the Basilica di San Antonino where a few of Saint Anthony’s bones are kept in the crypt, along with a display of large silver milagros in the shapes of body parts. Illustrations of shipwrecks reinforced Anthony’s status as the patron saint for the recovery of lost people. A miracle attributed to Saint Anthony is that he saved a young child swallowed by a whale. A whale bone is displayed outside.
In the 1500s, the nobility, when making decisions for the community, met in a room under a frescoed dome open to the street on two sides. Today, a group of village elders, the Sorrento Men’s Club, gather there to socialize. Women, children, and mobile phones are not allowed.
Walking downhill through the town I passed under the Greek Gate, which dates to the 400s BCE. It marks the boundary between Sorrento on the cliff and Marina Grande on the water. Because Marina Grande’s inhabitants lived outside the gate, they are believed by the Sorrentines to descend from Turkish pirates. The harbor in Marina Grande, like real fishing villages everywhere, is lined with churches and bars.
I squeezed through tight Via San Cesareo, a street awash with limoncello. Local products include inlaid-wood art, wine, olives, and walnuts, but Sorrentino lemons steal the spotlight. Tourists pose with sfusato lemons, which are the size of volleyballs. Lemony soaps, candles, and candies are sold everywhere. And, of course, limoncello, made from rinds, sugar, and alcohol.
A stroll down any street in Old Town Sorrento goes something like this: lemon-themed gift shop, limoncello shop, gelateria, religious shrine, repeat.
In mid-March Sorrento was prepping for both Easter and the beginning of tourist season, two resurrections, so to speak. Workers washed windows, painted walls, and tightened awnings. Piazza Tasso sprouted café tables. Stations of the cross appeared along the route of the Good Friday processions.
At 8 p.m. throughout the town, loudspeakers broadcast an hour and a half of beautiful choir music. I listened from my balcony at the B&B. On the street below, evening strollers sampled lemon sorbetto.
Down and out in Beverly Hills
Although Pompeii receives most of the attention, other Roman towns were also destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Ancient Herculaneum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in (and beneath) the modern city of Ercolano just southeast of Naples.
Herculaneum was the Beverly Hills of ancient Italy, according to tour guide Carmine. The city was wealthier than Pompeii with more lavish homes. Its inhabitants worshipped Hercules, believed to be its founder.
When Vesuvius erupted, the winds blew volcanic debris first in the direction of Pompeii. Herculaneum, located to the west, escaped. Most of its inhabitants fled. A day later, however, one-hundred-mile-per-hour surges of hot gas blasted the city and buried it under fifty feet of ash.
The ash caused little structural damage and even preserved many wooden objects such as furniture and doors. Charred roof beams are still visible. The excavation of a merchant’s shop revealed glass bottles packed in a crate of straw.
The ancient seaport remained intact and hidden under the ash for hundreds of years. Today, over seventy-five percent of Herculaneum is still unexcavated.
The site is several blocks downhill from the train station through grimy, graffitied Ercolano. Once inside the excavation, I was free to explore the ancient streets and buildings, including homes, shops, bath houses, a gymnasium, and the forum. Most of the walls are still standing.
The site has been stripped bare of its treasures. (Many are in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.) What is left, however, are mosaics, frescoes, fountains, bakery ovens, and “fast-food” counters containing large clay pots for serving food and wine.
And skeletons. In 1982 archaeologists were surprised to uncover more than three-hundred remains huddled together in arched stone boathouses facing the sea. Likely, the remaining inhabitants were attempting to escape when the sudden wave of nine-hundred-degree heat killed them instantly.
In Ercolano I boarded a shuttle van for the drive to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The Vesuvio Express wound up a steep, narrow road to a dirt parking lot below the summit. Along the way, the van passed homes and farms on the lower slopes, a brave location it seems, given the volcano’s history. The soil is extremely fertile and nourishes grapes, citrus fruits, walnuts, and olives. Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ) wine is made from the grapes grown on the volcano’s slopes.
The van stopped in a dirt parking lot, crowded with tour buses. There, the hiking trail to the top begins, wide, steep, and covered in loose red volcanic cinders. The climb gains one-thousand feet in elevation through a moonscape of lava rocks. I bundled against the cold and the wind. A few huts along the way sell cappuccino, cheap lava jewelry, and “I ‘Heart’ Vesuvio” T-shirts.
At the rim the wind blew ferociously. (I leaned into it to avoid becoming a human sacrifice.) A rocky path leads along the edge for views into the crater. Steam rose from several fissures. The view outward is spectacular in every direction, up and down the coast, Naples and its suburbs to the northwest, the Sorrentine Cape to the south.
Vesuvius is still an active volcano. It last blew in 1944 and threatens occasionally. Due to the millions of people who live nearby, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. Evacuating the population quickly would not be possible.
What happened in Vegas
If Herculaneum was Beverly Hills, then, according to guide Carmine, Pompeii was Las Vegas. A busy port, its streets were lined with dozens of wine bars, bath houses, and bordellos.
In just a few hours, a heavy shower of rocks and ash rained onto the city. The energy released by the eruption was several times more powerful than an atomic bomb. An estimated sixteen-thousand people died. Pompeii was buried beneath a blanket of volcanic material eighteen feet deep. It remained buried and protected for over seventeen centuries.
When excavated, the homes and shops still contained furniture, kitchenware, artwork, tools, even food. At an onsite exhibit, I saw two-thousand-year-old loaves of bread that had been preserved in the ash.
Carmine’s tour started at the gladiators’ barracks and training field. We examined a few homes, shops, the amphitheater, and the baths, which were engineered with indoor plumbing and thermal heating. Many of the buildings have preserved wall frescoes and mosaic floors.
We toured the forum, the economic, religious, and political center of the city. Carmine pointed out the ruts in the streets, worn by chariots. Vesuvius loomed in the background, just six miles away, its peak shattered.
A long line waited to see one of the brothels with its stone beds and pornographic frescoes. The explicit illustrations on the walls served as a menu of services.
Regarding the excavation of Pompeii, Carmine said, “They found too much.” His meaning was that the uncovered ruins cannot be protected adequately. One day in 2015, a record thirty-five thousand tourists visited, nearly three times the ancient city’s original population.
Further excavation is on hold. Approximately a fourth of the ancient city lies in wait for future generations to uncover.
The regional Circumvesuviana trains are often late, usually standing room only and never clean. They shake and sputter and stop a mind-numbing thirty-two times between Naples and Sorrento. On one trip, the roof of my carriage leaked rainwater onto the passengers. And yet the line is the most convenient connection to Herculaneum, Mount Vesuvius, and Pompeii.
From Sorrento I caught an early train to Naples. During the trip, two small children, a boy and girl, walked through the carriage begging, the boy with a boombox, the girl with a cup. The passengers ignored them. In Naples soldiers with automatic weapons were stationed at major intersections.
Naples is every bit as gritty, loud, and colorful as advertised. It is the third largest city in Italy with a population of four million. Every surface is covered with graffiti, which somehow seems appropriate, given that the word originally referred to inscriptions scratched onto the walls of ancient ruins, such as Pompeii. Naples is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Pizza was invented in Naples, in particular marinara, made with olive oil, tomato sauce, and garlic, and margherita, with olive oil, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. Mozzarella cheese is a regional specialty, especially buffalo mozzarella made from the milk of water buffalos bred around Salerno. Naples pioneered the preservation of tomatoes and so gets credit for tomato paste and sun-dried tomatoes. The Neapolitans also gave the world calzone.
PDA seems another Italian invention. Everywhere young couples kiss and straddle and grope. A waiter at a sidewalk café was so entangled with his girlfriend, his customers had to interrupt him for service.
The Naples National Archaeological Museum displays a huge collection of Roman artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum. On the first floor is a collection of larger-than-life marble statues, important because they include Roman copies of lost classical Greek statues.
The thirteen-foot-high Farnese Bull, a tangle of flailing bodies carved from one chunk of marble, is the largest sculpture ever recovered from antiquity. It tells a tragic revenge story of twin sons who killed their dad and tied his mistress to a rampaging bull. Michelangelo once worked at restoring it.
The Farnese Hercules stands ten feet tall. It’s a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 300s BCE, portraying the exhausted hero after his eleventh labor.
On display is a collection of mosaics recovered from the ashes of Vesuvius. The Alexander Mosaic, dating from 100 BCE, depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. Other mosaics portray mythology, animals, architecture, landscapes, and geometrics.
A library of charred papyrus scrolls from the Herculaneum holiday home of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law are currently being deciphered by the world’s most sophisticated X-ray equipment. A few of them were on display.
Nearby is the Secret Room, the name the Bourbon monarchy gave to its collection of pornographic frescoes and statues, excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many were from brothels. (Statues of naked Roman gods and goddesses, by the way, do not count as erotica.)
In Sorrento, a primary-school parade passed by. The kids were dressed in handmade Saint Patrick’s Day costumes. They carried a banner referencing cultural diversity and sang a couple of songs, including one to the tune of “Bingo,” spelling g, r, e, e, n instead.
I celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day at Chaplin’s Irish Bar, which is really an Italian bar pretending to be Irish. Green balloons in the doorway and Irish jigs on the PA. Some English-speaking tourists gathered. I talked with a group of Canadians about the current state of politics in the United States. The Australians were excited to watch cricket on satellite TV.
An Englishman ordered a pint of Guinness. Finally, after hearing a complaint about the length of time it took to draw, Geno the bartender explained, “It takes time. Like a woman.”