Tuesday, July 29, 2008

So How Was Pompeii? Ruinous!

When I lived in Holland, I famously waited until the last week before I left Amsterdam. Now I kick myself for not seeing Utrecht or Maastricht or Bruges. My natural state is to nest in my apartment and do things within walking distance. Trains are kind of a pain, bus drivers aren’t that helpful, I don’t know. It’s just easier to stay near home, but I’m not making that mistake again.

The one daytrip I knew that I wanted to do was Naples, for the world-famous archeology museum, and Pompeii for, you know, ruins. I just needed to get out of bed early enough to fit both of them into one day. I didn’t want to leave ridiculously early, because the goal was to hit Pompeii as late as possible, around 4pm, to avoid the midday sun. I was hoping for a cooler day, but today is the hottest day of the year so far, hurray. It is about 36 degrees Celsius, I can’t tell you what that is in Fahrenheit. I’m so European now, I can’t even translate.

I buy my ticket at the electronic machine, because the lines are endless. After pushing 87 buttons, I learn there are three types: Flexi, Standard, and something else. Even though the machine is in English, the descriptions of each type are only in Italian. An Indian guy is yelling at me to finish, so I go for the first one, Flexi. Wrong! My one-way ticket to Naples is 45 euros, which I won’t even convert because it makes me want to cry.

The trip is uneventful, except that the seats are modern and very uncomfortable. I think they’re trying to get you buy first class. I arrive in Naples without a guidebook or a map. It’s so warm, I wanted to avoid carrying my bag, which yields a strip of shirt sweat on hot days. And my guidebook is just useless for Naples anyway but the result is I arrive with not much clue how to get to the museum. But hey, this is the biggest attraction in town, how hard could it be? I know, famous last words.

The train station opens onto Piazza Garibaldi. If I was Garibaldi, I would be offended to have this square named after me. To call it third world is an insult to the many fine cities in developing countries, like Cairo or Cape Town, who wouldn’t think of leaving a square this filthy. Garbage is strewn everywhere, junk piles up in the street, concrete building remains are left completely ignored and uncollected. People are selling flea-market junk everywhere, their owners yelling at passersby.

I see an actual game of three-card monte, with actual victims. Did you ever think you would see that in your entire life? Me either.

The streets are an insane asylum. In Rome, people drive fast, certainly. Crosswalks require a certain degree of fortitude in the beginning, but drivers treat them as nearly sacred, and people are expected to respect the lights at major intersections. Here people walk into the road at any point, in any direction, at any time. Drivers retaliate by accelerating until the last possible moment, resting their front bumper on your leg.

Of course, I can’t find the street I need, Via San Blahblahblah a Carbonara. I walk the entire square, I have seen the map in the train station, and I cannot find it. I am either too stupid or too sane, so I head back to the station and grab the Metro. I have (with some pride) avoided buses or subways in Rome, walking everywhere I go. But this is kind of overwhelming. In the station, unattended dogs run around the passengers, and I later realize the ticket guy ripped me off for two euros.

Naples, I don’t like you. You are not Rome at all, you are ugly and crowded and your drivers want to kill me. I have been ripped off, twice, and I hate that. But I’ll be damned if you’ll keep me from finding a fricking museum after paying 45 euros to get here. The guidebook said the museum is only a couple of stops (Museo) from the station, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. Except there is no Museo stop on my line. I guess the wrong station, have to wait 15 minutes to turn back, and failing to find a map, ask a few locals to find the museum.

The museum itself is pretty cool. Smaller than expected, due to the 87th year of renovations, but full of excavation finds you can’t see in other places. The best part was sneaking into the “Secret Room” just before it closed behind a tour group. This room has all of the naughty art they’ve found in excavations, like phallic pottery and dirty mosaics. One sculpture is a satyr making love to a goat, who gazes lovingly into his eyes. I am twisted enough that this is easily my favorite activity of the entire day, and I take a million pictures before I’m shooed out by the docent. (“No flash!”)

I leave the museum starved, realizing that it is 2:30 and all I have eaten is a bowl of chocolate-nut granola. (Yum, by the way.) There is a McDonald’s in the train station, but I refuse to eat there. So I stop at the only bar outside the metro stop, which has one meal-type item: a prosciutto-cheese quiche thing. It was good, I think the nice lady made it herself.

Now I have to figure out how to get to Pompeii. You might recall the excellent advice of my guidebook, “find a local train.” The help desk is closed, because it is 3pm on a Monday. I wait in the ticket line, soon realizing that this is an hour-long line. The ticket machine wants me to take two different trains, switching God knows where, and paying almost ten euros. Bah!

I look up for heavenly guidance and see a sign for “Circumvesuviana.” Hmm. Circum=Around, Vesuviana=Pompeii Go Boom. I follow signs past the last train line, through a dark corridor, trip over a dog, and around the back of the station. There it is: another whole set of train lines and ticket offices. Oh Italy, how wonderfully irritating you are. Roundtrip fare is less than five euros, my train leaves in two minutes.

The train stops at every crosswalk from here to Pompeii, has broken doors, graffiti-covered windows, and no air conditioning, but I get there, and the ruins are about four steps away from the station door. Pompeii is great because you get to see what a whole city looked like during the Roman era, from the central forum to the most basic house. All the good art has been taken to the museums, which is unfortunate, because art is far more meaningful in its original location. Rooms with 40 sculptures are overwhelming and deadening, but one of them inside an actual home would have far more impact. But I’m not exactly a curator. I think it would be cooler to have people own historically insignificant art rather than have them sit in museum basement, because the owners would love them, and because people who seem them would find them special.

But I digress. The result here is that you’re looking more at urban planning than art, although there are a few mosaics around and some plaster. Large portions are closed off by gates. It’s a huge area, by the way, and I recommend getting the audio guide, which I didn’t. I had almost no clue what I was looking at, and my usual tactic of glomming onto an English tour group didn’t work either. Pompeii was still great, but the guide would have been nice. I’d also have more pictures but I forgot to recharge my battery pack. Travel tip: Don’t do that.

I leave Pompeii three hours later, covered in dust and ready to go home. Back in the Naples train station, a group of dogs are fighting in the corner as I head for the ticket machine. A standard ticket in first class in 15 euros less than my stupid Flexi ticket, and hey, I deserve it. Next to the McDonald’s turns out to be a Neapolitan pizzeria. I inhale two large mushroom slices in the 10 minutes before my departure. Damn, even train-station pizza is good here.

Naples, can’t say I’ll be coming back anytime soon, but I will never take Rome for granted again.


At 9:23 PM, OpenID jessica-dwg said...

I couldn't agree more re: Naples. It's a hideously ugly town, and the only place in Italy where the service industry ever attempted to rip me off (and INCREDIBLY blatantly). It does make the trip back to Rome even sweeter, though.

At 9:39 PM, Blogger naginata said...

I am loving reading all these! You make going to Italy sound like torture, but funny torture! With ruins! :)
Did you get a picture of the 3-card monte? I would love to see that!

At 8:54 PM, Blogger Mike said...

glad you are enjoying it!

At 8:21 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

"Enough Glaucus...the wine will not drown your sorrows"




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