If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the unique area east of Naples in the Campania region of southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii are in essence giant, sometimes open-air museums that display in utmost detail what life was like in the Roman Empire. You should also see Mount Vesuvius. In a bizarre sense this mountain gave birth to these unique tourist attractions when it erupted in the year 79 and thus preserved its surroundings for eternity. Make sure to see our companion articles on the other areas of Campania including Naples, the territory west of Naples known as Campi Flegrei (Fields of Fire), the Isle of Capri, and Sorrento and the Amalfi coast.
We’ll start our tour in Caserta about sixteen miles (twenty five kilometers) northeast of Naples, the only section of this tour that has nothing to do with volcanoes. Then it’s southwest to Herculaneum about six miles (ten kilometers) southeast of Naples. Afterwards we go northeast to Mount Vesuvius, which permanently transformed this region almost two thousand years ago. We’ll double back to the Bay of Naples and go southeast past the archeological site of Oplontis and proceed to our final destination, Pompeii. Many of these sites are accessible from Naples via public transportation. In fact given the crowds and the drivers in this part of the world, you are better off taking public transportation especially in the summer.
While Caserta is home to an Eighteenth Century Cathedral and a Fourteenth Century Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace), the main reason that you’ll want to visit this city of eighty thousand is to admire its much newer Reggia di Caserta (Palace of Caserta). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Bourbon Kings of Naples and Sicily’s answer to Versailles. Weighing in at twelve hundred rooms, one can say it’s at least in the same league. It may well be the largest Eighteenth Century building in all Europe. Because the Kingdom was fairly weak when this colossal structure was built, the British historian Edward Crankshaw referred to it as "a colossal monument to minuscule glory."
The Palace of Caserta served as headquarters for the Allied High Command during World War II. Make sure to see its staircase, said to outdo the one at Versailles, the royal apartments, and the extensive grounds peppered with fountains. The grounds are about three miles (five kilometers) long, and you can take a minibus from the palace to the end of the property. You may recognize the palace from the initial three episodes of Star Wars movies.
On August 24, 79 A. D. Mount Vesuvius destroyed the downwind city of Pompeii and about twelve hours later destroyed the upwind city of Herculaneum as well. When we say destroyed we mean destroyed. The murderous debris traveled at an estimated 60 miles an hour (95 kilometers an hour). In a matter of hours Herculaneum was buried in 65 feet (20 meters) of ash and slag. The intense heat killed people almost instantaneously but did little damage to the buildings.
The Herculaneum ruins were not uncovered until the Eighteenth Century by workers who were digging a foundation for a well. Much of the ancient city remains to be unearthed, largely because the modern city of Ercolano lies on top of it.
Julius Caesar’s father-in-law had a Herculaneum villa that may have served as a library; it contained upwards of 1800 papyrus scrolls. Maybe he just liked to read. By the way, the center of this upscale city was closed to cart and wagon traffic and most sidewalks were covered with awnings. The public bathhouse played a central role in people’s lives.
Visiting Mount Vesuvius is not for the faint of heart. You may choose to stay away in solidarity with its thousands of victims. Accessing the top requires quite a climb. But from the summit the view is beautiful. You will probably find this mountaintop to be even more thought provoking than the usual run of the mill mountaintop.
Mount Vesuvius has erupted on many, many occasions over the centuries. Its last, or more precisely latest, eruption occurred in 1944 when it destroyed several neighboring villages and 88 American B-25 bombers. Of course the most destructive eruption was in 79 A. D. when it eradicated the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii with an estimated loss of life of 10 thousand to 25 thousand in Pompeii alone. This eruption released an estimated cubic mile (4 cubic kilometers) of ash and rock. Subsequent eruptions have spread ash as far as Istanbul more than 700 miles (1200 kilometers) away. When you consider that Naples, a city of more than a million in an urban area of more than three million is only 10 miles (16 kilometers) away there is reason to be worried. Their emergency evacuation plan covers about 600,000 people and assumes a warning period between 2 weeks and 20 days before the actual eruption. The Osservatorio Vesuvio (Vesuvius Observatory) in Naples is constantly monitoring this mountain.
Pompeii is a major tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, as in Herculaneum, a city was destroyed in a manner of hours, and yet its very destruction led to its preservation. Pompeii shows you in extraordinary detail the way people lived at the height of the Roman Empire.
There is reason to believe that Pompeii was subject to volcanic activity, landslides, and earthquakes centuries before its ultimate destruction. A severe earthquake, thought to measure about 7.5 on the Richter scale, struck the area on a feast day in February, 62. Virtually all buildings were damaged, and many were still not repaired when Mount Vesuvius erupted in full in August, 79.
Make sure that you get to Pompeii early to take full advantage of the day ticket. You may also want to buy the three-day ticket that allows you to visit five archeological sites: Herculaneum, Pompeii, Oplontis, Stabiae, and Boscoreale. I’ll let you in on what is hardly a secret: Pompeii was home to a lot of erotic art, some of which is on display in the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet) in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. In Pompeii as well many of the exhibitions are not suitable for children.
What about food? There is something about volcanic soil that makes food tasty and plentiful and gives wine a special zest. The focus here tends to be on vegetables and fruits. Can you believe purple asparagus? Tomatoes are served every which way, including pizza and spaghetti of course. Try to taste the mozzarella cheese, made from the milk of water buffalo.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Scarola Imbuttunata (Stuffed Curly Endive). Then try Polpi Affogati (Stewed Octopus). For dessert indulge yourself with Zeppoli (St. Joseph’s Day Filled Doughnuts). By the way, La Festa di San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph's Day) is March 19th. Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Campania wine. Campania ranks 9th among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. The region produces about 64% red and and close to 36% white wine, as there is little rosé. Campania produces 17 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Only 2.8% of Campania wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the red Taurasi, the white Greco di Tufo, and the white Fiano di Avellino. I have tasted the Fiano and found it to be top of the line.
The Vesuvio DOC, perhaps better known as Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ) is made in multiple styles from a variety of local grapes that grow on Mount Vesuvius. One of Pompeii’s major attractions is the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries) home to more than 60 rooms displaying frescoes, many of which illustrate a young bride’s initiation into the cult of Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine and debauchery. In 1996 the well-known Campania wine producer Mastroberdino was authorized to reintroduce some ancient grape varieties on a small plot within Pompeii’s walls. From these vineyards come the Villa dei Misteri made from the historic red Piedirosso and Sciascinoso grape varieties. Relatively none of this wine is exported to North America. So this wine gives you one more reason to visit Pompeii.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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