topics: granita (food), Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: May 13, 1998

Food of the Day: granita

Granita is a drink made of crushed ice mixed with sugar and lemons or mint flavoring. Sort of like the original (and more natural) slushie, a granita is a delicious way to cool down on a hot day.

Person of the Day: our hosts in Napoli - Rossana Casalegno, Gino Aja, and Clara Barbara Manacorda

We cannot simply state that Rossana Casalegno and Gino Aja hosted BikeAbout during our stay in Napoli. They did so much more for us that we should probably call them BikeAbout partners or sponsors instead.

Rossana (shown here with her daughter Daniela click to view a photograph), a school counselor and psychiatrist, practically overwhelmed us with kindness, generosity, and hospitality. Since she preferred to speak French (though her English is very good), she gave Anthony and Ethan a welcome opportunity to work on their French, and Padraic and Corinne an opportunity to pick up more of the language. She helped set up our school visit in Napoli, arranged for us to meet her lovely and charming daughter Daniela, and insisted on laundering our dirty clothes. But perhaps her biggest act of kindness was her genuine interest in the BikeAbout project, which always makes us feel most welcome.

Gino (shown here with Ethan click to view a photograph) is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Napoli. But that's just his day job. He is also the president of a national environmental lobby, chief poobah of a local cycling club called Cicloverde, and, as such is the local representative of Federazione Italiana Amici della Bicicletta. Of course, we knew him only as an incredibly generous and hospitable host, an interesting and informative tour guide, a fount of knowledge about Napoli and the surrounding area, and an accomplished cyclist.

As if all this were not enough, Rossana and Gino also took the most direct route to our hearts - they fed us. Very well. We ate delicious (and huge) meals at their home, and, by their recommendations, sampled the best gelato, best coffee, and best pizza in Napoli. Not satisfied with being the perfect hosts in Napoli, Rossana and Gino also managed to arrange our accommodation in Roma and gave us further contacts in Pisa and Genoa.

We cannot end this tribute without mentioning that besides all their other qualities, both ours hosts possess the patience of saints (some of the early, patient saints), putting up with our incessant tardiness, and forgiving us our late night transgressions. Thank you again Rossana and Gino. We will not soon forget you or your beautiful city.

There was another host in Napoli who will also not soon be forgotten. While Rossana and Gino had more than enough room for three extra people in their home, four was a little too much. And so they called upon a generous friend who gladly offered to house the fourth. Clara Barbara Manacorda click to view a photograph was Corinne's hostess during our time in Napoli. A friend and nearby neighbor of Rossana and Gino, the extra bed in her spare room and the hot coffee and milk with biscuits in the mornings at her lovely rooftop apartment were much appreciated. A teacher of Italian language at the high school level, Barbara is also an author currently working on a "top secret" novel of short stories that can help a person discover Napoli. (That's all we can tell you at this time.) Corinne was lucky enough to get the inside scoop on the book, and is excited enough that she will brush up on the Italian language enough to read it when published this Christmas. (At that time, we'll also be able to "release" the title and subject matter of the stories - which is really, really cool.) Many thanks to Barbara and her son Sergio, for their hospitality and kind good will.

Place of the Day: Ancient Pompeii

In the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire controlled all of southern Europe, most of northern and central Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. This domination practically made the Mediterranean a Roman lake. Then, as now, the privileged classes kept vacation homes at particularly nice places on this large lake. The area known as Campania on the Bay of Napoli was a popular location for seaside villas. As a result, Roman resort towns soon developed, including the prosperous seaside town of Pompeii, which grew to a total population of over 20,000 people.

Unfortunately, at the height of the hot and humid tourist season, on August 24, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius, the large volcano just a few km from Pompeii (see the Tech Fact of the Day), erupted with great force, spewing toxic sulfuric gas, rock, mud, and ash everywhere. The eruption was so powerful that it altered the course of the Sarno River and pushed the coast back four km! When the air finally cleared, three days later, the city of Pompeii lay buried under 8 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) of pumice (volcanic rock) and then 6 or 7 feet more of ash. Only the roofs of the taller buildings were still visible. Most of the residents had managed to escape the city, but some 2000 perished with the town.

Apparently, many of the survivors tunneled back in to rescue some of their belongings. Otherwise Pompeii remained buried and largely forgotten for centuries. At least... until a local farmer discovered some of the ruins in his field in the 18th century and some excavations began. Serious excavation efforts started only in the 19th century; the digging continues to this day, with a good portion of the site still buried.

Today Pompeii is far from forgotten. It is now one of the premier tourist attractions in the entire world. Last year over two million people visited the site - almost 22,000 people per day! That's more people than actually lived in Pompeii at its height. Given the crowds we encountered, particularly swarming groups of schoolchildren from all over Europe and the United States, we felt certain that during our visit the site had surpassed its daily average. We also resolved that any future presentations to schools be made to groups of less than 10,000.

Undaunted by the crowds, we pushed our way through the front gate and onto the grounds.

Our first stop was the amphitheater click to view a photograph where up to 12,000 spectators could watch gladiator contests. Today, however, we were pleased to watch children play king of the podium.

Next on our tour was the Via dell'Abbondanza, once one of Pompeii's main shopping streets and today the main thoroughfare of the new part of the excavations where crowds regularly cause traffic jams that the ancient Pompeiians could scarcely have conceived. click to view a photograph We picked our way down this road, taking a few detours down quieter side streets to escape momentarily the crush click to view a photograph and to peer down some quieter alleys. Some of the nicer villas in this area are three or more stories high click to view a photograph and boast well preserved interior courtyards, complete with tiled fountains and basins. click to view a photograph We also saw a plethora of former businesses, some with the remains of their stock still piled in back rooms. click to view a photograph

Perhaps the highlight of the dell'Abbondanza was the Terme Stabiane, or the Stabian Spa, a remarkably well preserved bath-house with a beautiful garden click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, and some nicely tiled rooms.

At the end of the Via dell'Abbondanza, we entered a huge open space - the Forum click to view a photograph - where many of the important public buildings, including the market, various temples, and the Basilica (like an ancient government building), had been situated. Unfortunately, these buildings seem to have been the most damaged by the eruption. Only a few lonely columns remained of the once impressive temples. Here Anthony gives an interview just in front of one such temple. click to view a photograph Still, we enjoyed the market's very nice marble façade (on its main gate) click to view a photograph and some frescoes depicting scenes from the market. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

And the Forum remained in our minds, if only because of the beautiful yet sinister sight of Mount Vesuvius behind it, making it a good spot for a group photo. click to view a photograph

Our time running short, we turned around at the Forum and began heading back to the exit, taking care to find an alternative, quieter, route around the crowds. click to view a photograph This worked for a few blocks, but since much of Pompeii has been roped off, both for further excavation and to protect certain areas from the harsh treatment of its many visitors, we were eventually forced back onto Via dell' Abbondanza to face yet more crowds. click to view a photograph

Sure that another huge wave of tourists would soon appear, we made our way out of ancient Pompeii as quickly as possible, stopping only to envy the tranquility of the scene within the Gymnasium (where the Romans went to work out). click to view a photograph

It's hard to pick out one thing about Pompeii that most impressed us. Certainly we were fascinated by the molds of the victims (the volcanic ash preserved the outlines of their bodies, which archaeologists later filled with plaster) of the eruption, caught forever in their anguished poses at the moment of death. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph We also saw beautiful floor mosaics click to view a photograph, some impressive frescoes click to view a photograph, and a whole storehouse of artifacts like these amphoras and statues. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Really though, the most impressive thing about Pompeii is its completeness. Other sites we have visited - such as Ephesus - boasted bigger and better-preserved (or reconstructed) buildings. But the ruins of ancient Pompeii comprise a complete town, a place where structures depicting all facets of life are preserved: public structures like the amphitheater, forum and bath houses; private buildings, such as the homes of rich and poor; businesses, including bakeries, potter's workshops, tanneries, dyehouses, hotels, wineshops. Everything is something to see - from the graffiti and advertisements adorning the walls of buildings down to the crossing path in the street, complete with stones rutted by chariot traffic. click to view a photograph

For this reason, the site, which is only a few square km, seemed immense. And, because of its completeness, Pompeii, more than any other site we have seen, gives us more insight into the lives of the ancient Romans. To see where people shopped, how they spent their free time, and what the insides of their homes looked like all helped us better understand what life in a Roman town must have been like. It made us ponder what in our own society (or the societies we have seen) gives the best insight into contemporary life. Churches, gas stations, malls, private homes? What would future archaeologists think of a perfectly preserved city from the 1990s? (Note, we are not sure how to answer this, but we would hope that archaeologists don't dig up only Rimini in 1500 years; they would think Italian society was based around hotels, discos and pizzerias, when everyone knows it's just based on pizzerias.)

Tech Fact of the Day: Mount Vesuvius

Towering (some would say looming) over the southern part of the Bay of Napoli, 11 km (7 miles) from Napoli is the 1277 m (4190 ft) Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano on the European mainland. (To find out about Italy's largest active volcano, check out our reports on Mount Etna, and Mount Etna National Park written when we visited Sicily last November.)

Although most famous for its eruption on August 24, 79 AD, which buried the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae, Vesuvius has been violently active both before and since. Indeed, its name is derived from a word that means "smoke" in the language of the Oscans, the people who inhabited the area before the Romans came along. Other than the devastating eruption in 79 AD, we also know of powerful explosions in 1631, 1794, and 1906 killed thousands in the surrounding area. The last serious outbreak of volcanic activity occurred in 1944 when a violent surge added nearly 150 m (500 ft) to the height of the mountain.

To study the volcano, and, they hope, to receive some warning of future eruption, scientists have constructed an observatory at the crater. They measure, among other things, the temperature at the mouth of the volcano; these temperatures often read far above 1000° F (540° C)!

Group Dispatch, May 13
photograph of Padraic

We set off from Sorrento in mid-morning so that we would arrive in Pompeii with plenty of time to visit the archaeological site before pushing on to Napoli. The coast road remained narrow, curvy and beautiful for the first 15 km (9 mi) before we descended to the coast one last time and made our way slightly inland to Pompeii, riding alongside a series of industrialized port complexes. Arriving in Pompeii in time for lunch, we bought the ingredients for a picnic and enjoyed it on the main square of the modern town of Pompeii. Then it was off to ancient Pompeii.

For the details of what we saw, see the Place of the Day.

After visiting the ruins, we reclaimed our trusty Wheelers from the concessionaire just outside the front gate who graciously offered to watch them for us (for only 10,000 lire). After scraping together our last lire to purchase a round of lemon granitas (see the Food of the Day) to help us recover from three hours of walking in the heat of the day, we reluctantly steered our bikes towards Napoli. Reluctant because we recalled that the road out of Napoli was paved with bone-jarring paving stones. Our joints ached just remembering the beating they had taken.

Fortunately, the road into Napoli - even those sections with paving stones - turned out to be much smoother than the road out. Basically, despite a few scary moments in the chaotic traffic, our ride from Pompeii to Piazza Plebiscito in central Napoli, was uneventful. From the Piazza we phoned our hosts, Gino and Rossana (see the Persons of the Day. Half an hour later, Gino arrived by bike to pick us up.

Before Gino arrived, Corinne also phoned a Napoli contact that is part of AEGEE to ask if any of them could be of help enabling us to get online for that night's chat 'n' debate. Fortunately, one of them, Mr. Andrea Di Napoli, came to our aid. He informed us of a good Internet café and agreed to meet us there. So, while Anthony and Padraic stayed and socialized with Rossana and Gino, Ethan and Corinne took quick showers and dashed off to the chat.

After Anthony and Padraic had shown the BikeAbout Web site to Rossana and Gino, the latter leapt into action, arranging a meeting with one of their friends who just happened to be a teacher and whose students were working on multimedia and Internet projects. That meeting arranged, and dinner preparations well in hand, Gino led Anthony and Padraic outside and around the corner to the foot of the old Spanish fortress, the Castel Sant'Elmo. There, just as the last light was leaving the sky, they took in a beautiful panorama of the eastern half of the city, all the way to Mount Vesuvius.

Soon after they returned, so too did Ethan and Corinne, and everyone enjoyed the sumptuous dinner prepared by our hosts (whoops, sponsors). Then it was straight off to bed, Ethan, Anthony and Padraic at Rossana and Gino's apartment and Corinne at a neighbor's house. We already had big plans for the following day and wanted to be well rested.

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