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Published: Jun 4, 2013 10:23:34 AM

Sara and Chris' Tour of Italy

Pompeii


We arrived in Naples quite late on Monday evening. As we travelled from Naples to Sorrento, we could see in the distance the outline of something rather magnificent – it could only be Vesuvius! When we reached Sorrento, after checking-in to the hotel, we walked to the main square where we refreshed ourselves with some ice-cream and prepared ourselves for the itinerary to come…

On our first day, we decided to go to Pompeii. We walked to the Circumvesuviana train station and took the rustic-esque, severely lacking-air-conditioning and enough seats train to ‘Pompeii Scavi’, where many restaurants, stalls and men offering freshly squeezed orange juice and bottled water lined the path up to the site. We ate a quick meal consisting of spaghetti and a panino and then we embarked upon our adventure through the excavations of Pompeii.

As we walked up a very steep hill, we passed the remains of many shops and bars. We were taken aback by the sight of the Forum, especially as Vesuvius, now much clearer to us than the previous night, dominated the landscape behind – there was nothing Wikipedia could do to prepare us for such a fantastic site!  We continued to meander through the cobbled paths, exploring houses, brothels and baths. We were rather impressed with the sheer number of bath options, from which the Pompeiians had to choose – we didn’t manage to visit all, however, we were very impressed with the detail and preservation – particularly the mosaics in the ones we did see!
We both underestimated how large Pompeii was as a town, as it took us many hours to fully explore the city, stopping every now and again for a video diary entry. We walked through the wooded area on the outskirts of the excavations where we found a training ground and the Pompeiian amphitheatre. Memories flooded back of the cartoon in the CSCP textbook relating to the incident between the Pompeiians and the Nucererians – how that textbook came alive! Although there were lots of tourists at Pompeii, popular and quite noisy areas such as the Forum and the baths were balanced very quaintly with the suburban areas of the town, whereby one could truly appreciate the excavations in its entirety!

We headed back through the town and took the Circumvesuviana train back to Sorrento. In the evening we ate in a little restaurant off the square called ‘La Basilica’ and with a bowl of free cherries, we reflected upon what we’d seen at Pompeii.

MOUNT VESUVIUS & HERCULANEUM


After a long and tiring day in Pompeii, we were tempted to alter our intended plan for Wednesday and cut out our planned climb of Mount Vesuvius. However, everywhere we looked the volcano dominated the landscape and we couldn’t face her taunting and ridiculing us for the remainder of the week; we also had a certain determination to complete our itinerary as originally intended. Consequently, at ten o’clock on Wednesday morning, we found ourselves once again on the CircumVesuviana train, this time heading towards ‘Ercolano’. Upon arriving there, we took a bus up to Vesuvius base camp, one of the most traumatic journeys of our lives: Italian drivers, it seems, dice with death hourly.  The sun was beating down heavily once again and already it was apparent, particularly to Sara, that this wasn’t going to be a light stroll: Vesuvius appeared far steeper from the base camp than she did in Sorrento, and a year at university in London hadn’t done much to improve our personal fitness! However, with regular water and photo stops, we soon found ourselves at the summit of the volcano, gazing into its deep, rocky crater-core. The views from the top over Naples and the Amalfi Coast were stunning and we both felt a strong sense of achievement. After recording one of our infamous video entries, we headed back down to the base camp area and caught a bus to ‘Ercolano Scavi’ (Herculaneum Excavations). Before entering, we bought a quick pizza from a local café and both congratulated each other on climbing our first volcano: for a few hours we considered ourselves on a par with Sir Edmund Hillary. However, after lunch, it was back to work and we entered the excavations, not knowing quite what to expect: it was clear that they couldn’t be as large as those at Pompeii (they were in the middle of an urbanised area) but were equally as famous, and so we didn’t want to write them off straight away. It was a good thing we didn’t, for if Pompeii was impressive for its sheer scale and size, Herculaneum was equally so for its remarkable preservation.  The detail in the roads, houses and public buildings was, in many places, immaculate. It was easy to imagine an ancient civilisation dwelling there, and it occurred to us that perhaps we had underestimated quite how advanced the Romans really were – much of the infrastructure was not dissimilar to that of the twenty-first century.  After about half an hour of wandering through the old town, one of the most curious and unexpected events of our entire Italy trip occurred: we bumped into Alan, the man next to whom we’d sat on the plane! “Well, if it isn’t Chris and Sophie!” he cried, quickly to be corrected by Sara. He told us that we must meet him again upon returning to Britain and promised us lunch at the Turkish restaurant on Piccadilly. We accepted and left him, bemused but nevertheless delighted.  Shortly after this incident we departed Herculaneum and caught the train back to Sorrento, tired but very pleased at our progress. We ate out that evening at a pretty little restaurant just off the main square, Sara opting for the sea bass (no surprise there) and Chris for a local pork dish; it was a wonderful end to a wonderful day. We strolled back to the hotel and were asleep within minutes of arriving back!

ROME


After the excursions of the day before, the last thing we wanted to do the next morning was rise at 5.30am and catch a train. However, our tenacity to complete the itinerary had become quasi-obsessive by this point and there was no way that tiredness or, in Sara’s case, a worsening illness would stop us. We’d realised earlier on in the week from the faces of locals, which had been at best pitying and at worst scornful, that attempting to do a daytrip to Rome from a basecamp in Sorrento was ambitious, to say the least. Nevertheless, rise with the sun we did and by 6am, we were well on the way to Naples. Despite the hour, we were both very content since, for the first time since our arrival in Italy, the CircumVesuviana train resembled a rudimentary form of public transport, rather than a moving sauna-cum-zoo: we each had our own seat, were relatively cool and were not interrupted by travelling musicians; the journey was a delight. We alighted at Naples and transferred onto the main high-speed ‘TrenItalia’ train, which was to take us to Rome. Sod’s law meant that our reserved seats were right at the far end of the ten-carriage train, but once we got there we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we’d been seated in an old-fashioned compartment, rarely seen on British trains anymore… it felt like we were in some sort of Agatha Christie novel. When we pulled into Rome a couple of hours later, it felt to us like mid-afternoon, when in fact it was only 10am!

Chris’s first move once getting off the train was to buy a map of city-centre Rome, complete with a guide to the city’s most famous attractions. However, the first stop had never been in doubt: university classicist or common tourist, a visit to Rome is incomplete without visiting the Colosseum. And so head there we did, using, to Sara’s distress, Chris’s ‘backstreet route’, which he claimed represented “a more authentic Roman experience”. The map proved faithful however, and twenty minutes later we turned a corner, only to let out an astonished gasp as we surveyed the magnitude of the ancient amphitheatre. The place was swarming with tourists and, at first, we were doubtful as to whether we’d actually get into the building before midday. However, the queue moved quickly and we were soon gazing in awe into the centre of the arena. The Colosseum, as the name suggests, is quite enormous and it wasn’t hard for us to imagine it playing host to tens of thousands of bloodthirsty Romans two millennia ago. We climbed up to the higher levels and recorded a couple of video entries: one using the interior as a backdrop and another on the outer wall with Constantine’s Arch and the Roman Forum behind us. The itinerary demanded that we didn’t dawdle in any one place for too long and so we left the Colosseum and walked over to the foot of the Palatine Hill, taking a slight (unintentional) detour past Titus’s Arch along the way. Fortunately, our Colosseum ticked granted us access into the Forum, saving us from the despairs of another Italian queuing experience (Italian queues are not quite like British ones: rather than assuming the standard linear formation, they instead resemble a cross between a rugby scrum and a music festival and are a rather stressful experience for the average Briton). Anyway, we got into the Forum easily enough and were soon walking down roads and paths which had formerly been home to the sights, sounds and smells of the ancient world’s greatest city. All around us were the remnants of huge public buildings: temples, baths, markets, as well as smaller, private residences. We were blown away; it was clear from the size of the site that one could happily spend several days there and we left for lunch resolving to return in future years and dedicate much more time to the site.  

Sara had her heart set on a specific location for lunch: Piazza Navona, one of modern Rome’s biggest and most famous public squares (built on the former site of the Stadium of Domitian).  It was nearly a half-hour walk away from the Forum but was undoubtedly worth the effort. The journey took us past the staggering ‘Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II’, an enormous building on the Piazza Venezia made entirely from white marble, and the Piazza Navona is a delightful place in itself, dominated by a very ornate fountain at its centre, and home to many talented street entertainers. If this wasn’t enough, the food at our restaurant was amongst the best we’d ever eaten, perhaps due to our extreme hunger at this point! So content were we at the restaurant that, in a scene worthy of a Hemingway novel, we sat in a post-meal contemplative bliss, disregarding the hallowed itinerary for a time. However, a quick glance at the watch broke this lovely moment: time was moving fast and there was still so much to see!  

Our next stop was Sara’s favourite place from her previous visit to Rome, a building she was keen for Chris to see in the flesh: the magnificent ‘Castel Sant’Angelo’. Needless to say, Chris was not disappointed. The dimensions of the edifice are staggering: when one considers that the building is effectively, as Sara put it, “a giant shrine to one man”, it’s hard not to feel impressed and even insignificant. From the bridge on which we were standing, we could clearly see the beautiful Vatican City, with its centrepiece, St. Peter’s Basilica. Sadly, this was as much as we were able to see of the Vatican: huge queues meant that we’d have to leave the famous Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums for another trip. Also visible was the ‘Palazzo di Giustizia’ (Hall of Justice), another beautiful building of monumental proportions, modern Italy’s highest national court.  

Soon after this we left the banks of the Tiber and headed back into the spaghetti-bowl of narrow streets and alleys, which are so characteristic of Italian cities. After walking for about ten minutes, we reached our next destination: the Pantheon. This is one of the ancient world’s finest buildings and is still in remarkable condition. The temple is circular with a vast dome-roof which, incredibly, is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The portico entrance consists of three rows of huge Corinthian columns, which are each several metres high and extremely thick. There is an eerie silence within the temple which is made all the more noticeable upon leaving the bustling Piazza della Rotonda outside. After recording a video next to the obelisk in the square, we decided to leave (time, once again, was pressing on) and Chris led the way to the penultimate stop on the manic tour of the capital.

Chris remembered Sara once saying that she regarded the Trevi Fountain as “an overrated tourist trap” and so didn’t tell her where he was leading her after leaving the Pantheon. Upon arriving at the fountain, it turned out that this description was perhaps a little harsh and Sara duly ate her words. The vast baroque structure dwarfs the tiny square it sits in and the white marble from which it is made glistens spectacularly in the sunlight and is reflected vividly in the fast-flowing water. It’s true that there are swathes of tourists throwing coins into the fountain (it’s a popular story that throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain guarantees the visitor another visit to Rome) but the hustle and bustle of the place was in fact quite stimulating. We ate an ice cream together and recorded (yet another!) video before heading off to the final stop on the daytrip: the Spanish Steps.

We’d seen pictures of the Spanish Steps all over Rome: they are a popular postcard frontal and one of the city’s most famous landmarks. The 138 steps are Europe’s widest staircase, beginning at the Piazza di Spagna and finishing at the beautiful Trinità dei Monti church. Although we were both flagging by this point, we resolved to climb to the top of the staircase and this we did. The view from the top was spectacular and we were able to look down over much of the city we’d just explored. It was a lovely end to a ridiculously jam-packed day. As we walked back to the train station, Chris realised that his tourist map had a reverse side, which suggested ten ‘must-see’ sites for a week’s stay in Rome… it turned out that we’d seen eight of them in one day! This added further to our sense of achievement. Half an hour later, we reached Roma Termini Station, grabbed some dinner and were soon on the way back to Naples.

One final story to conclude with: upon arriving in Naples, it transpired that the rail workers on the CirucumVesuviana (the train from Naples to Sorrento) had gone on strike. This left us abandoned in the centre of a notoriously dangerous area of Naples, not quite knowing what to do. We eventually decided that a taxi was the only option and so hailed a cab. Unbelievably, the guy who picked us up was the same taxi driver who’d taken us from the airport to Sorrento a few days earlier, Savio. It was an amazing coincidence, especially after the whole ‘Alan’ episode the previous day! When we finally got back to the hotel, we were exhausted (we’d been awake over twenty hours) but thrilled at what we’d managed to fit in. It was a day neither of us would forget in a hurry!
Capri
After a tiring but no less fantastic day touring the sites at Rome, we decided to head to Capri. Our hotel was offering a day-trip to Capri on a little yacht with other members of the hotel and so we decided to hop on board. We were joined by an American family from Spokan Country, Idaho, (however Chris thought they were from Seattle and subsequently spent the majority of the boat ride asking them about a city they knew very little about…), as well as an Italian family whose youngest son Marco provided us with lots of entertainment to say the least!
In order to get to the port we had to drive down a road that when I say it resembled a piece of Spaghetti – it is no exaggeration! The port was picturesque, with lots of little yachts bobbing on the water. It took about an hour to reach Capri, even though it seemed so near, especially from the top of Vesuvius. Surrounding us was beautiful landscape, the island of Ischia and, of course, Vesuvius! When we reached Capri, we sailed around the island, docking next to the grottos for some sunbathing and swimming. It was just the kind of relaxation we needed after our ambitious itinerary in Rome..! The colours of the caves, the sea and the houses were exquisite – no wonder Emperor Augustus chose to have his holiday home there!

We enjoyed the sun a little too much and were suffering from quite a bit of sun burn so when we docked in the port, for the short time we had to see the island, we sat in a family-run restaurant, talking to the waiter and then walked through the streets near the port admiring the beauty of Capri.

In the evening we ate in a restaurant called Vela Bianca, which was one of the most delicious meals we had ever eaten – and the waiters were utterly charming! The main Sorrento square was at the top of the cliff whereas the restaurant was at the bottom in the port, and although the walk down was very pleasant, the walk back up was not as enticing. We ended up getting a lift with the fish back up to the main square!

Sorrento


After four days of exhausting excursions, we decided to ‘take it easy’ on the Saturday and remain in our base camp, Sorrento. The town, for many tourists, is a week’s holiday in itself and we thought it strange not to explore the place a little and see some modern Italian culture. We lay in until mid-morning and had a light continental breakfast at the hotel. After this, we went for a stroll through the main square and onto the charming back streets, which are packed with restaurants, cafés and boutique shops. It was delightful and Sara even decided to treat herself to a new bag! We ate lunch at a hotel which overlooked the vivid-blue sea and we both agreed it was one of our favourite meals of the trip. The view was spectacular: we could see for miles and miles; on our left, the island of Capri, which we’d visited the day before, and to the right was Napoli, dominated by Mount Vesuvius. In the afternoon, we walked to the older side of Sorrento and recorded a video outside the old town walls, before returning to our hotel to plan our Paestum trip and freshen up before. That evening we ate in one of the restaurants we saw earlier in the day down a cobbled side street. It was very quaint and charming and we enjoyed a lovely meal before heading back to the hotel, determined to sleep enough to enjoy our final full day in Italy.

Paestum


On our final day, we decided to go to Paestum. This was a place that we both knew the least about so we were intrigued to know more about it… The concierge at our hotel assured us, that although several different trains were involved in getting there, the changes were very simple. We needed to take the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii and change onto the TrenItalia to Paestum. Simple. Having taken the Circumvesuviana every day apart from the day we went to Capri, we thought we had worked out the Italian transportation system. On the way to ‘Pompeii’ did it only occur to us that there were two Pompeii train stations – ‘Pompeii Scavi’ and the station at the new town of Pompeii - and with a three minute interchange onto a train that was calling at a station we didn’t previously know existed let alone how to get there, a reduced train service operating on a Sunday and it being our last day in Italy, we were rather anxious as to whether we would make it to Paestum.
When we arrived at Pompeii Scavi train station, our Italian phrase books and dictionaries were at their optimum usage as we ended up having to take a bus to Pompeii train station, finding out that the next train was not for at least another three hours and had to make use of our time spent in new Pompeii. We walked up the ‘Via Sacra’ to the main square, passing the shops and stalls and we found a little Italian restaurant called ‘Il Principi’ where we decided to have a late morning snack as our early morning start didn’t leave much time for breakfast! The restaurant was set just on the edge of the square and we were very impressed with how pretty many parts of new Pompeii was and how it resembled (on a much larger scale!) the excavations a few miles away.

When we returned to Pompeii train station, we took the train to Paestum, with the landscape becoming increasingly more rural along the way. When we arrived at Paestum train station, we were surrounded by beautiful Italian countryside. With some of the most confusing signs we had ever seen supposedly guiding us to the excavations, we decided to take the main road, which looked as if it had the most amount of human activity and walked along the country path for about 10-15 minutes. All of a sudden, from almost out of nowhere, we saw the most exquisite site of the temples at Paestum.  We decided to get a quick pizza at a restaurant called ‘Bar Delle Rose’ before we explored the site. When we entered the excavations, we were drawn to the temples – unbelievably well preserved and unlike anything we had seen the whole trip! We explored this area first, with multiple video diary entries, walking around the temples which in itself took quite a while and then we moved further on to the rest of the site which contained the remains of houses, a gymnasium training ground and a theatre. Although the rest of the site was the least well-preserved of all the excavations we had seen throughout the trip, this was starkly contrasted by the quality in preservation of the temples. We didn’t have much time to spend at Paestum because we had to make sure we were back at the station in time for the train –“reduced service on a Sunday”’ playing on our minds – and having been stranded in Naples on our journey home from Rome, we knew that trying to find a taxi in the middle of nowhere would have been more of a challenge than Naples train station – and we knew that bumping into Salvio again (or Alan) was highly unlikely.

We took the train back to Pompeii and then what seemed, again, as a simple interchange onto one of the Circumvesuviana trains, our journey back was not as simple as planned. Whilst we waited on a platform for a train that was supposed to arrive in about 10 minutes after getting off the TrenItalia from Paestum, we ended up chatting to a blind, former ‘technical farmer’ called Momo for some time. After casually inquiring to our new Italian friend when the next train to Sorrento would arrive, he looked at us as if we were mad and tried to direct us to the ‘Villa dei Misteri’. We were slightly cautious about his directions, partly because he said it was only ‘down the road’ and from our experience that morning, we did not recall it being that straightforward and partly because we were a bit cautious about taking a train back from “The House of Mystery”... So we had to say ‘Bye Bye’ to Momo as we endeavoured to find our way back to Pompeii Scavi. What seems as such a simple route back from Pompeii train station to Pompeii Scavi – especially with Google Maps now highlighting the under 10-minute walking route, was not the experience we endured. If we were to have accompanying theme music, no tune would be more appropriate than Benny Hill as we tried to navigate ourselves back to the station – no bus, no map, and for the majority of the journey, very few people in sight. Having scoured every inch of the city, passing through new Pompeii, walking very near a highway for some time, walking passed the back of the excavations at Pompeii and then passed the stalls and the men selling freshly squeezed oranges and bottles of water, finally we reached Pompeii Scavi train station and travelled back to Sorrento.
As we strolled through the streets of Sorrento the day before, we experienced the most wonderful smell of Italian cooking from a restaurant set in one of the back streets of the town. We wanted to go there for dinner, so we had to stroll back through the cobbled streets to the restaurant and enjoyed a lovely last meal on what turned out to be a very enjoyable last day.

We reflected upon everything we had done, seen and travelled to throughout the trip and couldn’t quite believe how ambitious our itinerary was but that we managed to complete it all and more! We are both so grateful to the Stephen Instone Memorial Fund and the UCL Department of Greek and Latin for awarding us the travel prize. It was the trip of a lifetime and one that will remain in our hearts always.


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