Capparela and his wife had taken two trips to Italy before, the most recent a cruise with land excursions along Italy’s west coast. He had especially enjoyed Rome and a brief tour of part of the ruins of Pompei, and because he was bumped from a flight, he received a voucher for a future flight. But he had to use it before the end of March of 2007. He decided to go back for a longer look at Pompeii, booked his flights across the Atlantic from JFK International, and I booked myself on the same flights so we could fly together. The plan was: a couple of days in Rome, then down to Naples, Pompeii and other ruins.
As I examined the area with Google Earth, on a lark I typed in “Frosolone” and watched the picture on my computer zoom out from Pompei and quickly back down to the town. I clicked on driving directions between the two, and seconds later a detailed route was laid out. The driving time was listed as a mere two and a half hours. For us, that wasn’t quite the case, but more about that later.
I emailed Rich about it, and he, being adventurous, was all for it. We would rent a car in Pompei and spend a night in Frosolone. Where, we didn’t know, but we saw that there were hotels and bed and breakfasts there.
If you know the first thing about the radio business, you know that there’s virtually no employment security. One week before the trip, Rich called me with the news that his commercial classical station was changing its format – to country music. There’s not much call for a classically trained country music deejay, so he was out. The trip was still on, but it didn’t seem like it would be the carefree trip we had imagined, with his future so up in the air. And off the air.
But if you know the second thing about the radio business, you know that it’s totally unpredictable. In three days, he had an offer from the LA public radio station he had left twenty years before – KUSC. Not only was the new job more rewarding in the long run, but it also would give him a breather of a few weeks at the end of the Italy trip before he had to be on the air. It put a new, improved carefree back where the old carefree had been, and so, a week later, we met at JFK’s international terminal a few hours before our flight to Rome, and our trip began.
A whirlwind two days in Rome – St. Peter’s, the Forum, the Pantheon, the requisite Trevi Fountain, the excavation revealing Julius Caesar’s assassination site, a ghoulish crypt of skulls and bones at a Capuchin Church on one of the city’s seven hills, great gelati and even greater meals, then off to Naples, to change trains to Pompei and continue our dip into 2,000-year-old Italian history.
If you follow in our footsteps, be sure to take advantage of the Campania Artecard – a 25-euro three-day pass good for train travel, two free first admissions and subsequent half-price admissions to virtually every site of interest throughout the region, including the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, where incredible bronzes, mosaics and X-rated artifacts are displayed. Artifacts have been removed ever since Pompeii was first excavated in the mid 1700's.
All of the sites – Oplontis, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Boscoreale, Stabia and others are reachable by the commuter rail and national train systems. Helpful maps are included with the Artecard, as well as information in six languages. We bought our discount packages right at a special kiosk at the Naples train station, from a beautiful young Italian woman who appeared to be well versed in every modern language.
The excavation at Oplontis was our first stop. Only uncovered in the mid 1960's, it’s pretty well established that this area, in the modern Italian city of Torre Annunziata, was a suburb of ancient Pompeii. The elegantly-decorated buildings and gardens that you can walk around and through make up the immense villa that was occupied by Poppea, the Emperor Nero’s second wife. We spent a couple of fascinating hours there, where we saw many more workers restoring the site than there were tourists.
We planned to spend the next entire day walking through the ruins of Pompeii, but awoke to find a steady rain, which was forecast to last all day. It helps to be flexible when you travel, so we decided to make the rainy day the day to ride the train into Naples and visit the Pompeii artifacts at the archaeological museum. A good decision, and an amazing few hours.
One of the biggest surprises was our coming upon the eerie skull mosaic that anyone who watched HBO’s recent series, “Rome,” would recognize. I had thought some art director made that visual up, but it’s genuine. It was found in Pompeii – a tabletop or floor in the dining room of an architect’s house. The artisan who created it, most likely Greek, depicted an unrealistic skull, with ears. Above it is a carpenter’s square and plumb-bob – some interpret this as representing death as the great leveler. Below the skull is a butterfly, which in Greek is psyche, the same word for soul. The butterfly/soul is on top of a wheel, which can be seen as the circle of life. It’s a first-hand demonstration of the mind-set of 1st century Pompeiians – a “memento mori,” reminder of death, a message in the dining room to enjoy the pleasures of life. For the opening of the television series, all today’s computer graphic artists had to do was copy the mosaic and animate it. It took on a much more somber but equally prophetic meaning for 21st century viewers.
Next: to Pompeii and beyond -- way beyond.