As I posed with Vesuvius in the background, we learned about the the ancient city, which is still only two-thirds uncovered. It held a population of twenty thousand, about 10 per cent of whom were victims of the eruption and the subsequent burial of the city.
Pompeii was a prosperous, seaside town, and if you get there early enough, as we did, before dense packs of tourists arrive, shuffling behind tour guides with various colored flags, you can imagine yourself back in time, walking up to and in some cases into homes, taverns, laundries, bakeries and brothels, astonished at the preservation of the rich color of the murals, altars, decorations and political graffiti. The weather during our day there was almost too warm – in the 70's by midday, and we were exhausted by the time we were through, having spent a full five hours seeing everything that was to be seen, including ingenious plaster casts of some of the victims, preserved in repose for all time.
When we exited near the hotel, the desk clerk’s advice was greatly appreciated by two weary, wide-eyed tourists, who ended the afternoon sitting in the plaza near the hotel enjoying double gelati and the parade of modern Pompeians.
As for accommodations and meals in the present day city of Pompei, we were lucky to have had recommendations from a friend of Rich’s, who had recently spent several weeks there, working on a soon-to-be-seen documentary on the villa at Oplontis. We were also told of two fine restaurants in Pompei that we wisely sought out – not cheap, but worth the 50 or 60 euros at each sitting – La Situla and Presidente.
Invariably, when we showed up at any Italian restaurant for dinner at seven, we were greeted by the sight of the staff having dinner. Italians don’t begin their evening meal until eight. So, by the time we were finished with our three or four courses, the restaurant would be filled with patrons who were at the beginning of either their antipasti or primi.
The Amleto Hotel’s amenities were outstanding – what they term a “rich” breakfast was spread out every morning – rolls and breads for toasting, yogurt, cereals, fresh fruit, juices and filled pastries, all self-service, and a tended coffee bar – included in the reasonable off-season room rates.
The first night, we shared a room with separate beds, but my snoring proved intolerable, and so for the next two nights, the clerks graciously offered us two individual rooms for not much more than the price of the double – and even at that lowered rate, one of us got to stay in the original room, which, by the way, had a refrigerator, mini-bar and heated towel rack. In the lobby was a computer and printer with free access to the internet, which came in handy for keeping in touch with friends and family back home, as well as printing out maps for our foray into the Apennines to the east to visit Frosolone on our last vacation day.
Our desk clerks even arranged for a car rental company to deliver our car to the hotel, and the company accepted a facsimile of Rich’s driver’s license, since his had been stolen within minutes of our arrival in Rome. He’s normally a very cautious traveler – all he did was lose that necessary focus on security for a brief time on the Roma metrebus, but that’s all it takes.
So, we left the hotel at nine a.m. on Friday for what was supposed to be a two and a half hour drive out of Pompei and up into the mountains to Frosolone. It took us just about twice that long. I’m tempted to claim that our getting lost was the fault of the maps, but I have to take the blame and admit that I’m a terrible navigator. Rich generously offered to do all the driving, and when we got lost on the wrong mountain with some of the most breathtaking and heart-stopping turns, I was as glad he was driving as I was sorry I was riding in that little Fiat on those wet roads.
Incidentally, as small as the car was, it took 40 euros (about $52 US at the exchange rate then) to fill the tank, which was practically bone dry when it was delivered. But gas mileage in European cars averages 43 miles per gallon, and even with our extra couple of hours of driving, we returned the car with about a half a tankful of diesel fuel – and asked for and received credit for it, making the actual rental fee for one day 65 instead of 85 euros.
After stopping several times and trying to tell people it was Frosolone and not Frosinone we were looking for, we finally arrived at a sign that pointed the way to our destination. When we first spotted the town in the distance, we were coming up around a bend through some somber clouds – so the sight of the sun shining on the stone houses with red roofs surrounded by rolling fields and rutted farm roads was a welcome medieval landscape.
Next -- where is everybody?