After a relatively relaxing day around the pool we had built ourselves up for a long drive and a long hard day of walking around in the heat.
We set off toward Pompeii, around 2 and a half hours south of Sermoneta and 130 miles. It felt like most of those miles and minutes were spent getting from the top of our little hill to the motorway but, once we got there, the trip wasn’t too bad at all. Saying that the trip was uneventful is only true in terms of Italian roads rather than British roads but we arrived safely none the less. My strategy of blowing my horn every 10 minutes, no matter what was happening, seemed to be working.
We followed the route set out on the app of our phones and that got us most of the way there. Once we reached Napoli we didn’t need the app any more as the signposts took over and we could enjoy the view. I say enjoy, but the view from the left hand side of the car was Vesuvius towering above us and dominating the skyline but out of the right hand side were the suburbs of Napoli. This wasn’t so pretty. Like a lot of port towns, you could tell that this was a bit rough. I wouldn’t like to have left the car unlocked anywhere in this area. Even locked it would have been a chance.
As we got into Pompeii I started to get a feel for what the place was like very quickly. This didn’t feel like it was going to be a serious historical day of interest. It was going to be an expensive tourist trap with chancers and vagabonds surrounding the area waiting to suck money from unexpected tourists wallets. We drove past the main entrance to the historical site and parked up at one of the many car parks that lined the road. Each one having a few old men waving you in as if driving past would be a terrible mistake and breaking some sort of law. We drove past a few and picked one at random and parked up. As we got out and applied our sun cream, it was clearly a very hot day and it was going to be hard work getting the kids to walk around in this heat looking at history in the making.
My mum and brother followed us down in their car and, as we waited for them to let us know where they had parked and arrange to meet them, we headed to the petrol station next to the car park and topped up on supplies and used their facilities. The toilets smelt like they had been installed just after the Vesuvius eruption in AD 78 and not cleaned since. I refused to enter as did my girl child so we bought water and mints instead. Having been charged 3 EUR for a small bottle of water, I was getting the idea that this was going to be a long and miserable day for me!
We got the call from my mum and we met up at the collection of market stalls near the visitor centre. We checked the first few stalls and realised that they all sold the same things, just displayed in a different order. Lots of Roman stuff, lots of volcanic rock jewellery and a surprising amount of penis shaped items, all with Pompeii written on them. I couldn’t think where we would display these items when we got home so, despite thinking that they were hilarious, I didn’t buy anything.
We decided it would be best to eat before we got into the centre itself and so, like the idiots that we are, decided to eat at the little cafe right outside the gates. I was already worried about the potential cost/quality issues of eating right outside an international tourist trap and wasn’t made to feel any less relaxed when the menu arrived without prices on it. We ordered sandwiches, a few salads, a couple of soft drinks and smoothies and it cost us more that €100. I can’t give you the exact price as it was hidden from me to prevent me from ruining the rest of the day for me and anyone that met me. As the bill was paid, I was whisked away from the cafe, we walked over to the gates and worked out how much this would cost us.
Again, I was jostled out of the way to prevent me feeling faint, but when Titchy came over to show me the tickets, I knew immediately that the tickets must have been reasonable! At €15 per adult and the kids in for free, I was pretty happy and set off through the big fans with water spraying from them to cool us down with a skip in my step.
In my mind, Pompeii was going to be loads of little houses filled with history that you could walk around and be blown away by, as if history had been stopped by volcanic ash and then started again by Italian archaeologist peeling away the layers. I was expecting each home to have contorted bodies and riddles to solve. I have to say, I was very disappointed. Maybe it was because we didn’t sign up to a guided tour, but it felt like a long walk in extreme dusty heat around some derelict houses. It was hard work walking around, especially when we had tired and hot kids to chaperone. Frankly, it was a bit boring. There, I said it.
At one point I was excited to see a board that I assumed would have information on it and point out something to see or think about so I skipped over ready to be brought back into the swing of things. Turns out that the only display board that we had seen on our mile long walk was to explain what the three different coloured recycling bins were for. Only when we got to the top end of the site did we find a handful of relics and casts, to take a good look at them all took us about 15 minutes. A lot of walking in the sun for 15 minutes of interest.
One bright spot was when we listened in on an organised tour as the guide highlighted quite a sizable phallus on the pavement. He removed the dust around it by pouring his water on the black stone member built into the pavement and explained it was giving directions to the ‘fun house’. I will let you decide what sort of fun house it was pointing out, but it didn’t involve Pat Sharpe. The laughs that the kids had looking at this 2,000 year old cock were priceless, but this soon wavered when we had to explain what it was there for. I left at this point and scurried off for cover!
Our plan had been to visit Pompeii in the morning and a trip to the crater of Vesuvius in the afternoon if time permitted. We rounded the kids up and headed back to the car with the promise that we would head straight home and maybe have a half hour in the pool before dinner. It was a long drive South and so we wouldn’t see the volcano on this trip. It seemed a shame to be that close to Napoli and not see what it was like and so I made a sneaky detour to see if we could see anything exciting of the port town. It very quickly became apparent that Napoli was very much like every other port town but with the added edge of a Mafia undertone. We were heading through back streets and the graffiti was pretty ominous and dark so I skipped that idea and headed back North on the motorway.
After an hour on the road and a few traffic jams to hold us up, it became apparent that we wouldn’t get back in time to eat and swim. As regular readers of the blog may know, I have a great interest in the second world war and I spotted signs for Monte Cassino. Above the town of Monte Cassino, on top of a rocky hill, is a monastery which was the site of the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. We decided to head off the motorway and grab a meal in the town, just to say that I had been there.
We found a very local Pizza restaurant, well it was actually more of a takeaway really, but with seats outside and locals pottering about outside which is always a good sign. We shared authentic pizza and some arancini, great big deep-fried balls of rice stuffed with cheese. As we ate up and chatted and laughed, I realised that it would be years, if ever, before I would be back here and so I had to take the chance while I could. There would be plenty of days for swimming to come.
We headed up the very windy road up the hill to the monastery and the views were stunning. It was very clear why such a bloody price has been paid during the war for this land as the monastery has a perfect panoramic view of the flat expansive land below, the only route north to Rome. We were not really appropriately dressed for a tour of a monastery and so we were not too upset when we got up to the gates to find them closing for the evening. Instead, we headed a little way back down the mountain to visit the Polish cemetery. I have been to many war cemeteries and they hold a very special place with me. They are always immaculately clean and have their own special noise. A special sort of quiet that seems to allow only birdsong and background traffic to penetrate it.
Heading back to the car, a little quieter and more sombre than when we arrived, we twisted and turned our way back down the side of the mountain as the warm evening sun started to drop for the day. I felt very lucky to be there to see such amazing sights and share laughs with the people that I love in a time of such peace, thanks to the sacrifices of those that had trodden this bloody path so many years before.