A Bit of Southern Italy: Naples, Pompeii, and Sorrento

On Wednesday it was time to bid Roma a fond farewell.  After a frenzy of last minute packing of all the things, we headed in a taxi to the train station to board our train to Naples.  Penelope was delighted to ride the train—a new adventure!—and Jeremy and I were both impressed by the smooth ride…at 300 km/h, no less. 

We arrived in Naples in short order, but our attempts to board the local Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento were… less successful.  After missing two? three? trains in a row due to crowding (and pushing) passengers on the station platform, we surrendered to the inevitable conclusion that we would need to find another way south.  With all our bags in tow, we headed back to the main Naples train station, just upstairs, and in short order had reserved a private car via the same Blacklane service we’d used from the Rome airport to our AirBnB.  And so we finally headed south to Sorrento in a fancy black Mercedes, having spent quite a bit more money than planned… but very comfortable!  And if that’s the worst travel mishap we have, then we’ll call it a great trip.  🙂

We arrived in Sorrento, checked into our small but lovely AirBnB, and went in search of a nearby grocery store.  As has been our more-often-than-not practice, we made dinner at home that night.

Thursday morning it was back to Naples.  In reviewing the forecast, Thursday was the rainy day, so we opted for an afternoon at the Museo Archeologico, a huge museum dedicated to the archeological treasures of the region.  This time we hopped on the Circumvesusiana without any problems, as the last/first stop on the line is Sorrento.  We all immersed ourselves in our reading, heading along the coast to Napoli.  While the roads afford great views to those traveling along the coast, the train goes in and out of tunnels all along the route, so we only saw the sea in brief glimpses—and on a rainy day, not much of it. 

We arrived in Napoli Garibaldi and headed for the Metro, traveling to the area where the museum (and lunch!) awaited.  Since we were only planning one meal in Naples, it had to be pizza.  We had a fairly tasty lunch, with Penelope delightedly ordering once again her beloved margherita pizza.  But Dar Poeta in Rome still has my prize for best pizza in Italy… so far.

After lunch—and having dried out a bit from our rainy walk to lunch—we were off to the museum.  When Pompeii was rediscovered in the 18th century, the then king of Naples is reported to have said, “bring all the best finds to me!”  And so the archeological museum in Naples is truly a treasure trove of sculpture, mosaic, and fresco.  We started on the ground floor, exploring the larger than life statues of all the usual suspects.  Penelope wandered into one my pics (below)… note her “mains de gallerie”—hands clasped behind the back when in a museum, something she learned on her school field trips.  A most excellent practice for small children!

We then headed upstairs to the real stars of the museum (at least for me): frescoes and mosaics.  And it was truly a wonderful collection of mosaic: floors on floors, floors on walls as hangings, columns.  Some of my favorites:

I’ve always been enamored of mosaic, but ever since reading The Sarantine Mosaic books by Guy Gavriel Kay, I’ve been a wee bit obsessed.  The main character in this duology is a mosaicist, and it’s loosely based on the 6th century Mediterranean world.  After reading hundreds of wonderful pages about mosaic and tesserae, the art form seems even more alive to me now.

The last room at the Naples museum was the so-called Secret Cabinet, wherein are gathered all of the pieces of erotic art from Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The gallery has been around since the early 1800s, but until the year 2000 was available only to scholars  (and, apparently, male visitors willing to bribe museum staff).  The gallery is now open to the general public, but there is a warning on the door that the rooms are not recommended for children under 14.  Ha!  Heeding this recommendation, Jeremy and I toured separately, so that Penelope would remain blissfully oblivious to the giant phalluses (phalli?) that lurked within these rooms.  As a respectable middle-aged woman, I took very few photos… but couldn’t resist capturing these two pieces.   Yes, that’s a set of wind chimes—and note the bulge in the toga. 

After the mosaics, we headed to the frescoes, where I was delighted to see Girl with a Stylus and Tablets—often called Sappho, from Pompeii.

And, in a nearby room, Penelope found her namesake, and, imitating the pose, asked for a photo.  I happily obliged. 

As at every other museum, we finished in the gift shop, where Penelope dipped into her savings for a lovely blue necklace.  Then it was home via the Circumvesuviana train.

On Friday we had another day trip in the cards—a bit closer to Sorrento, but even older.  We were off to Pompeii!  This destination was one of Penelope’s main requests for our Italy trip, and the primary reason we’d decided to come south from Rome.  She’d read a variety of historical fiction (and non-fiction) about Pompeii and its destruction, and so was eager to see the town for herself.

The weather had turned absolutely gorgeous, so we spent a sunny day walking around the ruins.  Unfortunately, about half of the locations on the main guidebook tour were closed for restoration (the baths, various villas), so we didn’t see as many intact frescoes or mosaics as we’d hoped.  But even the buildings themselves are truly impressive.

And we loved our last stop: the Greek amphitheater, carved into the hillside, where we climbed to the top to enjoy the view of the stages as both the Greeks and Romans who lived in Pompeii would have done. 

We hopped back on the now very familiar Circumvesuviana train, to dinner and an evening at home.

Originally we’d planned a day trip down the coast for Saturday, to see Positano and more of the Amalfi coast… but we also realized the only sights we’d seen in Sorrento were two different grocery stores.  So we opted to save the coast for a future Italy trip, and to stay put in Sorrento for the day.  Absolutely the right decision!

We had a lazy morning at home, and after brunch, went out to follow our guidebook’s short walking tour of Sorrento. 

That stroll ended at a beautiful park overlooking the smaller of the two harbors, with beautiful views across the bay to Naples and Mount Vesuvius.

After soaking in some sunshine, we stopped at a nearby photography exhibition.  Raffaele Celentano had an exhibit of black and white photography called The Italians, captured over the last two decades—mostly here in southern Italy.  While a few were posed, most of the photos were street shots, capturing everyday life: markets, festivals, and laundry day.  My favorite was a photo of three older women sitting on the sand at the beach, laughing with a contagious joy.

Best of all was the title: Tre Fieri—the Three Graces.  I absolutely adored this piece, so I decided to bring a print home.  I know it will make me smile—and think of Italy—every time I see it on our wall.

Two final recommendations from our afternoon walk: Raki Gelato, which is perhaps the best we’ve had so far—or at least tied with Fatamorgana in Rome.  Penelope and I both had the Zesty Lemon Cream and Jeremy ordered Hazelnut.  Both flavors were amazing—rich, creamy, but not too sweet.  And don’t miss the cookies and chocolates (and everything else they generously offered us as samples, from limoncello to truffle honey) at Nino and Friends, just across the street.  Delicious.

The rest of Saturday was spent in browsing the shops and then, later, packing up for our next destination: Florence! But we so enjoyed our brief sojourn in beautiful Sorrento.

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