Last year we biked through Andalusia in Spain to Gibraltar. This year we wanted to see some of Italy that we hadn't seen. Particularly, we wanted to see Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Mt. Vesuvius, and bike the Amalfi coast. This inevitably involved going to Naples.
Here is a map.
Map of Lazio and Campania with our trip in blue, places we stayed underlined in red. Hospital in a red box.
We flew to Rome's Fiumicino Airport, its main one with British Airways (through Heathrow) and were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the flight. We felt like higher class sardines. We were approached in the airport by a guy that offered to take us to our hotel for 45 Euros, we agreed, and found that the taxi would have been 48. Shrug.
The hotel we were staying in (the Hotel Labelle) was at the foot of Via Cavour close to the Ancient Forum and the Colloseum, near where we stayed last time. We had actually spent a night in this hotel the last time we were in Rome because we arrived back early, and we found we liked it. It was a pleasant hotel in a good location.
This is the nearest intersection. We took this same picture last time, but there was work going on then.
Kate was feeling sick the first day, and we take the first day easy after a long flight anyway, so we just went out and got an Italian SIM card for my phone. Using roaming in Europe is incredibly expensive, so I got the unlocking code for my phone over the internet (cost me $10), and bought a new SIM card at the local TIM (Telephonica Italiano Mobile, I believe) office (€20), this came with €5 worth of time plus, and this was the important thing, unlimited data. Calls were 12 euro cents a minute, so I had to top up the time once, but this is considerably cheaper than the 75 to 90 cents a minute I would pay for a roaming call. And since the main use I have for the phone is for my GPS, when (not if) we're lost, and the maps all come down as data, this was a massive saving. I figured I spent at least $200 in roaming charges last year in Spain, and was very frugal with use of the GPS. This year I was using the GPS everywhere, and my total cost came to €30 plus the one-time charge for the unlocking code.
From Vancouver, because we knew our schedule for the first few days, we got reservations for the Vatican Museum on-line. They give you a time to show up, and on the second day there, we did. I've said this before, but I really noticed the difference between seeing the Museum in 1980, and now, thirty-two years later. The big difference is the massive increase in the crowds. When I went through there before, there were a few other people in the rooms with me, now there were hordes.
The Entry Courtyard of the Vatican Museum.
This is a painted map of Rome of about 1590. The interesting thing I noticed was that almost all the area inside the walls was given over to farmland. This is the period when the one-time Forum of Imperial Rome was called the campovacchio, the cow field. sic transit gloria mundi.
The Laocoön, this caused a sensation when it was dug up from the area of the Domus Aureus and seriously influenced the art of the renaissance.
There was a lot of remarkably good statuary in the museum, including several whole rooms of animal sculpture. This was one that Kate found grusome.
This is a picture of a head from one of the tapestries in the Hall of Tapestries. It shows the fine workmanship put into these hangings.
We also saw the Sistine Chapel, which has been seriously cleaned up since I saw it last. The chapel itself was wall-to-wall people. Kate was a bit disappointed with it, the major parts that we are all familiar with, are actually quite small, and I thought that it was more impressive before it was cleaned. It looked older then.
Finally, the day came when we had to get on our bikes and ride. The first day was supposed to be an easy ride to Velletri, a town South of Rome in the Alban Hills. We were going to leave Rome, though, in classic style, along the Appian Way.
This was a dumb idea. The Via Appia Antica as it is known is, at best, cobblestones and in places the original road, very worn. It was worse than Quebec in the spring. There were well worn paths along the side of the road for cyclists when the original basalt showed through. Our pace was quite slow, and I think the stresses on my rear tire caused it to flat later.
This is what the rough parts (most was cobblestones) of the Appian Way looked like.
This is Kate sitting at what she called a 'bus stop' on the Appian Way.
Looking down the Appian Way.
We finally left the Appian Way for a heavily trafficed highway past Ciampino Airport, and then a smaller road into the Alban Hills. This is pretty country, although, obviously, hilly. As we were grinding up the hill out of Merino, my back tire flatted with a bang. The tire itself had worn through and the tube had herniated. Our suspicion is that the tire wore through on the Appian Way, from all the flexing over the cobblestones and old paving.
In any case we fixed the flat and duct-taped the side of the tire, and back tracked to Marino looking for a bike shop to no avail. Our choice was to ride 30km back to Rome or 20km forward to Velletri. Unanimous vote for Velletri. We swapped rear wheels to reduce the pressure on the "fixed" one and made it there. As fortune would have it, our hotel in Velletri was half a block from a bike store and I got a new tire. I would say the moral of the story is to stay away from cobblestones, but that means, don't bike in Europe.
Scenery from the Alban Hills. This is Lago Albano, obviously a crater lake and a reminder that this is a seismic country.
The next day we were going to Alatri to see some "cyclopean walls". On the way we encountered a palio (a horse race) in the town of Ferrentino, which we stopped to see. It looked like half the town took part in the initial parade, while the other half was watching.
This was the Children's Drum Corps in the parade that preceded the races. They were good!
Throwing flags about is very popular in Europe.
These animals were too lazy to race.
The horses seemed very high-strung for this race.
We got into Alatri late because of this, and because my phone didn't have reception here (I fixed it after this) I asked a woman in the main square if I could borrow her phone to call our B&B. She, it turns out, knew the owner, and called him. She gave us directions to a piazza on the far side of town (not very far), and he met us there to guide us to his place.
View from the balcony of our B&B showing the narrow streets and nice weather we were having.
Because of the narrow streets, this is how they leave their garbage out for pickup in Alatri.
This is Kate at the Gate in the Cyclopean Walls of Alatri.
A view of the walls. Kate thinks that the Inca walls are finer, but they are also 2000 years younger, so it is hard to tell. Why they would build such walls, with huge stones is clear: they didn't have concrete. These were all built hundreds of years before the Romans developed concrete, and so you needed unshiftable rocks to stop invaders, not small rocks glued together.
The ride out of Alatri was murder. We were heading for Cassino today. We decided to go along a small road to Veroli and then along a few smaller roads into Cassino. We had not anticipated that the road would have murderous hills. I estimated a 25% grade at one point, but slopes are notoriously difficult to judge (It felt like 50%!). In any case, it took about half a day to get the 10km to Veroli. The only thing that saved us was that after descending onto flatter ground, we hit a good straight highway and powered down it, making Cassino in late dusk. We don't have headlights, so biking at night is fraught with peril.
These are someone's pets that Kate passed on the way.
We didn't get to go up the mountain as we were too tired. The next target was Caserta.
This is a modern Italian Aqueduct on the way from Cassino to Caserta.
I wanted to see Capua, but ancient Capua is gone, and Caserta is the new version. The attraction of Caserta is a Spanish palace, from the time Southern Italy was ruled by Spain. We found our hotel fairly easily, and it was very close to the Palace.
This is the Palace at night. Its main attribute is that it is huge. Thoroughly uninspired, remember that it is Spanish and the Spanish are useless architects, but big.
We saw the palace in the morning and then started down the road to Naples. Caserta is about 30km from the centre of Naples and it is all city biking. Not particularly pleasant, and I used my GPS heavily to find the way, but we got to our B&B fairly easily (considering the address they gave was wrong).
We were booked for two nights in Naples. The only reason we were there at all was to see the Museum, which is definitely worth the visit. It has most of the artifacts unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum. But visiting Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the museum can be done just as easily from outside Naples, we used Sorrento, at the other end of the Transvesuviana Railway. This is a much more pleasant place to stay, and access is just as easy.
This is a famous mosaic floor found in Pompeii. It is the battle of Gaugamela, where Alexander of Macedon beat Darius III of Persia and took the Persian Empire. It is worth noting that at the time this mosaic was made (i.e. before 79AD), Alexander's body could well have still been in Alexandria (He was placed in honey in a crystal coffin on display), so the artist may have had reasonable information about what he looked like.
These are the tiled colonades in the Monastery Gardens of Santa Chiara. When we were there they were holding auditions for some operatic singers. You could hear it through the gardens and it was really nice, the singing was good.
These are the tiles on the back of one of the seats throughout the cloister gardens.
Finally we saw the old Norman castle that overlooked Naples' harbour. This is one of the finest examples of really bad taste in architecture that we have ever seen! One of the (of course) Spanish Kings decided to add a Baroque Triumphal Arch to the entrance of a medieval castle. As you can see, it looks as absurd as it sounds.
The next day we took the ferry for Ischia. Kate had booked a hotel that, according to the map they supplied, was just minutes from the ferry landing. This is where our heroes found that there are actually two ferry landings on Ischia, and naturally -- by the immutable laws of nature -- we landed at the other one. Fortunately Ischia is small, and the ride to our hotel was only about 4.5km.
We had a small apartment here with a stove and fridge, but the thing I remember is that the espresso coffee maker was the smallest I have ever seen, good for one espresso cup, as long as it is not a double, at a time. We ended up making camp coffee.
While on Ischia, we biked to the gardens on the estate of the composer William Walton. He spent the last years of his life on Ischia and his wife was a gardener, so they ended up with a nice garden, worth visiting if you are on Ischia.
This is one of the tropical trees they had. It is intended that you not climb it.
This is a typical path in the gardens with Trumpet Vines.
The next day we took the ferry from Ischia to Capri. There is a direct ferry so you don't have to go back through Naples. Getting to our hotel was epic (hotels on streets called Sopramontagna (over the mountain) should be avoided by cyclists, but the centre of the town of Capri is in the middle of the island, and that means on a high saddle between the two sides. The centre of town itself had "streets" so narrow that they only allow pedestrians or special narrow electric cars along them. The police even want cyclists to walk through the centre of the town.
Kate on one of the benches in the main square of the town of Capri.
We got in to our hotel, and then I had wanted to see the Villa Jovis this is the Roman villa of Tiberius, set on a high point of the island and overlooking the Amalfi peninsula on the mainland. We arrived after it had officially closed, but there were still keepers manning the gate. We asked if we could look through, and they were happy to let us for the price of the ticket, they didn't give us a ticket, of course, since it was closed, but they took our money.
The Villa Jovis has been a ruin since the empire, I'm sure. The remains look like the cisterns that they would have had to build to supply water are all that is left. This place is hot, and there is no water nearby. In antiquity, only the Romans with their hydraulic engineering could have built or hoped to maintain such a place, and as soon as they left it, it was abandoned by all.
We had a good breakfast on a pleasant balcony overlooking the town and sea, and then, to thoroughly spoil the mood, we had to bike to Anacapri, where Kate took a look around, and we headed back down to take the ferry to Sorrento.
Sorrento is considerably more pleasant than Naples. We had booked a hotel here for three nights so that we would have two days to explore Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum. It turned out their booking software had malfunctioned and we could only stay for two nights, but they found us other accommodations for the last night -- which turned out to be quite nice. This is, after all, Italy, you learn to roll your eyes and shrug at their general incompetence.
This is the road down to the harbour in Sorrento. Sorrento is built on a plateau above the harbour, and if you arrive by ferry like we did, you have to bike (or drive or ...) up this road.
The first day we planned to go to Vesuvius then Herculaneum, followed the second day by Pompeii. However, we got on the train late, and we were standing and hot when we hit the Pompeii station, so we decided to do Pompeii the first day and then get an earlier start for Vesuvius and Herculaneum the next day.
Pompeii is a haunting place. It has certainly been rebuilt somewhat after being dug up. But it was also clearly stripped during the years after the eruption. The first thing you notice is the complete lack of anything of value in the finds; but also of all the marble in and on the buildings. Marble was expensive in Roman times (I think it still is), and the city was buried in a layer of what is described as heavy dust. Easy digging, so the inhabitants just came back and dug out all their stuff and used it in their new homes (presumably far from volcanic activity). For the rest, it clearly became a marble mine; the ceasar of the time (it may have been Vespasian or Titus) had to proclaim laws forbidding the looting of the townsite, so it was clearly a major problem.
The next day we got going earlier and got a seat on the train to Herculaneum and Vesuvius (they are the same stop). We ended up sitting opposite a couple from West Vancouver and talked with them. We took a bus up to the parking lot on Vesuvius -- we noted on the way up, that this would be a killer bike ride -- and walked to the "top" (as high as they would let you).
Here is a picture of the crater showing the token fumarole they have going for tourists.
And here is Kate and the crater of Vesuvius.
The bus took us back down to the station from which it was a few hundred metre walk to Herculaneum. Herculaneum was actually covered by a mud flow during the eruption, this mud turned to tufa, and was much harder to dig, as well as being much thicker than at Pompeii.
Here is the ancient shoreline of Herculaneum, along with the dockside buildings. You can see from this the thickness of the mud that flowed over it.
From Sorrento the next day we biked along the Amalfi Coast to just outside Amalfi. We were worried about the traffic on the Amalfi coast road as we had heard it was bad and the road was narrow, hilly and winding. As it happened, we did this in early October, and it was quite pleasant biking. There was some traffic, but nothing to worry about. The manager of the hotel we stayed at said that it was much calmer now, in August and September it was insane. So this would be the time of year to do it.
Looking down at Positano. This is a very pretty coast, but everything is steep.
After a pleasant night in our hotel we finished off the Amalfi coast and hit Salerno, where we had lunch in a park. From there is was a long straight push down the coast to Paestum.
Paestum was a pleasant surprise. Well worth the visit, if you like ruins. I had expected a couple of isolated temples in a field, but found the remains of a full walled town with some very well preserved temples. Paestum appears in history as an important Greek city (this area of Italy is part of Magna Graecia of antiquity), which was conquered by Rome and in the late Roman or early medieval world was abandoned because of Saracen Raids and the rise of malaria. It was quickly overgrown, and evidently not used as a rock quarry, or the temples weren't.
After checking in to our hotel room we biked back to the temples to try to get some sunset shots, we couldn't get a good angle on them because the area was closed off.
The next day we went through the area more closely. As you can see the temple is quite well preserved.
Another shot of one of the well preserved temples at Paestum. You can tell the temples are quite old by the modified Doric capitals.
This is the third of the temples at Paestum, they think that this was used as a church for a while.
Heading South from Paestum we were planning on using a large yellow road (on the map) but when we got to it, it said "No Bikes". So we choose another route that looked good on the map. It was brutal. This was another hill where I claimed to Kate that it had a 25% grade (in one part), that may even have been true. Kate was zigzagging the road where she could, but when she came to the 1 1/2 inch tall speed bump near the top warning descending drivers to go slowly, she didn't figure she could make it over it and got off and walked.
When we finally got to our destination of Palinuro, we could not find the hotel, in desperation I asked someone, and we arrived after dark. This was the first time we had ever arrived so late, as we really don't carry lights for biking at night.
This is a natural arch on the beach at Palinuro. The girdered structure inside it is to allow people to go through without worrying about falling rock. Like everthing else in Italy, it is falling apart.
Palinuro was our final destination. We headed off to the train station 12km away, retracing our ride there most of the way. We nearly made it.
About 500m from the train station there is a moderately steep hill to an underpass and then a bend. I went round the bend and waited for Kate, and waited. I tried calling her on the 2-way radio: nothing. So I went back sort of pissed off, figuring she was taking pictures of goats or something.
One of the more gut-wrenching things you're likely to see is your wife lying motionless on the ground with a 2 metre stream of blood running downhill from her head. Some cars were beginning to stop, I got to her fast, and got someone to call an ambulance. The ambulance was there in ten minutes. There was a bit of a problem as I didn't know where they were taking her, it was resolved and they headed off. I got a ride with a guy (Frango) in a delivery truck that could take our bikes.
This is the blood from Kate's head wound. Kate asked (later) why I didn't take more pictures of the accident; but in fact photography drops in priority in these situations.
Kate was kept in hospital overnight for observation. This is her in her hospital bed.
We missed that night's hotel in Rome, which disappointed Kate as it was a fancy hotel that we ended up having to pay for anyway, but made the train the next day for Rome, an easy train ride and we took a taxi to our hotel where they were very solicitous of Kate.
One more day of tourism in Rome, Kate was still slow from the accident, and we flew home.