The Trip comes to an end with Visits to Herculaneum and a Stay in Positano
TR Robertson — Our final day in Naples and the conclusion of our organized Sicily and Italy Food & Wine Tour included a trip to the city of Herculaneum, the ancient Roman city which was one of several buried in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Only a small portion of the town has been excavated and available for visitors to explore as the majority of the town is still under the hardened volcanic material and the modern city of Ercolano which has been built on top of this volcanic material. The portion excavated is a part of the town that was near the original coast line of the bay. The original coast line has changed drastically and is now quite a distance from the site.
The town of Herculaneum was a wealthier town than the neighboring town of Pompeii. Pompeii was more of a town of craftsmen, artisans, and businesses as well as a port town. Herculaneum existed as more of a resort town with about 4,000 residents. Pompeii had a population of over 15,000. When Vesuvius erupted a variety of lava and other material was released from different points of what was left of Mt. Vesuvius. Pompeii was covered by volcanic ash and pumice and Herculaneum was covered by over 40 feet of volcanic pyroclastic material that carbonized when it began to cool. This carbonization actually preserved portions of anything wooden, such as roofs, beams, doors and other wooden objects. This is unlike what happened in Pompeii. We were shown many of the preserved wooden pieces as we wandered from building to building.
As we walked along the entrance area to Herculaneum we were able to look down on the portion of the city that had been excavated as well as look across to apartment buildings and other structures that had been built on the top of the hardened volcanic material, covering ruins that will never be excavated. We walked down a series of stairs and entered a long tunnel cut thru the hardened volcanic material. When we arrived at the bottom of what would have been the original coastline we turned to look back on a wall of 40 feet of hardened pyroclastic material. The first stopping point was a series of rooms that would have been part of their seawall. In the rooms were replicas of 300-400 skeletons of citizens who had tried to escape the eruption in the rooms. The original bones are now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. We followed our guide who led us to what would have been a home, of a very wealthy man, overlooking the Bay of Naples. This was Casa di Cervi. The home had a large courtyard that one was once covered in vines and flowers. We were then shown a number of other homes and businesses, like the house of Argus and the House of Aristides. We were told that unlike Pompeii, these homes had elaborate sewer systems, elaborate for the time period it was built. There are many wall paintings and mosaics that have survived the eruption. The most majestic is the mosaic of Neptune and Salacia. What is a bit unnerving for today’s citizens, of this and associated areas close to Mt. Vesuvius, is a 2015 study of this area indicated that Mt. Vesuvius has a large build-up of lava (magma) and the continuing aftershocks indicate this volcano has the potential to erupt again, perhaps as catastrophic or more, given the large population and buildings in this area.
We concluded our visit and returned to Naples arriving back to our hotel where we said our good-byes to those that had remained on this portion of the tour. The next morning a private van had been arranged by Carolyn to take us to our next destination, the Amalfi Coast and the city of Positano. This portion of the tour included myself, my wife Carolyn, my son Brian, Carolyn’s cousin from Ohio – Barcy, and our friends from Texas – Richard and Eileen. We had always wanted to see the Amalfi Coast and Positano would be our jumping off point. The one hour drive took us along the highway made famous in many movies and commercials with unbelievable and majestic views from the highway high above the Bay of Naples. In the distance we could see the Island of Capri (visited on a previous trip to Italy) and a private island we were told was rented to Beyoncé for a huge birthday party she held for husband Jay-Z. The narrow two lane road to Positano was a bit of a thrill ride as it ran high above the Bay of Naples with numerous twists and turns, not to mention crazy car and motorcycle drivers. What was even more interesting is the parking. Workers in the town park all along the roadside outside of the small towns as there is virtually no parking anywhere in the towns. The few parking areas that do exist quickly fill.
We arrived at the hotel we were staying in for our three days in Positano, Hotel Savioa run by the D’Aiello family. This is a beautiful Mediterranean hotel with amazing ceramic floors designed by local artisans. Our rooms were huge and each one had a large balcony and massive unique bathrooms. Our room had a large double shower. Positano is a famous vacation spot on the Amalfi Coast. The town is built into a small gorge that widens at it approaches the ocean. The towns architecture is characterized by box shaped homes running up and down the terraces connected by winding walkways and each home, of various sizes, is painted white, pink, red, and orange. Most of them have porches facing the ocean. Small shops selling ceramics and a wide range of clothing styles line the streets. Linen is a popular fabric for many of the clothing shops. A number of places to eat can be found, one popular one was La Zagara where a variety of pizza and sandwiches could be found where you ate in a vine covered patio. We also had tasty meals at Collina Bakery, including several in the party having delicious burgers. Along the main walkway leading to the beach we passed a Michelin star restaurant. Walking down to the Marina Grande we stopped in the parish Church of S. Maria Assunta, built with a huge tiled dome. Inside is a 13th century Byzantine styled panel called “Madonna and Child”. We also took a walk along the cliffs above the ocean, leading to another beach and hotel complex. From Positano different boat trips can be taken to other cities along the Amalfi Coast, including a boat trip to the island of Capri.
Carolyn had arranged a private van tour of some of the towns on the Amalfi Coast, so the following morning we boarded the van and off we went on more adventures. Our guide told us the original road running from town to town along the coast line was built by hand until modifications were made later on and a new road and bridges and tunnels were added. Our first stop was at a view point for pictures and to try lemons coated in sugar. Lemons are popular here and can be found in clothing and ceramic designs and especially popular as the Limoncello liqueur and the pastry Lemon Delight. We also visited stores full lemon designs and smells made into everything imaginable. Our guide also pointed out a hotel on a point called San Pietro di Positano where rooms ran from $2,000 – $7,000 a night. Later down the road we passed a former Saracen pirate fortress that has been turned into a hotel, the Saraceno Grand Hotel. We could also see what was once the old highway high in the cliffs. Later, around one of the turns, our guide for the day pointed out a home that use to belong to actress Sophie Loren. Many celebrities own homes in the Amalfi Coast, most kept very private with the names of the owners hidden to keep the paparazzi away. Further down the road we passed the area high above the water that was formerly used for the Red Bull Cliff Diving Contest, Polignano a Mare.
Winding along the narrow road of the Amalfi coast we passed Praiano, a fishing village famous for their Marina di Praia, the Asciola tower (a Saracen outlook tower now an art gallery), the Africana Famous Club (a popular night club built within natural caves and a glass dance floor over the sea water) and the parish church of S. Bennaro. Next, we passed Fiordo di Furore where the wine Gran Furore Divina Costiera is produced. We were told that close to this area is Conca dei Marini, once the favorite home of former American author John Steinbeck. Passing Conca dei Marini many of the homes have white domes with terraces and not far away is the Grotta dello Smeraldo where you can take an elevator to an open cavity where at certain times of the day light shines in giving the sea an emerald green shade.
The final coastal town we stopped in was the larger city of Amalfi. Amalfi was established by the Romans. The very unique Cathedral, dedicated to Sant’Andrea, dominates the city. It has massive bronze doors, a massive stairway and the Duomo is an Arab-Norman style tiled structure. The Cathedral’s Atrium is Arabic style with columns and arches surrounding the palm filled gardens. Amalfi was one of the first world-wide manufacturers of paper and there is the Museo della Carta Amalfitana paper museum in the town. Many of the homes on the cliff sides have murals painted on the exterior walls.
Our tour driver then drove us to the town of Ravello, high above the Amalfi Coast over-looking the cliff side towns and the Gulf of Salerno. Ravello is referred to as the “Homeland of the Spirit”. The town is famous for classical music festivals dating back hundreds of years. As we entered the town we passed by a small exhibition dedicated to the paintings of Jacqueline Kennedy. We wandered the streets, walked to an overlook to see the coastline far below us, grabbed a bite to eat and marveled at the medieval architectural styles. The garden of Villa Cimbrone is famous for its beauty, small temples and natural caves. Equally famous is the three story mansion Villa Rufolo and the Moorish cloister.
Our final stop, after a long day of driving and touring the famous towns along the Amalfi Coast, was the town of Sorrento, a port town looking out on the Gulf of Napoli. Sorrento has a history dating back to the Greeks and the story of Ulysses and the Sirens. The reason for the drive to Sorrento was to stop in a shop famous for lacquered inlayed wood furniture and other wooden items. Specifically, we were looking for wooden music boxes. We also stopped in a large eatery for delicious hot chocolate and Limoncello’s before boarding our van for a trip back to our hotel in Positano.
A very early morning pick-up by our chartered ride and an hour long drive to the Naples International Airport, for a 6 am flight to Charles de Gaul International in Paris, then a long flight to LAX and a quick turn-around to San Diego, found us tired and back at home in Vista, with Barcy back in Ohio and Richard and Eileen back to Fort Worth and their ranch. The trip to Sicily and Italy was over, the memories will last a life-time and remembered in pictures and through this series of articles I have written. I hope you have found the ramblings somewhat entertaining and informative. We are off next year to India and in the planning stages is a trip to Israel and Jordan, further adding to the numerous countries we have been fortunate to visit. Travels With TR will detail all of this in further adventures.