The last time we wrote we were on the train from Naples to Sorrento. On the way we noticed the changing topography – the rolling hills of Tuscany gave way to the more severe mountains and ridges of Campania and the Sorrentine peninsula. We began noticing small agricultural outcrops filling in the landscape as far as the eye could see, especially on the plains below Vesuvius and along the ridges of the coastal lowlands. The most typical crops in the region are fruits – especially citrus, nuts, and vegetables. Lemons are in great abundance. A speciality of the region, called cedri, are the size of the heads of human babies!!
Once we were off the train and checked into our very nice hotel, we took a late afternoon walking tour of the city of Sorrento. Sorrento is a popular seaside town overlooking the Bay of Naples. After exploring the main avenue, we went down some side streets to get to the cliffs. The view of the sea from the cliff tops was gorgeous. From there we went to dinner and had time to explore the town some more on our own.
On Saturday we visited Sorrento’s old main harbor – Marina Grande. This classic spot seems to have stood still in time, and gave us a real sense of how life has played out over generations of fishermen. Since the 3rd century a city gate, just above the Marina Grande, constructed of limestone blocks, stands in Sorrento’s walls. The gate used to admit traders and visitors to the town, and protect it from pirates and raiders. Sorento was also a popular site for the Roman elite – Caesar Augustus’ nephew built a villa on the promontory that separates the harbor from the main city. It’s ruins remain today.
After a wonderful lunch right on the beach, we caught our bus to Positano. Along the way, we had incredible views of the famous Amalfi Coast. Sweeping vistas of sheer cliff faces ending in the deep turquoise of the Tyrrhenian sea kept us enthralled. Positano itself is a village set into a small enclave along the steep landscape rising from the sea. It’s pastel homes, hotels and stores are set into the landscape and line the topography with their graceful simplicity. The town thrived during the Middle Ages through the 16th and 17th century, but went through a depression until the latter half of the 20th century. The community centers around the church of Santa Maria Assunta – the dome features the traditional majolica tiles made in the region.
On Sunday we set off on an early ferry to Capri. It is one of the most beautiful- if not the most beautiful – island in the Campania region. Its breath-taking beauty inspired the ancients and was immortalized in Homer’s Odysseus. According to the myth, Odysseus (known in Latin as Ulysses) was sailing past the island when he narrowly escaped the fate of those who hear the voices of the Sirens.
Geologically speaking, the island is Karst, underlaid with limestone. Over the course of time this limestone has been eroded away to form the amazing ridges, towers and sinkholes in the rock. This erosion was also what separated Capri from the mainland. We were able to view the famous rock peaks that emerge out of the sea just off the island coast known as the Faraglioni. These peaks were also formed by a process of erosion.
The students visited all three regions on the island – the harbor, the municipality of Capri, as well as the municipality of Anacapri, which was built on the island’s highest plateau. The sea surrounding the island is particularly deep and many caves have been worn into the cliff faces. The most famous of these is the Blue Grotto, which we also believe was a Roman bathing place at some point. Small holes worn into the back and roof of the cave allow light to shine into the space and illuminate the beauty of the turquoise water. Some students were able to go out to see the Blue Grotto on a side trip, and were wowed by the experience.
Historically, the island is important as an archeological site as well. Tiberius obtained the island from Naples in exchange for another island, and he spent the last decade of his reign residing on Capri. He built several villas in addition to what appears to be a very large palace complex – Villa Jovis – which several of the students toured with Mr Bradley.
On Tuesday we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Pompeii – an archeological wonder that was discovered laying completely preserved under the ashes of a catastrophic volcanic eruption in 79AD. The city was home to about 11,000 people. We walked through some of the most interesting districts in the massive town and got to see everything from Roman theaters to bakeries, temples to thermal bath houses, stores front cafes to frescoes and mosaics. It was truly amazing. Our terrific guide helped orient us historically, and there are probably very few sites that could better convey a sense of what Roman daily life was like. We were also able to view three of the plaster casts of victims who died in the disaster, made by archeologists back in the mid-1800’s – one of a dog on a chain, one of a four year old boy, and one of a man. The rest of the plaster casts have been removed from the site for further study at various laboratories.
After a quick lunch we took off on our bus to Rome. The three hour drive was miraculously uninterrupted by traffic, and we made it in under three hours! We checked into our new home, and immediately set off on a walking tour of a couple of Rome’s sweet spots: the Terrazza del Pincio – with a tear jerking view across the city; down the Spanish Steps; and later on after dinner, to the Trevi fountain.