Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mediterranean Cruise Report -- Day 13

Welcome to my recollections of the wonderful cruise my wife and I took during the month of July, 2010 for our 5th anniversary. This will be an ongoing series replete with anecdotes, history, pics, and even videos taken as we experienced all that our various ports of call had to offer. As usual, click on the pics to view larger versions, and don't forget to also click on the "Vimeo" vids to view the brief live-action clips.

If you missed a prior trip report, or would like a refresher, please click on the appropriate link below:
Day 1 -- When in Rome.
Day 2 -- Bad Sun Rising.
Day 3 -- Let Me Take You On A Sea Cruise.
Day 4 -- Into the Wild Blue Yonder.
Day 5 -- Our (Very Brief) Adventure in the Lost City of Atlantis.
Day 6 -- Ruin'd!
Day 7 -- Turkish Delight.
Day 8 -- Into the City, Again.
Day 9 -- This Wasn't in the Da Vinci Code!
Day 11 -- Live! at the Acropolis.

Once again, you are not missing a day -- there is no Day 12. As with the sea day between Day 9 and Day 11, not much of anything happened on our third sea day of the cruise. It was one of our two formal days aboard the Equinox, however, so Lisa and I got all decked out for a nice fancy dinner rather than opt for room service in our cabin like we did the previous formal night.

We tried checking out one of the evening shows at the theater--an act that was ripping off Cirque du Solei--but it was a bust, so we left even before it really got started. Back at the room, we watched a few vids on the netbook and then called it a night.

We had a big day planned ahead, and were excited to get it started . . .

DAY 13 -- Under the Neapolitan Sun.

As with the majority of the ports up to this point, we arrived at Naples just after sunrise. I tried taking a picture of Mount Vesuvius from our balcony, but as you can see it's hidden behind a wall of haze that did not dissipate until well after noon.

Before the cruise, I had met up with a dentist and his wife on the Celebrity Equinox online roll call message board where I had agreed to join their small party for a private tour of the Amalfi Coast along Italy's southern tip, as well as the ruins of Pompeii. Yes, *more* ruins. I think Lisa was pretty fed up with them by now, but I tried to console her with the admission that these would be "well preserved" ruins. Perhaps the best, most intact ancient town we've seen on this trip -- even better than Ephesus!

Yeah, somehow I don't think it worked. But she was still game, as long as we got to see other parts of Italy. Which we did in spades!

After breakfast and upon exiting the ship, we met the rest of the group--a friendly bunch of elderly professionals from the Baltimore area--and our tour guide, Carmine. He was a blast, and did all of the driving. He called up a friend of his to ask if he would like to meet us at Pompeii later in the day to give us a personal tour of the grounds. We all agreed that this would be well worth our expense, and it was. But more on that later.

We started out that morning getting the hell out of Naples as soon as possible. You see, Naples is okay, sure. But it's not the type of city you really want to sightsee in. And besides, most of the picturesque scenery is located along the coast, where the quaint Italian towns and villas are located and where the colors of the sea and the mountain greenery combine for a stunning visual palette quite unique to this part of the world.

Carmine did an excellent job stopping every few miles and pointing out amazing photo opportunities we would have missed otherwise. We even stopped alongside the winding mountain rode for a taste of some very strong limoncello being sold by a produce vendor out of the back of his cart. Just one of a string full of memories I would keep from that day.

Eventually Carmine took us to his home town of Sorrento, famous for its wine and cheese -- but mostly for its world class lemons that are simply INCREDIBLE! I mean, seriously, these lemons are about the size of your head! And they're so sour and tart that not even the most experienced lemonade drinker can keep from puckering up after a taste. WHEW! Naturally, of course, this makes Sorrento the world's premiere center for limoncello -- a sour liqueur sold in many varieties and gradients of potency. In the town center, we found more than a few boutique stores selling the stuff exclusively. And in some pretty appealing packaging to take home, too! So, of course, that's exactly what we did.

After wandering around Sorrento for an hour or so, we climbed back into the rented vehicle and headed farther along the Amalfi Coast toward the village of Positano. It was at this portion of the drive that the road started to get very curvy, and the Italian drivers very daring to say the least. But Carmine took things easy for our benefit, often being very patient and allowing us to take our pictures even at times when the traffic behind us was not very understanding.

As you can see, Positano is a whirlwind of steep hills and cobble-stoned streets. But also very beautiful. If I go back, I would like to look into staying in or near Positano. The views would make for excellent postcards to send back home! We stopped at a nearby ceramics shop where we got to watch the artisans do their thing live and in person. The others in our group fussed over getting items custom made to be shipped back to Baltimore, but Lisa and I just smiled and minded our time. After that huge purchase back in Kusadasi, Turkey a few days back, we were in no mood for making expensive acquisitions anymore. But the work done at this place was simply SUPERB! I mean, real master class craftsmanship the likes of which I've never seen before. We weren't allowed to take pictures of the interior of the workshop/showroom, but Lisa snagged this one on the outdoor patio of some examples being showcased on shelves:

After this, Carmine told us of a family-owned restaurant where he knew the owners personally and would like to take us to eat lunch. Not one of us had any objections. The restaurant was a traditional country trattoria named "La Tagliata", located above Positano on a stretch of cliff with views of the Gulf of Naples below.

It was the perfect place for a good, homemade Italian meal. I even got to use my spotty Italian when our waiter came and took a picture of the entire table. One of our companions wanted to know what his name was, so when he showed up I broke out one of the phrases I had learned before the trip. Next thing I knew, we were engaged in a brief but fiery exchange (I think I even used my hands!), which went something along these lines in nothing but Italian:

Me: "Pardon me for asking sir, but what is your name?"
Him: "Oh! Why, it's Peppino! Hey, your speak Italian!"
Me: "Oh no, I don't speak it all that well."
Him: "But what are you saying, you're speaking it right now! Are you Italian? I see a little in your face . . . are your parents Italian?
Me: "Thank you, but no. I'm not Italian at all."
Him: "Oh, well. Too bad for you!"

LOL! Now mind you, I only understood most of what he was saying by inference alone. Oh, and the hand gestures, naturally. It's amazing how much you can get across through physicality. After lunch, the Chef and owner of the place, Luigi (no kidding), came out to our table and we thanked him profusely for such a delicious--and hearty!--full course meal.

I think our guide Carmine (on the right) roused him from his midday nap, but Luigi was very energetic and vibrant in his reception of our heartfelt praise.

We were sad to leave this happy place of food, family, and fun behind . . . but alas with the midday repast out of the way we had one more stop left. See, we'd saved the best for last. That's right, we were on to Mt. Vesuvius!

We met the guide Carmine had called earlier that morning at the front entrance to the site of Pompeii. He was an elderly gent who's been giving private tours of the site since the 50s. This man knew anything and everything there is to know about Pompeii, and it was quite the pleasure spending over 2 hours strolling through the eerie remains of this once thriving port town.

At its height just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii probably had in the range of 200,000 inhabitants. The city was a popular vacation site for wealthy Romans who built their villas right along the shores of the bay. However, 17 years before the eruption, Pompeii had suffered a catastrophic earthquake that nearly destroyed the city entirely. The quake was so disastrous, and the region plagued by so many smaller quakes between the years of 62 and 79, that Pompeii was still in the middle of ongoing renovations when the fatal day came that buried the city in over 5 meters of hot volcanic ash and pumice.

Today, wandering the ancient streets still paved in the original stones, it's really hard *not* to travel back in time within your mind and imagine how chaotic the scene must have been when the volcano exploded. As you can see in the pic above, that's Mt. Vesuvius in the background. See how close it is? The weird thing is, the ash fell at a steady rate over two days. So it's not like people didn't have time to evacuate. And some did. Those who were either lucky or had influence were able to board ships in the harbor and sail to safety. However, there were not enough ships for everybody. And for those who called Pompeii their permanent home, they had no place to run to. Nor did they even realize they were in such danger until it was too late. From examining the positions of the bodies of those who were left behind, I got the feeling that a good many people died from asphyxiation -- either from the ash or from natural gasses venting out of the cracked earth. When excavators were first digging through the ash of Pompeii, they found curious depressions or "holes" in the layered sediment, filled with decayed bones and other gruesome physical evidence of human remains. It was only after the holes were filled with plaster that it became apparent that these depressions were formed by the people who were buried in the volcanic fallout, and who's bodies had decayed and broken down over the centuries.

In the above pic, this little boy is curled up and trying to cover his nose before the end found him. There are many such plaster casts still at today's archaeological site of Pompeii, kept off to the side in a storage area. It would have been far more gruesome if they had been left in their original locations where they were discovered, spread out throughout the site. Could you imagine?

Eventually our guide led us into a local bathhouse with still-intact wall murals, as well as a nearby aristocratic family's abode where the frescoes still had their original paint colors. I got goosebumps just thinking that I was seeing artwork almost exactly as it looked to the owner's of the house nearly 2,000 years ago!

Next we walked down the stone-paved street and around the corner where we found the remains of an eatery, with the rounded holes of the stove and ovens easily identifiable.

Eventually our guide took us to the location of a brothel still pretty much intact as a an actual, standing structure. It figured that such places would have been the first to recover after the earthquake. This particular establishment still had paintings up along the inner walls providing patrons a "menu" of sorts of different positions they could point at and request. I was surprised to find an ash cast of a bed in the corner of one of the rooms, still recognizable by its shape. Too cool!

By the end of the tour, I think we were all pretty much shell-shocked by how much history was packed into the grid-like streets, painted walls, and crumbling temples of this great site. I mean, you can read about it in textbooks or even see it on the History Channel . . . but until you travel to Pompeii in person, it never really hits you. I guess this is what they mean by "hands-on history". There really is no substitute for that particular thrill. At least, not for me. To be honest, I didn't want to leave. But because of the enormity of the location, we couldn't possibly cover it all in one afternoon. What we did manage to see was pretty sobering in itself, however.

Before leaving the site behind, I took this one final video capture -- a 360 view of the center of town, the Agora. Halfway through the clip you'll briefly see the remains of the Temple of Jupiter, with Mt. Vesuvius framed behind it:

After the tour, we thanked our guide for such a wonderful service and then met Carmine in front of the main entrance. The ride back to the port was pretty quick, as Pompeii is just a 20 minute drive from Naples.

It was the end of our day and, alas, the end of our cruise. Lisa and I went through the motions of packing up our suitcases and leaving them outside our cabin door to be picked up for when we disembarked early in the morning. Then we had a rather somber dinner, as it seemed no one on the ship was really ready to end it all just yet. It was a sad atmosphere, to say the least.

Afterwards, we met up with our regular crowd of fast-made friends for one last round of drinks at the Martini Lounge. Some of us were sharing a transfer to the airport in the morning and so we agreed to meet at a certain time. Then, after a few group pics were taken and heartfelt goodbyes exchanged, Lisa and I took one last walk around this great big ship and reluctantly called it a night. I wasn't looking forward to hauling our rather heavy luggage around again the next day, nor was I particularly ready for the nearly 10 hour flight back to the States. Yes, it was the end of our fantastic journey. The Equinox set sail for Civitavecchia, and that, as they say, was that.

I hope you enjoyed reading through the accounts of our trip. We started out in Rome, sailed to Santorini, Mykonos, Istanbul, Ephesus, Greece, Naples, and then back to Rome. In all we spent 2 weeks abroad, the longest time we've ever spent outside of the United States (though, not our longest travel vacation ever).

And, hey, if you would like to see a larger collection of our trip photos, I must refer you once more to the relevant blog entry I posted a few weeks back (click here).

Thanks for stopping by!

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