Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (terza parte)

Well, it is time to finish the southern Italian tour series. I admit to a bit of cheating--the ugly in some instances was really ugly, but in other instances it is an effect that ends up being ugly--not so much the sight.

Take for example, Pompeii, pictured below. Probably one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in human history--Vesuvius erupting in AD 79. Three small towns were buried then, of which Pompeii is the most well-known. It is almost an obligatory tourist stop--and a most interesting place to see.

Visiting there solved a puzzlement for me. Why did so many people die in Pompeii? Why hadn't they left? When
Vesuvius began erupting, the residents in the area thought it simply a normal occurrence. Frequent eruptions had lulled them into a kind of complacency. But the mountain continued erupting, for two days. When the wealthier residents became concerned, and left Pompeii, they instructed servants and slaves to remain behind to guard things. These, then, were the people who died. A few of these poor souls can still be seen, in varying poses of death rictus. Ugly.

What is really mystifying is that Vesuvius could erupt again as it has through the centuries--and in its shadow live some 2 million people. The town of Naples is very near Vesuvius. Speaking of ugly--Naples set a new standard. Not that Naples is ugly, but everywhere we encountered mountains, yes mountains, of trash. Trash bags and refuse piled high--going uncollected week in and week out. A host of issues have converged to cause this on-going trash crisis: incompetency, work stoppages, organized crime. The result is an eye-sore and a nose assault. Just ugly.

Near Pompeii, we visited another place I had not heard of before this trip--Matera with its Sassi. Now a picturesque location, with the tangle of pristine white houses you see below, this place was once a site of unimaginable misery. You can read more
here--but the nub of the crisis that what began as houses hewn out of the rocks in pre-historic times continued to be homes into the mid-1900s. Families of 12 or more people would be crowded into two cave rooms, along with farm animals. When the situation came to light, the Italian government eventually solved it by forceably removing all the residents. Today, the authentic cave houses are tourist attractions. And the whole town has become a place where upscale living quarters are being built. Any such building must conform to original appearance to help the place maintain its historic status. It is the sad history of the place that is ugly.

We visited the town of Syracuse, where there is an extensive ruin of what was once a quarry. Now, it appears to be an open pit (see below), but at one time it was really tunnels in the rocks. At the height of its being used, some 30,000 slaves were forced to quarry stone all their lives.

In its heyday, Syracuse was a thriving city-state, dominating the southern end of Sicily. It was allied with Sparta and Corinth. Among the name of great people born there is Archimedes who died during a siege of the city.

There is still a Greek theater which continues to be used, and evidence of a Roman amphitheater. So many places on Sicily experienced multiple waves of invasion--so you see Greek ruins, Roman ruins, as well as other conquering nations.

Almost everywhere we went, along the eastern coast of Sicily, we saw the gentle rise of Mt. Etna. Etna is still a very active volcano--you can see the smoke that is visible almost every day. The sight of it is beautiful--until you consider that Etna regularly spits out lava flows that run down the mountainside. The next photo shows the different colors of the lava--as it ages, it darkens.

So while the view is very pretty, living in the shadow of a mountain that can send down hot lava was potentially ugly--except everyone who lives near Etna is entranced by the physical beauty that results from incredibly fertile soil, made so because of the lava.

The last city we visited was Palermo, Sicily. Now, my advice to tour planners is never end a tour in the least attractive place. Palermo was dirty, dingy, run-down. Scenes such as the one below were fairly common--nothing inherently ugly about seeing street vendors offering their wares--but a large tuna being sliced up, and then left to sit there in the heat, all day--well, that did not appeal to me.

One of the most quixotic things to me was the reaction of many of the people on the tour. My husband and I were among the very few people who had NO Italian, specifically Sicilian, heritage. Everywhere we went, our tour group folks kept warbling--oh, isn't it just so beautiful. Why did our grandparents leave this lovely place. I felt like saying--because they were unemployed, they had no hope in this place. They came to America for opportunity. One of the fellow tour members very tellingly noted: in America, I'm Italian; in Italy, I'm American. Ah, yes.

So, I will leave you with two scenes that did merit that "oh, isn't it lovely" response--the first photo is from Agrigento, the second from Selinunte. While we saw many places with ruins, one of the most unusual was Selinunte. It was a place utterly without tourist crowds. No tour guides. Just a few folk wandering around, soaking up the stunning skies and massive ruins of a temple. This scene was enough to compensate for any ugly, and utterly remove it.


Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Thanks for the tour and the history notes.

Nance said...

I had heard about the ugliness in Naples, which is a shame, since it could be so lovely in its location. When I make my tour someday, I'll remember that excellent tip: never end your tour on ugly.

Dog_geek said...

I have recently been learning more about my own Italian heritage - my grandfather's came from Laterza, not too far from Matera (and I recently discovered relatives still living there) and my grandmother's parents were from Bari. My father visited an uncle in Laterza once, about 45 years ago, and was really struck by the poverty and living conditions.

Anvilcloud said...

Thanks for sharing the ugly. From here it's all beautiful in its own way.

Climenheise said...

Thank you for taking us along on the trip. Even ugly has its own beauty. Although the more touristy, the less truly beautiful -- at least that's often true. The rise of tourism as an industry, which makes so much of our travelling possible, is part of what we want to avoid when we travel. I'm waiting for you to do a swing through Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand next. (Last night we heard an interesting description from a friend of their trip through these countries.) But then you have sort of specialized in Europe and North Africa, which is well worth doing.

Ruth said...

I would love to see the lovely and ugly. I have only been at the airport in Rome. I enjoyed your travel series.

NCmountainwoman said...

I've always been fascinated by the stories about Pompeii. I am enjoying your trip very much.