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.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Author's Note: A brief interruption in the southern Italy tour series--that gives me time to finish processing photos.
Today is the 196th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, which was fought on June 18, 1815. Because it had rained the day before, and the area where Napoleon's army had gathered was soggy, he delayed the start of the battle until noon. Unfortunately, for him at least, that delay gave the opposing forces time to rally and position themselves. And, we all know how the battle ended...(don't we?). Napoleon met his Waterloo.

We visited the battlefield several years ago, when we toured Netherlands and Belgium. At the time of the battle, the village of Waterloo was part of the United Kingdom of Netherlands; today Waterloo is in Belgium. The visit was listed on the tour description--and I was quite excited to see this famous battlefield. Between Waterloo and Trafalgar, the two places where Napoleon met defeat, I figured seeing the site of the land battle was more promising than seeing the site of a sea battle.

Was I ever wrong. The location is an utterly unremarkable, mostly flat crossroads. Oh, sure, there are some buildings standing that were there when the battle was fought, but nothing in the entire site gave you the sense that here a great battle had been fought.

Perhaps I was spoiled, having visited the Gettysburg battlefield near where I live in Pennsylvania. There has been a concerted effort to try to preserve as much of this battlefield as possible. Plus, the topography of the area dovetails nicely with the accounts of how the battle unfolded there. I think I expected Waterloo to be a similar scene. But no.

The battle of Waterloo was a long hard fought battle. You can read an account here.
But there's another little story that fascinated me more than the great battle. The English hero of the battle was the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. So lauded was he with various titles, statues and monuments that when we visited England a tour guide pointed out one of the monuments--a monolithic column--and simply said: there's an Arthur. An Arthur? The proliferation of honorific monuments was so common they had earned a simple first name.

Ah--but did he deserve the credit that he got? That's the little story. I picked up a book somewhere called Wellington's Smallest Victory. It recounts the story of an admirer of Wellington, Captain William Siborne. To commemorate the great victory, he decided to construct a miniature scale model of the battle of Waterloo. They did such things in the days before television, movies, and other electronic imagination robbers. To get the most accurate picture of the battle, he began interviewing veterans. He picked a particular moment of the battle--the presumed turning point at 7 p.m. The Duke of Wellington with 68,000 soldiers, was turning back an attack by Napoleon.

With painstaking care to show that accurately, Siborne displayed Wellington's battle strength. He also displayed the 48,000 Prussian (who were allied with the English) soldiers who were attacking Napoleon's right rear guard. That Prussian charge likely turned the battle.
Now the rising conflict. When Siborne had completed his miniature, he hoped to sell tickets--such displays were routinely carted around the country and people came to see them. To drum up a big opening, he invited the Duke of Wellington--the hero of the battle--to come and see it.

The Duke was stunned. He had written his own account, and had greatly downplayed the role of the Prussians. In fact, he insisted there were only 8,000 Prussian soldiers. He absolutely refused to endorse Siborne's representation, and refused any correction of his view. Poor Siborne. He reworked the miniature, taking out 40,000 Prussians. But the Duke was not assuaged. He began a vicious campaign against Siborne.

Siborne lost his backers who were going to help fund the miniature and its tour. He died a beaten broken and penniless man. The little book has helped restore his reputation. However, the Duke of Wellington won his smallest victory by defeating an alternative view of the battle of Waterloo which would have somewhat lessened his great victory.

Thus endeth the lesson.
The painting is William Sadler's The Battle of Waterloo

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

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

Capri harbor

Iconic rocks just off Capri coast

Eisenhower's headquarters on Capri


Positano cafe

Naples castle

Mosaic showing Vesuvius, before the top blew

OK--the bad. No, the photos above do not give you a sense of the bad, although they relate in some ways.

The second major place we visited after Rome was Capri. This lovely little island is off the coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is a gorgeous place, but it has a somewhat troubled history (...almost bad, one might say). It was a place of exile and isolation. Tiberius took himself there from the daily responsibilities of being Caesar in Rome and lived on Capri for the last 10 years of his reign. I still have seared in my memory the scenes in I, Claudius where Caligula (who would later become Caesar) plied Tiberius with what we would call pornography. As a result of Tiberius' self-imposed exile, Sejanus who was the military might in Rome, made his encroachment into a power grab which would flower after Tiberius' death.

But, I digress. Capri today is a high priced very posh tourist destination and home to many stars. It was also a place where the Allies set up a headquarters during their final push into Italy--note the salmon colored house in the photos--that's where Eisenhower set up his command.

After docking in the harbor--first photo--we rode a funicular up the mountainside to the village of Capri on top. Of course, that ride prompted the second "bad" thing about the trip--an outbreak of singing "Funiculi, Funicula"--oh, come, you sang it in high school. I know I did.

That song in turn gave rise to singing all the other sappy quasi-Italian songs (complete with our bus tour group having an old Dean Martin CD being played). It is simply impossible to convince American tourist that the song "Volare" has no meaning at all. When they ask for a translation, and learn "volare" means "flying" they say--what? Yeah, what? Why get all goofy about a song that says
Volare oh oh
Cantare oh oh
Nel blu dipinto di blu
felice di stare lassu

To fly oh oh
To sing oh oh
In the blue painted blue
happy to be up there

Sappy, huh?

The first painting in the photos--the woman's back--is called "Primavera" least that's what our guide called it. It is in the Archeologica Museum in Naples. To get to the museum, in fact to get to Naples, we drove on wondrous curving very scary (bad) roads. In a tour bus. Not looking down. The Amalfi coast. Along the way, we visited Positano--a hugely expensive (even more than Capri) place, with a lovely little cafe (photo of the lantern).

There are many mosaics in the Naples museum which were taken from the villages destroyed by Vesuvius (talk about bad). In fact, the one mosaic showing Vesuvius is also in the photos above. Speaking of bad--the museum also has an entire section of adults only mosaics that were featured in the various residences in Pompeii...shall we say, x-rated mosaics. Who ever would have thought to put those two words together?

While the painting of Primavera is lovely, it was the last thing the guide showed us because it was for him the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance. He had dragged us all over the museum, in and out of various rooms, explaining many more things than our brains could hold, and then showed us that painting. The peak experience...except that by then we were too tired to appreciate it. A word to guides--keep your charges fresh; they will enjoy the art more.

You may have noted the photo of a castle--that is in Naples, which really deserves its own account, which I think you will get when I get to the ugly.

End of tour for today.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

What better title for an initial post on our recent vacation trip to Italy--a spaghetti Western title!
It has taken me a bit of time to get to viewing and paring down my photos from our trip to Rome and southern Italy. We began in Rome, and these photos are from that eternal city.

These brief remarks summarize our trip. Some ten plus years ago, we had done a trip to Italy that began in Rome and took us to places north--Venice, Florence, Assisi, Verona, Sienna, Bologna, and Pisa. We loved our views of Italy from that trip, so we anticipated this trip.

Rome was...well, Rome. It is such a wondrous mix of antiquity and modernity. The colors of Rome that we remembered from our first trip--that deep sun-washed mustardy yellow--were still there. And, that monstrosity that no Roman guide will speak well of that ruins the color scheme--the Victor Emanuel monument, a white confection of a tomb plopped within sight of the Flavian Amphitheater--was still there. On our first trip to Rome, our local guide was named Vera (pronounced Vay-ra). And she was most precise. She practically spat when she pointed out the Victor Emanuel Monument.

Of course, we took in the usual ancient sights--the Flavian Amphitheater, maybe you know it as the Coliseum or the Colosseum; the place where the Forum once stood; the place where Julius Caesar was cremated; the gardens of the Vestal Virgins. We also went to St. Peters, all of one week after John Paul II's beatification. So, posters hung everywhere with his smiling face. Almost made me feel bad for Benedict. We also visited the Pantheon, and Piazza Navone.

One real bonus in visiting St. Peters on this trip was the more leisurely time there. When we had previously been in the Sistine Chapel, it was high summer and the whole place was being restored so scaffolding hid part of those amazing Michelangelo paintings. This time, all scenes were completely in view, and no one hurried us through. So we stood, craned our necks, turned in circles and took it all in. I still think Michelangelo paints like a sculptor. He really needed to work on his anatomy of women, but...oh well.

I think all the things in Rome definitely fit under the rubric of "the good."

Fear not, dear reader. I will get to the bad and the ugly soon enough, in a future post.

The fabled pines of Rome.

Around the site of the ancient Forum.

Outside the Coliseum.

Remnants of the Vestal Virgins gardens.

I liked the sunburst view of the Coliseum.

Original Roman road paving stones--these are big...would have made for a rough chariot ride.

Now to St. Peters--the Papal balcony from which blessings are dispensed.

And of course the dome seen in the distance from many points in Rome.