Saturday, December 30, 2017

Naples and Rome

Naples, Italy:

I loved Naples for the exact opposite reason that I loved other European cities: it's NOT a fairy tale. It's gritty, even trashy. The mob still has a large presence in the city, and you can feel in the air that you should keep an eye out. And yet, the beauty still shines through. I went for a run one morning, a fool's proposition if there ever was one, and I breathed exhaust along a curvy, packed road where drivers care not for traffic laws and scooters zip in and out of traffic. Check out this view, though, with volcanic mountains in the background:


Beauty is always there, if you look for it

Naples reminds me of my beloved Valparaíso, Chile - both are port cities, and port cities are rough around the edges, blue collar and unrefined and proud.

Naples in particular shows its long history. It's home to the National Archaeological Museum, meaning I got to glimpse a few mummies and endless quantities of ancient Italian sculpture and paintings.





Apparently the ancients could be crass as well - the museum has an entire exhibit devoted to R- or X-rated artifacts:



I'd also argue that southern Italy has the best food, hands-down. Perhaps surprisingly, Italy is one of the best countries for traveling with Celiac because a relatively high percentage of Italians have developed the disease. I savored this amazing pizza, prepared in a separate kitchen down the street from the restaurant:



On my second day in the city, a large group from my hostel was going to explore "Il Sentiero degli Dei," which translates to "The Walk of the Gods," or as we joking called it, "Diggly Day." It's a breathtaking walk along the Amalfi coast between the small towns of Bomerano and the more famous Positano. To arrive, we took a series of buses from Naples up through the mountains to the coast. The roads were windy, the hills were steep, the bridges weren't quite wide enough to serve two-way traffic, and the bus driver was, well, an Italian bus driver. One devout elderly local woman grew so nervous as we turned a corner and charged a hill that she performed the sign of the cross, with eyes turned toward heaven and lips muttering a prayer.

The hike was beautiful, if steep. The path has lots of stairs, and winds straight up and downs the hills as it navigates between villages perched on cliff sides. Our group met a middle-aged Norwegian hiker named Stan on the trail, but we simply called him "Dad," and he kept up the best of spirits as we trekked along. Some of the group snagged fresh oranges out of the heavily-laden branches which draped across the path. Others played with the cats each time we entered a village. One or two climbed the rocks for the photo opportunities.

Have I mentioned that I'm basic?




  

Upon reaching Positano, we wandered down to the beach to put our toes in the sand. We also tasted the limoncello in the local distilleries - I was expecting it to taste something like a lemon drop, but it was so strong that the lemon flavor was more of an afterthought. Stan joined us for a few drinks, which was lovely, and we eventually took a train back into Naples.





We got some dinner in a cheap fast food kebob restaurant, and this is where the day turned sour, at least for me. One of the travelers in our group was angry that the "combo deal" wasn't actually a deal because it would have been cheaper to order the items separately. Rather than smugly smiling to himself for an astute realization and ordering everything separately, he began yelling at the owner for trying to rip people off. I hate when people make a scene, so I wanted to leave, but knew it wouldn't be good to travel through this part of the city by myself at night - we were right by the port. By the time the group finally ate and left the restaurant, the metro station had closed. I was the only one in the group who had explored Naples at all, so I knew that the roads were like a tangled spider web. We were roughly a 25-minute uphill walk away from our hostel, so I suggested that we take two taxis. The thrifty travelers in our group refused to spend the money. I felt uncomfortable walking because I was sure we'd get lost. I'm not usually a fearful person, but I knew the reputation of Naples as an unsafe city (in terms of pick-pocketing, mafia activity, etc.) and, more importantly, I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I refused to take a taxi alone, because I hadn't heard great things about the Napolean taxis either.

So I angrily walked with the group. Rather than leaving me be, they roasted me as we walked through dark alleys in a relatively sketchy neighborhood. "See, this is what's wrong with Americans - they're so fearful, they never go out and do anything fun." I replied that I had been travelling for months alone as a woman and had been just fine, thank you very much, but I had learned to listen to my gut and I didn't like this situation at all. The group said, "Well, the worst that will happen is that you'll get mugged," and proceeded to share stories of when they all had been mugged and been "just fine." This, of course, really helped their case. That, and the fact that we were loudly speaking English in a city where not much English is spoken - might as well put a sign on our foreheads saying "not from here." At some point, I realized I'd do better to shut up, appreciate the beauty of the neighborhoods lit up at night and filled with locals enjoying the evening (we had gotten to a better part of town), and hope the walk would go by fast. We did in fact make it back safely, because our navigators did an excellent job of following their downloaded map. I was fuming at that point, and went straight to bed without saying much else to the group. People ask me all the time if I ever felt unsafe traveling alone, and I usually answer that this night was one of the only moments when I did.

I was only too happy to do my own thing the following day. I rode the train up to Pompeii and take a tour of the ruins. I don't think I comprehended just how large the city was. I also found it fascinating that you could still tell the purpose of buildings - for example, we saw the gymnasium where men swam, the restaurants which were along main roads, and even a brothel.

Edge of the city

Outside the temples
Major road
Brothel and the services offered

An artist's larger-than-life installation in the ruins
Courtyard in a wealthy family's home
I was surprised to hear that a lot of people survived the Pompeii eruption and got away on navy boats, which is why we have an account of what happened. More gruesome were the bodies (a few still on site, for memorial purposes) of those who died almost instantly.

Child's body
After leaving the Pompeii archaeological site, I took a van most of the way up Mount Vesuvius and climbed on a dirt road to the top. It's at most a 30 minute walk, but hey, that still counts as climbing a volcano, right? At the top, I peered into the open, lightly smoking crater. I also appreciated the beautiful views of Naples, while drinking a bottle of Vesuvius-branded rosé. And, of course, I listened to Bastille's Pompeii on repeat.

Rome, Italy:
Rome is massive, and ancient. I'd describe the city as stratified - you can be walking down a city street, and then you see an archaeological site where they are unearthing centuries' worth of history. First thing, I visited the Colosseum, which was as cool as I hoped it would be. You can see the underground passages which transported wild animals and gladiators, who were usually slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war. The Romans didn't just bring lions through there - they brought animals like crocodiles. Can you imagine going out to trap one of those things and then bringing it all the way back to Rome?


Inside the Colosseum

We then walked to the crown of the Palatine Hill, which held Roman palaces and temples along with wild parties. I could have spent hours wandering the ruins, but unfortunately the sun was about to set so they politely but insistently forced us out of the park. I therefore sat by the rows of street artists and performers and ate gelato while the sunset colors stained the ruins beautiful shades of blush and persimmon and violet.

Palatine Hill



I was lucky to meet my friend Kirby for dinner - she and I met in Switzerland, and she was teaching English in Rome. We ate at a delicious local restaurant between my hostel and her home, and she took me to one of her favorite gelaterias. It was so good to see a familiar face and catch up a bit! She also gave me recommendations for seeing the Vatican (book a tour), getting out to run (take the metro toward the river), and the best artisan gelato place (just a few blocks from my hostel).

Working in reverse order, let me tell you about the gelato. First of all, I was so obsessed with gelato that I ate it at least once a day while in Italy, sometime more often than that. Second, the place she recommended was amazing. It was tucked away on a tiny patio in the middle of a neighborhood, and it had the most amazing flavors. One I tried was named "Thumbelina," and it had Sorrento walnuts, rose petals, and violets. Another was called "Pink Venus," and it was a combination of black rice (I don't even know what this is to be honest) and rose buds. Simply exquisite!

Now, for the run. This was a bit more of an adventure than I anticipated. I got off the metro at a station that had a park, which I thought would be promising for getting toward the river. However, the metro stop was in a mall, and I literally ran in circles through the parking garage and looped driveway before a few maintenance workers in the garage asked if I needed help. As was my habit in Italy, I spoke very slowly in Spanish, so that they could get the gist of what I was saying. One of them very generously walked me all the way through the garage and pointed to where I needed to go. I zig-zagged through the park and eventually found the river! I had to figure out how to get down alongside it, however, so I ran along the side of the road for a bit until I saw a staircase. As I dashed toward the stairs, I saw a homeless man lying behind the wall with his pants partially down, most likely pleasuring himself. My brain sternly commanded that I simply keep going and don't look back in case he would get angry for me seeing something I shouldn't have (and really didn't want to see, to be honest).  Once I had distanced myself and was sure that he wasn't following me, all I could think was, "Oh my god, I just saw that man's scrotum." I'm pretty sure I will never forget that sight. Oh, and the views along the river were nice too. I ended up in a plaza, ate some gelato (what else?) and took the metro back.
Finishing my run by a fountain

On to holier topics - the Vatican. Vatican City may be the smallest country in the world, but it is filled with massive buildings. And yet, it's still crazy crowded, particularly since I was there at the end of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Pope Francis declared a year-long occasion to focus on pardon and forgiveness for all, lasting from December 8, 2015 until November 20, 2016. This is a special occasion in the Vatican because the Holy Doors remain open, and thousands make pilgrimages to receive mercy. I was there on November 18th, so to say that St. Peter's Basilica was busy would be an understatement. There were few times on the trip when I felt so claustrophobic as I did in that moment.

The Vatican, as seen from the dome on the roof
Gardens surrounding Vatican
In front of St. Peter's Basilica

Do you feel claustrophobic just looking at the photo?

Anyway, the tour was pretty spectacular. Although the Vatican is mostly known for Michelangelo's mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, there is incredible artwork throughout - various popes over the millennia have had a penchant for collecting artwork. Many wealthy individuals have also donated artwork to the Vatican, including famous artists themselves. Heck, Michelangelo himself designed the dome on St. Peter's Basilica, which is the largest church in the world. I kept thinking to myself, wow, this certainly seems like a lot of wealth and power for an organization which follows a Savior who once preached to "go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."

Casual Dali painting in the Vatican
Pieta, blurry

I saw a few more things - such as the Trevi Fountain (because how could I be a basic white girl traveling Europe if I didn't),



the Pantheon and Raphael's grave,



the Spanish steps (I have no idea why these are so popular), and the windows of expensive Italian designer clothing stores (I have to say, I admire the quality fabrics and clean lines).





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