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Queensland, Australia
I'm an Australian author of Contemporary Romance, Romantic Action/Adventure, and Historical fiction. I live in Queensland, Australia. www.noelleclark.net

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A walk through the ancient city of Pompeii


I was in Primary school when I first heard about the city of Pompeii. I was ghoulishly enthralled with the thought of people going about their ordinary daily chores, and suddenly being turned to stone from the eruption of the nearby volcano, Mt. Vesuvius. Somehow, I thought that this was recent news. That it had just happened in a country a long way from the safety of Australia. I was both horrified and curious, and as I listened to the teacher telling us about it, my mind conjured up all sorts of images of people standing in front of the open fridge, looking for something to eat, and then – whoosh - all of a sudden they were stone statues.

Well, fast forward many, MANY years, and I was on my way to visit Pompeii, in the Campania region of Italy, not far from Naples.

We were leaving the enchanting town of Sorrento, heading back to Rome by train, and decided to stop off at Pompeii on the way. The Circumvesuviana train runs between Naples and Sorrento every half hour and stops at Pompeii, Herculaneium, Mt Vesuvius and the Ercalano archaeological site.

We alighted the Circumvesuviana at Pompeii Scavi station, which is about a half an hour from Naples, and is midway between Sorrento and Naples. It was quite late in the afternoon to be visiting such a mammoth place as Pompeii, but we wanted to squeeze it in before continuing our journey on towards Naples, then boarding the Trenitalia train north to Rome later that night.

We were burdened down with our luggage, so managed to find a locker room where, for a small fee, we were able to leave our bulkier luggage. The three of us decided to split up and go our separate ways as it is such a large city that it was best to try and cover it at our own speed. We agreed to meet back at the locker room at 7pm, thus giving us about 2 hours to explore. Not enough time, but better than nothing.

We entered Pompeii through the Porta Marina gate. The ticket price included a pocket guide and map and all places are numbered so that you can guide yourself around. There are also numbered street signs to help tourists. I must say that I got hopelessly lost at several stages and wasted valuable time in trying to find exactly where I was. I eventually ran into Matt, who also admitted to being a bit lost. Because it was so late, there were very few other tourists there, and it was quite eerie walking around this deserted ancient city on my own. Our other companion, Deemie, also got lost – even worse than us – and she did not make our arranged meeting time and place, meaning that we in fact missed our train to Naples and therefore our connection train back to Rome. Anyway, I digress.

August 24th 79 AD changed the lives of the residents of Pompeii forever. Despite what we now recognize as early-warning signs for an impending eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the 20,000 people who lived in Pompeii had long ago stopped thinking of the mountain as a volcano and so continued about their daily business. There had been a severe earthquake in the region only a month or two prior to the cataclysmic eruption of nearby Mt Vesuvius, but their complacency lost them their lives. Pompeii wasn’t the only city to be destroyed during the eruption of August 24 79AD. Nearby Herculaneium was also inundated and in fact many say it is actually a better place to visit because, unlike Pompeii, it wasn’t ransacked by looters over the early centuries.

So, what actually happened? Matt and I could see Mt Vesuvius rising above the landscape, but it looked so far away, we were scratching our heads trying to work out how lava flowed this far to smother the people of Pompeii. Well, in fact, it wasn’t the lava that did it. It was ash and pumice (a light, porous stone), and poisonous gasses that did it. The relentlessness of the downpour of ash and pumice lasted for about 24 hours and dropped 60 feet of detritus on the city and its people. However, the volcanologists now say that those who did in fact run when the eruption started, were able to get away, but because the initial stages of the raining down was not lethal, most residents thought that, provided they sheltered indoors in a secure place, they would be safe until it stopped, when they could emerge and commence the cleanup.

But, well into the night, a series of pyroclastic surges and flows occurred. According to the BBC History site*, a pyroclastic flow is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments and volcanic gas, which rushes down the side of a volcano as fast as 100 km/hour or more. Imagine wave upon wave of intense heat and liquefied rock fragments, sweeping through the town, asphyxiating everyone in their path. The nearby town of Herculaneium copped it first, then it came to Pompeii. So strong and relentless was the onslaught, that it actually changed the whole geography of the Sorrentine peninsular. Pompeii once was a coastal town. It is now well inland.

In the early centuries after the eruption of 79AD, looters tunnelled in under and took all the valuables. The city remained hidden until it was discovered by archaeologists in the 17th century.

The city of Pompeii today is still an active archaeological dig. There are many plaster casts of the mummified bodies of people who were overcome in the 79AD devastation. The poses of the bodies are quite poignant, as they are in fact, just as I was told back in Primary school, ordinary people doing ordinary things, turned to stone. Some poses show the futility of their demise, obviously trying to shelter but resigned to a certain death.

But apart from the looting which took place many centuries ago, some of the artwork is surprisingly well preserved and is a wonderful look at how this thriving and wealthy city and its inhabitants lived.

The most striking thing for me was seeing the ingenuity of the Romans whose skills at construction and road building is legendary. Their well laid out streets were made of big blocks of stone. Really hard to walk on, so imagine how rough to be in a chariot driving down one of these. The chariots’ wheels have worn deep ruts in the rock. There are massive stepping stones across the roads for pedestrians, and narrow blocks down each side for footpaths.

The city of Pompeii had every modern convenience imaginable. We saw kitchens, bathrooms with running water (the Romans ability to provide clean, running water is just amazing), communal pumps, lavish meeting rooms, nice suburban homes, and brothels. Yes, brothels! Apparently the Pompeians of 79AD were a fairly randy lot! The walls are adorned with erotic images.  Exquisite artwork depicting family life and the stories of their revered gods and goddesses, such as this one of Perseus holding aloft the head of Medusa.

All too soon our time was up and we had to meet up to catch the train back to Rome. In a perfect world, I would prefer to take a whole day out to explore Pompeii, Herculaneium and the Ercalano archaeological site and will do that next time I visit. If you go in summer, take water and a hat, and wear very stout shoes. It is hard going, but very well worth it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Day Trip from London to Brighton

Brighton - by the Sea

Located a mere hour from London by train, Brighton is the Seaside place to be!! I met my friend, Joy, at Victoria Station at about 12noon, (late starters), and we caught the train down to Brighton. I must say, the train system here is very good, fast, clean, and comfortable. Not cheap, but very efficient. The trip cost us 14 English pounds return but we had an absolutely fabulous day. The sun was even trying to break through the gloomy grey clouds.

We arrived at Brighton station at about 1pm and walked 10 minutes or so down Queens Road, which then becomes West Street, to the main Brighton beach on the Esplanade. It was a cold, bleak and blustery day, one of those days where the wind goes right through you. The beach was quite a surprise to an Aussie girl, because it is covered with egg size, rounded gravel. It is still quite picturesque, even without soft sand, and is a very popular spot indeed. The sea was a dark green and did not look at all inviting. Indeed there were no swimmers, however we saw two jet skiers who had the wet and cold task of checking the buoys.

Brighton is instantly likeable. It is quaint, old fashioned, VERY English, and I think I found the true England, but sensed that it was set in the 1950s. I loved it.

We braced ourselves against the gale and walked up towards the famous Brighton Pier. Once on the Pier, we found families and couples of all ages enjoying the fun of a fair, with lots of side shows and rides. Lots of indoor pinball and games arcades which give pleasure despite any bad weather . The Pier also has quaint little souvenir shops , a couple of really nice bars and restaurants.

The Pier at Brighton was built in the late 1890s and attracts over 2 million visitors a year. The Pier is 525 metres (or 1,722 feet) long and has the reputation as being one of the finest piers of its type ever built.

Joy and I, seeking somewhere warm out of the chill wind, popped into one of the restaurants and ordered English fish and chips and a glass of wine. We felt that we simply had to have fish and chips on Brighton Pier. Very nice too. Then we wandered to the end where they had carnival rides, scary rides, lots of noise, lots of people. Lots of children and families enjoying a day out.

We walked back and wandered back again towards town which is riddled with “little laines” - sic -. That’s how they spell them and considering that most of the buildings I saw were built in the 1640s and that there are several streets with evidence of dating back to Roman times, I would say that ‘laines’ is an appropriate way to spell the maze of cobblestoned, shop-filled lanes. The little terrace cottages were painted in gay, bright colours, which gave the streets a jaunty, holiday sort of look. We passed lots of cafes, little pubs, designer clothing shops, nightclubs, souvenir shops. Joy and I had a really lovely meander through this maze and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Joy had last visited Brighton 36 years ago, in much the same way as I had been to England last 30 years ago, on a camping tour of Europe. We share some really good memories. She said she had been to a magnificent building called the Royal Palace which was like the Taj Mahal. Well, we asked locals, and eventually found it. A stunning building which is now a library and museum. This building is white and topped with three large minarets and lots of little ones. Very exotic and Oriental to look at. A nice little park nearby and really a remarkable place.

The Royal Palace has been an exotic landmark of Brighton for 200 years. It was built for King George IV, Prince of Wales, who was born in 1762, by John Nash and it’s plush interior and extraordinary exterior reflect the personality of George IV and Regency reign. The extravagant design suited George and became his pleasure palace.

So, Brighton was full of surprises. It really was. The egg-sized pebble beach was unique (in my experience anyway), and a lovely little place with lots of character, foibles, interesting things to see and do, and a wonderful way to see how the English people spend some of their leisure time.

Joy and I strode around the ‘Laines’ area for some time, stopped for coffee at one point, then caught the 6pm train back to London. It was a great way to spend a sort of sunny, sort of very grey Sunday.