October 31, 2013

Roman Ashes and Greek Temples

"Whatever you want to do, do it now!  There are only so many tomorrows.”   Pope Paul VI – Italian Pope (1897-1978)

Al writes:  There is a considerable difference between Northern Italy and Southern Italy.  The north is more affluent and the south is, well, just crazy.  Once you get down to Naples, it is chaotic.  Driving is interesting and is the only place on this trip I started seeing dented cars.  The Italians like to drive on the line in the middle of the road to keep their options open.  The air quality did not seem to be very good with the open-air burning, and there seemed to be much more trash.  If you want to experience the gritty Italian culture, this is the place.

We skipped Rome because we spent a week there several years ago, and so we made our way to the Naples area to explore Pompeii and Herculaneum.  On pulling into Pompeii, my first big decision was: do I stay at the Spartacus Campground or the Zeus Campground?  Spartacus was crucified by the Romans, so I thought it might be cheaper than paying for a Roman-god-endorsed campground.

Then an incredible coincidence occurred which has a probability of almost zero.  We ran into Mark and Vicki!   Here is the story.  Mark and Vicki are world travelers and have traveled Europe for 33 months out of the last five years in an almost identical RV as ours.  In my research for this trip, I came across their blog and got countless pointers and cautions for preparing for this trip.  Mark and Vicki shared their wisdom and experience via emails and a phone call, which was a tremendous help to us in our preparations.  I knew they were in Europe but did not have any hope that we would meet in the same campground.  There are thousands of campgrounds and thousands of free wild camping places, and we just happened to be in the same place at the same time.  Amazing!  We had a delightful evening together drinking Mark and Vicki's wine, telling stories, and sharing information.  What a great evening.  They have been our inspiration…

 Mount Vesuvius dominates the skyline of Naples.  It erupted August 24, 79 A.D and wiped out the ports of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Our first day in the ruins was spent in Pompeii, once a middle-class bustling town of about 20,000 inhabitants.  Most of Pompeii's citizens were able to escape the dozens of feet of ash deposited on the town.  What was a bad day for the Romans, created a treasure trove of artifacts and knowledge of what Roman life was like during this era.  Many of the artifacts and frescoes have been moved to the Archaeological Museum of Naples, but the massive extent of the ruins make up the ultimate ghost town one can visit.  We explored city block after city block, marveling at the remains of the forum,

 plaster casts of some of the 2000 inhabitants that did not escape,

interior walls of the Roman baths,

 town streets with chariot ruts and stepping stones for pedestrians,


 courtyards inside Roman houses,

 and the town theater.

As we walked the miles of quiet, abandoned streets (most tourists had left for the day), we could not help but nervously look over our shoulder at the looming outline of Vesuvius, which is still an active volcano and is closely monitored.  It last erupted in 1944.

Our next day was spent in Herculaneum, just a short train ride away from the campground.  Herculaneum was also a port town, but smaller with about 4,000 inhabitants.  This town was better preserved because it was covered by a super-hot pyroclastic flow of ash, pumice, and gas that flowed down the flanks of Vesuvius at nearly 100 miles per hour.  Herculaneum was buried under about 60 feet of this material that later cooled to rock, freezing the town in time.  So the evacuated area is much smaller than Pompeii but loaded with better preserved mosaic floors, frescoes and organic material.  The organic material I am referring to is wood and, unfortunately, bodies.  Archeologists were puzzled by the lack of human remains until they started uncovering the boat storage areas along what used to be the water's edge.  Most of the inhabitants rushed to the water to try to escape, and the photos tell the story.

This area is treated with respect and is restricted to observing the area from a distance looking down on these alcoves.  Very graphic and disturbing…

The rest of Herculaneum provided a wonderful view of life in the Roman Empire.  One of my favorite parts of the ruins were Thermopoliums.  They were on every street and block.  It is the Roman version of McDonald's franchises.  They were fast food joints and were almost identical in appearance, just as you would expect from a fast food franchise.

Here are some snapshots of time that was stopped in the ruins of Herculaneum.



In preparation for this trip, obviously, we had a wish list of many places that we wanted to visit.  However, there has also been what we call the unplanned, unexpected jewels.  Our last stop in southern Italy was one of those jewels called Paestum.  The town was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC.  It has some of the best, well-preserved Greek ruins found anywhere, and that includes Greece and Turkey.  It has three marvelous temples still standing and the remains of Roman ruins interspersed between the temples.  The Romans left the temples undisturbed because they respected all sacred sites.

The temples are the Temple of Hera,

the Temple of Neptune,

 and the Temple of Ceres.

Paestum is on the waters of Salerno Bay.  It was here that my Dad as a young gunner's mate on an LST was part of the invasion force that landed at Salerno and which eventually led to the fall of Rome and Italy surrendering to the Allies.  So walking the beach at our campsite for the evening was meaningful when thinking about my Dad and what he experienced as a teenager off the coast of Paestum.

"Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else."   Lawrence Block

October 29, 2013

Byzantine Splendor and Franciscan Hills

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” Leonardo da Vinci
Carol writes: 
RAVENNA:  As we left Venice, we headed south along the Adriatic coast to Ravenna.  Our home for the night was a free city/church parking lot that was also nicely set up with a dump station and fresh water for RV travelers.  We have sure come to appreciate these ‘gratis’ overnight facilities.

The next day we took a short bus ride into Ravenna.  We found little to admire as we walked along Ravenna’s gritty, workaday streets.  However, the city street scene wasn’t why we decided to visit Ravenna; it was all about five sites that were said to contain the world’s most lavish collection of 5th and 6th century West Byzantine mosaics.

The five sites we visited were:

·      The Chapel of St. Andrea in the Archiepiscopal Museum

·      The Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, long past its heyday in many ways, except for its frescos


·      The Neonian Baptistry, one of the oldest monuments in Ravenna, dating back to the 4th or 5th century

·      The Mausoleum of Galla Placida, a 5th century tomb built for a wealthy family that was never buried there.  The mosaic starry sky of brilliant blue was fresh and dazzling.


and the most exquisite, by far…

·      The Basilica di San Vitale


This 1400-year-old church was a jewel box of colored glass mosaics.  From my point of view as a quilter, who is always looking for new quilt patterns and designs, the floor was a delightful quilt book in stone.  It should not surprise me---yet it still does—that the classic quilt block designs that I have come to know so well are found in design patterns that must have originated centuries ago—at least as far back as Greek and Roman times.

In quilting jargon, the triangles that are touching point-to-base in the stone floor border area in the picture below are called “flying geese,” a quilt border design I have used several times in my quilts.

Well done, Ravenna!

ASSISI:  It was a short half-day drive from Ravenna to the town of Assisi.  We selected a campsite which was located in the valley floor below sun-washed Assisi perched on the hillside above. 

Perhaps one of the most beloved and well-known saints in the entire Catholic pantheon of saints is St. Francis of Assisi.  Yes, Assisi is a lovely Italian hill town, but its claim to fame is the religious connection with St. Francis of Assisi, and I would venture to say that is the reason for the majority of tourist/pilgrim visits.  St Francis was born in Assisi into a family of lucrative cloth merchants, but after his unfortunate war experience fighting the Perugians, he suddenly became unhappy with his life and fled as a young man to the neighboring hills where he subsequently led a pious and holy life.  Somewhat lost in the giant shadow of St. Francis was the gentle St. Clare, founder of an order of nuns called the Poor Clares.   St. Clare was born in Assisi a few years after St. Francis, and both saints were baptized at the same baptismal font in the Cathedral of St. Rufino,

and each now has an impressive basilica in Assisi that is dedicated in their honor.  The Basilica of St. Clare

housed the tomb of St. Clare but was not near as grand as the one dedicated to St. Francis, but its style was appropriate in acknowledging the simple, contemplative way of life of the Poor Clares.

The Basilica of St. Francis, dating back to the 13th century, was a worthy Catholic pilgrimage site. 


The tourist pathway through the basilica complex followed the same route that was taken by pilgrims centuries ago.  Our path started at a solemn chapel area that housed the tomb of St. Francis.  Fabulous frescos adorned the walls of the lower basilica, but it was a wonderful series of 28 large frescos depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis that was the crowd pleaser in the upper basilica.

A simple shrubbery sculpture in the shape of the Greek letter “tau” graced the grassy area outside the exit door.


St. Francis was known to have used the cross-shaped “tau,” the last letter of the Greek alphabet, as his abbreviated signature, signifying faithfulness to the end.

We couldn’t help but remark how clean and well preserved Assisi’s homes and public buildings appeared.  And some of them dated back to the 14th century! 


Franciscan brothers and priests, in addition to nuns in religious habits, were common sites as we strolled through the streets. We noticed several posters in town that advertised a papal visit to Assisi for the following weekend.  How proud the citizens of Assisi must have been when the current Pope, the first Jesuit ever elected Pope, took the name of Francis I. 

It was easy to admire the holy life and non-materialistic ideals of St. Francis, but what appealed to us most was the love that St. Francis had for the natural world and its creatures.  He was an environmentalist way ahead of his time… 

Whether Catholic by religion or just a Citizen of Earth, there was a fundamental philosophy to be admired in three lines of the prayer commonly associated with St. Francis: 


…Praise for Brother Sun, who brings the day.  His radiance                                                                         reminds us of you!

Praise for Sister Moon and the stars, precious and beautiful…

Praise for our sister, Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us…

                                           --St. Francis of Assisi




October 26, 2013

The Big Fish in the Lagoon

“If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Italian writer

Carol writes:  Our ferry ride across the English Channel back to France went without a hitch.  Once again, we were impressed with the English Channel ferry system; it really was efficient and quick!  From the stern of our French ferry at the base of the White Cliffs of Dover, we waved a fond “cheerio” to the UK and headed back to the land of “bonjour.”


Our ultimate destination for the next month was sunny and warm Italy!  We were both looking forward to a good dose of sunshine and warm Mediterranean days.  For the sake of efficiency, we decided to take the toll roads through France and Italy for the 900-mile drive to Venice.  We had no idea how expensive the French toll road system would be, so for our first stretch we experimented by hopping on just out of Calais.  We rolled along at a marvelous highway speed for about 120 miles, then pulled up to our first toll booth and handed the attendant our ticket.  When she asked us for the equivalent of $42 for our 120-mile segment of excellent French highway, we experienced monumental sticker shock!  We did the math for 900 miles and then made some quick navigational changes for Jill, our Garmin lady.  We changed course to the slower free roads that in many cases paralleled the tolls roads—sometimes for miles at a stretch.  Gas was also quite a bit “cheaper” off the toll route, relatively speaking.  As we looked back on our decision to abandon the toll roads, we felt it was the right one.  There were plentiful free French campgrounds along the way, we saved on gas and tolls, and we enjoyed the immaculate French countryside.  The scenery in the mountainous French/Italian border region was spectacular!

When we crossed into Italy three days later, we conducted another test drive on the fast and efficient Italian autostrada toll roads and found the cost there to be much more reasonable and definitely worth a few extra dollars for their speed and efficiency.    

VENICE:  The captivating water-bound city of Venice, with its web of canal “streets” and plethora of boats instead of cars, has always captured our imagination, for it holds such a unique place among the great cities of Europe.  We selected a campground in an area called Punta Sabbioni, located at the end of a peninsula which was just a short 30-minute commute by ferry to Venice across the bay.  We were having a beautiful sunny day so, after quick showers and donning our finest campground attire, we headed to the ferry for our first Venice experience.

The city of Venice is virtually an island in the Venetian lagoon on the Adriatic Sea, with only a narrow 2-mile highway and rail causeway connection to the mainland.  Venice is shaped like a fish--and it is the Big Fish among a hundred or so islands that dot the lagoon. 

The main tourist port of entry was in the ‘belly of the fish’ near St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.   As we drew close to our ferry landing, we were astounded at the beautiful and picturesque Venetian shoreline.


The lighting was excellent, and cool Venetian colors set the perfect scene.  The “streets” of Venice were somewhat narrow canals, like this one spanned by the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” where prisoners of a bygone era were said to have made a final nostalgic sigh as they headed off to prison in the Doge’s Palace.

The Grand Canal winds its way through Venice in the ‘body of the fish.’  One of the best thrills in Venice is a ride on the Grand Canal—either by means of very pricey private gondolier rides,

expensive water taxis or, for a much better deal, by means of the local public transportation system—a boat called the vaporetto.

Our first view of Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Square with its impressive St. Mark’s Basilica and iconic bell tower was thrilling! 

Sometimes the pictures with both of us that we have taken by other tourists don’t quite convey our best expressions, but if it’s the only twosome picture we have, we may go with it…

St. Mark’s Square, which is famous/infamous for its gigantic pigeon population, lived up to its reputation.  Pigeons were everywhere!

As the sun set on Venice, the city became even more beautiful and romantic.  If you are going to splurge a few euros on a special treat, dinner at a restaurant along the Grand Canal would be a good choice.  We had a great meal at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, one of the world’s most famous bridges.


When you travel for an extended length of time in Europe, you are bound to have the unpleasant experience of having a planned labor strike affect your plans.  We had missed out on seeing the inside of the abbey at Mont St. Michel in France four months ago due to a labor strike that had caused early closure there.  In Italy, a general strike by transportation workers was scheduled for October 18th, our second day in Venice.  We were told that meant no canal vaporetto rides would be available in Venice.  In fact, all public transportation in the entire country would be at a greatly reduced volume.  Our campground host had told us about the strike when we checked in, so we felt fortunate that we had found out about this ahead of time so we could plan accordingly.  We adjusted our touring schedule to accommodate fewer ferry crossings and no vaporetto service on the canals for our second day. 

Our destination the next afternoon (strike day) was the Doge’s Palace, the seat of Venetian government and home of the ruling doge for over 400 years.  The inner courtyard was palatial in every sense of the word.


The interior rooms had walls festooned with paintings by several Italian grand masters.  The ceilings were like a palace on steroids.

The prison section had been cleaned and tidied up but was grim nonetheless.

Pictures were forbidden inside the Doge’s Palace; however, some of the best views of Venice were from the palace windows that overlooked the harbor area.

Sometimes a strike can offer an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered.  Because of the strike, the last ferry back to our campground was early--around 6 p.m.--so that meant we had an unplanned wonderful 30-minute ‘sunset cruise’ back to Punta Sabbioni.  A nearly full moon made the ride most memorable.


On our last day in Venice we visited St. Mark’s Basilica.  We were surprised to find that the combination of high tides and the previous night’s full moon had been enough to cause very minor flooding during the night in St. Mark’s Square in front of the basilica.

And it hadn’t rained at all the previous night!  Venice has a well-known enormous problem with rising sea levels.  In addition, it is slowly sinking into the compacting sediments that it was built upon.  During the rainy season much of St. Mark’s Square has to be covered with raised walkways, and it floods about 100 times a year!  I hope some excellent civil engineers are hard at work on a plan to save this World Heritage city.

St. Mark’s Basilica is known for its fabulous mosaics--on the walls and on the ceiling as well as the floor.  Pictures were forbidden, but it was easily apparent to us that sneaking a few was a common practice.


One of the most interesting sites in Venice was its back “streets and alleys.” 

It was fun to roam off the beaten tourist track…with frequent rest stops to soak up the ambience.  Our new favorite afternoon drink has become what is called a ‘spritz’, an orange-colored white wine cooler…which we will learn to make for our enjoyment back in Colorado.

We spent the last hour of our last day in Venice by cruising the rest of the Grand Canal that we hadn’t seen.  We slowly maneuvered our way to one of the coveted vaporetto rear deck outdoor seats, then sat back and soaked in the scene. 

We passed by a big cruise ship terminal area just as some of the big ships were getting underway.   Surprisingly, we were very close to one that was being towed out of the harbor after the ship’s passengers had experienced their precious day in Venice.

And so it was with us, as we savored our final view of Venice on our last ferry ride back to the campground.  In the words of Rick Steves, we were leaving Venice with wonderful, happy memories of our visit to a wonderful “puddle of elegant decay.”

“A well-spent day brings happy sleep.”   Leonardo da Vinci