Naples - and I thought Rome was bad!; Narrowly avoiding death on the sidewalks; Frenchman with a Rolleiflex; A time-out day; In which we visit Pompeii and Vesuvius doesn't erupt again

Rome to Naples was about three hours, if memory serves. We could have paid €20 for a fast Eurostar train and been there in half the time, but €5 for a slower Intercity train seemed like quite enough for a reservation fee as it was. We arrived at the central station in Naples around 7pm and headed for the subway. We were met on the train platform by a welcoming committee of three happy stray dogs. They were overjoyed to see us and wouldn’t stop crowding in, pushing their heads under our hands and demanding to be patted. We obliged for a little while but when it became clear that their appetites for attention were insatiable the only choice we had was to lose them by boarding the subway train. Half an hour and one transfer later we arrived at Salvator Rosa station. The hostel was close, down the street and into an alley, at the end of which was a derelict church with peeling red paint. A helpful little kid saw our packs and shouted and pointed directions to get us around the corner to the hostel entrance.

The hostel, miracle of miracles, had a kitchen, and so we went looking for a supermarket. If I’d complained about Rome not looking lived-in, though, the same can’t be said of Naples. The area we were in had a dangerously lived-in feel - gritty and layered wit the excreta of a million implicit stories, the way I imagine New Orleans must have felt before the hurricane. The streets were insane with traffic. I’ve never seen such chaos on a street or heard such honking and screaming - not even in Marrakesh. The sheer volume of cars and scooters was overwhelming. The scooters were weaving in and out of traffic, one the wrong lane, on the sidewalk, dodging into the jam of cars at the last possible second to avoid a head-on collision. It was horrifying. We were taking our lives in our hands just by walking down the sidewalk. The traffic in Morocco was heavier and more chaotic, but at least there it was slow - the foot and donkey traffic clogged the streets so much that the mopeds couldn’t go very fast. Here it was all happening in a blur of psychotic speed. I’d love to see the accident statistics for Naples. Somehow we managed to keep ourselves alive and retreat to the hostel unscathed and with food.

That night, in the hostel, I met Jean-Philippe, a Frenchman from Clermont-Ferrand. Sheryl engineered a conversation between us because she noticed his camera, an old twin-lens Rolleiflex. I was enchanted by the thought of anyone intentionally still shooting film at all, much less 4×6 black and white. We talked technique and compared the themes of our work and favourite photographers of the past. It was like being in art school again, but it’s been so long since I’ve talked about photography as art and as history rather than as production and publishing that I was very rusty and could hardly remember anyone’s name.

The next day we took as a rest day. I’m finding we need more of these the longer we travel. Sheryl felt poorly - her neck problems were acting up again - and I didn’t feel wonderful myself. I would have been okay to go on, but the rule we have is that either of us can call a rest day any time, and the other goes along with it. I could have spent the day wandering Naples alone, but to be honest I just didn’t feel like it and decided to take the rest that was offered. The hostel had a nice garden with a big palm tree, so it was a good place to stop for a bit. As it happened, that night the hostel was being used to host a birthday party, and all the hostel guests were welcome for food and drinks - the equivalent of inviting your neighbours to your party so you don’t feel guilty about the noise, I guess. The party was fun. The hostel guests mostly stuck together. Jean-Philippe went to bed first, early, and I followed not long after.

In the morning Sheryl had an Ayurvedic massage therapist come out to the hostel to try and do something about her back and neck. She seemed reasonably satisfied with the results. Afterward we set out for Pompeii, the actual reason for coming so far south into Italy in the first place. Pompeii is reached by the Circumvesuviana train, which takes about half an hour from Naples. Modern towns crowd the ancient ruin on all sides - it’s only a few meters from the train station. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that people would learn from the presence of a town completely buried in volcanic ash, and not build their own town right beside it, since the same bloody volcano is still there puffing away. People, go figure ‘em.

Pompeii is incredible, though. It really is a whole town - gardens, bakeries, snack-bars, streets and whorehouses, temples, public baths, markets and administrative buildings. All the roofs are destroyed - collapsed under the weight of the ash - but the walls and streets survive. The streets are cobbled with huge round stones and are sunken twenty or thirty centimeters below the level of the sidewalks, and they’re bridged by stepping stones at exactly the positions of modern crossings at traffic lights. The idea, apparently, was that the streets could be regularly flooded to wash them clean. Most of the cobbled streets had deep ruts worn in the stone by unimaginable numbers of cart wheels. Pompeii, apparently, was some sort of resort town for the wealthy, rather than the usual sort of town with a more mixed strata of incomes - so most of the houses are huge and occupy entire city blocks, with interior gardens and many rooms. Most of the walls are covered with elaborate frescoes, both inside and outside, displaying more or less the same distribution of artistic talent seen in mural paintings today.

Scattered in and around the buildings are a few plaster casts of the victims of the eruption. Over the centuries the ash compacted into stone around the body, and the soft tissues decayed, leaving the bones cradled in a human-shaped hollow in the rock. Plaster was poured into the cavity and set replicating facial expressions and even folds of clothing. It’s said that the faces of the victims are twisted into the expressions of terror they wore at the moment of their deaths, but I think it more likely to be the distorting effect of the weight of the ash.

We spent an entire afternoon at Pompeii and weren’t able to see everything there, though we tried. I could have spent a full day there, morning to evening, there’s that much to se. I feel fairly certain that we didn’t miss anything spectacular, though.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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