Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bitritto and Pompei

On December 31st we drove to Bitritto which is a town with a population of about 10,000 in southern Italy near Bari. It's where a number of Vincent's distant cousins resided and most of the relatives didn't speak any English. Vincent was the only one of us that spoke any Italian, which was surprisingly functional after 20+ years of non-use. So the 5 hours drive south was spent listening to Italian lessons. We got through 8 lessons and by the time we arrived I was equipped with: Io non parlo l'Italiano (I don't speak Italian); Io capisco un po l'Italiano (I understand a little Italian); Non lo so (I don't know) and; Io vorrei bere del vino (I would like to drink some wine...which would be the honest truth after the heavy lift of engaging in conversation for a few hours with only 30 words to work with!)

We arrived in good time in Bitritto and checked into our Bed and Breakfast, La Dimora del Re. We were invited to a relative's home for dinner and we weren't really sure whose house we were going to. (Kind of a shakey start.) The B&B owner drove us to our destination; we were introduced to eleven people when we arrived, covering 3 generations. Their English and my Italian were evenly matched. Vincent was in the front lines doing most of the talking. Fortunately a twelfth person arrived who had spent over 40 years in Toronto and therefore was able to help both sides communicate. Our hosts were so welcoming and gracious and served an incredible meal involving 8 courses: (1) Mozzarella with ham, paper thin beef and prosciutto; (2) tortellini cooked in beef broth; (3) stewed beef; (4) sausages grilled over a wood fire (fantastica!); (5) salad and fennel; (6) mixed nuts (walnuts, pistachios, peanuts, almonds); (7) fruit (melon, grapes oranges, banana) and (8) assorted Italian cookies.

The dinner lasted about 3 hours and we were all pretty tired given the long drive earlier in the day plus the mental exertion of trying to communicate with limited language tools. But we were told we had to stay to see the fireworks at midnight and besides, we shouldn't be on the streets between 23:00 to 01:00 because people would be lighting fireworks and "bombs" during that time and it wouldn't be safe. I gather every year there are reports of people losing an eye or finger, or getting burned due to fireworks accidents.

At midnight we went to the rooftop to see the fireworks. Even being in a small town like Bitritto, it was quite something to see because there were several private citizens setting off their own fireworks displays. On our rooftop, we could witness 360 degrees of explosions. Italians love their fireworks. It was fabulous.
Different fireworks exploding simultaneously.
Competing neighbors.
Meanwhile, a few degrees to the west, these were alight.
Lots of bombs exploding too down in the streets.
After about 30 minutes, the majority of displays had ended and so we went downstairs to find panettone and champagne/asti spumante waiting for us. We toasted each other and then it was time to say goodnight, as by that time all of us were exhausted.

On January 1st, we went to mass at the main church in Bitritto, Maria SS. di Costantinopoli. I gave the boys a lot of credit because we didn't ask them or expect them to go, given the Italian immersion but they wanted to attend. The downside meant that Sarah also had to go and she hadn't yet come to terms with sitting through a church service in a foreign language. The ~25 person choir was very impressive.
Like so many churches in Italy, the Maria SS. di Costantinopoli doesn't look like much from the exterior but it's an entirely different world when you enter the building.
I wanted to take a photo of the alter while it was illuminated but as soon as the choir sang the last note of the recessional hymn, the lights were cut. The priests hadn't even departed the alter! It seemed like extreme measures to save electricity...
The manger scene inside the Maria SS. di Costantinopoli.
After the service, we met two cousins who walked us through the old town and pointed out buildings where various family members had previously lived.
Access/alleys to the old town were very narrow making the town easier to defend hundreds of years ago.
At 13:30, we were invited to lunch at the same cousin's home where we had dinner the previous night. It was a bigger party, at least 20 of us, and a bigger meal which took 4 1/2 hours to work through. I've never been treated to such an extensive meal, ever. This time, I had to take a photo of each course.
Course 1: Mozzarella (excellent) with ham, prosciutto and emmental.
Served with calzone-like sandwich triangles.
Served with paper-thin sliced beef.
Course 2: Lasagne made with home-made noodles.
Course 3: Stewed beef and beef braciole.
Course 4: Lamb with french fries.
Course 5: Salad and wood-grilled sausages.
Course 6: Mixed nuts.
Course 7: Melon
And assorted fruit, if the melon wasn't enough.
Course 8: Cookies.
Course 9: The course 8 cookies were just a teaser. The main attraction for dessert was tiramisu and flan. We were given a piece of each.
Home-made limoncello and limoncello with cream (absolutely yummy; everyone must try this before they die!) were served with dessert. During the meal, home-made wine and sparkling wine (which we brought) were served.
Course 10: For those still hungry, panettone.
After dinner,  we went to visit yet another cousin of Vincent's father and then we were taken to a live nativity exhibit in Binetto, a village near Bitritto. I had heard of these live nativity scenes but had never seen one. It was extensive and well done. Much of Binetto's old town was participating; we walked by about 20 or more "scenes" depicting various occupations. Here are a few sample shots:
"Living Nativity: Welcome": Groups of about 20 people were admitted in intervals to the old town so that the narrow streets wouldn't get too crowded.
We walked down narrow streets like this one. A number of doors to homes were open so that passers by could see the enactment of various activities.
A man and his son making and mending shoes.
Men hammering horseshoes. A live horse is standing to the right, just outside of this photo.
Women embroidering linen.
Women shaping pasta. (Casarecce and orecchietti, I believe.)
Finally, Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the supporting cast in the manger. In the pen to the right were live donkeys.
On January 2nd, a couple of cousins offered to take us to the Bitritto cemetery to view a number of graves of Vincent's family. This outing turned out to be more interesting than the obvious learning about family connections. We learned about how many Italian cemeteries are managed, which is somewhat different from what is the norm in North America.
When someone dies, that person can be buried in a plot for 10 years. Not many people take this option.
Most people, who are buried at all, lease an interment space like those shown in this photo. The lease is normally for 99 years. Just the body (no casket) is placed in these encasements.
When a lease is up after 99 years, the bones are removed from the interment space. If the family wishes, the remaining bones can be placed in a simple box like this one. We saw a few of these just lying around; it was easy to open and view the contents.
Most people don't take that intermediate step and buy a metal box for their deceased family member; when the 99-year lease is up, most bones get moved to the basement of the housing mausoleum. The limb bones are lined up and the skulls neatly arranged. At this point, all the bodies are mixed up with one another. They are just resting there for anyone to see. The Italians make no bones about death. There it is...the reality...placed before you.
After leaving the cemetery, we were invited to another relative's home for another delicious meal. We were treated to one of the best risottos I'd ever had. The Italians sure know how to look after (and feed) their guests!

That evening, Vincent and I took Sarah out to find something to eat. (Kind of crazy given all the food we were offered the last couple of days but unlike Vincent and me, our kids only eat until they are no longer hungry, not everything placed before them/on their plate.) While we were walking about we found a bakery and were able to order a birthday cake for Paul and James for the next day.

January 3rd was Paul and James's 14th birthday. Vincent and Sarah collected the cake at about 8:30 and brought it to the breakfast room before breakfast. The boys were truly surprised (as they surely didn't think we'd be so organized)!
It was a beautiful vanilla layered cake with chocolate cream filling, all covered in whipped cream.
After breakfast we checked out of the La Dimora del Re B&B and drove to our hotel in Pompei, the Hotel Vittoria. It was located literally next to the gates of the Pompei ruins. Vincent then continued on to Rome to pick up some supplies that we needed. In the meantime, the kids and I had lunch at the hotel. It had the requisite table cloths for special events and since it served seafood for James and pizza for Paul, the boys were happy.

After lunch I told the boys they could do anything they wanted. Many readers might be astonished that all the boys wanted to do was to play games on the computer. Having a 1-hour time limit for the kids throughout the year makes creating a "special event" easy; just unblock the computer and you've got a really happy adolescent.

Vincent didn't return to Pompei until late so we decided to postpone the birthday dinner for the next day. As birthday's go, I've got to think this one was kind of lame, but both boys were pretty happy with the unlocked laptop and the Fanta and chips I brought in. Anyway, I guess we'll get the feedback a few years down the road.
Just what a 14-year old wants: Harry Potter written in Latin. Actually, Paul was thrilled; he's very keen to start studying Latin.
That evening I had another poor night sleep so with about 3 or 4 poor nights I was shattered in the morning. So on January 4th, when I went down to breakfast I asked for the biggest coffee they could give me.
I was expecting to receive a mug of coffee but clearly the waiter took one look at me and thought I needed a jug of coffee and milk!
I had to rally because we had the ruins of Pompei ahead of us. For those that don't know the background on Pompei, here is a very lightweight overview: On the morning of August 24, 79 AD a sudden tremor abruptly interrupted the daily routine of the inhabitants of Pompei. This was followed shortly afterwards by a tremendous blast signalling the beginning of a violent eruption with a column of lapillus rising over 20,000 meters into the sky. Carried by the wind, this cloud of lapillus hailed down upon Pompei submerging the city in just a few hours in some 3 meters of material. The roofs of many houses caved in due to the weight, often crushing and killing those who had taken refuge within. At dawn the following day, the first pyroclastic flow, comprised of hot gas and fine ash, hit Pompei and sealed the fate of every person and animal it encountered. The burning ash clogged lungs and caused death by suffocation. Shortly thereafter, when already no living thing was left in the city, a second flow much more powerful than the first fell upon the walls of the town toppling or sweeping away their upper portions. It has been calculated that this second pyroclastic flow was traveling at speeds of 65-80 kilometers/hour. Other surges hit Pompei in waves after the city had already been destroyed. In the end, Pompei was left buried under 5-6 meters of ash and lapillus.

We bought 3-day passes but were not given a map or any information. Thankfully some other kind American tourists gave us one of their maps and a brief guide so we were better equipped. Here's a few snaps of what we saw.
There were raised walkways to cross the roads. Notice the grooves in the roads. How many centuries would it take chariot or wagon wheels to create those grooves?
Even the footpaths at the sides of the roads were at one time beautiful.
Think this mosaic of the dog at the house entrance is a message to "beware of the dog"? Can you imagine creating these floors with the tiny 3mm x 3mm tiles?
Paul and James messing around in the Amphitheater which is appropriate since it was used for gladiator battles. Built in ~70AD, this is one of the oldest and best preserved amphitheaters in existence and held over 20,000 spectators.
Quadriporticus of the Theatres: This was a foyer, porticoed on 4 sides where the spectators of 2 nearby theatres could stroll during intermissions between shows or take shelter during rain.
A close-up of raised frescoes in the Quadriporticus of the Theatres.
A cast of a dog that was caught in Mt Vesuvius's destruction, today found in the Forum Granary (produce market).
A view of the Forum, dating back to 2nd century BC, which was the city's main square. It was surrounded on all sides by political, religious and business buildings.
A closer look at the column featured construction. Notice the trapezoidal masonry (no use of mortar or metal ties) used to keep the layers between levels together.
A column with it's marble facade still in place.
A street view leaving the Forum area.
The inscription of "P. Cascus Longus" at the top of each lion head identifies this table base as belonging to Cascus Longus who was the first to strike Caesar in the Senate in 44 BC.
A sample theatrical fresco from the "Quadretti Teatrali" house.
Temple of Apollo: Along with the Doric temple, the Temple of Apollo is the most ancient sanctuary in Pompei. Architectural decoration suggests it dates back to 575-550 BC, although the current layout is from the 2nd century BC.
An oven still pretty much in tact found at the House of the Baker.
Soaking tub inside the Stabian Baths.
Bronze statue of the "faun" found in the (surprise) House of the Faun, which was the largest house in Pompei.
Some fine detailed mosaics can still be found.
A room inside the Villa of the Mysteries which was built in the 2nd century BC on a slope overlooking the sea. It was fashionable for the upper classes to have an out of town getaway (some things never change) where they could recreate an environment suffused in Greek culture.
A close-up of frolicking figures on a fresco in the Villa of the Mysteries.
After a long day wandering the streets of ancient Pompei, we celebrated Paul and James's birthday properly at a very good restaurant in modern Pompei, La Bettola del Gusto. Seafood lovers would enjoy this restaurant.
James and Paul getting ready to sample the seafood starter. They were seriously focused on getting their share.
On January 5th, we went to Torre Annunziata to see the Villa Poppaea (also known as the Villa Oplontis) which was first discovered in 1839 but was not really escavated until the 1960s. It is believed to be the villa of the second wife of Emperor Nero, where she stayed when she wasn't in Rome. The staff at the Hotel Vittoria advised us to take the train as, "Torre Annunziate was not safe like Pompei and our car would likely get vandalized". (And I thought Pompei was sketchy.) Sure enough, looking at the cars in Torre Annunziata, every one had dents or scratches.
With lunch to go, we boarded the train for Torre Annunziata (return trip €2/ticket).
With the exception of 3 other people, we were the only people visiting the Villa Poppaea. It is much more in tact than anything at Pompei. Tourist information however was almost nonexistent which I thought pretty lame; you'd think the powers that be could rally some archeology students to create placards for each room providing a little information. Thanks to one of the three other people who was taking the other two around, I was able to garner a little information listening in to him.
Entrance to the villa: We were met by a couple of stray dogs. (There were lots of stray dogs also in ancient Pompei.)
Some of the frescoes were still in pretty good shape.
Remains of a communal latrine: A U-shaped bench would have been built over these trenches (where water would have been channeled).
This was at one time a very large swimming pool.
Courtyard: It was speculated that the pots held plants which would have grown up each column.
When we returned back to Pompei, I suggested we take a drive along the Amalfi coast, at least to Sorrento. That was by far the prettiest part of the area in which we were staying and we could easily miss it if we didn't make a special effort. We drove from Pompei past Sorrento to almost the tip of the peninsula and then turned back. It was a total of about 60 km but took 2 hours to drive. The roads were so narrow and poor. Four times during the drive, Vince was sure we were going to collide with another vehicle but somehow we escaped.
A view of the Amalfi coast en route to Sorrento.
On January 6th, we went to Herculaneum. Herculaneum was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, but in a different way to Pompei. Volcanic material and gases traveled down the volcano and hit the ancient city at high speeds and at very high temperatures. The city was covered by meters of volcanic material and this sealed and preserved it so that even organic materials survived. Here are a few photos from exploring the site.
An overview of Herculaneum: The arches in the foreground used to be part of the port.
A thermopolium: This was a public establishment that served hot food and drinks. People would normally have their mid-day meal at a thermopolium as it was not customary to have lunch at home.
A close-up of frescoes in the Hall of Augustals.
Entryway to the House of the Mosaic Atrium.
Paul and James playing hosts at another thermopolium.
Entrance to the House of the Black Room: Notice that the entrance still has part of its frame in the form of carbonized wood.
The black mosaic floor of the House of the Black Room. The floor and the columns were arranged so that the garden could be seen from the rooms.
The mosaic floor depicting Triton, among dolphins and other sea creatures, found in the men's bath.
A room in the women's section of the central baths: A marble lined tub is shown to the left and an intact marble bench next to it.
Elaborate mosaic floor in the women's section of the central baths.
Another overview of Herculaneum.
After leaving Herculaneum, we wanted to get some lunch but we were running out of cash. We'd noticed the last few days that many places (restaurants, tourist ticket offices, parking fees) were cash only. We went to 6 different banks and all of the cash machines were empty. Since it was Epiphany, the banks were all closed. While we weren't yet in the third world, we were definitely in the second world and this was a good reminder that we needed to be prepared with cash when we went to Croatia and beyond.

The other thing we noticed driving around the past few days was that there was a lot of ugliness in Naples and the surrounding areas. Most tourists just drive along the Amalfi coast and sort of ignore the run down buildings; the majestic coastline makes up for a lot. But when one doesn't have the coastal diversion, the blight and garbage and general apathy of its inhabitants is everywhere. It's hard to understand; here is an area that has so much to work with but lacks the money, initiative and/or interest in realizing some of its potential. A little investment would bring more money to the area which is what this area needs. Just cleaning up the graffiti and picking up the piles of garbage off the highway would help. The area seems so strapped for cash that most of the traffic lights aren't even operational!

Given no cash, we went back to our Hotel Vittoria for lunch; we could at least charge our meal to the hotel bill. After our late lunch, Sarah and I wanted to do something and it didn't look like anyone else was anxious to explore so we decided to go for a walk. We walked to the town center of Pompei which is about a mile from the hotel. While we were there we took a peek at the Santuario della Beata Vergine del Rosario which is ranked #2 on TripAdvisor's "Things to do in Pompei". The interior is spectacular.
The Santuario della Beata Vergine del Rosario is located on the Piazza Bartolo Longo.
The interior was completed in the late 19th century. The Sanctuary was designed by the architect Antonio Cua and in 1901 became a papal Basilica by order of Pope Leon XIII.
That evening, we went back to the Pompei town center. I wish I'd brought my camera. Sarah talked Vincent into treating her and the boys to a couple of rides at the Eden amusement center. The rides were really for younger kids but the boys fit into the bumper cars (one car was labeled Department of Finance (Italian IRS)) and on the small motor bikes that went around the track. They had such fun.

On January 7th, we left the Vittoria Hotel and made our way back to Rome.
Breakfast at the Hotel Vittoria looks pretty good here but that's bicarbonate soda, not sugar, sprinkled on the cornetto.
We drove via a funicolar depot in Montesanto with the hope of traveling up a mountain and getting a view of Mount Vesuvius, the surrounding area and the Tyrrhenian Sea, but when we arrived at the station it was closed. Typical. (Incidently, there used to be a funicolar that went up Mount Vesuvius (1880-1944) which inspired the song "Funiculì, Funiculà". I always wondered from where that song was inspired.)

When we arrived back at Roma Camping Village, Vincent did a couple loads of laundry while I cooked dinner and worked on the blog. We outlined an agenda for our next week in Rome so that we would make better use of our time than we did the last time we were in Rome. Now that we were leaving the Schengen zone, we needed to make the most of our remaining days in Italy.

1 comment:

  1. Just ran across your blog. We just returned last September from 6 months on an RV through Europe. So cool to follow your adventure and bringing back great memories. Wish I had set up a blog like yours. We just had a facebook page for our friends and family to follow our madness. 8o) Safe Travels.