italy 5: roman pompeii and isle of capri

Dionysiac Mystery Cult, Villa of the Mysteries, wall painting frieze, Pompeii, 50 BC (© Art Resource)

Roman Pompeii

Pompeii, a world frozen in time
tears, hopes, thoughts, dreams and smiles
over four days and three nights
everyone forced to take their final last sighs

Mt. Vesuvius is the only active volcano in continental Europe, the others being on the islands. The mountain’s eruption on 24 August 79 AD completely buried Pompeii and Herculaneum, destroying and yet preserving the two cities for posterity. Its most recent and famous eruptions have been those in 1631 and 1944. Said to erupt every 30 years, it is 4,200 feet high and has the oldest observatory on its rims [161 years old]. Volcano and lava are in fact Italian words. With two summits, Mt. Vesuvius proper is the summit to the right. In a survey done by Time magazine, Mt. Vesuvius was placed at 6th position as the most dangerous volcano in the world based on the theory that the longer the period of inactivity, the greater could be the destruction caused. Despite all these alarming figures, there are 700,000 to 800,000 people currently living on its slopes.

In 62 AD, during Roman times, the city of Pompeii was first destroyed by an earthquake. Whilst it was still trying to get back on its feet, the volcanic eruption in 79 AD put it to sleep forever. Pompeii remained completely buried under layers of volcanic ash until careless excavations by treasure hunters commissioned by the royalty in Europe led to decay and ruin, a hundred years before archaeology developed as a science. Two-thirds of the original city has now been unearthed.

Pompeii was a provincial town. Unlike Rome, only the floors were faced in marble here. The columns and other buildings were made in brick and then covered with stucco. The Pompeiians also stuccoed their walls, and when still wet applied paint derived from minerals, covering the surface finally with beeswax to create breathtakingly beautiful frescoes which after 2,000 years are still vivid and bursting with vitality. In the centre of the archaeological site is the main forum, bars that sold wine, and a temple dedicated to emperor Vespasian, who invented the first ever toilet in Rome as well! There are complete houses here with atriums and dining areas, the very earliest ‘beware of dog sign’ on a mosaic floor, and steps leading to rooms upstairs. Hundreds of amphora containing grain and wine, breads in the oven, paralysed bodies as they breathed in the volcanic gases—a pregnant woman with her hands pressed towards her mouth, trying to stop the air from being inhaled—are at the Archaeological Museum of Naples, testimony to a frozen moment of time.

Napoli/ Naples

The Greeks first came to Naples in 750 BC for colonisation and named it Neopolis, the new town. From the 11th Century onwards there was an influx of foreigners, dominated by the French for 200 years followed by the Spanish during the next 300 years. In the 19th Century it was finally freed and made part of Italy.

Naples, today a fiercely Catholic city, has seen a lot of immigration due to the poorer economy of southern Italy. But its people still faithfully re-visit. When Italy became a republic, its royalty, currently residing in Switzerland, had to leave based on a referendum. The women were allowed to come back but not the men. They left through the port of Naples.

The city is rich in tradition and customs. One of the most popular events takes place on 31 December, when women throw out all objects not in working order out of the house, through the window, and let the new enter with the new year. Naples is also famous for a miracle that happens three times a year, in May, September and December, respectively, and attributed to St. Janeiro. During this miracle the blood on a religious object liquefies. If the blood does not liquefy on the specific days, it is seen as a sign for disaster. In 1944, when it didn’t liquefy, Mt. Vesuvius exploded. In 1988, when it didn’t liquefy, the town cried heavily again. The Naples soccer team lost to Milan.


Derived from the word ‘sea mermaid’, this small cliff-top town has a population of 25,000. Driving through the Amalfi Coast, a restricted road with limited cars during limited hours and the most beautiful sceneries, I was on my way to an Italian farmhouse for a traditional country meal. Amalfi used to be one of the four maritime republics in Italy during the Middle Ages. Now a very exclusive protected coastline, rocky limestone cliffs fall into the deep blue waters of the Tyrrhenian sea, the colour of lapis lazuli shimmering like silk and spread out to infinite. One side overlooks the gulf of Salerno whilst the other faces the gulf of Sorrento. The farmhouse I visited was quaint to say the least, dating back to the 18th Century, and included an olive oil mill, ancient wine cellar, and lemon, orange and olive groves. After seeing a demonstration of how mozzarella cheese was made I sat down to a meal of cheese, salami, fresh bread, table wine and heady lemocello. It was nice. Really nice. And here’s the recipe for the lemocello, the Sorrento way.

Recipe for Lemocello

1 litre of pure alcohol
1/2 kg of lemon peel
1 kg of water
800 grammes of sugar

Take lemon peel and soak in alcohol for one week. Drain and add sugar and water to the alcohol. Freeze for three days. Voila! Lemocello, the real thing is always, and only, from Sorrento. The city is also known for its inlaid woodwork.

Isle of Capri

The Isle of Capri is a lovely island off the Sorrento peninsula with small squares, white-washed houses, fashionable shops, and restaurants. Emperor Augustus lived on the island for a while and Tiberius spent his latter years here. The indigenous people of Capri wear only white. On reaching the island by ferry, I boarded a cruise to visit some of its rocky and hidden grottos, starting with the eastern part comprising the white and green grottos and the cliff from which the Roman Emperor Tiberius is said to have thrown women and slaves down into the waters to their death. Then through the natural Arch and the Faraglioni rocks. It was beautiful, the sea birds circling the skies, the rugged landscape, white cliffs with green luxuriant vegetation tumbling down to its shores, the turquoise blue waters and the silence. Returning to Marina Grande I went on up to Anacapri with its spectacular views and took a cable chair ride further up to the top, over farmhouses, spring flowers, higher and higher into the skies. 🙂 Till recently, the only route connecting Anacapri with the harbour were 777 steps. We live in a slightly more blessed time—I took the bus.

The famous Blue Grotto was once Emperor Tiberius’ personal swimming pool. My tour did not cover it and Peno, my guide, was rather sceptical whether I would be able to visit and be back in time for the return ferry to the mainland. But somehow, I just couldn’t make myself leave without at least trying to see it. So we headed for the harbour. Peno pulled a few strings. The ‘Indiano’ lady had to be looked after. A series of quick jumps between a string of boats and I finally found myself with a rower generously decked in golden chains, a golden voice and a face to match. The entrance to the grotto is tiny, 3 feet by 6 feet and during bad weather boats are not allowed in, in case they get stuck inside should the tide rise. Today was a beautiful day. And the grotto, simply stunning. Its beauty lies in the light entering by refraction, turning the colour of the water into a surreal cerulean blue. Our chain of boats circled the inside lake, the rowers singing Santa Lucia: the words echoed in the cave, the walls dark and black, the water glowing with a life of its own like blue glass, the colour receding and expanding. Magic. I was back at the harbour 15 minutes before the ferry left. At times, one just needs to take a chance. To listen to the voices within. 😛

The Italian Mafia

Mafia is an Arabic word and means ‘boastful’. With its roots in Sicily, Italy’s Mafia, the most successful criminal organisation in the world dates back to the 13th Century, and started off as an autocratic brotherhood set out to protect the island. Through the centuries its character changed. During the 17th and 18th Centuries, when Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Mafia robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. It is only during the last 100 years that they started to become prosperous. When immigration started in southern Italy, the Mafia got involved in the transportation industry, providing transport across the waters, and houses and jobs in the New World. It grew particularly wealthy during the period between the two World Wars when it arrived in North and South America.

After the World War local taxes started being applied worldwide. The Mafia established their own taxes, namely, local protection taxes. Businesses had to pay taxes to the local Mafia or otherwise faced the risk of being robbed and burnt down. In the 1960s it started including drugs in its transportation activities sending them from South America to Europe and on to North America. By the 1970s the Mafia had become a threat to the political stability of Italy. In 1982 the government finally responded by sending a general to Sicily. Within three months he and his wife were assassinated. It was near to impossible to get any leads on the Mafia. It was bound by its most important code, the code of silence, which grew more fervent through its hierarchy. This code was wrapped in ritual. During initiation, the new member pricked his forefingers with needles. He would then take an oath of silence whilst blood from his fingers dripped over an image of a saint. After this the image would be burnt signifying that if the member were to break his oath, he would be burnt alike.

According to tradition, revenge could only be taken on the island of Sicily, and only male members of a family could be killed. The island was criss-crossed with tunnels to allow for the secret movement of the group. In the 1990s, the Mafia had two well respected and popular judges murdered resulting in the public getting frantic and demanding the government to respond. This led to the police’s biggest arrest, the number one and two leaders of the organisation. When they were brought into the square Sicily’s residents applauded in relief and joy.

Internal jealousy and rivalry is currently rife within the Mafia. There are 12 main families in the organisation, the heads of the families forming a commission, from which the big boss, the number one is elected. Its ‘dirty’ money is sent to Switzerland for ‘cleaning’. After the 1990 arrests, the people are now more positive about the future, having after centuries finally overcome their fear.

Two anecdotes perhaps best illustrate the ingrained loyalty within Mafia members. Bruchetti, the god father of the Mafia in South America and Europe started talking only after a year of being arrested. He was the first Mafia member to ever break the code. His excuse was that the Mafia was not sticking to the rules; that they had started killing women and children. His confessions led to 484 arrests in Italy and North America. After the arrests, the people of Sicily went on strike because their bosses were in prison and they weren’t being paid. Bruchetti received a very handsome compensation for his revelations to the police. After rearranging his face, the state had him relocated to Arizona where he now lives with his second wife and children.

Toto Riina, the big boss of the Mafia is yet to talk. When questioned about his whereabouts, his answer were those memorable lines, “I wasn’t there. And if I was there, I was sleeping, and if I was sleeping, I was dreaming that I wasn’t there.”

Note: My camera got damaged whilst travelling through Greece and Italy. I have, hence, instead used photos from various guides and museum books for my Italy web pages as per the credits.


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