Exploring Pompeii

There can be few places in the world which spell out the tragic human experiences of a volcanic eruption more poignantly than Pompeii. Subjected to a 19-hour long eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, the Roman towns of Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum were obliterated along with scores of their inhabitants on a fateful August day which has gone down in history as one of the most infamous volcanic eruptions of all time.

An ancient account of the eruption has been left to us by the writer Pliny the Younger, who lost his uncle to the suffocating fumes and ash which thundered from the volcano. In a letter to his friend, the historian Tacitus, he described a “cloud of unusual size and appearance”, and wrote of his uncle’s “scholarly nature” compelling him to get a closer look at the eruption from a boat. This turned into a rescue mission to retrieve those stranded in the danger zone as the ash and pumice began falling thickly. As night fell, Vesuvius began emitting “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames”, as Pliny the Elder valiantly “tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror”. He later succumbed to the fumes, while thousands more were killed by falling rocks, collapsing roofs and, of course, the pyroclastic flow.

Having read this account, and having seen the pictures of the famous plaster casts which have crystallised the horrifying dying moments of countless Romans in grim detail, visiting Pompeii today is an eerie but fascinating experience. On a scorching sunny day, it is difficult to envisage the scenes of terror described by Pliny: “the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, the shouts of men”. But as the visitor explores the endless Roman streets, some of which even preserve the track marks of the innumerable Roman carts which once trundled along them, Vesuvius looms menacingly on the horizon as a constant reminder of the fragility of human life in such close proximity to this unstoppable force of nature.

The town is invaluable to archaeologists in that it provides a snapshot of a complete Roman town at one specific moment in its history. Ash deposits and the effects of carbonisation from the intense heat of the eruption have preserved everything from loaves of bread to stunning frescoes and mosaics, and while most of the smaller finds are now housed in the Naples Archaeological Museum for safekeeping, the scale of the surviving ruins available to explore is incredible. Set aside at least a day to explore Pompeii properly, and be sure to visit the amphitheatre, the gladiator barracks, the aristocratic houses such as the House of the Vettii and House of the Faun, and of course the Forum with its dramatic backdrop of Vesuvius.

My highlight? Undoubtedly the charming Cave Canem (‘beware of the dog’) mosaic at the entrance to the romantically named ‘House of the Tragic Poet’: a reminder that, though two thousand years may separate us from the lives of the unfortunate residents of Pompeii, their everyday concerns were often no different to ours today. It is these reminders of daily life which make the experience of exploring Pompeii so moving – and which cause the visitor to cast an anxious glance at the dark, foreboding slopes of Vesuvius, lest they too become swept up in another cataclysmic episode in the history of this ill-fated town.

Book a self catering holiday villa in Pompeii

Subscribe in a reader

Posted in Italian City, italy, pompeii, travel, Travel guide | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top 10 Things To Do in Venice

Venice is the ideal destination for a romantic getaway. A truly unique city where a holiday feels more like going back in time, it’s a place where the imagination can run riot, dreaming up tales of romance and intrigue in the quiet, mysterious backstreets with their still, narrow canals. If you’re going for a weekend break, it can be difficult to know how best to spend your time there – so what follows is my Top 10 Guide to an unforgettable stay in Venice. Enjoy!
– Rachel McCombie

1. Venice at Christmas/New Year
Without a doubt one of the best times of year to visit Venice is during the Christmas and New Year period. Clouds of mist drifting eerily through the secluded canals, Christmas lights, dozens of imaginative Christmas window displays in the shops – wintry Venice has an atmosphere second to none. On New Year’s Eve, head to Piazza San Marco for musical entertainment and see a magnificent firework display over the Grand Canal. Wrapping up warm is advisable!

2. Basilica and Square of San Marco

Basilica and Square of San Marco

Basilica of San Marco on a misty December morning

Venice’s most famous landmark is surely the stunning Basilica di San Marco and its adjoining flood-prone piazza. Inside the Basilica, the amount of gold leaf adorning the extensive Byzantine mosaics is astounding. There is a small museum housing treasures taken from Constantinople in the 13th century, including the original four bronze horses (those on the outside are replicas), and you can also go out onto the roof for a great view of the piazza. Outside in the square, bird-loving tourists appear to take great delight in the swarms of pigeons invariably loitering in the hope of being fed, watched by more sedate tourists enjoying tea at Caffe Florian, Italy’s oldest café, which dates from 1720.

3. San Marco Campanile
For a bird’s eye view of Venice and its terracotta rooftops, head to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) next to the Basilica. This attractive building, with five huge bells, offers 360 degree views across the lagoon, but surprisingly, none of Venice’s maze of canals are visible from this height.

4. Murano Island
The more adventurous visitor to Venice can take a water bus out to neighbouring Murano Island, home to the world famous Murano glass factories. Somewhat quieter than the hustle and bustle of Venice itself, Murano offers visitors the opportunity to see a glassmaking demonstration and to visit the Murano Glass Museum, home to a fascinating collection of glass from as far back as Roman times. The numerous craft shops on the island also make the ideal place to do a spot of souvenir shopping, stocking Murano glass in all shapes, sizes and colours.

5. Doge’s Palace/Bridge of Sighs
For an insight into Venice’s long and fascinating history, head to the Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace, adjacent to the Basilica di San Marco. In days gone by, the Palace served as the seat of government, the centre of justice, and the home of the Venetian ruler, the Doge. These days, the impressive building serves as a museum, and art lovers can pore over works by such artists as Tintoretto and Titian. Perhaps the most interesting part of the visit, however, is the chance to cross the famous Bridge of Sighs, which links the old prisons of the palace with a later prison built on the other side of the canal. The romantic name of the Bridge of Sighs is deceptive; in fact, it was so-called after the sighs of the convicts as they caught their last glimpse of Venice upon being led across the bridge to the prison.

6. Hot chocolate
On a winter’s trip to Venice, a cup of sublime hot chocolate is a must. Try one of the chocolate shops near San Marco for the most indulgent, chocolatey drink you can possibly imagine: it is essentially melted chocolate, and guaranteed to warm you up on a chilly winter day!

7. The Ponte di Rialto

Ponte di Rialto

Ponte di Rialto

The Ponte di Rialto is an impressive bridge which spans the Grand Canal and is a sight which no visitor to Venice should leave without seeing. Antonio da Ponte competed against the likes of Michelangelo and Palladio to come up with the winning design, and its construction was completed over three years, from 1588-91. Always bustling with tourists, the bridge’s central walkway is lined with small craft shops which are ideal for buying souvenirs, while the paths either side provide the perfect position from which to photograph the beautiful Grand Canal with its numerous Venetian palaces.

8. Get lost
I’m a great advocate for getting to know any city by wandering around without a map, but Venice is especially well suited to this method of exploration. The most charming, traditionally Venetian scenes are to be found simply by getting lost in the maze of narrow streets, with their small, arching bridges over the canals, and their innumerable little shops with endlessly captivating window displays of colourful carnival masks and expensive designer goods.

Venice is equally enchanting at night

9. Museo della Musica
A gem which I discovered by accident, the Museo della Musica pays homage to one of Venice’s most illustrious composers – Antonio Vivaldi. Known as “the Red Priest” on account of his liturgical background and famously red hair, Vivaldi is best known for the series of concerti known as the Four Seasons, which you are likely to hear drifting through the museum while you learn about his life, and admire the fascinating collection of historical instruments.

10. Go out on the water
Get a different view of Venice by taking a trip in some form of waterborne vehicle. The most famous image of Venice is of course the gondola, but these are notoriously expensive, and geared towards hapless tourists whose knowledge of Italian is insufficient to ensure a good price. A far cheaper alternative is to take a water bus; there are stops at regular intervals along the Grand Canal and it’s a great way of seeing the rows of sumptuous palaces which line its banks.

By Rachel McCombie

Subscribe in a reader

Posted in Italian City, italy, travel, Travel guide, Venice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I Love Rome

I have been a regular visitor to Rome since I fell in love with it as a Classical Archaeology student, when I spent the happiest two weeks of my life on an archaeological undergraduate summer school organised by the British School at Rome.  Though the primary aim of the trip had been educational, I soon discovered that there is a lot more to Rome than the academic study of the ancient ruins which had initially brought me there.

Forum Romanum from Tabularium
The Forum Romanum as viewed from the Tabularium

Undoubtedly, Rome’s majestic ruins form a large basis for its appeal.  Wandering amongst them, it is incredible to consider the fact that this city was once at the centre of a vast and highly sophisticated empire, with public and private buildings easily comparable with the most lavish of today’s palaces.

Indeed, our word “palace” comes from Rome’s Palatine Hill, the hill associated with Rome’s mythical founding by Romulus, upon which the emperors later built the opulent residences which now lie in ruins across much of the hill.

Inside the Pantheon

Today, among the most impressive and well-preserved of Rome’s surviving ancient monuments is the Pantheon, the enormous unsupported concrete dome of which, at around 2000 years old, was only equalled by modern architects in 1958:  a true testament to Roman engineering expertise.

The so-called “Eternal City” today is, as it has doubtless always been, the sort of place where there is a surprise around every corner and where one is continually aware of its long and vibrant history – something which neither written descriptions nor photographs can prepare one for.  The juxtaposition of ancient and modern is constant; I have experienced no other city where the chaos of daily life is played out on such a dramatic historical stage, where a Puccini opera would not be out of place as a soundtrack to one’s existence there.  Going out to a wine bar on a balmy summer evening, it’s impossible not to marvel at the fact that your gaze falls upon the same columns seen by the emperor Augustus and his successors; there is the rostra, or speaker’s platform, upon which the likes of Cicero delivered their speeches; and there, often glimpsed unexpectedly at the end of long, narrow backstreets, is Rome’s most famous monument, the Colosseum, the sheer scale of which takes my breath away every time I lay eyes upon it.  Coming from a country in which Roman ruins rarely constitute more than a few shallow walls in a field, the dizzying heights of the surviving ruins in Rome, and the fact that so much of the city is given over to them, take one continually by surprise.  Even Rome’s Stock Exchange is built into a sizeable ancient Roman temple, the mighty columns at the front of which dominate the surrounding piazza.

Sharing Rome’s surprises with family and friends is a joy in itself, and undoubtedly the most satisfying is introducing someone to the Trevi Fountain for the first time.

Trevi Fountain
The mighty Trevi Fountain

The fountain has been seen so often in such films as Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday that one would have thought that this would somehow lessen its impact, but in actual fact this is impossible.  The sudden appearance of this romantic landmark after a short stroll through a series of narrow Roman streets evokes such surprise and delight in first-time visitors and Rome veterans alike that it’s easy to see why it is so famous.  The roaring waters of the fountain, supplied by an ancient Roman aqueduct from a source 20km away, combine with its breathtaking scale to overwhelm the small piazza in which it is situated.  No visit to Rome is complete without the obligatory ritual of tossing a coin over one’s shoulder into the waters of the Trevi, said to ensure good luck and your return to Rome.

While it’s debateable whether or not it’s the magic of the Trevi fountain that keeps me returning to Rome, I  have no doubt that I will continue to do so for many more years to come.  I’m never happier than when I’m in Rome:  I love the climate; the food and wine; the majestic Roman pine trees; the wonderfully cool, crystal clear drinking water which flows from the innumerable fountains which always seem to crop up when most needed; the bright green lizards which scuttle improbably quickly across the imposing Roman ruins; and I love getting lost in the maze of secluded backstreets, with their tall, ochre-coloured apartment buildings and forest green shutters.  It’s almost impossibly romantic, and when, inevitably, a stay in Rome must come to an end, it is with a heavy heart that I return to England.  But, as the great travel writer H.V. Morton once wrote, “One does not say goodbye to Rome.”  I know exactly what he meant.

By Rachel McCombie

Subscribe in a reader

Posted in Italian City, italy, Rome, travel, Travel guide | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment