There’s a point in every vacation when you cross over the threshold of infinite anticipation and enter departure remorse. I crossed the threshold at 8:17 am when I work up sans alarm clock (the latest I’ve slept on this trip) and debated whether to roll over and wallow away the day since I had already accomplished all the main goals or push myself for one more day of adventure.
I opt for adventure. I was not disappointed.
After a quick hotel breakfast, I got outside by 10:15 and set off on foot through the winding back streets of Naples. I slithered my way toward the infamous Plaza Garibaldi to catch the train to two Roman archaeological sites near Vesuvius that were on my “b-list”: Oplontis and Boscoreale. Since the map seemed to bear little correspondence to the actual Naples streets, I rely on boy scout methods to ‘mark’ my trail – Matozzi Café, the Naples Ballet Academy; the coconut water street vendor, the Luna Hotel. Laying random visual breadcrumbs for the hopeful journey home.
I arrive at the edge of Plaza Garibaldi. Garibaldi train station is ringed by a crayola cesspool of activity. Merchants hawking Gucci handbags, gypsy taxi drivers whispering ‘fast taxi’, disfigured panhandlers, and ad hoc weekend market stalls. I pass through the stalls and come to a constant tsunami of swerving mopeds, cars, and buses that oddly only slow for red lights. I discover that standing at an intersection waiting for a pause in the traffic flow is an obvious sign of foreignality. Weakness. The equivalent of wearing an orange fluorescent shirt that reads ‘Pick Pocket Me, I’m American.” Suddenly the Muse of Safety sends me a 10-year-old on a rusted bicycle. He blazes a path to my left – a human shield between me and countless Neopolitan bumpers. Never turn to look at the oncoming traffic, I learn. Safe passage accomplished. I feel ever more connected to my Italian roots.
At Garibaldi, I find the Circumvesuviana train to Torre Annunziata station with no problem. A short 10 minute wait and I am headed to Oplontis. I feel like king of the world.
I feel so jaded after Pompeii and Ercolano. But Oplontis (see photo) mesmerizes. Just a short 5-minute walk through a ‘not so great town’ (rife with a drug problem as the guide book puts it), it is one of the largest and best preserved Roman villas anywhere in the world (see photo). It is thought to have been the Villa belonging to Poppea, wife of Nero. The original villa dates to mid-1st Century BC but was in the process of being renovated when Vesuvius let loose in 79 AD. So we don’t find the contorted carbonized bodies of Pompeii, but we do have a remarkably well preserved villa complete with baths, toilets, pool, many frescoed rooms, gardens, hot air heating system (which clearly wasn’t used in June even in Roman times!), and even a wine cellar (well, it’s a room with lots of amphorae, anyway).
The villa was excavated primarily from 1964 to 1984, with unexcavated parts clearly sitting below the town’s low-income above-ground housing. The main feature of the villa is the truly spectacular painted wall decoration in situ representing some of the world’s best known examples of the “Pompeiian 2nd style.”
Mission accomplished, I need to backtrack slightly on the train route then transfer lines to get to Boscoreale, which has its own stop on the Poggiomarino line. Not difficult, and I arrive. The guide books all issue stern warnings about the area around Boscoreale. But I am king, and not worried. One sign pointing to the Boscoreale archaeological site has been graffiti’d over with an arrow pointing in the opposite direction. Was this someone trying to be helpful or a joke? I leave the station and see another sign reinforcing the original intent of the first sign. I figure that’s the right way, but it points past a car park with what looks like the abandonded remains of Peugots and Renaults and toward a rubbish-strewn bridge. I go back into the station to re-confirm the correct way with the stationmaster. Despite my smile and broken Italian, he steely glares and nods, I surmise, in the affirmative.
This bridge, probably 150-feet long, features a 1-food-wide pedestrian passage way. As I walk, I need to thrust away large limbs of overgrown local trees and step over discarded beer bottles and thorny weeds in order to move forward. I pass a soiled, used blanket on the street – used for what I cannot say. Three-quarters across this bridge I spot an Italian couple coming toward me. They are not taking the passage, they are simply walking on the road. An Italian road. No 10-year old bicyclist in sight. I wonder who is more sane – me or them.
Beyond the bridge, the neighborhood turns bleak. Until now, I hadn’t really felt unsafe anywhere in Italy yet. But the high security fences around the few decent houses, the abject litter, the uninviting road I am walking on all conspire. Everytime I reach the verge of heading back to the station, I hear the siren’s call of another brown ‘Antiquarium di Boscoreale’ sign promising that the site is just around the next bend. Twenty minutes later, I am walking through the Italian equivalent of a tenement housing estate complete with raging marital arguments, screaming toddlers and overfilled trash dumps. Finally I see what appears to be the Boscoreale archaeological site behind high fences. I notice three cars in the parking lot – two, I will find out, belong to the staff.
We’ve all seen a cartoon image of a person on the verge of exasperation finally reaching an oasis where some pleasant, helpful person appears among the lush vegetation offering water and a meal. That’s how it felt. The young woman at the museum ticket counter was amazed that I came there by foot from the station. A burly man, part guard, part guide, part vending machine repairman, keeps a watchful eye.
The museum is tiny but very new. It tries hard. Display cases have working lighting and modern signage (all in Italanio, none in English). A variety of simple finds from Boscoreale (and neighboring sites) is on display. Nothing spectacular, but a nice 30-40 minute display, if you take your time. My favorite was a terracotta 'dog feeder' device for when you can't find a pet sitter (see photo). They have clean rest rooms, but don’t attempt to fill your water bottle as the water on tap is not drinkable. There is a vending machine hidden in the basement corner with 40-cent bottles of cold water and a few types of snacks.
The staff are both really friendly. As I am leaving, a French couple (the only other visitors) asks the staff for the precise address to the Oplontis Roman site as they want to drive there next (they have the third car!). It is a Roman site, there is no precise address. I volunteer my map to them and then make them a deal -- I will help navigate them there since I had been their earlier in exchange for hitching a ride to Oplontis. The walk to the station there is blissful compared to what I’ve just experienced. They think it is a good idea…the Muse of Safety is working overtime for me today.
We only need to ask for directions once and arrive at Oplontis. My hosts are wonderful people who drove to Naples from Bordeaux. Both recently retired and spending their time sightseeing. My years of French pay off as we converse in a combination of languages. It is a delightfully happy ending to an interesting afternoon.
The train back to Garabali is uneventful and the breadcrumb trail works perfectly. I take a diversion on the way back to visit the Roman ruins excavated underneath the former cloister of St. Lorenzo Maggiore. There is an amazing subterranean Roman city there, complete with market stalls, Roman cobble-stone road, mosaics and remains of frescos. There is even the remains of an original Roman Pizzeria (see photo). Plus a small museum that shows remains from the original Greek Bronze Age settlers as well. Only 5 Euros.
I end with a dinner at my favorite vegetarian restaurant in Naples (see yesterday’s installment). Life is good. I am packed and now about to roll over and catch a few hours sleep before my 5am wake-up call and 20 Euro taxi to the airport. Ciao Naples!! It has been a wonderful visit.