It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.
It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?
With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.
On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.
It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.
Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.
By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.
The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.
Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.
Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.
So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.
To be continued…