Cinque Terre

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View from Riomaggiore

We only had one day to see Cinque Terre, so we managed to see four of the famous five colourful coastal villages. The first village was Riomaggiore where we enjoyed great sea views. We climbed up some big old castle for better views before catching the next train to Manarola.

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Manarola

Manarola was quite beautiful with a nice rocky waterfront. We had lunch there and then walked around the cliff for a bit, before wandering up another path and finding ourselves in a multi-level cemetery, which was interesting and also had good views. You’re basically guaranteed great views wherever you go in Cinque Terre. Then we walked to their church and admired more great views from as high as we could manage to walk.

 

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Vernazza

We decided to see Vernazza next, and then visit Corniglia on the way back. Vernazza was quite small, but so peaceful and relaxing. At Vernazza we sat on the rocks by the water and relaxed in the sun for quite a while. After that we found a nice stone pathway which led us up the hill for ages until we came to a little lookout with amazing views. We just stood there enjoying the serenity for at least half an hour. It was just so lovely and beautiful.

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Vernazza

I’m not sure if I could choose a favourite between Vernazza and Manarola. Manarola seemed to have a bit more activity and the town itself was so pretty. Vernazza seemed to be quieter, but so relaxing and had some great spots to just sit, enjoy, and reflect. Both villages had great ocean views and colouful buildings.

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Manarola

 

Finally, we went to Corniglia, which was quite different to the others because it is up on a hill rather than being right next to the ocean. I found it quite quaint. After following a chicken up the many steps to get to Corniglia, apparently 382 steps, we were a little tired, but we were determined not to let a chicken get the better of us. However, we accidentally got ourselves on the wrong path which led us way up and around behind Corniglia, where we again had amazing views.

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Corniglia

Apart from the colourful buildings and great views, the thing I most enjoyed about all the villages in Cinque Terre was finding stairs and pathways that seemed to come to dead ends, but when we got closer we found they continued on around the corner leading us higher and higher for greater views and tranquility.

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La Spezia and Porto Venere

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Porto Venere

The main reason we decided to stay in La Spezia was because we wanted to see Cinque Terre (the famous five towns along the coast). However, we were visiting outside of peak tourist season, so we figured that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of activity and restaurants open in the touristy Cinque Terre area.

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Part way up the hill beside the castle walls

When we arrived at La Spezia, we had half a day left to fill, so our host suggested that we visit Porto Venere. We are so glad we followed her advice, because it was amazing. We took the bus, which was a half hour trip from La Spezia. When we arrived, we found a set of steep stone stairs next to the ruins of some castle walls. The views from the top were awesome.

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The sun in the afternoon from our spot on the hill

We continued following the walking path a bit higher up the hill and then decided to go back down and visit the little Gothic style church that we could see from our vantage point.

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The view while climbing the hill – the church can be seen on the rocks

On the way to the church was a grotto where we went for a quick walk and again enjoyed some lovely views before continuing up to the church.

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The view from the grotto

After we had seen the inside of the church, we found some stairs that led to an open roof, where we sat and watched the sunset over the sea.

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Inside the Gothic style church

Although it was very cold on the roof, it was also very beautiful. I have to say it was one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve seen.

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Looking out to sea from the church

 

Although it was quite small, I really think Porto Venere was just as amazing as the towns that make up the Cinque Terre, and was really worth visiting.

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The amazing colours of the sunset

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The sea and sky just after the sun went down

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Cremona

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The Bell Tower in the Town Square at Cremona

We headed to Cremona for the last weekend of their Festa del Torrone. Cremona is relatively small, but it seemed clean and safe. The festival itself was awesome. There were lots of market stalls selling nougat, candied nuts, roasted nuts, chocolate, and various other sweets. The main thing being sold was nougat. So much amazing nougat.

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Some of the nougat for sale at the stalls

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Even the statue got some sweets!

The first night we were there we went to the main square and watched some dancing, a marching band and flag waving, and some people walking around on stilts. It was actually quite impressive.

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Stilt dancers

For some reason, we got the bright idea of going to a free Italian comedy theater. However, since we can’t understand Italian, we had a really hard time following what was happening. So during the long winded introduction to the play, I turned to my husband and excitedly exclaimed, ‘this is great!’ After which, we both got the giggles and couldn’t even look at each other for laughing. Lesson learned: comedy theater is generally more entertaining when you understand the language.

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The town square on the last night of the festival

The next day we watched the grand finale of the festival in the Piazza del Commune. It happened to be the 180th birthday of Sperlari, which I think is a lolly making company. So they had made a giant cake to share with the whole crowd. We listened to the crowd singing happy birthday, at least that’s what we assumed they were singing, and then everyone lined up for cake. My husband didn’t want to lose our good vantage point, so I went and got us a lovely piece of sponge cake with cream in the centre and cream with crushed nougat on top.

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The Sperlari van

Then we watched the awesome performances. The flag waving and throwing was very good, and then they turned the lights off and switched on some luminescent lights and did the flag waving again with glowing flags! This was followed by three men skillfully playing violins inside an inflatable bubble. Cremona is famous for its violins, particularly the Stradivarius ones, which originated there and are now among the most expensive violins in the world.

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The violin players

Next came luminescent jellyfish and stilt walkers who danced around while a girl performed some songs in English. I had been expecting Italian songs, so I found it quite strange to hear English songs being performed.

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Part of the flag waving

Cremona was quite small, so there really didn’t seem to be a whole lot to see apart from the festival, but we did have a lovely relaxing time there. It was rather fun to attend an Italian festival, especially when nougat was involved!

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Venice

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St Mark’s Square

Going from Naples to Venice was like going from one country to another. The difference between the two cities was extreme. Where Naples was dirty and authentic, Venice was clean and touristy. Where Naples was an exciting and sometimes hair raising adventure every time you stepped outside, Venice involved serene strolls past the same places ten times in a row, gawking in shop windows and photographing beautiful scenes. In Naples we were surrounded by the sounds of local Italians going about their daily business, in Venice we were surrounded by English speaking tourists taking selfies everywhere.

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We had 2.5 days in Venice, compared with 5 days in Naples. We were happy with this choice because, although Venice is stunning, it was also very touristy. That being said, I did find Venice to be a breath of fresh air after being in Naples, literally. It was so good to be able to breathe clean fresh air instead of cigarette smoke and city smog. Venice had a lot less beggars and cleaner streets. I don’t think we would have appreciated this so much if we hadn’t just come from Naples. We were definitely glad we saw Naples before visiting Venice.

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Looking out from Venice at night

Apparently our hotel in Venice had overbooked so they upgraded us to a superior suite in a different location. Although the location wasn’t what we had chosen, it worked out to be even better than where we would have been! The suite itself was amazing. The rooms were lit with exquisite glass chandeliers.

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Our first afternoon in Venice was spent just walking around. It felt so safe and peaceful, with no cars and scooters zipping past. The sound of traffic and constant honking was replaced with the regular ‘gondola? gondola?’ thrown at us by every stripy shirt wearing gondolier we walked past. We started wondering if they could say anything else! We did get a video of one gondolier singing accompanied by a piano-accordion player.

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Venice in the morning

There were plenty of well dressed people walking around looking in the windows of the fancy and pricey shops. The famous Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) was filled with tourists trying to take selfies. I’m not even exaggerating, they were everywhere. Seriously, they were entertainment in themselves. There were also plenty of hawkers trying to sell roses and selfie sticks. The rose sellers were the worst. They would approach couples and give a rose to the female and then demand money from the male, trying to make him look bad for not buying his girl a rose. Even when I said I didn’t want a rose, one seller actually put the rose in my bag and when we told him we didn’t want to buy it, he snatched it back like we were the rude ones! I soon learned that saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough, I had to either use my husband as a human shield or put my hands out to physically ward them off.

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St Mark’s Square, and Venice in general, had a lot of pigeons around. I think feeding them was prohibited because so many pigeons landing, pooping, building nests and pecking at the precious monuments can result in significant damage and cleanup costs. However, we did see some men selling some sort of pigeon food so that people could have their photo taken with a bunch of pigeons on their arm. Of course, being the law abiding citizens that we are, we did not participate in this, but we did enjoy disturbing a flock of pigeons so we could photograph them.

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Some of the food we ate in Venice

We had some delicious meals in Venice, including the best pasta of our Italy trip. We also ate a lot of gelato, but that was something we did everywhere in Italy, and it was amazing. I tried so many different flavours that it was hard to pick a favourite, but I did particularly enjoy the pistachio flavour.

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The view from the Campanile Tower in St Mark’s Square

When I read about Venice, most people said that you WILL get lost in Venice. I didn’t believe them until I got there. I was lost as soon as we were two streets away from our apartment, every day. While walking around we saw a lot of people eating take away pasta from a shop where you could watch them making and rolling the pasta while you waited, so we decided to try some, and it was so good.

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Looking down on St Mark’s Square in the evening

We took the lift up to the top of the Campanile Tower in St Mark’s Square at 3:30pm and stayed up there for an hour until sunset. Although the weather on the ground level was quite pleasant, it was so freezing cold and windy up the top of the tower, but the views were worth it.

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One of the streets in Burano

On our last day we bought a 20 euro all day ticket for the vaporetto (water taxi). It was quite fun and we took the no.14 to Sabbioni and then the no.12 to Torcello, and then another one on to Burano, a colourful fishing island. Burano was SO beautiful, one of the prettiest places I’ve seen. The streets were a rainbow of brightly coloured houses with little flowerpots sitting on the window sills. I couldn’t get over how quaint and lovely Burano was.

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Burano

After having lunch at Burano, we took another vaporetto to Murano, the island famous for it’s blown glass. We found that island quite bland after seeing beautiful Burano, especially since we had seen plenty of blown glass in the shop windows of Venice. It would have been interesting to watch the blown glass demonstrations, but there weren’t any happening while we were at Murano. On the vaporetto back to Venice, we passed an island cemetery and many marshy looking areas, which is what we imagine Venice is like underneath the layers.

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Burano – that bird sitting on the windowsill was real. It looked so pretty sitting up there.

Since we had a 24 hour ticket for the vaporetto, we made the most of it by taking an evening trip down the grand canal. We were also able to use the same ticket the next morning to get back to the train station. Venice was beautiful, refreshing, relaxing and clean. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, but we found that two days was plenty of time to enjoy it!

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The Grand Canal at night

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Oplontis – The Villa of Poppea

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The Villa of Poppea at Oplontis

The last place we visited during our stay at Naples was the Villa of Poppea at Oplontis. As you enter, you receive a little red book which gives you a very good description of each room in the villa. I really enjoyed this small yet fascinating site. Before it was buried when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, this was once a large residential place, thought to have once been owned by Emperor Nero’s wife, Poppea.

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Some of the artwork on the wall of the calidarium – the warm room of the bath rooms

The villa is mostly intact. Lots of restoration has been done and is still happening, so it’s a lot easier to imagine how beautiful it would have been in its day, with detailed artwork on the walls and so much water and greenery. I love the feel of nature inside with the earthy colours and themes of their wall art as well as the indoor water features and gardens.

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The triclinium

The first thing we saw was the atrium with an opening in the roof above a tub in the floor that collected rainwater. The kitchen had a row of small openings that were used to store the wood for the fire over which food was cooked. The Villa also had its own private baths, which were only present in the residences of the upper class. There were quite a few sitting rooms within the villa. The large sitting room that was used for eating would have had a great view of the sea. The villa also had a triclinium which was where guests ate lying down – the food was served in the centre of the room and the guests lay on beds around the three walled sides of the room. There was a huge pool out the back and a long corridor with benches along each side that was used by those waiting to use the pool or just resting. There was a public garden, a secluded private garden for resting, and some small roofless indoor gardens. The villa also had its own small wine press. The latrine was quite interesting. Even in private residences it seems the toilet was still accessible to multiple people at the same time. This one consisted of shelves made of wood sitting above a canal that was cleaned using a water filled tub at the entrance to the room.

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The private garden – where we met another friendly cat (the black dot on the other side)

We visited this site in the morning and it didn’t take us long. There were even less people here than at Herculaneum, so we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.

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This inside area was surrounded by small rooms, and in the centre there would have been a garden and a fountain.

After our visit we went back to Naples and spent the rest of the day relaxing and wandering around. One thing I did notice about Naples was the lack of public parks with lawns. They have plenty of public spaces, called piazzas, but these are fully cemented squares between the streets. We didn’t see much green grass while we were in Naples!

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Naples Porta Capuana

 

By this time we had gotten used to the dirty streets and busy traffic. The majority of the Neapolitan people seemed quite friendly. I never got over the way you could walk down the street and see right inside people’s houses through open doors or windows. Often there were people just standing around in doorways or hanging out of windows talking to each other or just watching the street. Many times we would look up and see an older person sitting on a balcony watching the world go by and this day we got a friendly wave from the man and his dog sitting above us. One time we saw two teenagers calling up to their apartment because one forgot his phone, so a girl three stories up put the phone in a basket and lowered it down to the street level on a rope. The phone was removed and the basket went back up for the next time something was forgotten! Most people seemed to know each other and the streets were filled with the sounds of friendly hellos (or should I say ‘ciaos’) exchanged between shop keepers and pedestrians. Apart from the crazy traffic, life seemed to go at an easy pace there, with business owners and customers often getting into long conversations that seemed to have nothing to do with buying or selling. People just seemed happy to chat with each other in general.

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Friendly black cat at the Villa of Poppea – basically every ancient site we went to in Italy had cats wandering around

So, while there were plenty of negatives about Naples, there were also plenty of positives. It is amazing to see the economic difference between the cities in Italy, particularly between the south and the north. We very much enjoyed visiting Naples, as it seemed less touristy than other places in Italy. Every time we left the house was an adventure and we felt like we had quite an authentic experience here.

 

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Pompeii

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Entering Pompeii through the Porta Marina gate

Ever since I did a project on Pompeii when I was 10, I’ve wanted to visit the ruins there. I was certainly not disappointed, but there were a couple of things that made me prefer the ruins at Herculaneum over Pompeii. Firstly, there was some ridiculous modern art exhibit going on at Pompeii, which meant there were giant pieces of art lying around getting in the way of good photos and detracting from the whole experience. I’m sure some people would have appreciated the recently created bronze sculptures lying around the place, but I found that it made the place look messy and made it harder to imagine how the city would have once looked.

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The Court of the Gladiators with modern art in the middle

Herculaneum was more compact, so it was easier to see in a shorter space of time without getting too fatigued and ‘ruined out’. Pompeii seems more famous than Herculaneum, given that there were far more tourists here. Of course, the tourists flock to Pompeii for a reason – Pompeii is amazing. So with those few negatives aside, I have to say I’m extremely glad we went.

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Walking the streets of Pompeii

I was surprised when we entered Pompeii at how huge the site was. One thing we learned about museums and historical sites in Italy is that certain areas seem to be opening and closing at different times, possibly due to the availability/shifts of staff required to supervise the area, so it pays to ask when you enter the site if there are any areas that are closing early or only opening at specific times.

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The House of Paquius Proculus

It was a great experience to walk down these old streets and think about how life would have been. The wealth of some of the home owners seems amazing, given the size of some of the houses and their gardens. Everything was a lot grander than I imagined. Pompeii must have been quite a bustling city.

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The Garden of the House of Giulia Felice

The amphitheater (pictured in the header of this post) is one of the oldest in the Roman world, built in 70 BC, and it could hold around 20,000 people. Many would come from nearby towns to watch the entertainment. Apparently in 59 AD there was a fight between the people of Pompeii and those from Nocera who went there to support their favourite gladiators, which resulted in the Roman Senate deciding to close this arena for 10 years. However, it opened up again in 62AD after the earthquake which caused severe damage to both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

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A lone spectator sitting in the Large Theater

Of course, Pompeii is well known for the casts showing the last moments of some of the poor people who died here. They are quite moving to look at. We were lucky that we visited in low season, so there were relatively less tourists (still plenty), which meant we were able to have plenty of space to view everything.

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One of the victims of Mt. Vesuvius

 

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Most places you go in Italy, you tend to see cats walking and living among the ruins. Pompeii was no exception and I was happily surprised when a sweet white kitty came up to us while we were inside the House of the Cryptoporticus. I made the mistake of crouching down and said kitty jumped on my knee and then refused to get down. I would have sat there all day, but thankfully one of the staff members came over to give him a cuddle and told us he lives there. All the cats we saw looked well fed, so I’m not sure if they are fed by the staff or if there are just lots of mice around. You gotta love the friendly cats of Italy.

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Friendly cat of Pompeii

We spent all day walking around Pompeii. Covering the whole area, figuring out what you’re looking at and where you are on the map takes a lot more time than you’d think. Even though we tried to plot our path and keep track of where we were going, there’s so many streets and we did find ourselves doing a bit of backtracking to see things we had missed.

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Inside the Forum Baths

Our hosts had told us not to miss the Villa of Mysteries, so we made sure to check what time it was closing and exited via the Herculaneum Gate which leads to the Villa of Mysteries. Seeing the ruins in Pompeii was wonderful, but sometimes it is a bit of a stretch to imagine daily life from a few crumbling rocks. This was one reason why the Villa was worth seeing, as it gave us a better idea of how Pompeian living spaces would have looked.

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Inside the Villa of Mysteries

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Herculaneum

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View from our balcony during breakfast

We had a lovely sunrise breakfast on the balcony of our host’s apartment before setting off to Herculaneum. We had a few awkward experiences at the Naples train station while waiting for the Circumvesuvia train to Herculaneum. A man came up and pulled a watch out of his pocket and offered it to us. When we declined, he smashed the watch right next to me so glass went everywhere and then threw it on the train tracks. I was quite scared as he seemed to be an angry man. Also at that station when I was putting away my change after paying for the tickets I looked up and almost jumped out of my skin when I saw an old woman right next to me who seemed to have just appeared from nowhere with her hand out begging for money. I could have sworn there was nobody else near me a few seconds earlier. However, we still thoroughly enjoyed our time in Naples and were glad we went.

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Herculaneum with Mt Vesuvius in the background

Herculaneum was great. I’ve wanted to visit Pompeii all my life, but I had a hard time choosing a favourite between Herculaneum and Pompeii.

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Entrance to the ruins of Herculanuem

Herculanuem was more compact but we found it really interesting and spent half the day there. There weren’t many tourists here compared to Pompeii, so that was a bonus. It really made the visit a lot more peaceful and allowed you to get a feel for the place without being interrupted by other excited tourists.

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One of the streets in Herculaneum

The town very well preserved and gave us a good idea of how people lived back then. The houses there must have been quite beautiful.

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House of Relief of Telephus

We also saw some of the vaulted rooms by the beach where the bones of around 300 skeletons have been found of those who had been waiting on the beach for rescue and took cover from the ash and pumice inside the boathouses only to be buried in seconds by the pyroclastic flow.

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Some of the boathouse skeletons

There wasn’t a whole lot of information at the site, but the free booket and map at the entrance were helpful in providing small descriptions of things. Also helpful was the times when we happened to be walking past English speaking tour groups and ‘stopped for a rest’ while listening to their interesting information. In hindsight, hiring a guide wouldn’t have been a bad idea, but we wanted to see the whole site at our own pace, and we also didn’t see any guides offering their services when we got there.

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A Thermopolium – an ancient pub, where jars containing food were placed in the circular holes.

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Inside the Hall of the Augustals

We had an interesting experience leaving the ruins also. When we came out there were military and police everywhere. We asked someone what was going on, and apparently the Prime Minister was visiting to speak about the upcoming referendum. We had a lady start protesting right in front of us and an Italian yelling match soon ensued. We had no idea what they were saying, but judging by their red angry faces, they weren’t happy. I had to admire the policeman who just stood there while being yelled at for quite a while by a lady who was right up in his face. The police and Carabinieri were there with riot gear, so we decided that was a good time to leave.

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Pictures from the modern streets of Herculanuem

We were cold and hungry by the time we got back to Naples, but we couldn’t figure out how to purchase a metro ticket back to our apartment, so we walked the distance home in the dark and watched small children lighting firecrackers for fun in the streets of Naples.

 

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Naples Archaeological Museum

The Naples Archaeological Museum was well worth visiting. There was a lot to see and it was well organised, although there wasn’t much in the way of explanations in English, so we were glad we hired audio guides.

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Farnese Bull

I particularly enjoyed seeing the Farnese Bull, which was found in the Baths of Caracalla, which we had previously visited when we were in Rome. This piece was carved from one block of marble, and portrays the punishment of Dirce who, according to Green mythology, persecuted Antiope. Antiope’s two sons are the ones tying Dirce to an angry bull.

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Emperor Caracalla

I also really enjoyed seeing the portraits of notable Roman politicians and emperors, including Julius Caesar, Emperor Tiberius, Emperor Claudius, Emperor Vespasian, Emperor Domitian, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Emperor Lucius Veras, and Emperor Caracalla.

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Seated Emperor restored as Emperor Augustus

There was also two large seated statues of seated emperors that were found at Herculaneum and restored.

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River God

There were a lot of amazing sculptures and busts there, such as the Bust of a Barbarian, and the River God bust that was originally part of a fountain.

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Scale Model of Pompeii

The museum also had a plastic model of Pompeii in the scale of 1:100. This model was designed and built during the late 1800s-early 1900s and was regularly transported between Naples and Pompeii. This model was important, especially during WWII, because at some stages it was the only existing documentation of areas of Pompeii that were damaged or destroyed during the war. It was disassembled during WWII to protect it, and was placed in the Archaeological Museum in 1950. It is missing some of the more recent excavations.

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Julius Caesar

The museum also has a ‘Secret Cabinet’, which houses various erotic artworks and items that were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. We didn’t take many photos in there, and I am choosing not to post any because it isn’t particularly child friendly. It isn’t that hard to find some pictures of the items housed here elsewhere online. This room does give a bit of an insight into their culture and mytical beliefs. Some of these artworks and sculptures that do not seem quite appropriate today, were once on display in their homes and gardens. When these items were discovered, they were initially locked away in a secret museum, which was later opened to men only. It was later closed for quite a few years, and has been open in the Naples Archaeological Museum since 2005.

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Seated Hermes from the Villa of the Papyri

The museum also had an impressive collection of busts and statues that were found in the Villa dei Papiri, or Villa of the Papyri, a luxurious noble residence discovered on the outskirts of Herculaneum.

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The unveiling of the Testa di Cavallo (Horse head)

Our museum visit became quite exciting when a large crowd of people began gathering in the entrance around a covered sculpture. Due to not being able to understand Italian, we had no idea what was going on, and neither did the group of Americans who were standing next to us.

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The Cavallo

After the unveiling, we hazarded a guess that the whole occasion was something to do with a horse. Although we didn’t get much further with our speculations, we did very much enjoy watching the parade of costumed Italians and their horses.

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Horse riders in the parade

We were very much entertained watching the parade progress onto the busy streets of Naples and the ensuing horn honking and animated discussions between commuters and the police.

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Scenes from the parade

 

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Naples Underground

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Via dei Tribunale

After our visit to the Fontanelle Cemetery, we wandered back to the historic centre of Naples and took a stroll down Via dei Tribunale. In ancient times, this was one of the main streets of Naples. Now, it is one of the main touristy streets with plenty of food and things to look at.

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Naples Underground – the well that wasn’t sealed off

Just off Via dei Tribunale, we found a tour of Naples underground. The history of Naples starts with the Greeks building the city of Neapolis (New City). The Greeks used tufo, the porous volcanic rock in the ground, for the building materials. This city later became a Roman colony and the Romans used the hollowed out tufo quarries as underground aqueducts. These aqueducts were then used as bomb shelters in World War II, some of which we saw on our underground tour. During the war, the Italians sealed off most of the wells to protect from bombs. However, there was one well that didn’t get sealed off, but luckily none of the Allies bombs found their way in. As part of the tour, they had two bomb shells hanging there, showing how easily the bombs could have come through the well. The walls in these shelters also had drawings and graffiti left by those who were sheltering inside.

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Walking through the narrow passageways with only a candle for light

Then we arrived at a very narrow part where we were given one candle between two people and had to shuffle through a tiny corridor. Anyone with claustrophobia was given the option to sit this part out. The passageway was quite tight – the lady in front of me kept getting stuck. At one point, I had a man with a backpack in front of me whose backpack kept getting stuck and his candle partner took off ahead so he only had the light from my candle behind him! It was worth it though. The underground cisterns that these passageways opened out into were so beautiful.

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One of the underground cisterns

Our guide took us to another apartment and down a hatch in the floor which led us to the remains of an old Roman theater. This is where it is said that Emperor Nero sung during an earthquake and possibly refused to allow anyone to leave and possibly thanked the gods for their applause afterwards. It makes a good story either way.

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Part of Nero’s Theater underneath the apartment

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Remains of Nero’s Theater in Naples

After having dinner back on Via dei Tribunale, we headed back to our apartment and chatted with our lovely host family whilst enjoying the view of Naples from their balcony.

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Naples at night

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Naples Fontanelle Cemetery

We said goodbye to our lovely apartment in Rome and exited through the tiny door cut out from the big door and caught our first Italian train to Naples. Here we found our next apartment which was again accessed through a tiny door cut out of a huge door. That just seems to be how things are done over there.

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Our tiny Roman door

Naples was the first and only time we stayed with a host family while overseas, and it was an amazing experience. I did have a bit of trouble getting my head around their names though, Alessandro, Antonella, Antonio, and their dog Antea. I would definitely give them an A!

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A street in Naples

Anyway, lame jokes aside, Naples itself was certainly an experience. We sort of formed a love-hate relationship with that city. I would describe Naples as dirty, loud and polluted. The narrow cobblestone streets were constantly wet with water dripping from the clothes hung out to dry. There was rubbish, dog poop, and cigarette butts everywhere. To the point where we started describing the streets we travelled on by the dog poo on them, rather than their names. However, I would also describe Naples as friendly, exciting, and entertaining. The people here were so welcoming and happy. They sleep in small apartments built haphazardly on top of each other, but everyone seems to live on the street. Wherever you go there are people chatting with each other, sitting in doorways, and hanging out of windows just watching the world go by. In the evening we saw a crowd of men standing around watching a soccer match and cheering loudly. Then there’s the traffic. If you think traffic in Rome is bad, try crossing the road in Naples. Just walking from place to place was an adventure in itself. Also in Naples we experienced children letting off firecrackers pretty much every night. We even saw a very young child lighting firecrackers and dropping them off his apartment balcony. We were a bit more careful about what we walked under after that.

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Entering the Fontanelle Cemetery

After we arrived, we headed out to the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle (The Fontanelle Cemetery) in the Valley of the Dead. This huge cave was the result of years of people chipping away at the tufo (a type of porous rock made from volcanic ash) to use for building. Since the 1500s this cave has been used as a burial place for paupers, or for the many who died in plagues, famines or earthquakes.

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One of the many piles of bones

Neapolitans with money were buried in their churches, but the poor were buried in caves like this. The rich could also end up here, since the undertakers at the churches would throw old remains into caves such as this one in order to make space for new burials. In the 1600s, there was a plague in Naples, which had a severe impact on their population. At this time, there were many bodies to deal with, so they were also put in this cave. It seems that remains were left here right up until the 1800s.

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Rows of skulls lining the walls, with little wooden boxes housing adopted skulls

In 1872, a priest named Gaetano Barbati had the bones exhumed and catalogued. They were placed in neat piles against the walls. This site was considered sacred, so a church was built at the entrance.

 

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A closed off area for worship inside the cemetery

Soon people started visiting and formed relationships with the remains, cleaning them, naming them, and leaving offerings for them. These people formed a cult who devoted themselves to the skulls, adopting them as their own relatives and bringing pillows for them to rest on, building little cases for the skulls, leaving flowers and praying for the owner of the skull. Apparently, people would also ask for favours in return, and as they were cleaning their skulls, they would watch for signs of sweat (condensation), which indicated that the soul would grant them their favour.

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In 1969, the Cardinal of the Catholic Church in Naples ordered the cemetery to be closed to put a stop to these rituals which he viewed as fetishism. The cemetery remained closed and neglected until 2002 when restoration began and it was reopened in 2006 for two days each year.

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A wall of femurs

Luckily for us, there were protests in 2010 that resulted in the Fontanelle Cemetery being open full time to the public. Access to the cemetery is free, but donations are welcome, as was the case with most historical cemeteries we visited in Italy.

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A dark skull lined corridor leading to a statue of Gaetano Barbati.

The cave was huge and the walls were high and thick. There were also not many other visitors while we were there, and the dimly lit area was so silent. The cemetery was a fascinating, eerie, and sobering place to visit.

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