Monday, June 13, 2011

Something New

 The day I dropped Mom off at the airport, I picked up two friends for our last set of visitors until early fall. These friends were on a tour of the Amalfi Coast for seven days, but had added some days on the beginning and end, which gave us some time together. Their first couple of days, we stayed in our Campi Flegrei region, exploring all the ruins nearby. As it turned out, they'd recently read Robert Harris's excellent historical fiction book, Pompeii, which is set in Baia/Bacoli/Capo Miseno, right down the road from our house. Even better, the book centers on the head engineer for the aqueduct running through this area and ending at the Piscina Mirabile, that large cistern I blogged about back in March. Our friends shared some of the book's plotline with me, which prompted me to head straight home and grab it off the shelf. What a great, alternative look at the area's history rather than just walking around some ruins.

Their tour had a free day near the end, so we arranged to meet-up for a daytrip. At the suggestion of their tour leader, they suggested we visit the excavations of two villas, Villa Ariana and Villa San Marco, located in a town south of Pompeii called Castellammare di Stabia (known only as Stabiae in the ancient times). Interestingly, the book Pompeii has a large end scene set in Stabiae, and by the time of this trip, I'd read the book as well. All three of us were able to remember bits of the book and apply them to what we were seeing. We set off for Castellammare and only spent 30 minutes lost in the thick of town, complete with one lane streets full of parked cars on one side and pedestrians on the other and speeding vespas. After finally finding Villa San Marco, we saw that it was well worth the time spent lost in town.

There are seven known villas in that area covered by the Vesuvius ash. Only two have been excavated, and both are ongoing projects. The villas sit on a high hill, with a fully developed plain in front of them reaching down to the sea. Today, between the villas and the sea are acres upon acres of multi-story apartment buildings crammed together, a bustling carpet of thousands of lives. At the time of the eruption however, these villas were waterfront property, complete with entrances from the sea. We parked and begin walking a path toward private homes, turned a corner to a little office and picked up our mandatory guide provided by the site (free, but a little tip is appreciated), then walked through some people's yards to get to the entrance.
Down a few steps, and we entered ancient Roman life. This villa is phenomenal and seems more like a palace. Our guide assured us that the prevailing theory is still that the villa belonged to only one family, and even better, they were from Rome, meaning this was a vacation home. We walked along what would have been their seaside terrace, then through rooms upon rooms, many with large, intact frescoes, saw their kitchen and living rooms, their grand entrance for guests coming by land, the afternoon parlor for the ladies, and two swimming pools, one of which was rimmed with carbonized tree stumps and newer trees replanted by the sites of the old ones. What made this villa so remarkable to visit was it's up close look at how the Romans lived. With a personal guide to answer all our questions (Italian only...but it went surprisingly well) and no other visitors, we really got to see a place in depth, to imagine the ladies in their afternoon parlor, to picture the powerful and rich owner striding down the columned and frescoed loggia, and to think of the servants, who lived in the section with the horse stables. While I love Herculaneum and Pompeii, those places are both so full of things to see that the sites themselves can overwhelm and the data intake can just be too much. Villa San Marco was a hit will all of us. The second villa was very interesting, but the villa itself is much smaller and is laid out with a bunch of individual rooms opening off of one long terrace - so we walked by rooms as if we were walking down a museum corridor - interesting, not as much as Villa San Marco. I also had a terrible time understanding our guide at Villa Ariana, so that also detracted from our experience. We finished up at the villas and then had a great lunch at a tiny little place we happened upon - it was mid-afternoon, and all other restaurants and pizzerias were closed. The family who owned the restaurant was fascinated with us - the matron of the restaurant finally asked, as we were leaving, why we were there. We may have been some of the only American tourists they've ever had.

As a side note, Castellammare di Stabia is the town that tried, last year, to ban miniskirts, playing soccer in the piazzas, and cursing. I don't remember now if I ever blogged about that, but it was big news right after we arrived here. I'm still not sure if the town council actually passed the proposals, but I did not wear a miniskirt, just in case.

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