The true story of Pompeii is more remarkable than anything dreamed up in books or movies. The Bay of Naples also has a fascinating history stretching all the way back to the Greek civilization.
In the glory days of ancient Rome, Pompeii was a wealthy resort town and business center and a thriving seaport on the Bay of Naples. There was no reason why Pompeii should not have continued to prosper through the next four centuries of the Roman Empire - except one: Pompeii was built in the shadow of one of the world's largest and most deadly active volcanoes, Mount Vesuvius.
In the early afternoon of August 24th , 79 AD, Vesuvius exploded with a force that sent molten rock and scalding ash twenty miles into the sky at the rate of 100,000 tons per second. When the volcanic matter fell back to earth, many of the 20,000 inhabitants were killed. Those who survived the initial cataclysm fled to the docks and the sea but found no refuge there. Most were either suffocated or instantly incinerated by one of the three ensuing pyroclastic flows - waves of 750 degree (Fahrenheit) heat and poisonous gas which traveled down the sides of the volcano at 60 miles per hour.
After the primary eruption which lasted for eighteen hours, the volcanic activity continued for three days, burying the city under more than twenty feet of debris. The ash and pumice cooled and solidified and there was no evidence that a city had ever existed.
For centuries Pompeii was forgotten until discovered accidentally in the 18th century by a farmer digging a well. When excavation began, it became apparent that the eruption had captured a moment in time. Under the solid pumice were perfectly preserved buildings and artifacts, beautiful statues and frescoes whose colors were as vivid as the day they were painted.
The city boasted two theatres, a vast sports arena, markets, hot and cold public baths, a constant supply of pure, fresh water, spacious gardens, grand public buildings and houses, many of which had central heating and some, swimming pools. But perhaps the greatest indication of the busy daily life of the Pompeiians is that there were no fewer than eighty-nine fast-food takeaway cafés.
Today, it's the most important classical archeological site in Europe. Its monumental buildings, its collection of mosaics and wall-paintings are unmatched. There are 163 acres of ruins of almost unbearably moving historic significance. And the story told by the ruins is more one of humans and humanity than merely of stone. The evidence of the daily life of ancient Pompeii is everywhere. Streets are lined with bars and shops. At the time of the eruption, an election was about to be held and some of the walls are painted with slogans and political propaganda. The large house of a wealthy woman, Julia Felix, bears a sign that advertises rooms for rent to respectable people.
Walk inside any building and you'll see the frescoes, gardens, fountains and kitchens almost as they were when the volcano blew.
Almost two thirds of Pompeii is uncovered now, and excavation continues - a slow, painstaking process hampered often by lack of funds. But those dedicated to uncovering this astonishing city continue with a passion, while Vesuvius, visible from every corner of Pompeii, looks on.
The dogs of ancient Pompeii were pets and guard dogs, as dogs are now. They were also protected by law from ill-treatment, as dogs are now. It's supposed that those dogs who were unchained, sensing the geological unrest, fled the city in advance of the eruption. Those who were chained perished along with their owners.
"For days before the eruption, there were warning signs. The ground shook, wells and springs dried up and no birds sang. But the citizens of Pompeii just went about their business - only the dogs took heed. With their acute senses, they could feel the tremors long before the humans."
"They walked for a day and a night without rest into the hot summer breeze, keeping Vesuvius downwind. On the second day, tired and thirsty, they were at the foot of a range of low hills. The sun was high in the sky. The wind had died down and all was quiet. Suddenly, the eerie silence was shattered by a tremendous explosion. A gigantic column of smoke erupted from the top of Mount Vesuvius, rising a hundred thousand feet into the air."
The dogs who live there now are strays - dusty, scruffy, mutts, always on the lookout for a handout in the form of a sandwich or a slice of pizza - but they all have a special dignity. They too are protected in a way unusual for stray dogs - the guides to the ruins of Pompeii care for them by pooling money to pay for food.
Few people who have ever toured Pompeii have failed to be enchanted by the dogs. One in particular took the authors' attention as they sat in a restaurant after touring the ruins. He was black, with a white patch on his chest and he had a great begging act. He approached each table with a sad expression and wagged his tail very slowly. Some diners ignored him, some gave him a tidbit from their lunch for which his gratitude was visible. Once in a while a waiter would chase him off. He'd wait patiently around a corner until the waiter was out of sight, then move on to a new table with the same brilliantly calculated performance.
This is the dog on which Nero was based in THE DOGS OF POMPEII.
The following notes are attached to various tourists' web sites:
CAVE CANEM - many houses have such mosaics. There must have been many dogs in ancient Pompeii.
Dogs remain very much a part of this city. They are strays or might have been abandoned and seem to rely on tourists for handouts. Most of the ones we encountered were sleeping in the shade. A few follow people around in the hope that they will receive food. One was waiting outside a snack shop for anyone gullible enough to let his guard down and hold a snack too low to the ground.
My impression of the dogs on each of the visits I've made to Pompeii is that they're happy, friendly and generally healthy and certainly don't look undernourished. Generous tourists share sandwiches with them.
I never saw any dog get upset at a person. They are now a part of the standard Pompeii visit.
If you visit Pompeii, take a comfortable pair of walking shoes, sunblock, drinking water, a reliable camera, a good guide book and a handful of dog treats.
The town of Ravello sits on a hill 1,926 feet above sea level. The twisting mountainside road from the coast can only be described as perilous, but the beauty of the town and the view are worth every heart-beat you missed on the way up.
"We left the coast road and drove between vineyards up an even narrower road to Ravello, three hundred metres above the Mediterranean. Gianni told me Gore Vidal called it the most beautiful view in the world and I believe him."
"In the middle of all this beauty, the main emotion (if you're riding on a Vespa) is terror. The road is barely two lanes wide and there's only a low stone wall on the sea side between you and certain destruction on the rocks below."
"For long stretches it narrows down to a single lane. There's no sensation quite like hurtling directly at a tour bus that's hurtling directly at you with no apparent intention of stopping!"
"We ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant that was straight out of a movie."
Greek myth has it that Hercules loved a nymph called Amalfi. When she died, he buried her in the most beautiful part of the world and named it in her memory.
"Amalfi is a medieval city and can be pretty spooky in the dark, especially if you have no one but a small black dog to protect you from marauding strangers. Of course, the minute the thought of marauding strangers popped into my head, I started hearing things - footsteps, to be exact - somewhere behind me, echoing off the stone walls. When I stopped, they stopped. When I started, they started. I was being followed."
The bayside town of Amalfi sits at the foot of Mount Cerreto which soars a staggering 4,300 feet above the bay.
The Amalfi Drive is perhaps the most beautiful drive in the world - forty miles of narrow, two lane highway cut into the steep cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Salerno, south of Naples.
The region has been populated since Paleolithic times. The Etruscans were there and there was a Greek presence when the Greeks dominated European civilization. Then in ancient Roman times, resort towns flourished. With the Byzantine ascendancy in the 6th Century, the coast was of great maritime importance. Today it is one of the prime tourist attractions in the south of Italy.
"I didn't know what to expect of the Amalfi coast, but it beats the Jersey Shore hands down. Nothing prepared me for that first heart-stopping vista of cliff, sky and the unbelievably deep blue of the bays and the Mediterranean beyond. The Amalfi Drive, a seventy kilometre succession of hairpin bends carved out of the cliff face, revealed a new panorama at every turn, each one more spectacular than the last. Sparkling white houses, hotels and rich villas seemed to hang in clusters from the cliffs which rose to dizzying heights above us and dropped away perilously to the sea hundreds of metres below."