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Well, area would be more accurate, but I can’t pass up an opportunity for alliteration. I’m not sure how I would feel about living in a major tourist destination!

Back in July my elder sister came for a short visit. She lives in England, and has done a lot of travel on that side of the Atlantic, but this was her first trip to the US. July is hardly the best month to come to central North Carolina – that would be May or October – but we actually got lucky, and only had one day that was a real scorcher. (This summer has been unusual – I don’t think we’ve gone over 100 one time.) Still, some things that would be high on the list in spring or fall – the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, and a walk round historic Oakwood (we drove) were firmly off the agenda.

African Moravian Log Church, Old Salem

African Moravian Log Church, Old Salem

The day we went to Old Salem however, was really quite pleasant. We walked round the historic section in the morning, and spent the hotter afternoon in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. I’ve always enjoyed MESDA, and it seems to have expanded since the last time I was there. On the way back we stopped at Replacements Ltd, where I picked up a few much-needed salad bowls, and my sister bought a couple of cups in her favorite pattern as souvenirs. We also admired the museum section, and took the “behind the scenes” tour, which I had read about in the local paper. Hard to believe that this massive, and massively efficient, operation began as one man’s hobby.

The other “outside” day was in Durham, where we visited the Duke Lemur Center. I had done the tour before, but with the lemurs in winter quarters and I was delighted to see them again outside. I can’t imagine anyone not loving lemurs! While we were in the area we took a quick look at the Sarah P. Duke gardens for good measure.

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Then we cooled off indoors at some of the local museums. The NC History Museum fitted in nicely after the historic (1840) State Capitol. (The legislators have themselves some newer and larger digs across the road.)  And whatever I may think of the outside of the NC Art Museum‘s new building, I have to admit the inside does a good job of showcasing the art. UNC’s Ackland Art Museum was a welcome refuge on a hot afternoon, and I always enjoy their excellent Asian section.

Of course, I also made sure we did some local eating, starting with gourmet hamburgers at Tribeca. Then I had to take my sister to my favorite restaurant, Oakleaf, and while we were in Pittsboro we both bought jewelry at one of the stores near the historic courthouse. We picked up local tomatoes and peaches at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, and I had intended that we would finish with NC BBQ at Allen & Son, which I think is the best around, but by then I was getting tired of driving, and settled for pretty good BBQ at the new Pit in Durham instead.

I didn’t have to drive anywhere for a few days, as we left the next morning for Washington. By train.

Pompeii - and Vesuvius

Pompeii – and Vesuvius

April 15-16, 2008: I’ve never been that fond of the Ancient Romans: if they weren’t marching off to invade new territory or to supress an uprising, they were cheering on the slaughter of men and animals in the Colosseum at home. The Ancient Greeks seemed so much more civilized (not that they were pacifists!). Sure the Colosseum is impressive, but any dictator can put up an impressive monument if he puts his mind – and his subject’s taxes – to it. But I do have to hand it to the Romans when it comes to living well. I remember visiting a couple of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall on a typically chilly northern English day, and admiring the remains of the bath houses, and the provision of hot water.

Hadrian’s Wall was just a provincial outpost, at the furthest reach of the Empire. Pompeii and Herculaneum were just 150 miles from Rome: Pompeii a port town, and Herculaneum more of a seaside resort for the wealthy. I visited both, along with the sumptuous Villa Oplontis, thought to have belonged to the infamous Nero’s also infamous second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Although people rave about Pompeii, I have to confess that I preferred Herculaneum, but I saw it first.

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

I heard that the day I went to Herculaneum actual hail fell, but I didn’t see that myself. I did see plenty of rain, starting almost as soon as I got off the Circumvesuviana train at Ercolano Scavi station, and I waited out the worst of it with an espresso in a handy cafe. The morning alternated between sunshine and rain, but since the many of the ruins at Herculaneum retain their second stories, I could always find shelter when needed. In fact, it proved to be a very user-friendly site, not too crowded, with a good free brochure and plenty to see.

I started at the Visitor’s Center, standing across from the site, looking down at the store rooms and boat houses that once opened onto the beach. I felt a little uneasy, thinking of the 300 inhabitants who sought an illusory refuge there, their bodies discovered only in 1982. Looking up, I saw only clouds, although at other times Vesuvius’ dark cones had been an all-too present reminder that around the Bay of Naples people still live with an active volcano.

Wall decoration, Herculaneum

Wall decoration, Herculaneum

While I visited the “sacred area” above the warehouses, with its two temples, and an altar dedicated to one M. Nonius Balbus, a senator and local benefactor, and the huge palaestra, reserved for sports, for the most part I wandered in and out of villas and tavernas. I admired the pillars and frescoes in the villas, and checked out the jars sunk into the counters of the tavernas. I especially liked the women’s baths, with black and white mosaic floors and marble seats, and the Hall of the Augustals, the freed slaves, which had featured in the reading I had done before the trip. (I think we tend to forget how many inhabitants of Ancient Greece and Rome were slaves.) Everywhere I looked in Herculaneum I found some reminder of the lives cut short in 79AD, but I didn’t find the site morbid. I could easily imagine the excitement of the archaeologists who first worked here.

Villa Oplontis

Villa Oplontis

On the way to the Villa Oplontis I picked up a sandwich, and when the rain started up again I found a seat under cover and ate my lunch where Nero must often have passed. As would become a theme on this trip, much of the villa was under renovation and off limits, but I could see enough to make me keenly aware of the luxury enjoyed by the Roman upper crust – not just the hot baths and flushing toilets, but a personal swimming pool and room after room full of frescoes and mosaics.

Next day I made an early start for Pompeii, armed with a six hour tour outline and lots of anticipation. The good news about Pompeii? It was a full-size working town, with a forum, temples, theaters (for plays) and an amphitheater (for games). The bad news about Pompeii? It was a full-size town, requiring a great deal more walking per interesting sight than Herculaneum. (Again, some parts were closed.)

Pompeii

Pompeii

The best part of the day, for me, came early, at the Villa of Mysteries, outside the city walls to the northeast, which I had almost to myself. I also liked the Botanical Gardens, which smelt wonderful. As I walked the streets, being careful not to turn an ankle on the uneven surface, and taking advantage of the stepping stones set between the sidewalks at key intersections, I pondered the advantage of having slaves to do the shopping. I also noted with interest that penises were protective symbols here just as they still are in Bhutan. By the time I finally finished dodging tour groups and reached the amphitheater, at the far end of the site, I had little energy left to imagine the gladiators and wild animals fighting and dying for the amusement of the crowds seated above me, especially as most of the seats were missing.

Of course, Pompeii is a truly remarkable sight, but if you only have time for one of the towns buried by Vesuvius, I would recommend Herculaneum.

Roog, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Roof, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Tiles at the Santa Chiara cloister in Naples

Tiles at the Santa Chiara cloister in Naples

April 14, 2008: I had stayed on Capri instead of in Naples because of the garbage strike, but I still wanted to visit the Archaeological Museum. Turned out, the garbage was not a problem. The Museum, on the other hand, wasn’t as captivating as I had expected. Fortunately, I found a couple of other sites that could draw me back to Naples all on their own.

I took the  Circumvesuviana train into Naples from Sorrento, and then had more trouble finding the metro than I did the museum. Unlike every other metro system I’ve used, including Beijing and Moscow, Naples’ system seemed to rely on ESP instead of signs.

Mosaic from Pompeii in the Naples' Archaeological Museum

Art from Pompeii in the Naples’ Archaeological Museum

So, the museum. Yes, there were mosaics from Pompeii, several rooms of them. Yes, there were frescoes from the Temple of Isis. Yes, you could marvel at the Farnese Bull. But, much of the museum was closed, including the Farnese gem collection. And the “supplemental” objects from Pompeii, room after room, had no English labels and were not covered by the audio guide. Although I enjoyed one special exhibition, showing how finds from Pompeii had been used in paintings, in general the museum had a dusty, musty, uncared-for air. It reminded me more of the Cairo Museum than the British Museum. Plus the restaurant was closed. So, instead of spending most of the day there I finished up in a few hours and headed out in search of a late lunch. (I may have hit the museum on a particularly bad day, I wouldn’t advise skipping it.)

Statue in the Archaeological Museum

Statue in the Archaeological Museum

After pizza (and second-hand smoke) at the Pizzeria Belllini I set off on the Spaccanapoli walk from my guide book, encountering two absolutely must-sees along the way. The cloister at Santa Chiara, a serene square with low walls covered in majolica tiles – a profusion of hills, castles, ships and people just going about their daily lives – kept me occupied for much longer than I expected. Then further along I stopped off the admire the statues in Capella Sensevero – a quite remarkable “veiled” Christ, and Il Disinganno – a man entangled in a rope net. I cannot imagine how the marble could have been carved with such realism for the veil, and with such intricacy for the net, but the results are stunning.

Cloister at Santa Chiara

Cloister at Santa Chiara

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April 12 – 16, 2008: Admiring the Amalfi Coast, that is, I wasn’t so taken by the town itself. The coast easily made my revisit list, despite an inauspicious introduction. I left Capri, with a cold, in a rainstorm, and as soon as I got off the ferry at Sorrento I fell on the slippery metal quayside. After that, instead of pursuing a search for an elusive bus stop, I treated myself to a taxi for the ride to my out-of-town hotel, only to be cheated by the driver.

Things looked up from there. It’s true that my hotel, Il Nido, was somewhat inconvenient, as its shuttle never seemed to mesh with the train and bus schedules, but I had a great view from a comfortable room at a reasonable rate, and enjoyed the food at breakfast and dinner. Perhaps staying five kilometers outside is why I never warmed to Sorrento, which I found to be a typical seaside town, although one built well above the water. Perhaps finding few restaurants I would be willing to revisit had something to do with it too. It didn’t matter much, as I was just using Sorrento as a base for visiting a lot of other places.

View from Ravello

View from Ravello

I had planned to spend my first day at Pompeii. I even had reservations for the villas that required them. But I just didn’t feel up to it. A nice sit-down bus ride to Amalfi seemed more my speed, and I was able to catch the bus right outside my hotel. I did get to sit down both ways, although not everyone was so lucky coming back.

That ride along the Amalfi Coast? The one the guide books rave about? It’s everything they say. Everything you expect from the pictures. Just stunning. Go see it! (But for heaven’s sake, go early or late in the season, it was already getting crowded, with standing room only on some buses, in early April.)  After all the beauty of the ride along the coast – rugged cliffs and deep blue sea – Amalfi Town came as a bit of a shock. I had expected small and sleepy. I got small and crowded and touristy. I checked the time for the next bus up to Ravello, and had a quick cappuccino right in front of the photogenic Duomo.

Amalfi's duomo

Amalfi’s duomo

And Ravello matched the bus ride. Not that it didn’t have tourist shops (think ceramics), but they weren’t wall-to-wall. I did the walk out to the Villa Cimbrone and just loved the grounds and the views. I could almost (almost!) imagine coming up with the money to spend a night there, although it’s more of a place for honeymooners (first, second, third…)

Grounds at the Villa Cimbrone

Grounds at the Villa Cimbrone

After spending a morning at the Sorrento hospital getting prescriptions for my cold and accompanying cough (25 euro for the doctor, 11 euro to fill three prescriptions), followed by an admirable lunch at the laid-back “Mozzarella Bar” Bufalito, I took the bus over to Positano. Again, I was captivated by the coastline, but also, somewhat to my surprise, by the town.  I had thought it would just be Sorrento with stairs, but I found it charming. True, the hillside on which it is built is steep – but there are little buses to take you to the top. True, there are lots of tourist shops – but they seem more spread out, with actual houses in between, at least in the upper reaches. True, the beach is small, and made of grey sand and pebbles, but there are waterfront cafes, and I hadn’t come to swim. I hadn’t brought my camera either. I just wandered around, admiring the Duomo, watching the crowd disembarking from a ferry, window shopping but not buying, enjoying the views.

That was the day I had intended to visit the Greek temples at Paestum but hadn’t felt well enough. I did, however, make it to Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Archaeological Museum at Naples, they’ll be the next post.

The view from my hotel room

The view from my hotel room

April 9 – 12, 2008: I spent three nights on Capri because I thought Naples would be awash in garbage, but I didn’t expect to like it much. Turned out, I was quite wrong on both counts. Certainly, Naples had a garbage problem – the press reports were so far right – but it would not have interfered with a visit, and indeed, when I returned to Naples a month later, I didn’t find it particularly obnoxious. Capri was a bigger surprise. As long as I avoided the tourist crowds, mostly obtrusive in the middle of the day, I found the island well worth the time. Even the cold that attacked me my second day didn’t spoil my visit.

I had arrived in Italy from the US via the UK, landing at Heathrow, taking the National Express coach to Gatwick, and spending a night in a convenient and comfortable B&B. I used my spare afternoon to pay a first visit to Arundel castle, and blame my cold on a windy wait on an exposed railway platform.

Arundel castle

Arundel castle

Of course, there is more than one Capri. The one I had read most about was the multi-hundred-dollar a night hotel and wall-to-wall expensive shops version of Capri. I had also heard about the package tourist/cruise ship version of Capri – lines of sticky-label-wearing tourists following the umbrella of their tour guide. I found both of those, but my Capri was a quiet place with green and granite cliffs towering over clear blue seas. No doubt it helped that I was there in early April.

The rocky island of Capri

The rocky island of Capri

It is true that avoiding the crowds, and properly appreciating the island’s beauty, involved some exercise. My first full day I trekked up to the Villa Jovis, one of twelve built on the island by the reclusive Emperor Tiberius (uncle of the Claudius of “I, Claudius” fame). Rumor has it that the emperor would have disobedient servants and unwelcome visitors dropped over the cliff edge, and the villa is certainly perched high above the water. I thought the walk, with its alternating views of cliffs and sea to one side, and modern villas to the other, more interesting than the Roman remains. For those thinking of following in my footsteps, I should mention that someone I met on the way said, “you know you are on the right path when your quads burn”.

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The next afternoon I started on a more level path. In deference to my cold I had thought to walk only as far as the Faraglione islets, but eventually climbed 355 steps for a view of the Natural Arch. The arch was perhaps not worth the exercise but I appreciated the islets.

Faraglione islets

Faraglione islets

Sleeping on the island allowed me to beat the crowds to two indoor attractions in Anacapri: the Villa San Michele (great views) and the Chiesa San Michele (fabulous – all senses of the word – floor). I also found that taking a bus to Marina Piccolo, Capri’s second, and much smaller, harbor, got me away from the crowds. I ate a peaceful if priceylunch there, with my feet almost in the water.

Detail of the floor at the Chiesa San Michele

Detail of the floor at the Chiesa San Michele

So, I mostly avoided the tourist crowds – not even thinking of visiting the Blue Grotto no doubt helped – and I totally avoided the high-priced high life. Not being a shopper at the best of time, I wasn’t tempted by the expensive shops, buying only useful things: a SIM card for my new phone and a train ticket for Naples to Siracusa. I did eat well, but not expensively (ravioli in lemon cream and mussels in white wine and garlic at La Pergola being particularly memorable). And I slept in a no-view room at the one star La Tosca which actually cost five euros a night less than the place I had reserved in Naples. Certainly a one star is not luxury, but the plain white walls, tiled floor, and most basic of breakfasts were balanced by comfortable beds, ample hot water, a great view from the terrace and a very helpful owner who made a mean cappucino.

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Looking Forward

My next trip? Gros Morne NP, Newfoundland, photo by By Jcmurphy at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

My next trip? Gros Morne NP, Newfoundland, photo by By Jcmurphy at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

In December I tackled my hearing problem, and while I’m not fond of wearing hearing aids, they unquestionably work. Whisper at me in the coffee shop, and I can hear you. Talk to me across the table in a crowded restaurant, and I can hear you. But hearing was actually a secondary concern: my real worry has been my vision.

Two years ago, when I first started thinking I shouldn’t drive at night and psyched myself up for cataract surgery, I picked a new ophthalmologist, at the Duke Eye Clinic – I wanted someone who did a LOT of operations. I collected my records from my old doctor, and discovered (of course I read them!) that the cornea problem he had mentioned years previously was called Fuch’s Dystrophy, and it turned out to be something I could no longer ignore.

In fact, since cataract surgery sometimes worsens Fuch’s symptoms, I went on living with the cataracts. And I pretty much stopped driving at night. But this year the cataract in my right eye had worsened to the point that my ophthalmologist advised going ahead with surgery for that eye. That was when I learned that I had to choose between near distance vision or far distance vision. I agonized over the choice, since when I’m not traveling I’m most likely reading, but eventually opted for long distance, and he operated on me March 25th.

Wow! The change in my vision is amazing! The good news: my photos look great and my wine glasses sparkle. The bad news: I look older (to myself) and my windows look dirtier. The really bad news: I’m still having problems with glare and haloes, so my night driving problem is due to my compromised corneas, not my cataracts.

I put any travel plans on hold while this was going on, but I just saw my surgeon for my two week follow up and everything looks good. The only cure for the Fuch’s is a cornea transplant, and I have been holding off on that while I wait for techniques to improve. It looks like the latest version, DMEK, may be as good as it’s going to get, at least until they can grow the cells artificially, and my surgeon hopes to start doing the procedure this summer. I figure he needs at least a year’s practice before he gets to work on me… Otherwise I’d have to travel to Portland, Indianapolis or Baltimore and spend a couple of weeks in a hotel, and things aren’t bad enough for that. Right now, anyway. Unfortunately, the progress of Fuch’s is completely unpredictable – it may get worse next week, next year, or next decade.

Edison's studio at the Henry Ford Museum which I'll visit if I'm in Detroit. By Swampyank (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons]

Edison’s studio at the Henry Ford Museum which I’ll visit if I’m in Detroit. By Swampyank (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons]

Back to travel. I need to be in Detroit for a wedding at the beginning of August, which is why I haven’t put my newly renovated house on the market this spring. I’m thinking about a trip to Atlantic Canada for June: Newfoundland sounds like a great destination for dramatic scenery plus whales and icebergs, and as an “Anne of Green Gables” fan I can’t pass up Prince Edward Island.

After that? I had been thinking of South America – the Northwest quadrant – and then selling my house in the spring and going the long way round to England. But if I decide I want to be here for surgery next year, I may just do a full RTW. Meanwhile, I’ll be starting another Looking Back Series here, with Southern Italy and Sicily.

Capri - next in the Looking back Series

Capri – next in the Looking Back Series

Nov 11, 2007: Of course, all of Venice is an island, multiple islands. Most remarkably, man-made islands. I imagine those terrified farmers, fleeing the fall of the Roman Empire, driving piles into a muddy lagoon to create a refuge, and I am in awe. In awe of their resourcefulness, in awe of their tenacity, and in awe of what they built. The refuge was a brilliant idea – life under the Romans may not have been all hot baths and good roads, but it was a whole lot better than what followed. The historians don’t call it the Dark Ages for nothing. Meanwhile, the farmers settled in on their laboriously constructed islands and became craftsmen and traders. And developed an empire, a sea-based empire, of their own.

Venice's cemetery island

Venice’s cemetery island

I could have spent my entire (too short) five days on the main islands, but instead I devoted one day to the outer islands of Murano and Burano. Since I was staying on the south side of Dorsoduro, and I had no intention of limping all the way north to the Fondamente Nuove stop to pick up the boat, it took me a long time to get there from the Zattere dock. I timed the trip back at two hours.

A quiet street on Murano

A quiet street on Murano

Venice is renowned for its glass, and the glass blowers were sent to work on Murano in case their furnaces got out of control. I love glass – cut glass, art glass, stained glass – but not, alas, most Venetian glass. I find it over decorated, too “precious”. Maybe too Victorian. I did appreciate the Glass Museum on Murano, and I did buy one small coiled glass snake, easily packed, as a present for reptile-loving friends, but I mostly ignored the glass shops and left quite quickly for Burano.

Some glass I liked

Some glass I liked

If I hadn’t already been in love with Venice I would have fallen in love on Burano. Not so much for the lace, which is Burano’s claim to fame, but for the brilliantly colored buildings. I ate well – an excellent beef carpaccio with rocket followed by an OK angler fish with equally praise-worthy French fries at the the Ristorante al Vecio Pipa. I looked for lace for my younger sister (I would meet up with her in London in a couple of days) – but I didn’t see anything that looked better than the lace she made herself. And I took lots of photos of the houses.

I didn’t make it to Torcello, the next most-visited outer island, as I had been invited to a slowtrav get-to-gether and needed to get back to Dorsoduro, but it’s on the list for next time. I hope there will be a next time, but just realized that it has been seven years already. Some of the people I met that afternoon were staying in Venice for weeks, even months…

Burano

Burano

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