Our destination today is Pompeii and Assisi. We spent the morning touring the excavations of Pompeii, the perfectly preserved Roman town which was engulfed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. We will then proceed thereafter to Assisi in the region of Perugia, a town that has changed little since the time of St. Francis, who was born here in 1182.
Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.
The city of Pompeii had been built atop ancient lava flows. Despite this, the people had forgotten the danger. Despite earthquakes preceding the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the people were caught unawares. Most died from the pyroclastic heat and gases that preceded the explosion. The eruption of 79 AD buried the city in 20+ feet of ash and pumice.
The Roman emperor sent help, but upon finding the entire area buried, they returned. We know of the eruption mostly from two letters written by a boy who had witnessed the catastrophe from across the Gulf of Naples. He described his observations and state the eruption began about 1 pm, the clouds shaped like the umbrella pine tree or a mushroom.
The ruins were rediscovered 267 years ago. Presently, one third of the city remains buried. Excavations have since stopped – the focus now on restoration. At its peak, an estimated 20,000 people lived in Pompeii.
It was fascinating to walk about the excavated and restored ruins. It provided us with a glimpse of what life was like in ancient Rome. Streets lined with shops and restaurants, houses, public meeting places (including a gymnasium with spas and massage areas, two orchestras, a basilica, and a training center for gladiators). Archeologists determined the function of each structure by artifacts found within the walls – doctors instruments, breads, weapons, as well as frescoes that adorned the walls.
As a port city, many foreign sailors would arrive in Pompeii. To aide those who didn’t seek the language, relief images were carved into the rock as road signs. Jeffrey of course found it very humorous that a phallic symbol indicated the direction to the brothels. You can imagine his laughter when at the kiosks surrounding the ruins, vendors had a great variety of kitschy souvenirs featuring these symbols.
Read more about Pompeii in Jeffrey’s essay, Pompeii Rises from the Ashes.
After a few hours in Pompeii, we were back on the road continuing to Assisi. Along the way, Monte Cassino was pointed out us – visible from our coach from distance – the location of a 5 month battle at the end of WW2.
St. Francis of Assisi was born to a wealthy merchant, growing up in a life of comfort. He served for a time as a soldier and had been taken prisoner in Perugia. It was during this time that he began his conversion.
Upon his return home, he would travel to Rome on behalf of his father but began to give away his goods and profits to those in need. He eventually dedicated his life to the church, much to the anger of his father. He later founded the Order of the Friar’s Minors (Franciscan Order). he died on 3rd October 1226 and was canonized just two years later.
For a fascinating glimpse into the life of St. Francis, consider Scott O’Dell’s book The Road to Damietta.
The basilica in Assisi was built in his honor and is actually two distinct basilicas. The lower one (built first) featuring frescos of the life of Jesus. The upper basilica features 28 frescos depicting the life and work of St. Francis painted by Thomas of Celano and Bonaventura between 1297-1300.
We had only a couple of hours in Assisi. I loved the historic, medieval feel of the city. As we wandered about the shops, I was delighted to find the pendant I had first seen at the Vatican museums, Rosoni by Landolfo which are inspired by the elaborately carved windows of the Basilica Papale di San Francesco.
As we arrived at our meeting place at the bottom of the hill, I realized that my mother-in-law would also like one of the pendants (she had given us money to spend on her behalf). I had only 15 minutes before our coach was to depart. Though I knew they wouldn’t leave without me, I didn’t want to delay our departure and worry our guide, Giuseppe. We had already experienced this frustration twice before due to another party in our group. I thereby raced up the hill, arriving out of breath, able to indicate my desire only by pointing and labored words.
Our accommodations at the Casa Leonori were spartan owing to the humbleness of the Franciscans. The kids said, “Our towels are like crepe paper and our bed like cardboard on box springs.” I actually appreciated it for the experience – it was just one night after all.
Dinner was very similar to the night before. I particularly began to get frustrated with the quality of food provided. Admittedly I am a foodie and tasting authentic regional dishes are a big part of what I love about traveling. You know there is a problem when we are in Italy and my 10 year old son says to me, “Mom, you make better pasta than this.” I am not fond of group travel – but again, I’ll save that diatribe for a future post.
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This post is part of a five-post series, The Italian Scene: Falling in Love with Italy. Join me tomorrow as our journey continues north to Venice & Burano.
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