The Archaeology of the Bay of Naples Tour Review & Images - October 2018

The Archaeological Delights of the Bay of Naples with Amanda Pavlick - 23rd - 29th October 2018 - Tour Diary by Frankie Clifton

Day 1:

Our tour started with a smooth afternoon flight into Naples, arriving in the early evening. We headed out of the city and up in to the hills above Castellammara di Stabia to our hotel and base for the next week. Even in the dark, I could see that the hotel was surrounded by beautiful scenery and that I was in for a luxurious stay. From my balcony, I could see the lights of modern Pompeii spread out before me, encircled by a ring of shadow mountains. If I concentrated, I could just make out the distinctive crater of Vesuvius looming directly ahead.

After a delicious late dinner in the hotel restaurant, our first taste of the exquisite local cuisine, we all headed up to bed, excited for what the week would bring.

Day 2:

After a buffet breakfast of traditional pastries and fruit, we got onto the bus and Franco, our driver for the week, took us along the Amalfi coast to the Greco-Roman ruins of Paestum. The weather was glorious with bright sunshine and a warm breeze wafting lazily around the quiet morning. Our expert guide, Amanda Pavlick, professor of Classics at Xavier University and previously part of the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project for seven years, took us through the history of the town. She started at the classical Greek Temple of Athena, before moving onto the unsuccessful rebellion against Rome as she led us through the remains of Roman houses and villas. While all that is left of this once vibrant trade city are stubby walls that couldn’t even keep sheep out, Amanda brought the town to life, taking us through the Heroon, the Amphitheatre, to the cross roads and the Forum. The pool however, had us all stumped. At one end was a stone structure that could have been a maze, a fish farm, a temple - who knows? After having a closer look we were still none the wiser, but it led to a lively debate and a few laughs throughout our lively group. Amanda led us to the Temple of Neptune, one of the best surviving examples of a Greek temple outside of Greece itself before giving us an hour or so of free time to explore the ruins and eat our packed lunch at our leisure. We gathered together afterwards back at the entrance to the ruins, ready to see the museum.

The museum at Paestum was a brief walk across the street from the ruins. Amanda gave us an introduction to the collections, paying special attention to the painted Lucanian tombs before leaving us free to explore on our own, though she was always there if we needed an explanation. There were many vases, statues and stone decorations, but the highlight was the evocative ‘Tomb of the Diver’. A few of us met a very enthusiastic custodian, who took us into the vaults of the museum to see a painted tomb, not currently on display to the public. An amazing and rare experience itself, the icing on the cake was the image on the tomb of a dog riding on the back of a slightly unnerving smiling horse!

That evening, Amanda treated us to an introductory lecture on the top floor of the hotel, the views of the sunset across the mountains a fitting backdrop. She took us through the Greek and Roman history of the area, the different sites we would visit, and of course, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
After a welcome drink, paid for by The Cultural Experience, we walked to the local Pizzeria for dinner. We had a long table with a view to the kitchen, so we could see our pizzas being made. Three courses of delicious traditional Italian food later, some of us headed back to the hotel, while others stayed for another drink.

Day 3:

Today was the day that most people were looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. We spent the entire day exploring and learning about the ruins of Pompeii. Starting at the Marine Gate, Amanda guided us through the ruined city to all the best places, often taking us away from the crowds to show us something that we wouldn’t have known to look for on our own - the benefits of having a guide that worked on the excavations here for seven years.

We had some free time in the iconic Forum and Basilica, the crowds of tourists recreating the noise, commotion and incessant movement that must have been present during Roman Pompeii. After about half an hour, we moved through the street to the Casa del Fauno, or House of Faun, the original home of the Alexander Mosaic and one of the most beautiful villas in the city. We left through the gardens at the back of the villa and walked along small roads to the Water Tower, stopping at the Cassa dei Vettii, the home of two successful merchant brothers before returning to the Forum Café for lunch.

What struck me about Pompeii was how much colour remained in the city. While some of the frescos had been taken away for restoration, or stolen by the Bourbans, the walls themselves were still covered in vivid blues, reds and yellows, with intricate vines and patterns. Amanda particularly enjoyed explaining about ‘lares’, the household shrines that are still visible in many of the grander villas and Roman houses, along with the visible graffiti, the political slogans, advertising or personal grievances preserved for future generations to ponder on.

We spent the afternoon in the ‘Aldstadt’, or Old Town, visiting the Stabia Baths, the brothel, the remarkable Temple of Isis, and the Casa di Menandro. We saw the Triangular Forum with the Theatre and Quadriporitico or Gladiators Barracks, though there is little evidence that this was where the gladiators actually trained. On the way, Amanda showed us the part of the city that she helped to excavate - houses of ordinary Pompeii residents which, whilst not yet open to the public, will hopefully be opened someday soon.

Amazingly, we were able to get into the Palestra Grande, an area that is normally closed to the public, but that was partially open for a temporary exhibition. It is a huge space, the centre of which is completely open to the elements and grassed over with trees hugging the edges. Next to these trees are the preserved roots of the trees that would have once stood there, excavated by Wilhemina Jashemski and her team.

Across from the Palestra was our final stop: the amphitheatre. Walking into the centre of the now dilapidated and overgrown structure, you can imagine the noise and exhilaration that must have greeted the gladiators and entertainers of the day.

Tired but satisfied, we left Pompeii at 4:30 for our hotel, resting in our rooms and the gardens before a quick pre-dinner drink in the bar and another delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Day 4: 

After exploring Pompeii yesterday, we had a more relaxed day looking around the beautiful local villas of Stabia. Our first stop was Villa San Marco. We made our way to the large atrium, through the kitchens with hot plates and fire pits intact, and out into the Palestra, centred around a long pool. The vibrant and colourful frescoes and wall decorations were more noticeable here than at Pompeii, but so was the Bourbon vandalism. Gaping holes have been left in the plaster work where parts of the wall have literally been prised off. Regardless, it was still clear that the villa was designed to exude luxury, overlooking what would have been the coast. Looking across to Mount Vesuvius, Amanda explained how many of those who fled the ash cloud returned to their homes, as the deadly pyroclastic flow only started the next day, which turned into a discussion about the potential sea journey of Pliny the Elder.

We made our way back to the hotel for a relaxing mid-morning coffee before taking the coach to Villa Arianna. The villa gave a greater sense of how deeply the ash buried the entire area. The once grand garden was walled in on two sides by steep banks, and the walkway along the second complex fell away to the modern streets below. As we moved through the different rooms, each with big views of what was once the coastline, we found trays of soil showing the different layers of ash that the excavators had to dig through. As with Villa San Marco, Villa Arianna was designed to be a pleasure villa, boasting spectacular views and luxurious triclinium rooms - everything the wealthy Roman needed to show off to their friends and allies.

We took the coach to Castellammare di Stabia for lunch at a pizzeria on the sea front. As the food arrived, the table became a buffet of different pizza and pasta dishes, a feast of Italian cooking. After lunch, we drove to Villa Opolontis.
Arriving at the Villa, my first impression was how sunken it was. To reach the entrance, you must walk down a large flight of steps, bracketed by a mound of earth that shows the clear, defined layers of rock and ash that were excavated. Amanda gave us some information about the villa, how it is suspected to be one of the many homes of Nero’s wife and the suitable splendour it must have had. Our exploration of the villa turned into a treasure hunt, finding the frescoes and elements that Amanda had mentioned to us, and hunting down the discoveries found and shared by other members of the group. Most notable were the fresco of a fruit bowl with a realistic gossamer wrapping and the impressions of wooden shutters on one of the walls, preserved by the ash. The Villa itself was the most richly decorated of the three we had seen today, with ostentatious designs of flowers, vases and exotic animals decorating the walls. It had a stereotypical layout, suggesting that this villa shaped our impression of what a large Roman villa should look like. It is clear that there is still more be excavated, but the encroaching modern town sadly prevents any further exploration.

We had dinner in Castellammare di Stabia. Our starters were platters of seafood and terra antipasti, before having a choice of main course and desert. All the dishes were local cuisine from the Monti Lattari region, made with local ingredients. A few hours and a few more bottles of wine later, we headed back to the hotel.

Day 5:

We started the day at the spectacular town of Herculaneum. Originally buried under 30 metres of ash, Herculaneum is unique in the Bay area as some of the upper stories were preserved. After three days of ruins, single story villas and the roofless buildings of Pompeii, seeing stairs and decorated ceilings was a bit bizarre. We spent three amazing hours here, walking through the houses and gardens, admiring the floor mosaics of the baths, the decorated ‘lare’ in the House of Neptune and Aphrodite and the comical drunk Hercules sculptures in the Casa dei Cervi. Amanda led us into a large cavern that we wouldn’t have otherwise entered. It was once the pool, with small tunnels that were part of the initial excavations, lit up so we could see how deep they went. There is still so much of Herculaneum to uncover, but expansion is limited by the surrounding modern city, caging the ancient buildings in.

We ended our tour of Herculaneum at the harrowing ‘boathouses’, containing roughly 30 preserved bodies of people who tried to hide from the destruction. Analysis of the bone structure and density shows that they are from all classes of Roman society, united by their fear. The soggy stench of rotting vegetation in the flooded ground below helped bring home the desperation and reality of the human tragedy that took place.

We walked to a nearby café for a sandwich and a coffee then took the coach to the crater of Mount Vesuvius. After Pompeii, this was what I was most excited about seeing. The walk to the top was steep, taking about 30 minutes, but there were plenty of rest stops along the way to sit and admire the stunning view. There were also coffee and souvenir stands for those of us who needed a pick me up in the chilly weather. The crater itself was immense. I couldn’t see the bottom, but the craggy edge was a myriad of reds and oranges, the colours bright in the distinct rock layers. I could also see smoke rising in places which was more incredible! The path was now, thankfully, mostly flat, letting us walk about half way around the crater. Those of us that reached the end of the path had a celebratory hot chocolate, while Amanda pointed out where the ruins of Pompeii were, and the old coast line before the eruption. The clouds had cleared so we had big, sunny views across the Bay, and had fun trying to see where we had been during the week. The walk down was a lot easier than the walk up. It gave me time to take in the vast views across to Napoli, and to see the visible damage that the eruption did to the surrounding mountains.

Day 6:

Today we explored the other side of the bay; the ruins and myths of the Phlegraean Fields. Our first stop was the amphitheatre at Pozzuoli. We made our way underneath the structure with great, imposing pillars left lying on the floor. The large archways and dank, cage-like rooms created a tense atmosphere. The emptiness made the building seem larger than it was, as if it were holding its breath while waiting for the noise and action it was designed for. Amanda explained to us how the animals would have been kept in the upper levels, the stone supports sticking out of the walls used as part of a pully system to get the animals in and out.

Back on ground level, we made our way to the centre of the theatre. Amanda disproved many of the Hollywood notions surrounding gladiators, before we strolled around the outside of the structure, talking about the staggering cost of restoration and upkeep on these ancient buildings.

We left Pozzuoli and took a short drive to the Archaeological Museum of Campi Flegrei. Located in the baily, we saw beautiful views of Bacoli, and the coast, as we walked across the moat and up into the castle. We were very impressed with the staggering collection from the Cumae Acropolis. There were beautiful vases, coins, statues and jewellery as well as frescoes and intricately carved sarcophagi. We could have stayed there for hours but needed to move on, otherwise we would not get to visit any of the other fascinating places on our list for the day.

The thermal baths at Baia were a surprise for me. I had never heard of them before and would probably have never found them on my own, but they became one of the top highlights of the tour. There were small stairways, tunnels and an endless warren of pathways, and we had no idea of where they would end up. It was amazing! Amanda tried to find the entrance to a tunnel that may have been used as a scam by priests, guiding guests over the supposed ‘River Styx’ and hearing a prophecy from the Oracle of Sybil. My personal favourite features were a fig tree growing upside-down and a huge, natural pool enclosed within a dome that we could walk to the centre of. It was hot and smelly, and the distorted sound gave the eerie impression that we had reached a boundary between worlds. The whole site was fantastic and made us feel as if we were intrepid explorers.

We left Baia behind to make our way to the Cumae Acropolis. Amanda led us through the Grotto of Sybil, a surprisingly straight pathway for a grotto, but made atmospheric by the limited natural light. We discussed whether this truly was the Grotto of Sybil, where Aeneas sought advice on how to enter the underworld or, as some archaeologists have suggested, a pathway linking two mountains so that soldiers could travel more easily. We left the grotto to ascend to the top of the Acropolis, admiring the sulfuric yellow stone of the mountain that we had previously seen as one of the building materials in Pompeii. The views from the top were beautiful, showing wooded cliffs and calm seas.
That evening we celebrated our final night of the tour by drinking white wine made from grapes grown on the slopes of Vesuvius, believed to be as close as we can get to the style of wine that was drunk in Roman times. Our final dinner was happy and upbeat, despite knowing that we had to say goodbye to each other the next day.

Day 7:

We said goodbye to our hotel and drove to Naples National Archaeology Museum. Amanda led us into the towering Atrium and gave us some very good advice: see the things that you desperately want to see first because you will get distracted and wander towards whatever catches your eye, which may cause you to miss what you really want to see! With that advice in mind, most of us made our way to the collections from Pompeii and Herculaneum. I started at the Hall of Mosaics to see the Alexander Mosaic, taken from the Casa del Fauno that we had visited back at Pompeii. Behind the Hall was the ‘Secret Room’. Only opened to women in the 1980s, the room was full of explicit mosaics and sculptures that had been hidden away during the Victorian era less they upset ladies ‘delicate sensibilities’. Amanda explained that the image of sex, particularly male genitalia was a symbol of good fortune by the Romans, so there was a lot to look at!

The rest of the museum contained so many amazing things that I cannot possibly mention them all, but there are some that deserve special attention: the intricately decorated pillars from the Temple of Isis, a partially recovered fresco warning passers by not to defecate in the street less they be cursed and eaten by serpents, entire halls of frescoes, exceptionally vivid, both in colours and imagery. However, the best of all was the complete scale model of Pompeii itself, with tiny, detailed drawings of where each fresco or sculpture was found. Amanda was amazing throughout, translating Latin on the ancient signs and frescoes, and always happy to point us in the direction of something interesting.
We left the museum in the early afternoon to get lunch. Along the way, Franco took us on a short tour of the centre of Naples so that we could see some of the main sites and get a sense of the city, before dropping us near the Piazza Plebiscito. We walked to a lovely local pizzeria, where everyone had a pizza Margarita because we could not come to Naples without sampling its speciality dish.

There was some free time after lunch so we went off to explore the city, meeting back at the Piazza Plebiscito afterwards. I walked along the columned front of the Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola, before heading to the Galleria Umberto, making it back in time to sample some genuine Italian gelato. There was a storm blowing in and we were all in awe of the massive waves being whipped up by the wind in the harbour. It was violent and exhilarating, the waves crashing over the road along the sea front, the trees laid nearly flat by the sheer force of the wind. As we drove through the city, we saw army trucks, road closures and debris everywhere. After dropping off Jack and Llyne at the train station, who were continuing their holiday in Italy, we headed out of the city to the airport. We breezed through check in and before we knew it, we were flying back to Gatwick. We made our goodbyes, hoping to see each other on another Cultural Experience tour someday soon.

View details of this tour - The Archaeology of the Bay of Naples

Photo Gallery

  • The Temple of Athena from a Roman House, Paestum
  • View from Mount Vesuvius towards Naples
  • Discussing the ash cloud and pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius at Villa San Ma
  • At the House of Fawn, Pompeii
  • Villa Arianna
  • Stabiae Baths, Pompeii
  • Steam rising from the crater of Mount Vesuvius
  • The garden at Oplontis
  • Outside of the amphitheatre at Pozzuoli
  • View of the Temple of Neptune from the Heroon, Paestum
  • Oplontis
  • Marvelling at the Temple of Neptune
  • Looking up at Baia from the lower pool
  • Looking along to the Second Complex at Villa Arianna
  • Looking across to Pompeii from the crater of Mount Vesuvius

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