On May 2 we sailed into bustling Barcelona for an overnight stay. This was a perfect stop for an overnight since there is so much to see and do here. Really, I don’t think you can do it right in less than a week, but at least we had more than one day here. Barcelona is the capital of the Spanish province of Catalonia, an area with its own separate language and a relatively strong nationalist movement that seeks independence from Spain. It has (you have heard this before) a very long and involved history dating back to Roman times, and was a sea power as part of the kingdom of Aragon in the late middle ages and Renaissance. Our primary focus was the Modernista buildings of architect Antoni Gaudi but we found much more here to catch the eye. The one priority on our list to which you couldn’t realistically walk was Gaudi’s Park Guell, so we decided that on the first day we would use the HOHO (hop on hop off) bus and then stay on foot the second day. This turned out to be a good plan, but not without its unanticipated flaws.
So after breakfast in the Prinsendam restaurant (which makes superb French toast) on our first morning we boarded the shuttle bus that took us to a park at the base of Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian street running up from the harbor to Placa de Catalunya where we would board the HOHO bus. The 12 acre Placa de Catalunya is pretty much the center of town, situated where the old city walls, torn down in the 1850’s, once stood. We walked pretty quickly up Las Ramblas, two narrow streets with a broad pedestrian promenade in the center, lined on both sides with large Sycamores. It was not crowded in the early morning before most of the cafes and vendors’ booths were set up. We boarded the HOHO bus for the ride to La Sagrada Familia, the great church designed by Gaudi that is still under construction after about 130 years.
So what is Modernista, the characteristic architecture of Barcelona? I think after seeing the pictures you will have a feel for that. But basically it is the Catalonian version of Art Nouveau, and was rife in Barcelona from the late 1880’s to the beginning of World War I. It is characterized by curved lines rather than straight lines and square corners; by vivid colors and a variety of materials; by an inspiration from nature and by a lack of symmetry. But more than anything else it is characterized by originality and experimentation. There were a number of well-known and important Modernista architects in Barcelona in that period, but the foremost and best known was Antoni Gaudi. Born in the mid-19th Century, Gaudi was an odd duck: a very rigid conservative and a devout Catholic who designed buildings that look like psychedelic fantasies. My doctor described him as the Dr. Suess architect and I think that’s a pretty good description. He died in 1926 when run over by a streetcar, and recently there has been a movement to have him canonized as a saint.
La Sagrada Familia is Gaudi’s final project. It was begun in 1883 and at the time of Gaudi’s death only one of the facades (depicting the Nativity) had been largely completed. Gaudi lived on site for the last decade of his life (I told you he was a bit strange). Construction was halted in the mid 1930’s by the Spanish Civil War and didn’t resume in earnest until the 1950’s. Today two of the three planned facades are pretty much completed (Nativity and Passion), while the main entrance (the Glory façade) is nowhere near completion. The roof was completed in 2010, just in time for the Pope to visit & consecrate it as a Catholic Basilica (it is not a cathedral; we will see the Barcelona Cathedral later). You can see in the pictures that it is still surrounded by cranes and construction areas, but the goal is to complete the building by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. If they make it we hope we are still around and able to come and see it. Even in its current state La Sagrada Familia is nothing short of awesome. When completed it will have a central tower about a hundred feet taller than the current ones that will be topped by a lighted cross that will be visible far out to sea. It will be the tallest church in the world.
There are often long waits in line to get into La Sagrada Familia. You can buy a ticket ahead of time & skip the line, but you have to arrive at a set time of day and we weren’t sure we could do that. So we thought we might not be able to go inside. But upon arrival the line was relatively short, so we only had to wait about 20 minutes to get in, perhaps because it was still early in the tourist season. Anyway, you enter the church through the Passion façade, very severe in aspect, supported by angled pillars meeting in a narrow arch above the entry. On the wall above the door are sculptures representing scenes from Jesus’s last days & his crucifixion. The sculpture was begun in 1987 by a team led by a sculptor born after Gaudi died, so these were not designed by Gaudi although they follow his general plan.
Stepping inside this building is breathtaking. It is lined with pillars modeled on trees with branches at the top that come together in parabolic arches to support the roof. It is a gigantic space; it was very full of people but the space looked very empty because it was so tall. Everywhere you looked there were curved lines, very few straight lines or corners.
Inside the church we were approached by a guy who noticed my hat & told us he was a distant relative of Bob Castellini, the majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds. He said he had been in Europe for a while & asked how the Reds were doing (not too bad at the time). This was somewhat refreshing because in Turkey we had been approached several times by guys who thought my hat was a Chicago Cubs hat (Cubs hats are actually blue with a round C on them, entirely different from a Reds hat). One of them told us we should be rooting for the Blue Jays, which seemed pretty random to us!
The windows of the church are gradually being replaced by stained glass; Gaudi envisioned this as a fairly dark & contemplative space. But there is also a large and bright skylight in the ceiling.
Along the walls are a variety of stonework balconies, walkways & spiral staircases. The walkways have wrought iron railings in twisty designs.
Over the altar in the apse is a hanging figure of Jesus on the cross suspended under a lighted canopy, which made him look like he was hang gliding or skydiving. There is a pipe organ there as well. Eventually there will be several more organs with a total of 8,000 pipes that will be able to be played separately from their own keyboards or linked together so that they can all be played from a single keyboard. Under the altar was a crypt, where Gaudi is entombed (I think; he’s in this church somewhere), which has a chapel. There were windows just above the floor to look down in this space.
We left the building on the other side, through the Nativity façade. This was the one façade completed during Gaudi’s lifetime & under his supervision. It is much friendlier than the Passion façade; its style has been described as “cake left out in the rain” & in fact it does look like the stone is melting and dripping around the sculptures. The theme here is life affirming centered on the birth of Jesus, depicted in the top sculpture over the door. Above the façade is a “tree of life” with doves on it that really looks like a Christmas tree. The main pillars sit on a turtle and a tortoise, representing land and sea life. The sculpture includes musicians, angels, livestock present at Jesus’ birth. And nearby is another tower topped by a fruit basket.
We went around the church to catch the HOHO bus to the next stop on our itinerary, Park Guell, and discovered the biggest flaw in our time management plan: we weren’t the only people who were doing this (who would have guessed?). There was a VERY long line of people waiting for the HOHO bus & we stood in line watching bus after bus leave after boarding only a few people each.
But eventually we did get on a bus (although we had to sit inside instead of on top where there is a great view) & it took us to Park Guell. There was a very steep climb up to the park entrance from the bus stop, but it was well worth it. Built in the first 15 years of the 20th Century, his was originally intended to be part of a housing development for wealthy people that never panned out (only 2 houses were ever built). Guell was an aristocrat who was Gaudi’s most important patron. Most of the most recognizable architecture in the park is concentrated at the entrance.
On each side of the entrance is a building made of brown stone with roofs made of a variety of tiles with a large brown mushroomy object at the top. One of them has blue tower topped by a white cross (that one is the gift shop). They look like gingerbread houses with icing roofs.
The staircase features a number of colorful figures decorated in Gaudi’s signature mosaic style. He is famous for his technique of using broken shards of pottery or tile to make up a colorful and variable surface. The most famous of these staircase decorations is the salamander, called el drac (the dragon) by the locals, copies of which are for sale in most of the gift shops in Barcelona.
Above the stairway is a very large terrace supported by columns. The serpentine concrete bench with wildly varied mosaic decoration that surrounds the terrace is an iconic Gaudi creation. Last year in Lima, Peru we saw a bench wall in a park overlooking the water that was obviously inspired by this bench.
Park Guell is on top of a large hill overlooking the city toward the sea. From the terrace & several other points nearby there were breathtaking views.
On the other side of the terrace is a retaining wall holding up a road higher on the hill. The wall undulates somewhat and overhangs the terrace; I have seen the round structures at the top referred to as birds nests, although I think they really function as planters. There are several similar structures, made to blend with the landscape through the use of local stone and naturalistic design, that support roads intended to service the housing project. There are walkways underneath some of them; we saw some street performers in a couple of those spaces. We also saw Gaudi’s house for the last 20 years of his life (although I understand that during the last 10 years he mostly slept at Sagrada Familia). This was the show house for the project & Gaudi bought it because no one else was interested in moving here.
As you have glimpsed in some of the earlier pictures, the terrace is supported by a colonnade of fluted columns filling the space below the terrace like a forest. The ceiling is made of broken white tile with mosaic medallions between the columns. The view from inside looks down on the gingerbread buildings at the gate. Gaudi expected this to become a covered marketplace.
Finally we left, walking by the outside wall of the park with its mosaic top & another entrance to the park down the street. There also was a wall of intricate tiles (broken but still with coherent patterns) separated by white mosaic that was a little different. We walked back down the steep hill, then waited in the long line for the HOHO bus.
After we finally got on the bus (on top this time, thankfully) we headed for our next stop, Gaudi’s Casa Mila apartment block. But one thing about the HOHO bus is that you have to go through its entire circular route to get back to the beginning (no back and forth routes). This took a while, but it gave us a chance to see a lot more of Barcelona from the top of the bus. We saw a lot of interesting buildings you probably wouldn’t see elsewhere. I can’t identify most of them but we did drive past the Guell Pavilions built by Gaudi in the 1880’s. Its most famous feature (at least to me) is the iron dragon gate at the entrance.
Throughout the city are buildings (presumably residential) with interesting iron balconies, even if little else distinguishes them. This helps give the city a pleasant ambiance since there is always something new and interesting to see even on blocks lined with rows of apartment buildings.
We left the HOHO bus near the Casa Mila, a few blocks north of Placa Catalunya, to walk the rest of the way to the shuttle bus stop on the harbor. Casa Mila was an innovative building (for example, the first with underground parking) Gaudi finished in 1912. A large apartment building with undulating lines & curvy balconies with intricate iron railings, it is known locally as “La Pedrera” (the Quarry). It was very controversial at the time. Gaudi ignored city height limits and other regulations, which resulted in a drawn-out battle over fines and other administrative interference. When it was completed many of the neighbors were so incensed by what they considered an eyesore that would reduce their property values that they refused to speak to the owner, Mila, when passing on the street. Today it is, along with several other Gaudi buildings, a Unesco World Heritage site. In addition to the building’s innovative designs, the roof is in effect a sculpture garden populated with distinctive air vents and smoke stacks. One can visit the inside and the rooftop, but it is fairly expensive and the line was long. As it was getting late we did not take the time for a tour (next time!).
We walked a little way down the Passeig de Gracia to the Casa Batllo, another Gaudi creation. This building originally dates from 1877 but was completely refurbished by Gaudi in 1906 (the year the Casa Milo was begun). It reputedly represents the story of St. George & the dragon: the roof supposedly represents the dragon’s scaled & undulating back & the tower on the left with the cross represents St. George’s lance sticking into the dragon. Be that as it may, the building is completely unique, with multicolored pottery pieces giving the walls an impressionist cast & hardly a straight line in the whole building. Of all the Gaudi works we saw in Barcelona, this strikes me as the one that would be most at home in a Dr. Seuss book. Tours are available of this building as well, but again the long lines & late hour induced us to skip that. So much to come back for!
Casa Batllo is part of the Block of Discard, so called because it contains contrasting buildings by several of the more important Modernista architects. Next to Casa Batllo is the Casa Amatller by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, which has a Flemish step roof façade and a bright yellow color. Next is the Casa Bonet, then Casa Mulleras and on the corner the Casa Lleó-Morera by Lluís Domènech.
We continued walking down Passeig de Gracia to Placa de Catalunya, passing several interesting buildings I can’t identify. I was particularly taken with a large building with a very bright orange turreted roof across the square from the Placa on the north. In the park is a fairly spectacular fountain, complete with statuary.
We walked down Las Ramblas (I will save all the Las Ramblas pictures to show at once) toward our last Gaudi landmark, the Palau Guell. But on the way we stopped for a gelato! Mmmm.
Refreshed, we walked on to Palau Guell, one of Gaudi’s early works built mostly in the late 1880’s. It is on a narrow street, so pictures of the roof were not possible and we did not take the tour for reasons discussed earlier. It is very colorful and original, particularly for such an early date. The 2 large parabolic doors in the front with detailed iron work were to allow a horse & carriage to enter through one door and exit through the other. The doors led to the stable & guests would then walk up a flight of stairs to the living quarters. Between the doors is a large iron decoration that represents the Catalan coat of arms, a patriotic statement.
Tired but happy, we went back to the ship for dinner. After dinner was a performance by an impressive group of local musicians and dancers. Pretty compelling stuff, and a good time was had by all. Afterward we walked out on deck for a night view of the harbor, and then to bed.
The second day in Barcelona would be a short day since the ship was scheduled to depart at 4:30 & we had to be back to the shuttle well before then. Our plan was to go first to the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), which is the old town of Barcelona, to see the Cathedral, then have breakfast at an outdoor café, then go to the Picasso museum, which is just beyond the Gothic Quarter. After that we wanted to do some shopping, since this was our last free day on the continent, at the market on Las Ramblas. Great plan for using our time except for one thing: there were other folks in town. In fact, several very large cruise ships arrived that morning with the result that we encountered many more tour groups than we had the day before. So, as I have said several times before, we will have to come back!
But that doesn’t mean the day was wasted. We started off fairly early toward the Gothic Quarter & the Cathedral. The first thing we came to was the Columbus statue on its extremely high column (almost 200 feet) at the beginning of Las Ramblas. Barcelona was the place where Columbus docked on returning from his first voyage to America (because Ferdinand & Isabella happened to be there at the time). Erected in 1888, it’s a pretty impressive monument, very tall and elaborate, and can be seen a long way away. It was being cleaned (or something) while we were there, so there were ropes & even a brightly colored covering for a worker on Columbus’s back. It reminded me of Gulliver tied down with the Lilliputians’ tiny ropes.
We walked through the narrow streets of the Barri Gotic to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, usually just called the Barcelona Cathedral. There has been a cathedral on this spot for many hundreds of years but the current structure was built in the 14th and 15th Centuries (with the Neo-Gothic façade completed in the 19th). St. Eulalia, one of the patron saints of Barcelona (who is interred in this cathedral), is said to have been martyred by the Romans here, supposedly by being rolled down a hill in a barrel with knives sticking into it. The first part we came to was the cloisters, with a pool in the center, gargoyles on the walls & a nice view of the the tower of the cathedral. Wealthy merchants were buried in the floor so they could be close to the cathedral. It has been populated for hundreds of years by a gaggle of 13 white geese, said to represent Eulalia’s virginity & her age when martyred. They also served a security function since they would make a loud fuss if anyone entered at night. There are several gated chapels in the cloisters, the most popular dedicated to St. Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes.
We had to walk around to the front of the cathedral, facing a large square, to enter. The interior is quite majestic with a very high ceiling supported by pillars and the whole space bathed in a golden light. In the center was the elaborately carved wood and stone choir with wooden spiral peaks topped with crosses all along the top of its wall. After viewing the cathedral we had a continental breakfast at a sidewalk café across the square.
After breakfast we headed to the Picasso Museum. Picasso lived in Barcelona as a young man & this museum is reputed to have the best collection in the world from Picasso’s early years. It was harder to find than we expected (its in a sort of alley) so we walked some through the interesting Gothic Quarter, with its narrow streets, hidden plazas & old buildings. We found the street lights particularly interesting in this area. In fact, there is a great variety of interesting styles of street lamps throughout Barcelona; there are even a couple designed by Gaudi somewhere, although we didn’t see them. A very common sight is the Catalan flag flying from buildings, reflecting (I assume) secessionist views. During the Franco regime display of the Catalan flag was forbidden, so instead they flew the flag of the Barcelona soccer team which has a similar design.
When we finally found the Picasso Museum we discovered the second major flaw in our time management plan. There was a very long line waiting to get in, stretching far down the narrow street. This was partly the result of several very large cruise ships arriving over night; we saw many more organized tour groups than we had on the first day, often crowding the narrow streets and making it difficult to get by. So it turned out we should have come here first thing in the morning since it was not difficult to get into the cathedral. We waited in line for almost half an hour but the line had hardly moved, so we reluctantly moved on since we still had some shopping to do & a midafternoon deadline for returning to the ship.
Our next stop was the Palau de la Música Catalana, a concert hall opened in 1908. Designed by Modernista architect Lluís Domènech, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The exterior of the Palau de la Musica is a fabulous mixture of form and color, with mosaic columns, busts of composers, sculpted stone reliefs and very few straight lines. It is located at the intersection of two narrow streets and surrounded by mostly nondescript buildings, making it very difficult to get a view of the building as a whole; it really deserves a better setting. It turned out there was a long wait before an English tour that we could join, so we didn’t get to see the inside of this building. This was unfortunate because the concert hall itself is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world, featuring a huge stained glass skylight in the middle of its ceiling. So, once again our time management plan came up short and we added another reason to return to Barcelona. I did manage to get a couple of pictures through the window of the vestibule, behind the wide red pillars surrounding the original entrance to the concert hall. Notice the tiny ticket window in one of the pillars.
In the 1980’s the building was restored and an adjacent building,formerly the headquarters of the Orfeo Catala, a choral society that originally financed the concert hall, was redesigned to house dressing rooms, a library & an archive. It has a brick façade which is carved into a relief of a tree going up the whole six stories. Visitors now mostly enter through the foyer, located in the first floor of this building, which also has tables and a bar serving refreshments to concert patrons. It is decorated in a style consistent with the concert hall.
As I mentioned we had some shopping we wanted to do, so we hustled over to the main market on Las Ramblas, the Mercat St. Josep. Unfortunately it turned out to be exclusively a food market. So there was another flaw in our time management plan (they are adding up, aren’t they). But even though there was nothing there for us to buy & take home, it was a very colorful place that was fun to explore, with aisle after aisle of kiosks.
We walked down Las Ramblas & had a late lunch at a sidewalk café. But before we get to that, this is a good place to show some of what can be seen while strolling Las Ramblas (in addition to the Mercat). As you can see, it is a wide pedestrian promenade shaded by Sycamores (called plane trees in Europe) lining each side. Outside the trees on each side is a narrow street with buildings on the outside of the streets. It runs from the Placa Catalunya at the top of the hill down to the Columbus column at the bottom. The walkway is constructed in a wavy pattern from side to side. During the day it is full of sidewalk cafes and kiosks selling flowers, gelato and other sundry items. Smack in the middle is a round abstract sidewalk decoration created by Miro, a Barcelona native (there is a Miro museum here, which we didn’t get to see . . . on this trip). A genuine original work of art by a modern master, folks walk over it without even looking, as if it were just a sidewalk. Across the street from the Miro is the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the city’s opera house. Built in 1847, the building has been restored twice after extensive fires. One of our favorite sights on this street was a wonderful dragon carrying an umbrella & a lantern that was hanging on the corner of a building that once was an umbrella factory. There are other interesting buildings all along this street, and at the bottom is, of course, our old friend Columbus (still in chains) & across the street the port headquarters in the old customs building. This is considered one of the great streets of Europe, and with good reason.
We stopped for lunch in a sidewalk café near the opera house called Café de L’Opera. We shared a large pizza with jambon (ham is a Barcelona specialty) & each had a beer. It was very good & the huge beer was served in a glass that looked like a globe. We were a little taken aback when the bill came, as it added up to about $50! I think a good part of that was to pay for the privilege of sitting in a prime spot on Las Ramblas, and we did enjoy that quite a bit. But by the time we finished it was too late to get a gelato & we had to hurry down to the shuttle bus stop at the port end of the street, which was more challenging than it should have been because of all the food & beer we had just finished. But we made it onto the next-to-last shuttle bus & back to the ship on time. As you can probably tell by the length of this episode, delightful Barcelona was truly one of the highlights of the trip.
We visited these two islands on April 30 & May 1. But before getting to them I am going to introduce you to our last set of table mates, who all boarded in Rome & were with us until we reached Fort Lauderdale. It was a diverse group judging by residence: Linda & Doug live in Waco, Texas; Tish & John live on Long Island; Anne & Jim live in the Bahamas. We were lucky again to have a table full of interesting & enjoyable people, a circumstance that can really make a difference on a cruise, and we had a very good time together. One of these pictures was taken by Doug, for obvious reasons. It was formal night or we wouldn’t have been dressed like that!
So as I said before, we arrived off Alghero, Sardinia (Italy) on the morning of April 30. Unfortunately, the captain decided the sea was too rough to tender ashore so we didn’t get to visit the town. It was misty & the sea wasn’t entirely calm, but it didn’t look that bad to me, but of course it was not my decision to make and if I were responsible for the well-being of all these folks I might look at it differently. I guess if we had to miss one I would rather it be Alghero than Rome or Athens, but we were disappointed because Sardinia is a place we might never get back to. Anyway, all I have is pictures from the ship. The first two were taken before we reached Alghero & I thought they were of islands or remote cliffs, but it turns out that at least one of them (the second one) was of a place called Capo Caccia not far from Alghero, which is an area full of underwater and partially submerged caves, the most famous of which is called Neptune’s Grotto.
On May 1 we arrived at Mahon, the capital of Spanish Menorca (or Minorca) in the Balearic Islands. Today this is essentially a resort town, but it has a very long & involved history. The city is thought to have been named after Hannibal’s brother Mago Barca who took refuge here in the 3rd Century BC. It has been part of the Roman & Byzantine empires, ruled by the Moors of Spain & the French, and was independent for a period as well. Looking at this placid waterside city you would never guess that it more than once it has been plundered and its entire population slaughtered or sold into slavery, once in the 16th Century by the pirate Barbarossa (“red beard”) operating under the auspices of the Ottomans. Many of its citizens are descendants of Catalans who settled here while Menorca was under the rule of the kingdom of Aragon in Spain, & Catalan is the primary language here. The island was ruled by the British during most of the 18th Century & Mahon still displays its legacy of Georgian architecture. Mahon is also reputedly the birthplace of of the salad dressing called mayonnaise.
Right next to the ship was the grand staircase & S-shaped road that are the main entrance to Mahon from the dock. It was a steep climb but we made it up OK.
At the top of the stairway is a large attractive plaza, Placa Espanya. One can look down from there on the cliffs & stairway & harbor. On one side is the 18th Century Iglesia del Carme, which I think is a cathedral. Unfortunately we were there on Spanish Labor Day so most things were closed, including this church. In fact the whole city seemed pretty abandoned. But in the old cloisters of the church is a marketplace called Mercat del Claustre del Carme that was open, although pretty quiet because of the holiday. There was a nice large courtyard surrounded by the church & the market in which movies are shown on summer nights.
Not far away, just beyond the other side of Placa Espanya, is the Church of Santa Maria. It was built in the 13th Century & renovated during the British occupation in the 18th Century. It is a nice church, but its best feature is its pipe organ, sporting 4 keyboards and more than 3,000 pipes, which was transported precariously across war-torn Europe in 1810. There are organ concerts in the summer but not when we were there.
We walked around town for a while. The Georgian architecture is less than exciting, although I have read that this is the only place in Spain where you will see it. The streets were pretty devoid of life, apart from Prinsendam folks wandering around like we were. We did see the Teatro, or opera house, looking rather plain from the outside although it supposed to be opulent on the inside (yes, it was closed). And we saw the Puerto de San Roque, a 14th century gate to the city that is all that is left of the walls built to protect the city from pirates and invaders.
We walked to an overlook on the edge of the cliff near our ship, beneath which was a narrow road that zigzags down to the port level below.
Having seen enough of this pleasant but unexciting town, we walked back down the stairway, noticing the nice fauna by the cliffs on the way, and had a late lunch on the ship.
We left in late afternoon. Mahan’s harbor is 3 miles long & is the second deepest natural harbor in the world. It was one of the most important, and most fought over, harbors in the Mediterranean for many hundreds of years. Sailing through it feels more like being on a wide river than in a harbor. On its shores are military fortresses, wealthy homes, waterfront housing developments and a good bit of scenery.
We passed by Hospital Island on which sits one of the oldest Royal Navy hospitals in the world, built early in the 18th Century & used until 1964. In the 13th Century King Alphonso III landed on this island to begin his successful campaign to take Minorca from the Moors. We also saw Illa del Llatzeret on which is a large fortified quarantine hospital built in the 18th Century. This was a peninsula until about 1900 when a canal was dug to turn it into an island so it would be more difficult for infectious patients to escape. The hospital closed in 1917. We also saw Fortaleza del Mola, built by Spain in the 19th Century to defend the harbor. Actually, a hilltop fortress is visible in several of these pictures that may be different views of Fortaleza del Mola. Finally we sailed by the steep rocky cliffs at the mouth of the harbor & into the Mediterranean.
This was our last night with Kiki, who had been our waiter at dinner (and often at breakfast) since we left Fort Lauderdale. He is a delightful fellow, quick with a quip and a smile, whose company we really enjoyed. He really made a difference for us on this lengthy cruise. He was leaving the ship in Barcelona for a well deserved vacation at home with his wife and lovely baby daughter. We hope he had a wonderful time & that we will meet him again on a future sailing.
That’s pretty much it for our stay in Menorca, which was more about relaxing than sightseeing. But Barcelona is next, which will not be like that at all. We haven’t had any towel animals or food sculptures in a while, so I will leave you with a few of those.
We arrived in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, on the morning of April 29. Unlike our last few ports, this one involved intense sightseeing rather than lovely vistas. There is so much to see in Rome that you can’t do more than touch a few high points in a one day visit, particularly when you have to factor in about 1.5 hours each way in a bus between the port and the city. To top it off the ship was leaving before dinner time, so getting back before its departure was an issue. For all these reasons we decided to take a HAL excursion, which was more expensive than it ought to have been but still well worth it (after all, who knows when/if we will get back to Rome?). While there was a lot that we would have liked to see but didn’t, it was amazing to us how much one could see in this short time. Inevitably, there are a lot of pictures in this episode taken through a bus window as we drove by places where we didn’t stop, but the sights we did get to visit were all very satisfying.
There really isn’t much to see in Civitavecchia, which doesn’t seem to be much more than the busy port for Rome, which is some 45 miles away. There are some Renaissance era fortifications, including an imposing fort designed by Michelangelo, but not much else to see.
Rome, of course, was the capital of the dominant empire of ancient times, controlling most of the Mediterranean area from about 100 BC to 200 AD. It was founded in the 7th or 8th Century BC, either by the Trojan prince Aeneas fleeing the disaster of the Trojan war (he must have been old since the Trojan War was a few centuries earlier), or by the twins Romulus & Remus who were suckled by a wolf, or by a slow process of several villages on neighboring hills growing together into a single city. The first two are more literary but the last one is most likely true. I will skip discussing its history here since it is readily available & most people have already learned about it in school, except when relevant to the places we visited.
We left early on the bus and arrived first at the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. Established by a 1929 treaty with Mussolini, the Vatican is an independent sovereign state wholly enclosed by the city of Rome, the smallest state in the world. Interestingly, although St. Peter’s is the largest of all churches in the world it is not a cathedral. Cathedral is defined as the seat of a bishop, and the seat of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) Is the Church of St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s.
Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the 4th Century AD, built the first church here because it is traditionally considered the place of burial of the Apostle St. Peter, who was also the first bishop of Rome. The current structure was built in the 16th and 17th Centuries and many other Popes have been buried here over the centuries. The dome on top is the tallest in the world and is visible from a distance (although not from directly in front of the church). It is illegal to erect a building in Rome that is taller than this dome.
The vast open space in front of the Basilica is bordered by long colonnades on each side, with numerous sculptures lining their tops as well as the top of the façade of the Basilica itself. In this courtyard there are two fairly lavish fountains, a 13th Century BC Egyptian obelisk with a cross on top, and huge statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. The obelisk was once in the Circus of Nero that was in this area & is thought to have been a witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter there. Oh yes, there were a whole lot of people there as well, even though it was morning and not yet tourist season (although far fewer than in the summer months). Our guide told us they were getting an unusually large number of visitors this Spring because of the election a month earlier of a very popular new Pope. As a result we had a very long wait (close to an hour); there is no line or charge to get into the Basilica (how refreshing after all the fee charging churches we had seen) but you have to go through a metal detector security check first & that was very slow & backed up. Many visitors apparently felt they were not bound to follow the church rules & simply cut in near the head of the line, making the wait that much longer for the rest of us, but no one was there to stop them.
Having finally finished the security check we headed for the massive entrance to the church. It was framed by huge pillars and bronze doors with pictures; one set was made in the 15th Century and was part of the original basilica and another was made in the 20th Century. Stepping into this massive interior space is pretty awesome.
Our first stop inside was at Michelangelo’s Pieta. Michelangelo was only 24 when he sculpted this masterpiece & it was only his 3d sculpture. After a deranged guy caused some serious damage to it in 1972 they repaired it, mostly with the pieces that had been hammered off although Mary’s nose is entirely new, & surrounded it with bulletproof glass. There was a crowd around it and you couldn’t get close, but the glass is so clear you wouldn’t know from the pictures that it is there at all.
The ceilings of the basilica are (if I understand correctly) carved stucco decorated with gold leaf. To give an idea of the scale of the building, the words on the gold ribbon at the top of the walls are more than 6 feet tall. There are several smaller domes in the church which appear to be oval in my pictures, but I think that may be a result of camera angle and that they are actually round. They are decorated inside by what looks like frescoes but are actually mosaics. In fact there are very few paintings in St. Peter’s (our guide said there are none but I have since read about a couple of very small ones); all of the large pictures that are actually mosaics executed with such tiny glass tiles that you really have to get close to see that they are not paintings. Many of them are mosaic copies of important paintings however.
We walked on past several tombs of popes, many of whom are entombed here, and innumerable statues of saints, martyrs & popes in niches in the marble walls. In the center of the church, directly under the primary dome, is the Baldachin created by the sculptor Bernini in the early 17th Century to mark the spot where St. Peter’s remains are thought to be. It is a gigantic bronze canopy covering the altar, on which only the Pope is allowed to celebrate mass.. Although it doesn’t look outsize in the context of this space, it is actually 96 feet high (more than 10 stories if it were a building). Most (if not all) of the more than 100,000 pounds of bronze used to build it was looted from the roof of the Pantheon (which we will see later). Its helical pillars were copied from the marble pillars supporting a canopy in the original St. Peter’s; they are called “Solomonic pillars” because the originals were thought to have come from the Temple in Jerusalem, but in fact they were made in the 2d Century AD, probably in Greece. In the large picture below two of the original pillars can be seen on the balcony on the left. The top of the Baldachin is designed to look like the cloth canopy that was on the original in the old church.
In the apse behind the Baldachin is the Cathedra Petri, also by Bernini. It was built as a reliquary for a chair long thought to have been used by St. Peter, but which actually appears to have been a gift from Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII in 875. The chair is encased in the object at the center of the structure, which is chair shaped if you see it in person. The chair holder has a gilded picture of Jesus giving the keys to St. Peter & the elaborate gilded gloria above is carved stucco covered in gold. The light in the middle is from a pre-existing window in the wall that Bernini effectively incorporated by including a yellow alabaster window in the gloria that lets in the outside light. The dove in the window represents the Holy Spirit & the chair is supported by sculptures of four “Doctors of the Church.”
Above the Baldachin is, of course, Michelangelo’s great dome. On the outside it is the tallest dome in the world and on the inside it rises almost 400 feet from the floor. It is filled with mosaics designed by Michelangelo. The inscription at the top memorializes the pope at the time of its completion rather than the artist who designed it: “To the glory of St. Peter, Pope Sixtus V in the year 1590, fifth of his pontificate.”
Each of the four massive supports of the dome displays a sculpture of an individual associated with an important relic that lies below it. Here is St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, who is considered the finder of the True Cross, a fragment of which lies below her sculpture. Here also is a picture of people standing by the base of one of the columns of the Baldachin, which gives you a better idea of its scale. The relief on the base of the column is the coat of arms of Pope Urban VIII.
So then we headed back toward the door, walking through several side chapels. The floors of the church were beautiful inlaid marble. I think the bronze door through which we exited is the one made in the 20th Century & that the picture to the left is Pope John XXIII bowing before the martyred St. Peter.
As we left the Basilica and headed for (yes) the Vatican souvenir store, which thankfully had a restroom & some cold water, we passed the Swiss Guards on duty by the church. Very colorful.
Leaving the Vatican, our bus headed for the Colosseum, our next stop. To get there we crossed the Tiber River and drove past Trajan’s Column & an architectural site that shows how the current city street level is about 25 feet higher than it was in classical times. Trajan’s column is hollow & has one of the first spiral staircases inside it. It originally had a statue of Trajan on top but a statue of St. Peter has been there close to 500 years. The reliefs spiraling up the sides portray Trajan’s military engagements with the Dacians, who lived in roughly the same area as modern Romania.
The Colosseum was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD. Its elliptical design was derived by combining two amphitheaters. It could hold about 55,000 spectators, all admitted free of charge, for the gladiatorial combats & wild animal fights that were its stock in trade. We were told, however, that contrary to popular belief Christians were martyred in the Circus Maximus and not in the Colosseum, which wasn’t built until after Nero’s reign. Originally called the Flavian Amphitheater (Vespasian was the first of the Flavian dynasty), it is thought to have obtained the name Colosseum after a colossal statue of Nero, some 30 yards tall, that stood nearby.
Only about a third of the original structure is still there. It was damaged by earthquakes, but mostly it was used as a quarry for already-cut stone, a large portion of which was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica. The stone blocks used to build the outer walls were fitted together without mortar and connected by iron pegs. In the pictures immediately above you can see the walls covered with pockmarks, which were made by people drilling into the walls to extract the iron pegs. We entered the Colosseum through the outer arched passage while the guide explained that the crowd flow was so well managed by the system of entrances and passageways that the entire stadium could be emptied of its 55,000 spectators in just 15 minutes.
The Colosseum was constructed on the inside mostly of concrete and brick. When the Empire disintegrated in the 4th & 5th Centuries AD the secret of making concrete was lost and not rediscovered until the Renaissance. Quite a lot of the brickwork evident today in the building was added in the 19th Century in an effort to prop up what was left of the structure. Its not too hard to tell the modern from the ancient brickwork.
The floor of the Colosseum was a huge wooden platform covered with sand. Beneath this floor was a two story complex of animal cages, gladiator rooms, storage rooms and hallways. It was outfitted with elevators, operated by winches, that could raise animal cages to arena level. where they would suddenly appear in dramatic fashion. Archers stood by at all times just in case an animal escaped.
The archways and structures of the building provide some nice views. And, oh yes, Mary & I were both there!
Right next to the Colosseum is the impressive Arch of Constantine. It was built in 315 (the last of the triumphal arches) to commemorate his victory in a battle against a rival for the Imperial crown. It was before this battle that Constantine is supposed to have seen a vision of the cross, which led him to legalize Christianity when he then won the battle (Constantine himself did not become a Christian until he was on his deathbed, if then, although his mother and wife were Christians). Most of the decorations on this arch were actually scavenged from earlier monuments, in particular statues and reliefs relating to the campaigns against the Dacians which, we have already learned here, were actually conducted by Trajan. Even so, it is well worth examination.
Near the Colosseum we passed an elaborate marble gate to the Palatine Hill, where the Emperors had their palaces (the word palace actually derives from Palatine). Actually, the inscription says it is the gate to the Farnese Gardens, built in the 16th Century by Alessandro Farnese, whose grandfather Pope Paul III made him an Archbishop at the mature age of 14. A little later we drove by the edges of the Palatine hill, where we saw what is left of the Circus Maximus (not much) & the palaces of Augustus & Septimus Severus. We also saw Roman soldiers outside the Colosseum who I am told will let you take their picture for a steep fee.
On the opposite side of Constantine’s Arch from the Colosseum was the Via Sacra (on which processions were held) leading to the Arch of Titus & behind it the Forum. The Arch of Titus was erected in 82 AD to commemorate the Emperor Domitian’s deceased brother Titus and his Palestinian victory in 70 AD. Inside the arch is a well known relief showing Roman soldiers carrying away the contents of the Temple they destroyed, notably a large menorah, but we didn’t see that since our tour did not go to the Forum. To the right of the Arch in the picture is a row of columns from the Temple of Venus & Roma in the Forum, which we glimpsed as we drove by some of the Forum in the bus. Built by Hadrian, this large temple had statues representing the love goddess Venus & the city of Rome sitting back to back. It has been suggested that this was a bit of humorous wordplay by Hadrian, since the word for love was “amor,” which is Roma spelled backward, & the goddesses were sitting back to back. I doubt it, but it’s a clever point. We also saw the Basilica of Julia (the Roman legal courts) and the Temple of Saturn on our drive by the Forum.The Basilica was originally built with spoils from Caesar’s Gallic wars, but was burned down & rebuilt several times before its final destruction by the Visigoths when they sacked Rome in 410 AD. Later in the day we drove past the 4th Century Arch of Janus (a name it was given about 1,000 years later), which is not in the Forum but is the only four sided arch still extant in Rome.
After a long morning we stopped to eat at a very nice restaurant where we had a delicious lasagna lunch. On the way there our guide pointed out the pink American Embassy.
After lunch we walked to the Trevi Fountain. Built in the 18th Century on the site of the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct, the fountain is about half as long as a football field. Its central figure is Neptune, flanked by two Tritons with seahorses (half horse half fish). There is a tradition that if you throw a coin in this fountain (over your left shoulder with your back to the fountain) you will be sure to return to Rome. This was featured in the movies Roman Holiday and Three Coins In A Fountain. Lots of people must believe it, since the fountain collects about 120,000 Euros a year for charity. Our guide stopped us about a block away and told us to take out any coins we want to throw in the fountain before we got there, because this square is always frequented by thieves & pickpockets.
At this point we were given about an hour of free time to go where we liked & meet back at the fountain. There had been a very interesting lecture on board by an Architecture professor about the Pantheon so we decided to walk down and see that. It was not a short walk but it was a nice one through several squares with sidewalk cafes and street artists and across one of the main drags, Via Del Corso.
The Pantheon sits on a square called Piazza della Rotundo. First built in 27 BC by Augustus’s son in law Marcus Agrippa, the original building burned down and was completely rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in the early 2d Century AD. Showing a humility unusual in a Roman Emperor, Hadrian (who may have helped design the building) kept on the new building an attribution to the original builder: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucio, three times consul made this.” It sounds like Agrippa may not have been so modest. As its name suggests, this was originally built as a shrine to all of the Olympian gods. But at the end of the 6th Century it was consecrated as a church, which saved it from the kind of destructive looting that was applied to other ancient buildings like the Colosseum (although we have noted that the bronze roof was recycled at St. Peter’s & the gold leaf that originally adorned the interior of the dome was also taken by a Byzantine Emperor). As a result, this is the best preserved building from ancient Rome. I remember visiting it in 1970 and not being impressed, but looking back I think that was because it wasn’t a ruin so it didn’t seem as authentic (and really I didn’t know anything about it at that time). Only when one gets older does one realize how stupid he was when young!
The portico is Greek in style. Those 40 foot long granite pillars are single pieces of stone, quarried in Egypt, unlike the Greek pillars that were made of round blocks stacked on top of each other. The main building is exactly as tall as it is wide (142 feet) & its shape is designed as a sphere inside a cylinder. We were told that this dome is, even today, the largest concrete dome in the world, but it looks less impressive than others on the outside because much of it is hidden by the cylinder. As you can see from the pictures above, the dome isn’t even visible from the front of the building. In the pizza in front of the building is a 16th Century fountain topped by an obelisk originally built by Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II for the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis.
From the inside the dome is much more magnificent. It was made by pouring concrete into a wooden mold. It is more than 20 feet thick at the base and tapers to less than 5 feet at the top. The coffered pattern in the ceiling makes the structure much lighter by reducing the amount of concrete without reducing the strength of the dome. The opening in the top, some 30 feet in diameter, further reduces the weight of the dome and is also the only source of light in the building (other than the front door when it is open). Of course this opening also lets in the rain, so the beautiful marble floor has holes under the opening and also slants down toward the sides to permit the water to drain.
The opening in the dome cast a dramatic spotlight on the walls that moved as the sun travelled across the sky.
The walls were covered with a pink marble pattern including pedimented decorative windows, framed panels & columns.
As mentioned before, this is a church. It has a very nice altar integrated into the niche directly across from the entrance. And several favored people are entombed here, notably two kings of Italy (and Queen Margherita of Italy after whom the pizza is named) as well as the great Renaissance artist Raphael.
Well, there was a little time left before we had to be back at the Trevi Fountain, so we decided to push on for a quick look at the Piazza Navona which appeared to be nearby. To be more accurate I wanted to see the Piazza Navona & Mary was more worried about getting back in time. It was a longer walk than I had expected & we got lost enough that we asked a policeman for directions. By the time we arrived at this gigantic piazza there was only time for a very quick walk through. The Piazza Navona is very long and narrow because it used to be a racetrack. The Domitian Stadium was built here in the 1st Century AD & held 33,000 spectators. Considered by many Rome’s best Baroque area, the piazza has three outstanding Baroque fountains and the Church of Saint Agnes on one side in the middle. We entered the piazza on one end where we encountered the 16th Century Fountain of the Moor, containing a Bernini sculpture added later. We walked up to the center of the piazza where Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers sits in front of the Church. This is considered one of Bernini’s masterpieces. The base displays sculptures representing four prominent rivers in the continents then subject to papal influence: the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Rio d la Plata in South America (visited last year in Uruguay & Argentina). On top is yet another obelisk, this one dating only from First Century Rome.
Have I mentioned it was getting late? So we hurried back as best we could (the route was a little confusing). We never found a public library in Rome, but on the way back to the Trevi Fountain we stopped briefly to look at a lovely little fountain just for bibliophiles that we happened to encounter. It was built in 1927 in the wall of what is now the national archives & commemorates a university that once was here. I was also interested by what appears to be a water pipe cover with the ancient designation “S.P.Q.R.” that the Romans carried into battle (standing for Senatus Populusque Romanus or “Senate and People of Rome").
Well, we made it back before our group left the Trevi Fountain, although we were the last ones back. Sadly, we didn’t have time to buy a gelato from the vendor there as we had planned, but I think I would trade a gelato for the Piazza Navona any day. We got back on the bus & drove to the Piazza Venezia where the gigantic Monument to Victor Emmanuele II, the first king of Italy, stands to glorify the unified nation. The equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuele at its center is almost 40 feet long; his mustache alone is 5 feet long. This monument has always been controversial, not only because many consider it an outsized eyesore (Romans sometimes call it “the wedding cake” or “the typewriter”), but because part of the Capitoline Hill and a medieval neighborhood were cleared to build it in the first decade of the 20th Century. Across the piazza is the 15th Century Palazzo Venezia which served as Mussolini’s headquarters. It was from the window pictured below that Mussolini harangued the crowds, making more than 60 speeches from that spot.
From here we walked behind the monument for a brief look at the Cordonato, Michelangelo’s stairway leading up to the Capitoline Hill. This was Rome’s first citadel and its center of government. It was redone during the Renaissance pursuant to a design by Michelangelo. Surrounding the square on top of the hill today are the Capitoline museums on each side & the Palazzio Senatorio, which is now the mayor’s office. In the center of the square on top of the hill is a bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (actually a copy, the original is in the museum). This is the only equestrian statue to survive from ancient Rome & the only reason it wasn’t recycled like the rest is because it was erroneously believed that this was Christian hero Constantine the Great. On either side of the bottom of the stairway is a granite Egyptian Lion spouting water & at the top are statues of Castor & Pollux, considered the protectors of ancient Rome after they appeared to assist the Romans in an important early battle and then appeared again in the Forum to announce the victory. All four of these statues were dug up in pieces then fitted back together, as you can plainly see on the lion below; the head of Castor was entirely new since the didn’t find the original, and is a copy of the head on the Pollux statue. Unfortunately, it was getting late and we didn’t have time to walk up to the square, so all we have are pictures from below the staircase.
That was it for Rome. We climbed back on the bus for the long drive back to the Prinsendam in Civitavecchia. To get there we passed through the massive city walls of Rome & drove past the Basilica of St. Paul Outside The Walls, which was built over what is thought to be the grave of St. Paul (actually just his body is supposed to be here, since his head is in St. John Lateran). The first church was built on this spot by Constantine in the 4th Century, but it has been destroyed & rebuilt several times, the most recent at the turn of the 20th Century. Still, it is considered a faithful rendering of what was there before & has many artifacts from the old Basilica. Of course we didn’t see any of them because we just glimpsed the building through the woods as our bus flew by.
One last note of importance (at least to us). All of our companions at the “fun table” at dinner left the cruise in Rome. They had all boarded in Istanbul and you can see their jolly pictures in that episode, so I won’t put them here again. It is always sad when good friends depart, but in Rome we got a whole new set of table mates who also proved to be interesting & congenial. But this has been a very long posting, so I think I will wait until the next episode (much shorter, I assure you) to post their pictures. So that was the end of our visit to Italy, a very rich and rewarding portion of the cruise.
Sorrento is just on the other side of the Bay of Naples, so it was a short hop for Prinsendam and we arrived early on the morning of April 28. Founded by the Greeks, it was named after the Sirens in the Odyssey who failed to lure Odysseus to crash his ship into the cliffs supposedly on this spot. Thinking they had lost their powers (he had actually tricked them) they committed suicide by throwing themselves on the rocks, which made this area habitable.
The previous day in Naples, with touring Pompeii in the rain, had been pretty tiring so we decided to make Sorrento a leisurely stop, particularly since there wasn’t anything there we felt we had to see. This worked out great, since we had a nice day and Sorrento is a nice small (16,000) city for just walking around & soaking up the ambience. So we started the day by sleeping a little later & having a leisurely breakfast in the main restaurant, then we went out on deck for some pictures & took the tender to Marina Piccola, the (yes) tiny port at the bottom of the cliffs on which the city is situated.
Fortunately, HAL had a shuttle bus to take us up the hill to Tasso Square, which is the center of town, because it is a steep climb. This was a very nice plaza, with several large outdoor cafes & a statue of St. Antonino (St. Anthony), the local patron saint whose relics are in a basilica near the statue, in the middle of the street. But the best thing is that this square was built over a large gorge that cut in through the cliffs from the sea. Before this plaza was built in the 19th Century the gorge divided the city, so the part of the city to the right is the ancient Greek city while the part to the left (beyond St. Antonino) was farmland before the square was built, There are buildings sitting precariously on the edge of the gorge with great views. I tried going into the gardens of one but was politely informed that this was private property and I was not welcome. Hmpf!
We walked on toward the Via Santa Maria della Pieta, a street built several centuries BC. We went into the courtyard of the Palazzo Correale, said to be typical of 18th Century aristocrats. We also saw a small shrine to Mary, closed but you could see the picture and flowers through the door. There is supposed to be a 13th Century palace on this block as well but we must have walked right by it, not noticing anything that looked palace-like.
Next we came to the Duomo, the cathedral of Sorrento. It was Sunday and they were having services so we didn’t go inside, but I took pictures of the beautiful inlaid wood doors (inlaid wood is a specialty of this region) & the elaborate ceiling from the entrance. There was also a lovely reddish clock tower, which I think was on the other side of the courtyard from the Duomo.
Next we came to the Sedile Dominova, an 18th Century building that was once the meeting place of the city’s nobles and is now a men’s club. The outside has beautiful old frescoes, again with effective simulated 3D. And there was a local band playing in front of the club’s loggia.
We continued strolling around the charming streets of Sorrento. One of the things Sorrento is known for is lemons, and we saw a whole lot of them in all shapes and sizes, in stores and outdoor stalls. They are also loaded with lemon product, like soap & ceramic lemons & a liqueur called limoncello. It was Sunday, so there were a lot of townspeople on the streets after services along with the cruise folks and other tourists. So the streets were the opposite of deserted.
Sorrento was also full of beautiful flowers and other flora of all varieties.
We had a delicious pizza for lunch at Ristorante Pizzaria da Gigino, a spot recommended by Rick Steves. Pizza, of course, was invented in the Naples region. Many Americans are disappointed by Italian pizza because it tends to be rather simple and has few of the toppings and spices Americans are used to, but we found it delicious. One of the most famous (but not what we had) is the Margherita pizza, named in 1889 after the first queen of united Italy, which is made with just red tomato, green basil & white mozzarella representing the colors of the Italian flag. We ate out on their patio surrounded by several local families who seemed to have come here after church. It was on a narrow street that was infested with a cloud of gnats, but for some reason they never came over to the tables. Walking back through town toward the shuttle bus stop we also stopped for gelato at Gelateria Primavera (also recommended by Rick Steves). They have 70 flavors, all home made, but you have to pick just 2 or 3. I had the noce, made from local walnuts, but I don’t remember the other flavors. Great stuff. We saw an interesting style of sign for gelaterias around town. Then on the bus ride down the hill was a sign with an evocative way to say “go slowly.”
After a leisurely & enjoyable day we took the tender back to the Prinsendam. It occurred to me that I had never posted a picture of the inside of a tender, so here are a couple. Not luxurious (or even comfortable), but its good enough for a short ride.
I will leave you with a few pictures of interesting parts of the Sorrento cliffs taken from the ship before we sailed in the evening.
We arrived in Naples on April 27, despite the fact that Naples was not on our itinerary and we were originally scheduled to be in Sorrento that day. Why, you ask? Well, Sorrento is a tender port & it seems that it often has windy weather that precludes tendering. Discovering that Sorrento was scheduled to be crowded on April 27 while no ships were scheduled for nearby Naples that day, our savvy Captain & crew managed to obtain a berth in Naples on the 27th. But Naples was fully booked for the 28th so we would have to move to Sorrento (as originally scheduled) for that day. Well, this turned out to be a very smart move because the morning of the 27th was rainy & windy, and all the other ships were scrambling for a last-minute berth in Naples and we already had one.
But then again, the downside was that it was windy & there was a steady rain as we pulled in on the 27th. We had originally scheduled an excursion to Pompeii on our second day in Sorrento on the theory that it is best to be on a ship tour on an early departure day since the ship won’t leave without you while getting back late on the first day would not cause a problem since the ship wouldn’t be leaving until the next day. But then we heard that there was bad weather in the area & that there was no room for Prinsendam to stay in Naples a second day, so there seemed a possibility that we would be unable to tender ashore the second day if the weather was bad in Naples. So we switched our Pompeii excursion to the first day, since we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time (& I still think it was the best choice given the uncertainties) but we ended up outsmarting ourselves, since we toured Pompeii in a steady rain while the folks who took the second day tour from Sorrento had a beautiful sunny excursion. Oh, well, can’t win them all.
In any event, we did get to see Pompeii even if it wasn’t under the best of conditions and it was very interesting, although our guide kind of rushed us through because of the rain and, I think, because a number of the older passengers on the trip decided to wait near the entrance rather than taking their chances with the wet & very uneven streets of Pompeii. Because of the rush I ended up with some pictures I can’t identify and a lot that are too blurry to use (because we were hurrying in the fairly dark interiors of buildings), and we also ended up skipping some of the best known locations (like the brothel & the theaters). But here is what there is.
Founded by the Greeks around 600 BC Pompeii is famous because in 79 AD it was buried in ash by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, only about 5 miles away. Vesuvius threw up a column of smoke, ash, dust & pumice 15-20 miles into the air which rained down on the coastal area next to it. This was the first indication to the local populace that they were living by a volcano, since Vesuvius hadn’t erupted for some 1200 years. About 75-90% of the 15 to 20,000 people in Pompeii escaped (although we don’t know where they went or whether they perished elsewhere in the vicinity) before the blast of hot air (400 degrees Fahrenheit or more) hit Pompeii and instantly killed everyone who remained. The ash & pumice continued to rain down until the city was completely covered and it was this dense covering of ash, which excluded water & oxygen, that accounts for the astonishing preservation of everything in the city. In fact, while the heavy ash accounted for the collapse of most roofs, much of the other damage to buildings was caused not by the volcano but by an earthquake that had devastated the town in 62 AD and from which they were still rebuilding when the eruption occurred. Pompeii was removed from the maps & forgotten until 1499 when it was stumbled upon by men digging a river diversion channel. But it wasn’t until 1748 that actual excavation began.
Before going into the excavation site we were taken to a nearby store selling cameos & watched a craftsman making them. This is kind of like a commercial before a TV show, an irritating retail moment that is the price of admission (in addition to the actual money you paid for the tour). But it was really raining so we were glad to be able to go inside & dry off & many of the cameos really were beautiful even if we had no interest in buying any. We entered Pompeii on a steeply inclined street through the Porta Marina, which 2000 years ago was close to the shoreline.
After passing the ruins of a house (I don’t know which one it is) we came to a street with large stones set in it. Our guide explained that these stones enabled people to cross the road without stepping in the water when they flushed the streets to clean them every night (refuse and horse manure would flow down these gutters as well), while the spaces between the stones would accommodate the wheels of chariots. They look a lot like our speed bumps. One bump meant a one way street, two was a two way street & three was a major thoroughfare.
Next we visited the forum, the large main square of the town. Lots of pillars whose buildings are gone & engraved capitals. 2000 years ago the forum was lined on 3 sides with two story buildings with pillared facades like these. The Romans were known for the extensive use of bricks in their buildings, which they often covered with stone veneers or stucco made from marble dust.
On the north side of the forum was the Temple of Jupiter (the Roman version of Zeus). Built a couple of centuries BC, it was once very imposing and contained a large statue of Jupiter. But it was badly damaged in the earthquake of 62 AD and was still awaiting reconstruction when the volcano erupted. When it was excavated the head of Jupiter was all that was found of the statue; the original is in the Archeological Museum in Naples, but there is a close reproduction at the site. On a clear day you can see Vesuvius looming over this temple, but of course it was rainy & overcast so the mountain was invisible to us. To the right of the temple is the Macellum, a covered market area.
Next we went to the covered market area where we saw what are probably the most iconic images of Pompeii, plaster casts of the bodies of Pompeiians at the moment of their death. We only saw a few of these, but there are more than 1,000 of them in existence. It seems that the early excavators in the mid 19th Century digging through the ash & pumice that had solidified in the 18 centuries since the eruption came upon large holes that had skeletons in them. Giuseppe Fiorelli, the head excavator, cleverly realized that these holes were left when the bodies of individuals decomposed & disappeared, leaving only the skeletons. He devised a technique of filling each hole with plaster then chipping away the solid ash, leaving a plaster cast of the individual’s body at death with the skeleton inside it. The most recent theory is that the eerie lifelike quality of these casts is due to the suddenness of the death caused by the wave of extreme heat, which induced a sort of immediate rigor mortise. The casts in the market area were in glass cases, and there are a couple of others shown here that were in a different location.
This open market area was also the first place we saw frescoes. I know that many of the frescoes have been removed to the Naples Archeological Museum & replaced with replicas and I have no idea which are original and which are replicas, but these look original to me. In any event, the replicas are really good so they are worth seeing regardless. Note the use of perspective in some of these pictures, a technique that was lost in the middle ages and only rediscovered during the Renaissance more than 1000 years later.
We went on to visit the Forum Baths (there were several public bathhouses in the city). It had a hot bath, a warm bath & a cold bath in addition to a gymnasium & a dressing room. The warm room has a carved blue & white stucco ceiling and the walls are lined with male caryatids supporting a shelf, between which were pegs for patrons to hang their clothes. It was warmed by a bronze brazier. The hot room was heated by hot air pumped into the hollow center of the double walls & floor & there was a fountain at one end, labeled with the names of the politicians who donated it, that pumped water onto the floor to steam up the air and provided a source of cool water for those who were overheated. The ceiling is fluted so that condensation from the steam would drip down to the walls rather than fall on the patrons. The cold bath was pretty plain but, really, who would want to go there? It was pretty dark in here, & we were hurried through to make room for others, so a lot of these pictures are less than clear.
Across from the baths was a fast food joint. No, really! Called a Thermopolium, there was one of these on just about every corner because very few Romans had houses with kitchens, most lived in apartments. Originally this probably had an awning over it & sliding doors or shutters to secure it at night. The holes held pots of food with wooden covers to keep the food hot. Nothing new under the sun. Note the extensive use of what appears to be pumice rock in the walls, even though the Pompeiians didn’t know there was a volcano nearby.
We visited one home, the House of the Tragic Poet (named after its mosaics, now in the Archeology Museum, rather than its owner). Inside the front entrance was a mosaic of a dog on a leash with the inscription “Cave Canem,” which is Latin for “Beware of the Dog.” It was a reproduction (the original is normally in the Naples Archeology Museum but was on loan to another museum). Circumstances prevented a good picture, so I have included a picture of a copy made into a tile that I saw in a shop (copies of this famous mosaic are everywhere) to give a better idea of what it looks like. You enter through the garden, though, in which is a small shrine for worshiping family gods. There is an open skylight in the atrium with a pool underneath to catch the rainwater & a small wellhead next to it for drawing the water from the pool. The indentations on the inside of the wellhead were made by the ropes used to draw up the water. We saw a few interesting mosaics on the floor, a room that I think was the kitchen and a room whose walls were covered by frescoes which I think was the dining room. This house was featured in the 19th Century novel The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer Lytton.
After this we headed for the exit. But before we do that here are a few random pictures taken on the streets of Pompeii.
As we walked to the exit from the town (way too soon) we passed a storage area locked with gates that was full of artifacts, many on shelves & others lined up on the ground. You have already seen two of the body casts that were stored here, and there was also a statue of Livia, the wife of Augustus, which was probably part of her effort to establish herself as a goddess. If you have read or seen the TV miniseries of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, you know that Livia was quite a piece of work! There was also a lovely marble table with lion legs that almost looks like it could have been made yesterday. Leaving the city walls we came to the Temple of Venus, which was by a necropolis (of which there were several, all outside the walls of the city). And at this point Vesuvius began to emerge from the grayness for the first time. Last but not least is Zorro the service dog. You don’t often see animals traveling on a cruise ship but Zorro was along to help his master with his deafness. He was extremely well behaved.
When we returned to the ship from Pompeii around noon it was still raining steadily so we expected to spend the rest of the day on the ship. We had lunch then Mary took a nap while I worked on the blog. However, it stopped raining about 3:00 in the afternoon so I woke Mary up. She reluctantly got out of bed & we left the ship to walk to the Naples Archeological Museum. The ship was docked right in the center of town, so that was a great place to take in Naples, an attractive city with a variety of pastel colored buildings mixed with a number of old monumental ones. Naples was founded by Greeks in about 600 BC. They creatively named it Neapolis, or “New City.” Actually, the Phoenicians were no better at naming cities: both Carthage and Cartagena were originally named Qart Hadasht by the Phoenicians, which means (you guessed it) “New City.” From the ship we could see both the city and the bay.
We walked through the Piazza Municipio in the first picture, then around behind the Castsel Nuovo and up to the Via Toledo which would take us to the Archeology Museum (after a long walk). We saw a number of the city’s landmarks on our way to Via Toledo, Including (in addition to the Castel Nuevo) the Teatro San Carlo, the main theater (Teatro San Carlo), the old royal palace (Palazzo Reale), the church of San Francesco di Paola, and the Galleria Umberto I (a huge and glorious old shoppng mall with a glass roof). There were a couple of other interesting buildings I can’t identify.
The Archeological Museum was really fantastic. We were very glad we had made the effort to get there. Opened in 1777 the museum is in the 16th century palace Palazzo degli Studi. Here is a tiny sample of its vast collection of ancient statuary(read the captions for the identifications I have).
We wandered into a gallery containing artifacts from the Villa of the Papyri that was on the outskirts of Herculaneum. There were some interesting frescoes from the Villa (much of which is still not excavated), but that was not the main story here. It seems that Pliny the Elder, a renowned scientist & the local admiral, was trying to reach this villa to rescue his friend Rectina, who owned it and her vast library. But Pliny died on the beach and the villa along with its library, much of which was already packed in boxes for moving, was covered by the debris from Vesuvius. The 1800+ scrolls of papyri were blackened by the heat but the burial also preserve them. In the mid 18th Century the villa was rediscovered by workmen digging for construction. They tunneled through it, recovering a large number of ancient statues and discarding what appeared to be long pieces of charcoal. When they broke through into a room lined with shelves full of these black artifacts it became apparent that they were books. In fact, this is the only ancient library to survive to modern times. However, no one could read the scrolls, not only because they were blackened but because all attempts to unroll them destroyed the scrolls. Then a priest from the Vatican invented a machine that could, very slowly, unroll the papyri without destroying them so that many of them could be identified. In this room of the museum was one of his unrolling machines, which was quite fascinating (although the pictures are hard to decypher because of the light reflecting from the glass case). Today attempts are being made to use a kind of CTI scan to decipher the scrolls without unrolling them (I don’t know if there are any results from this yet). Meanwhile, a whole new level of the villa has been discovered near the shore, and experts believe it may contain another library, perhaps with copies of the ancient classics like the missing plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. But the Italian government has not, so far, permitted any excavation there and there are fears that whatever is there may be destroyed by water or even by another eruption.
Then we found what we were hoping to see at this museum: the artifacts uncovered mostly in Pompeii (& a few from Herculaneum & the surrounding area). While one large Pompeii gallery was closed, we found several others that were really interesting, particularly since we had just been to Pompeii. The first gallery contained a lot of physical artifacts, including a number of bronze household statuettes & articles of everyday life, such as lamps, kitchen utensils and even dental tools and dice. Most, if not all, of these are from Pompeii. I will put what little I know about these in the captions.
Most of the frescoes were in the gallery that was closed the day we were there, but we saw a few. Unfortunately, most of them were in the Gabinetto Segreto or Secret Cabinet. This was a separate gallery containing artifacts from Pompeii of a sexual nature. It seems that ancient Romans had a very liberated attitude toward sex. Statuettes with huge phalluses and fairly explicit art were found in their homes. The Secret Cabinet also contains the original frescoes from the brothel, which explicitly depict various sex acts and served as a sort of menu on the wall of the brothel, kind of like a barber shop with pictures of various hair styles that are available from the barber. The items in the Secret Cabinet were kept under lock and key and shown only to educated mature males by appointment for most of its existence. It was opened to the public only in 2000 and the separate gallery was opened in 2005. There is a sign at the door that says only adults may enter, but there is no one there to enforce it and we saw some adolescents in the exhibit. I have pictures of a number of these items, many of which are quite beautiful pieces of art, which I would be happy to share by email upon request, but since there may well be children reading this blog I will only include here a couple of the most benign ones. We also saw some beautiful mosaic covered pillars from the House of the Mosaic Pillars in Pompeii and some pictures made with inlaid colored marble.
Finally, we saw a large collection of mosaics, most of which are from Pompeii. Again, I will tell you what little I know about them in the captions. The most famous one seems to be the large mosaic (almost 9’ by 17’) of Alexander and Darius at the Battle of Issus, which is a mosaic copy made in the 2d Century BC of a Greek painting from the 4th Century BC that is now lost. The battle was fought in 333 BC and Alexander won. It was originally in the House of the Faun in Pompeii. There were also two very long mosaics, maybe 10 feet, from the House of the Faun: a scene from the Nile, complete with a hippo & a crocodile, and a theater theme with two theatrical masks. Remember, everything in this section is mosaic. Some look more like paintings because the tiles are so tiny, but they are all mosaics. I have included a few closeups of details that reveal the tile work.
We left the museum around 6:30 having barely scratched the surface of its incredible collection. Across the street on our way back was another monumental glass roofed shopping mall, the Galleria Principe (which seemed eerily empty, I guess because it was Saturday night). Further down Via Toledo we passed the interesting looking Convitto Nazionale, a school, in the Piazza Dante. It was, as I said, Saturday evening and it seemed that everyone in Naples – parents with strollers, families with children, young people on motorcycles — was out promenading up and down Via Toledo, which is normally a primary traffic thoroughfare. It was a great atmosphere & made us feel very much a part of the city life. Just before we reached the ship we saw the 18th Century opera house, the Teatro Mercadante.
Just as we got back to the ship the sun broke through the clouds, lighting up just the top of Vesuvius. The weather was now clearing up nicely and the Bay of Naples was lovely. There was a dramatic sunset behind the Castel St. Elmo, and all the lights came on in the harbor and on the shore of the bay near the volcano. A pretty glorious end to a day that started out so dismal!