Saturday, 2 August 2014


No visit to Southern Italy would be complete without visiting Pompeii. Since my wife and I were in the Amalfi Coast which is only two hours away from Pompeii, we could not resist its siren call. This being my first time, I was surprised to see that Pompeii is just outside Naples. If it were not for the excavations that have been ongoing since the 1700s, this area would surely have been swallowed up by Naples’s urban sprawl. Fortunately the sprawl ends at the periphery of Pompeii, thus giving the visitor the distinct impression of leaving one world and entering another.

Vesuvius and the urban sprawl around it

Vesuvius looking like a beneficent presence which it decidedly is not.

At midday on the 24th of August AD79, Vesuvius exploded with a deafening noise. Prior to the explosion, the volcano was simply known as the mountain and people had no inkling of its violent past and the danger of living on its slopes. A period of intense seismic activity presaged the disaster. Then its plug of solidified lava, which had sealed the volcano’s summit, was ripped apart by a 20 km high column of volcanic materials. Then came a shower of pumice stones and ash which enveloped its surroundings in an eerie twilight. This was the harbinger of an incomprehensible cataclysm which came the next day.  The volcano belched out a pyroclastic flow, a high density mixture of rock fragments and gases with temperatures hovering between 200 to 1000C and traveling faster than 80 km per hour. It incinerated and destroyed everything in its path and cruelly extinguished the lives of those who remained in Pompeii

In 1592 an architect, who had been digging a canal in the area, found the ruins of buildings with decorated walls. The find was documented and forgotten until 1748 when excavations began in earnest. The sensational discoveries that followed made a deep impression on contemporary observers and inspired a whole aesthetic which flowered during the French revolution and the Napoleonic Empire that followed it.

Pompeii is a place where time has stood still and everything seems in suspended animation. Everything is just as it was when it was buried under ash. The most graphic reminder of this is when the visitor chances upon the remains of Pompeii’s inhabitants. Their deaths were so swift that they did not have time to expire; the ghostly shapes that have been unearthed are caught in the act of dying. 

Enter the houses and establishments and one almost expects its residents to come out and greet the visitor. Walk along its unevenly paved streets and raised pedestrian flagstones and one may almost imagine seeing a slave twist his ankle from the corner of one’s eye. The roads have been so rutted by the endless number of carts and chariots which have lumbered through these roads that one can almost feel them ready to run you down. There are loaves of bread left in the ovens of commercial bakeries waiting to be sold to passersby. There are even campaign posters advertising candidates for public office in an impending election. I half expected to see Pompeiians sitting in the public toilets or naked in the baths. Or better still, the prostitutes waiting in their cubicles beneath the frescoes advertising their specialty.

The temple of Apollo

The amphitheatre, a must-have in any Roman city worthy of such an appelation

Many of the houses in the city were huge even by modern standards. Some occupy a whole city block. Many have beautiful frescoes adorning their walls, especially one very famous house, The House of the Mysteries. Others have bronze statues and fountains, intricate mosaics, porticos, atria and colonnades. Some even had their own bathing complexes so that the owners would not have to patronize the public baths and mingle with the riffraff. One homeowner, who can only be described as a social climber, had a false colonnade to give the illusion of a large space so he could suitably impress his visitors! One house even had a mosaic floor at its entrance with the warning “Cave canem” (beware of the dog)!

The House of Menander
The House of Loreius Tiburtinus

The House of the Faun


As I wandered through the town, one thought kept swirling in my mind. If such a small town in Italy could boast of such wealth, what would the scale and grandeur of the truly wealthy and powerful in Rome have been like? It must have been stupendous. But all this wealth and luxury had been achieved and maintained by only one thing - slavery. This was the economic base of the entire Roman Empire. Romans, being the conquerors that they were, had slaves to build and maintain the mansions and palaces, stoke the fires and cool the waters in the baths, build the roads and walls of the city, tend to every whim of their masters, and satiate all their sexual desires and proclivities. Underneath all this power, wealth, and circumstance was an underpinning of misery which only death could end. And end it did one fine summer day in August two thousand years ago.

Interior of the House of the Vetii

Frescoes of the Dionysiac Mysteries in the House of the Mysteries

Fresco in the Dining Room of the House of the Mysteries

Fresco in the House of the Tragic Poet

As we wandered about the town, my wife could not help but reminisce about her first visit to Pompeii. She was among a group of 40 young girls (presumably virgins, some no doubt imagined) who went on a world tour sponsored by their convent school. This was a time of Transatlantic crossings on great passenger ships; a time of formal dinners at the Captain’s table; a time of made-to-measure evening clothes; a time of hats and gloves; a time of chaperoned dates; a time of formal manners and debutante balls; a time of half-wit uncles tucked away in an attic or a country house somewhere; a time that, much like Pompeii, no longer exists. 

A Bacchanalian feast

Fresco atop a brothel's room advertising the occupant's specialty, in this case, orgies.

Roman outdoor advertising of the licentious kind

A priapic satyr going about his business

They were escorted by the redoubtable head of the school, she whose dowry was the school's campus. When their group came to visit Pompeii, the nuns literally shielded the girls from the more sordid aspects of the city, like the many triple x-rated frescoes found not just in the brothels but also in the respectable homes of Pompeii’s aristocrats. It went without saying that the virgins that left Manila would still be virgins when they returned; in dress, in thought and in action. Naturally, when my wife set foot in Pompeii forty years later, her first impulse was to see everything she was prohibited from viewing on her first trip. So we went to every brothel and saw every licentious fresco there was to see until she was curious no longer.

Time and memory are inextricably intertwined. The former is absolute, the latter is relative. Pompeii is time that has been stopped dead in its tracks while my wife’s memory of her trip around the world ebbs and flows with the intensity of her imagination and is inevitably burnished by the golden glow of nostalgia. Ghosts still roam the deserted streets of Pompeii; there are the ghosts of those ancient Pompeiians who lost their lives that summer day two thousand years ago and those 40 virgins searching poignantly for their virginity and the simplicity of another age, now irretrievably lost.

Saturday, 28 June 2014


My wife and I left Arezzo at around 5 o’clock in the afternoon for the Amalfi Coast. We were in no hurry. Judging from my map, I figured we would reach the Coast at around 10pm. In fact as we drove down the expressway, we seemed to be making good time. We hit Rome two hours after we left Arezzo and took the off-ramp to the Coast another two hours later. Unbeknownst to me though, we had overshot our target.

The staff of the hotel we were staying in had given me instructions on how to get there. The instructions were fairly accurate except for some confusion with the exit. I called them when I realized I was lost and was told not to go back to the freeway but to stick to the road that we were already on. Well the road was a narrow, winding one which zigged and zagged for miles on end. We finally reached our hotel at midnight after two hours of slow driving excruciatingly compounded by the death wish of Italian drivers. Dozens of them would zoom past me at every hairpin turn and each time I would cringe in my seat waiting for a piercing screech, a thunderous crash, a blinding explosion, and body parts falling all over me. Happily there weren't any, but I was a nervous wreck when we got to our hotel and completely unaware of the extraordinary beauty that we'd driven through on that highway of terror.

One of many tunnels along the road

An excruciatingly blind turn, one of many
“Suspended between sea, sky and earth, state road 163, which twists and turns along the full length of the Amalfi Coast, offers stunning views at every corner. Until the 19th century, this stretch of the “divine coast”, isolated and regarded by many as barren, could only be reached by going up difficult mountain paths on mules. In the mid-1960s, this very isolation attracted visitors in search of an alternative, remote lifestyle. Travelers, artists and writers came. Ironically, the Amalfi Coast has since become a very popular resort area.”* So there you have it: pot smoking, barefoot, long-haired hippies put the Amalfi Coast on the map just like they did Phuket, Bali, and Goa.

Negotiating a hairpin turn necessarily involves praying while admiring the spectacular scenery

The road perched on a crag along the coast

A typical stretch of 163

The next morning, we woke up at around nine and for the very first time got a good look at our room, the hotel and its surroundings. It was glorious. Spread out before us was the azure expanse of the Mediterranean. The air was fresh and clean and had a hint of lemon in it; the sky was a cloudless blue; and the sunlight was so brilliant that it put a hard glint on everything around us. We proceeded to breakfast and were ushered into a veranda with white awnings and more spectacular views. Our breakfast was delicious and was a portent of the excellent dinner that we enjoyed there later in our stay. Our hotel definitely earns the imprimatur of my hotel guidebook:

“You may be impressed by the classical fa├žade of the Belvedere, or by the fact that it is built into a cliff over the sea, but what is truly extraordinary is its view of the entire Amalfi Coast with its steep hillsides and beautiful lemon tree orchards. The rooms are modern and very comfortable, with either a balcony or a terrace overlooking the sea. An interior elevator will take you down to the pool on the rocks and to the walkway to the sea. The Belvedere is a singularly professional hotel, the cuisine excellent, and the service impeccable yet friendly. And the welcome afforded by the Lucibello family adds that atmosphere of warm, unimposing hospitality that makes a true hotel of character and charm.”**

The Hotel Belvedere 

View of the Amalfi Coast from the Belvedere

The view from the Belvedere's gardens

A private terrace

The hotel's salt water pool

The activity of choice on the Amalfi Coast is to do nothing...except to while away the time lying on the beach, taking in the views, reading a book, relaxing. For the more skittish and adventurous, driving up and down the 163 exploring the small towns that hug the coast is the thing to do. 

Driving along the coast, the first sight is one of numerous orchards of lemons, oranges and grapes. The lemons grow so plentifully here that, from afar, they look bunched up like grapes. There are lemons, lemons, and lemons everywhere; so many that the coastline takes on a yellow hue in my imagination. There are lemons of every size and shape (the largest ones look like wizened pomelos). The average size of the lemons is so large that, when cut through its thick rind and squeezed, the juice will fill up a glass. Due to the abundance of lemons, there are lemon products everywhere; lemon cake, lemon cookies, lemon pastries, lemon candies, and, best of all, limoncello. Open up a bottle and you get an instant whiff of the Amalfi Coast.



And more lemons

I wonder if they serve lemons here

Another aspect of note as one drives along the coast is the surfeit of spectacular hotels – the Hotel Santa Caterina, Hotel San Pietro, Hotel Poseidon, Hotel Palazzo Murat, Palazzo Confalone, Palazzo Sasso, Villa Cimbrone. But above them all, the Le Sirenuse reigns supreme. Considered one of the top spa hotels in the world, it is in a class all its own and is located in the town of Positano.

John Steinbeck once wrote that Positano “bites deep. It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone”. The town climbs the hill in steps, with the oldest houses in its upper reaches. The street going down to the sea, Via Pasitea, penetrates the heart of town with its narrow stepped alleys, houses with vaulted roofs, terraces and tiny gardens. Snuck discreetly among the alleyways is Le Sirenuse. The descent ends at Marina Grande, a pebble beach used by fishing boats and lined with bars and restaurants.

Positano as seen from the sea

Le Sirenuse

Another town to visit is Amalfi, which lends its name to the entire coast. Tucked in between mountains and sea, Amalfi is at sea level and is a favorite with visitors for its scenic beauty and original architecture. It was once a powerful maritime republic – a rival to Venice and Genoa in the 11th century. Amalfi’s cathedral, Duomo di Sant’Andrea was founded in the 9th century and rebuilt in the 11th century. Its carved bronze doors were cast in Constantinople around the year 1000.  Across it is a piazza filled with shops, bars and restaurants.

The town of Amalfi

Duomo di Sant' Andrea

Interior of the Duomo

On our last night in the Coast, we visited Ravello. Off the beaten track and very high up, it is for those who love peace, quiet and stupendous views. Moorish details are evident in the buildings, in the inner courtyards and gardens and the churches. Two highlights are the Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone (now a hotel). Villa Rufolo is famous for its double arched courtyard and its tropical gardens which inspired Richard Wagner’s Parsifal.

View of the coast from Ravello
The Villa Cimbrone
Villa Cimbrone's Terrace of the Infinite
Villa Rufulo's bell house
Villa Rufolo's garden

View from the Villa Rufolo

We asked the concierge at our hotel to recommend a restaurant in Ravello. He recommended two restaurants. The first one, which was perched precariously on a cliff, overlooked the entire Amalfi Coast as far north as Naples and as far south as Salerno. Unfortunately it was closed for a party to celebrate the owner’s birthday. We then looked for the second one, Cumpa Cosimo, a trattoria hidden deep in the alleyways of the main town. We entered a warm and joyous place, the walls of which were plastered with pictures of the many celebrities that had preceded us. We had an excellent meal. At the end of it, we were regaled with stories by Netta, owner, chef, and raconteur par excellence even if we could barely understand her English. It was a great finish to a great stay on the Amalfi Coast - a slice of heaven on earth.

*From DK Eyewitness Travel Italy.
** Hotels of Charm and Character Italy
Photos from Google search and the Hotel Belvedere website.

Monday, 16 June 2014


About an hour's drive south of Florence lies the city of Arezzo, one of the twelve capitals of the Etruscan League described by the Roman historian LivyArezzo was conquered by Rome in 311 BC and became so absorbed into the fabric of the Roman empire that Maecenas, friend of the Emperor Augustus and famous patron of the arts, was actually of noble Aretine Etruscan stock. 

In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, Arezzo became an episcopal seat and a city-state. As a city-state however, it was too weak to compete with its stronger neighbors and was eventually subsumed into the duchy of Florence. It was during this period that the early Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca, painted a famous suite of frescoes known as the Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo's Basilica of San Francesco. Naturally I had to see it. But obstacles lay in the way.

If one were to rely on the photos that one sees of the Renaissance cities of Italy, one may be forgiven the impression that these cities are largely untouched by time and remain as pristine as they were 600 years ago. But life goes on and time moves forward. The modern continually impinges on the old. Beyond the borders of these ancient cities, there exists an Italy which is very much a part of our world today. Nothing renders this fact in bolder relief than that modern phenomenon - the outlet mall.

A generic mall outside of Florence

Gucci, Prada, Pratesi and Dolce Gabbana all have outlets just south of Florence and stood tantalizingly close to the path to Arezzo. Upon the blandishments of my wife, and wanting to snatch a few bargains myself, we made a detour to the Prada outlet. 
This is Prada?!?!
For some strange reason, it was hard to find. It was in some hard-to-reach corner in the middle of nowhere with nary a sign to warn you that you've arrived. It was tucked away like some dirty little secret - the secret being that these retail behemoths actually have unsold inventory that they are reluctantly selling at 'bargain' basement prices. So there is a slightly desperate quality to it all - both for the seller and the buyer.

Upon entering Prada’s unnamed, enormous and shockingly pedestrian warehouse, I quickly realized that everyone inside was playing a game - a game where you walk around dazed, with eyes glazed and in a slight panic, and grab as many bargains as you can. After three hours of hunting for the right fit, the right size, the right color, the right prize, we finally surfaced for air and re-entered the world of the living. We were now in the supremely enviable position of having spent lots of money in order to save it. We were ready for Arezzo.

Arezzo from above

Arezzo is one of the wealthiest cities in Tuscany. It has a manufacturing industry, especially of gold jewellery which is sold to shops all over Europe. The Second World War damaged a great deal of the city and this has led to much rebuilding – broad avenues have replaced many of the medieval alleys and a modern city has grown up around its historic centre, just like Florence. As a consequence the approach to the Centro Storico, going through nondescript modern neighborhoods as it does, does not prepare the visitor for the mad jumble at its heart. The Centro Storico is a maze of narrow streets which, if driven through, essentially leads nowhere. One must walk it to appreciate it.

Arezzo's Centro Storico

The unadorned facade of the Basilica di San Francesco

Arezzo’s jewel is the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca, his masterpiece and one of Italy’s greatest fresco cycles. The frescoes are in the 13th century Basilica of San Francesco, a rough hewn and obviously unfinished structure. The frescoes (which have been damaged over time) depict the story of the cross starting with Seth, son of Adam, who plants a cedar sapling from the custodian angel of Paradise on Adam's tomb. It is a sapling of hope, hope for the salvation proclaimed by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Centuries later, the Queen of Saba stops to pray before a small bridge made with the trunk of the same tree and declares it an instrument of suffering, a foretelling of the Crucifixion. Eventually, the timber of the bridge that the Queen of Saba had adored is now raised for the crucifixion. The sapling of Adam had borne its fruit, the cross on which Christ was crucified. 

Interior of the Basilica

Above and below, sections of the frescoes

The frescoes then go on to depict the rediscovery and verification of the true cross by the Empress Helena whose son, Constantine, wears it as his emblem during the battle of the Milvio Bridge. The story ends with the exaltation of the Cross and the Annunciation to Mary of her death and assumption. 

The Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation

Mary doesn't look too pleased at what she's hearing.

The frescoes have been sumptuously rendered by della Francesca who was a master colourist. Even in its damaged state, the frescoes manage to awe and impress and one leaves the Basilica invigorated by the beauty of his masterpiece.

Above and below, close-ups of various figures in the frescoes

We stepped out of the Basilica in the late afternoon. The sun was about to set and we still had six hours to go to our next destination, a region of Italy that we had yet to discover – southern Italy and the Amalfi Coast.

(Images taken from Google Search)