I would have very much liked to have a sea day the first day out -- with jet lag, sleep deficits and time zone crunching all in effect simultaneously -- but the mechanics of getting from point to point dictated that we would have to have our port call at Naples the day after embarkation. As I blinked my eyes open at 6:45 a.m., I could see the cranes of the port of Naples passing by my balcony window as we slid into our slip between CostaEuropa on one side and a flock of assorted European ferries on the other. The sky was cloudy and looked threatening to me, though the official weather forecast listed in the Carnival Capers called for sunshine and warm temperatures all day.
I got ready as quickly as possible -- my tour to Herculaneum called for me to meet in the Victoriana Lounge by 8:30 a.m. -- and went to the Freedom Restaurant, the ship's Lido Buffet and alternate dining venue. In the Freedom Restaurant, designer Joe Farcus uses the Statue of Liberty as a central theme point, and -- no surprise here -- takes it just a bit over the top. A giant replica of Lady Liberty, looking as if it were molded from translucent blue wax, dominates the room, while lighting sconces molded in the form of the statue's head (of the same material) surround the room with so many glowing disembodied macabre faces. Eerie.
Visiting Herculaneum -- a city destroyed like Pompeii by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. -- was one of the new experiences I was looking forward to on this visit to the Mediterranean, and I was happy that it was offered as a stand-alone, rather than combined with other points of interest around the Bay of Naples. It was my plan to follow the excursion to Herculaneum with an independent visit to Sorrento by taxi.
Herculaneum is far less visited than Pompeii; our ship filled two buses to Herculaneum vs. upwards of 15 to better-known Pompeii. (A third city, Stadia, less known than either, also fell victim to the eruption.) As the bus departed for the half-hour ride to Ercolano, the modern city at the site of Herculaneum, our guide Mario gave us a background and orientation that went back 27,000 years. It was at that point in history that Vesuvius first erupted, thrusting itself up from the ocean floor through the surface to become a permanent fixture of the Bay of Naples.
I asked Mario whether the volcano had erupted prior to that without reaching the sea's surface, as occurred, for example, with all of the Hawaiian Islands, and he indicated that the eruption 27,000 years ago was the first -- though I can't be certain that there wasn't a language problem muddying up my question.
In any case, Vesuvius has erupted fairly regularly throughout the millennia up through the present day, having last erupted in 1944. Since the average length of time between eruptions is 35 years, that makes Vesuvius overdue. I wondered to myself how that makes the current residents of Ercolano feel. Probably like Californians living near the San Andreas Fault, I would guess.
There is no question that the 79 A.D. eruption was the volcano's most catastrophic in recorded history. Today Vesuvius is a single volcano with two peaks, the taller of which stands 4,000 feet above sea level. Before the 79 A.D. eruption it had a single peak standing 7,500 feet high, the top 3,500 feet being exploded into the pyroclastic cloud that reached an altitude of 13,000 feet. Along with the three major cities, Vesuvius also obliterated a number of what are now largely forgotten villages.
The mechanics of the destruction of Herculaneum differed from that of Pompeii markedly. A cloud of molten volcanic ash descended from the air and buried Pompeii, sealing the city and all its residents in a solid block of soft pumice. Herculaneum, on a different flank of the volcano, found itself in the path of a 65 mile-per-hour wave of molten material, heated to 500 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit), which effectively killed or burned nearly everything in its path. That was followed by a 40 mile-per-hour torrent of mud that swept much in its path out to sea, and buried what was left to a depth of 75 feet.
At that point in Mario's presentation we had reached Ercolano, but before we could proceed to the archeological site, we made a stop at a cameo factory where we could observe artisans at work. And of course, we were encouraged to visit the showrooms where every conceivable article that could be fashioned as a cameo was on display and offered for sale.
After the 20-minute buying stop, we proceeded to the parking area from which we would walk for approximately 10 minutes to the site of the ancient city. Before doing so, we donned radio listening devices, a welcome high-tech addition to the field of tourism and sightseeing. In the past, multiple groups, with guides speaking over amplified P.A. systems in different languages, would often create a deafening cacophony that took away from the ambiance of historical or natural sites and often made it difficult to understand the guide standing right next to you. Now the guide speaks in a normal tone of voice that is patched through radio receivers worn around our necks, each channeling the audio into an ear bud.
We entered the site -- more accurately we walked along a walkway circling the perimeter of the excavation, while gradually descending from the level of an overview to the ancient street level. Effectively, we were transiting from top to bottom the 75-ft. extent of the mud flow. From the top Herculaneum is interesting, but it pales in comparison to Pompeii. It's bigger, and has more sections of complete walls, but it doesn't have that eerie sense of going back in time and actually being there. However, that assessment changed as we reached the edge of the city that, before the eruption, bordered the sea. Here, a brackish swampy trench now sits where the Mediterranean once lapped. Where dolphins once breached and children ran up and down the beach is now the domain of loudly croaking frogs.
Though we were still quite a bit above the ancient ground level, we had an excellent perspective of the public baths and a wall of arched boathouses where the wealthy residents of Herculaneum kept their pleasure and fishing boats. Mario showed us a photo of the carbonized remains of a 30-foot private pleasure boat that had been found upside down in one of the boathouses. When it had been removed the remains of a wealthy woman who had sought protection from the eruption by hiding under the boat were found, adorned with earrings, rings and bracelets of gold and precious stones.
A right turn and five minutes of walking brought us to street level, and looking down the remarkably complete street scene dispelled any disparity between the emotional effects of being in Pompeii and Herculaneum. In fact, in many ways the feeling of verisimilitude was stronger for me in Herculaneum. There are two reasons: First, the buildings are generally more complete in Herculaneum; parts of some wooden elements such as doors, ceilings and stairways still exist, though they are charred and deformed by the pressure of the weight of the mud. In addition, while nearly all artifacts from Pompeii have been moved from the original site to the Naples Museum, in Herculaneum many are left right where they were found during the excavations -- a bed in the bedroom of a villa, the tools and wares in various artisans' shops and the remains of sliding wooden doors used to shutter the shops at the end of the day to protect them from thieves. Nearly all these edifices are almost complete, and you can enter and stroll from room to room, soaking up the ancient past.
On our walking tour we visited many private homes, and most were built in roughly the same style. From the front door the visitor entered a central courtyard. These were roofed over with the exception of a central skylight, which performed two functions: first to provide light for the interior of the house during daylight hours, but also to let in rain as well. Below the open skylight would be a marble or mosaic pool, or fountain where the rainwater would collect. In larger homes, we were able to see a drainage system built into the floor that channeled water from the pool into a deep well in the corner of the room where it could be retrieved by a system of hanging buckets on ropes. The floors in these courtyards were all elaborately decorated in inlaid tile or beautiful mosaics, most of which were remarkably complete.
And on every wall, in public buildings and private homes in equal measure: frescos, frescos, frescos. Far less complete than the mosaics, due to the softness of the plaster medium from which they were fashioned, there are still enough remains to clearly see the mastery of the artists and the details of daily life in Herculaneum that the works illustrate.
On our visit to the public baths, the calidarium, or hot bath and steam room, revealed a huge marble barrel vaulted ceiling, ingeniously scored with intricate grooves designed to divert condensed water to the sides of the room.
In a shop that processed and sold wine and olive oil, there is a virtually undamaged olive press and racks upon racks of amphorae, large clay wine and olive oil urns.
In the forum, or main square stands a thermopolium, the equivalent of a hot and cold beverage stand. The braziers with cutouts for containers of wine to be heated and mulled during winter are clearly discernable.
Though we could easily have spent the whole day in Herculaneum, the tour was scheduled to return to the ship by lunchtime, so back to the bus we walked. I noted above that there is a self-guided walking tour of the entire site with audio devices for rent that describe each stop in detail. I would opt to do this independently on my next visit, so that I could dictate for myself the amount of time to spend at the site and at the various points of interest within it.
A Change of Plan ...
Though I had planned to get to Sorrento for lunch, it was already a few minutes past noon by the time we got back to the ship. Looking at an hour's taxi ride each way, and a couple of hours for lunch and shopping I decided it was crunching a little too much into a single day. Also, the cost (about $100 including a couple of hours of waiting time for the taxi in Sorrento) made it too steep for one person to do it alone. Divided among two couples ($25 per person) would make it far more reasonable. Instead I took the advice of our guide, Mario, and sought out one of the pizzerias within walking distance of the port. Naples is the birthplace of pizza as we know it, and Mario, copping a bit of an attitude, asserted that Americans thought that proper pizza went from the freezer to the microwave. I didn't see any reason to disabuse him of that opinion, so I simply thanked him and set off on foot.
The one thing that strikes you immediately about Naples is how much like New York it is in one respect: Drivers seem to think that their automobiles will cease functioning if they don't beep the horn every minute or so. Naples and New York have the most horn-happy drivers on earth. Also, learning to cross a busy street in Naples is taking your life in your hands; traffic lights often seem to be interpreted as a suggestion rather than a hard instruction as to whether to stop or go, and drivers and pedestrians are expected to keep from colliding with each other by mutually taking evasive action in equal measure. Learning to cross the street in Naples is like learning combat in a live ammunition exercise.
Once safely across the Via Colombo (Naples' main shoreside multilane boulevard), I set out to find my lunch stop. It didn't take long to find A Taverna do Re, a charming little trattoria in an alley near the Piazza Municipale. I took a seat at one of the red tablecloth-covered tables and ordered from a menu that included descriptions in both Italian and English. Though the pizzas were tempting, they were too large for one person (sorry, Mario), and my eye was caught by a local seafood pasta, pacheri do Re, large tubes with mussels, three types of clams, shrimp, olives and capers in a fish sauce.
To start, I ordered a bottle of water, a small bottle of red wine, and a plate of swordfish carpaccio in olive oil with arugula. A group of staffers from CostaEuropa dining at the table next to me asked how I liked the carpaccio, so I negotiated a deal, swapping half my carpaccio for a slice of one of their pizzas, which certainly lived up to Mario's hype. All told, when the check came, the total for the bottles of water and wine, appetizer and main course came to 33.50 euros.
After returning to the ship in time to take a refreshing shower (it had been quite hot in both Naples and Herculaneum), followed by dinner at my regular table, I found one of the last seats available for the first show in the Victoriana Lounge, an audience participation welcome aboard show hosted by cruise director, John Heald. Heald is arguably one of the best known of his ilk throughout the fleet. He's extremely adept at both selecting and interrogating his foils in such a way that they make themselves look a bit foolish or eccentric without actually being made fun of.
After the show I wandered down to the aft end of Promenade Deck (Deck 5) where most of the entertainment lounges and bars are located. Last year, aboard Carnival Valor I had groused that since smoking was allowed in all those venues -- even at the wine bar -- there was no place to enjoy a cocktail in a smoke-free environment prior to dinner. I am happy to note that apparently passenger input ran in the same direction, and now smoking is prohibited in the wine bars and nearby walkway on Conquest-class ships. Though it still is allowed within the individual lounges, the changes were enough to make a major difference in the air quality in the area. I chose to pay a visit to Scott's Piano Bar, where Ron Pass holds court. I knew Ron from Carnival Valor, and he runs a rollicking, fun piano bar from his perch at a rotating baby grand. I spent about an hour there, then retired to my cabin. Tomorrow will be our first sea day.