April 13: Messina, Sicily.
During breakfast this morning, we watched several groups of sea animals, apparently dolphins, playing near the ship. The ocean was unusually flat today, with no visible swells, and we had land to the starboard. As we approached the Straits of Messina, the wind came up making the water choppy, but it dropped off again as we entered the harbor, where the ship did a 180 to line up with the dock. We had previously arranged to walk around Messina with our tablemates Juliana and Roger, so we met them off the ship and started on our way, along with others from the ship, to a famous clock tower a couple of blocks from the dock. We arrived about noon, just as a lion was roaring. At least that’s what it sounded like, and sure enough, there was a lion holding a flag and moving its tail at the top of a series of figures on this clock we had found. Next, a rooster crowed a few times. Then, an orchestral version of Ave Maria began playing as other figures began a parade around their levels on the clock tower. When the music stopped, we didn’t see anything else moving, even though some of them had been still during the whole performance. By this time, we had lost patience with the whole proceeding and left.
Other than to find a place for lunch, we didn’t really have an agenda for Messina, so we started walking toward a restaurant which had been recommended to Roger by an Italian friend of his from the ship. By following Fabio’s directions and asking a few passersby, we found the restaurant and went inside. We were warmly welcomed and grateful that Roger speaks Italian because it seemed that no one there spoke English. Arancini (rice balls) were the important item on the menu in this restaurant, so we ordered them and a couple of pasta dishes. Everything tasted good, but what was more interesting than the food was the life of the restaurant, clearly a popular neighborhood place with regular customers who know each other and the staff.
When we left there, we walked in the direction of a shopping area, but since it was siesta time, not many stores were open. We came to the Piazza Cairoli, which is a city block in size and planted with a dozen or so fully grown trees, giving the piazza a somewhat exotic aspect. We were having a cool and sunny day, but I imagine that this piazza is wonderfully cool on a hot summer’s day. Since we had different shopping needs, we split with Roger and Juliana and went into an electronics store, one of Denise’s favorite kinds. We continued around the perimeter of the piazza and came upon a gelaterie, which had gelato in popsicles, rather than in scoops. It was delicious. We made our way back to the ship late in the afternoon.
As a city, Messina did not meet my expectations. For some reason, I thought it was going to be small, quaint, and backward. But it was none of those. Our port lecturer told us that 20th century earthquakes and wars have dictated the modern look of the city. It’s a busy port city with very substantial, but not very tall buildings which fill the space between the water and the base of the nearby mountains. It seems like a real city, not just a tourist destination (for example, many stores were closed for the afternoon siesta), and has any number of historical sites and cultural activities to offer the visitor.
April 14: Naples.
Walking out on deck this morning, I was particularly taken with the hulking presence of Mt. Vesuvius off in the distance, because that was to be the destination of our excursion today. We walked off the ship into the full-service Naples cruise terminal, where we noted a number of shops we could look at upon our return. Our tour guide, who is from Naples, gave us lots of facts about the history of the city, beginning in the 15th century B.C.E. when Greeks first settled here (somehow, that date doesn’t sound right for Greeks, but that’s what she said). One of her observations about Naples I found quite interesting: People in Naples are very religious – and very superstitious, although she didn’t give us any examples. Anyway, we drove quite a distance to get out of the port area. It’s huge. Warehouses, containers, cranes, and other port-support facilities cover many acres of the waterfront.
The bus followed the autoroute for a few miles, and then turned off onto local roads which were clearly built without buses in mind. We wound through neighborhoods of houses and apartments and shops, making 90 degree turns and squeezing through spaces that seemed big enough for at best a Smart Car! These neighborhoods were similar to many others we’ve seen on our trip, with some buildings crumbling and in disrepair and others nearby well maintained and decorated with pots of flowering plants. As we advanced higher up the mountain, we saw many catering facilities and hotels, as if people wanted to celebrate their occasions right next to the volcano. We found that interesting.
As soon as we left the buildings behind, we entered a national park, where we had to leave our tour bus and board a four-wheel-drive bus, which looked really intimidating, with huge wheels and army green paint. We wondered what we were getting into. This vehicle had a shorter wheelbase than our touring coach, and this feature plus the big wheels enabled it to tackle the task ahead – the next segment of the road to the top of the mountain. A really bumpy ride was ahead of us. At the point where we started, the road had been paved at one time. But maintenance has been needed for years, and today potholes and unpaved areas have made a mess of it. Where the road started, there was a low masonry wall on both sides which served as a guardrail, sort of, but as we continued further up the mountain, the wall became just a loose rock wall and then went away altogether. So did the pavement. At any rate, we were driven to a point about a mile from the top and had to walk the rest of the way. We had expected to walk some, but didn’t realize how much of a personal physical contribution we would be making in the trip to the top. The path went through volcanic ash and was generally edged with a post-and-rope fence which seemed particularly ineffective, since many of the posts were no longer stuck in the ground, but we took our time and made it to the top without any real difficulty.
Of course, the effort was worth it. The views as we were walking up and as we looked down into the crater were spectacular. We could see steam escaping from a few places within the crater, and the guide pointed out the different layers of rock which are the evidence of earlier eruptions. Even though it was a Tuesday morning, we were not the only people on the mountain. Several groups of school children were there as well. I wonder if they realize how lucky they are to have had this first-hand experience of Mt. Vesuvius at such a young age. When it was time to head back down, we picked our way through the lava rocks and ash, remembering to keep our balance because we could not rely on the rope railings to save us from a too-quick descent. On our way down, Denise and I discussed how the ascent of Mt. Vesuvius would be handled in Switzerland – undoubtedly with a smooth and efficient gondola ride.
Once off the mountain, we had to make one more stop to complete our day’s tour – at a cameo factory. I think this was really a rest stop, as I didn’t see anyone showing any interest in buying any of the cameos that were being offered. When we arrived back at the ship, Denise decided to walk into downtown Naples, and she returned late in the afternoon. She saw the Galleria Umberto, shopped in the city, had pizza lunch with Beverly, had a coffee break with Juliana and Roger, and shopped in the cruise terminal stores.
April 15: Civitavecchia (Rome).
Today is the 100th day of our cruise! This morning we docked in Civitavecchia, which is the port city for Rome. This is a busy commercial port with many fishing boats, ferries, and other cruise ships, but it also shows evidence of its ancient past, with a castle, ramparts, and Roman wall fortifications, all within the port area and sharing space with the modern commercial elements. Our excursion destination for today, however, was not Rome, but its former port city, Ostia Antica. Founded in the 4th century B.C.E., Ostia was Rome’s main commercial port and military base. It was located at the mouth of the Tiber River, which runs through Rome, but it declined in importance as the result of barbarian invasions and malaria and eventually died as a city and was buried in sand for centuries, thus explaining its preservation as a significant architectural ruin today. We had a wonderful guide who knows the city inside and out and who took us on a walk through some of its highlights. These were some of the types of structures we visited: cemetery, private home, laundry, bakery, restaurant, hotel, theater, forum, temples, warehouses, and shops. We walked along stone roadways, under arched doorways, and along brick walls which had all once been covered with a layer of plaster and then of marble. During recent times, in an attempt to preserve these artifacts, a topping of cement has been applied to the top of exposed walls. Walking in the footsteps of the long-ago Romans and their foreign trading partners and then being able to almost visualize where they lived and worked has been one of the many fascinating windows into the past which we have experienced on this cruise.
Since Ostia lies about an hour’s drive south of Civitavecchia on the autoroute, we got a good look at the Italian countryside on this beautiful spring morning. Unlike in some of our earlier ports, here we had cultivated, green, rolling hills often irrigated by sprinklers, numerous greenhouses, and several fields filled with solar panels, rather than crops. Since it was springtime, flowering trees and bushes and fields of yellow flowers were everywhere. Although we saw many eucalyptus and cedar trees, the ubiquitous Mediterranean pine tree is the one most characteristic of Italy to my mind (see Denise’s pictures).
Just as on our previous trips, we have been fascinated by the ancient history that is evident everywhere in Italy. We will be back.