After spending significant time in Prague, Czech Republic in 2000, Jesse and I were itching to go south to the Italian beaches, and decided to take a grueling 26-hour bus ride from Prague to Naples.
If you‘ve never been on a bus for any period over 24 hours, don’t. It’s one of the worst things ever – especially when the movie they showed on the bus (Legends of the Fall) was in the extremely foreign language of Czech. Brad Pitt never sounded so funny!
The fun part of our trip, however, was sitting in the front seats looking out the window at the passing Austrian Alps and Italian countryside, drinking beer with the ever-present thought of clear blue Mediterranean waters on our minds. Since we’d arrived in Europe, roughly four months prior to our hellish bus ride, we had yearned for the southern waters of Italy and Greece.
We got off the bus in Naples and stepped onto Italian soil for the first time in our lives. It was the busiest, most crowded scene we had ever seen – cars, scooters, people and noise surrounded us immediately. This was Italy?! We wanted out.
We had our sights on Pompeii, so we jumped on the coastal railway and headed south via the Circumvesuviana train towards Sorrento on the Amalfi Peninsula. We didn’t have much daylight left, so we decided to get off just north of Pompeii in the coastal town of Torre Annunziata, thinking it would be a nice beach to set up our tents and crash for the night.
The walk from the train station to the beach was an experience in itself. There are no rules of engagement in Italian traffic law; it’s kill or be killed, whether on foot, bicycle, scooter or vehicle. We stuck out like sore American thumbs with large backpacks, travel gear and a look of complete bewilderment. I recall one street that zig-zagged down a hill to the ocean where we almost died a baker’s dozen times with the passing traffic coming within inches of our oversized packs.
Once we reached the beach we breathed a sigh of relief. But we soon saw it was the most polluted beach we had ever seen! There was trash everywhere – our visions of beautiful Italian beaches diminished on the spot.
We knew we couldn’t set up camp there, so we trudged back through the jungle of traffic to get some food and find a place to pitch our tents. We walked and walked until we found a small fenced-in area of brush and grass in a neighborhood. Alongside this oasis of a hectare we saw a line of cars all with semi-cracked, fogged-up windows, some of them even sporting makeshift curtains. We were on Torre Annunziata’s lover’s lane! So with a quick heave of our packs and gear, we scaled the ten-foot fence to set up camp in the middle of the field.
We’d set up our tents and got snuggled in our sleeping bags and were finally dozing off to sleep, when suddenly there was a rush of wind and a sound like a hurricane upon us, nearly blowing our tents over! “Jesse, what the F#$% was that?!!”
It turned out that our camp was about 40 feet from train tracks with high-speed trains passing every hour or so. We couldn’t see the tracks through all the brush. Needless to say, it was an interesting night of sleep; however, the trains subsided come early morning.
When morning broke and the first high-speed train awoke us, we knew we needed to get on the road. Packing up my tent, I realized I’d set up my tent on a mound of red ants. Luckily I didn’t get any ants in my tent, but I knew our time in Torre had expired and we were ready for Pompeii. We set off for a nearby market to get some bread, cheese, fruit and water.
While sitting on the stoop of the store soaking in the southern Italian sun, we witnessed our first genuine Italian verbal disagreement: A traffic policeman gave a woman a parking ticket. The woman came out of a nearby store to “let the policeman know” she shouldn’t have gotten the ticket. A full-out verbal barrage with various hand gestures ensued. It was one of the most entertaining things I’d ever seen. It only get better when the proprietor of the market came out to throw in his two cents and the butcher next door came out to throw in his four. Then passers-bye stopped to engage in the brawl. The cop was still hissing at the crowd as he walked down the street to inevitably get into another altercation. The group of enraged civilians stood there complaining for another ten minutes and the policeman came back to the scene of the crime and got into it again with the group! We couldn’t have asked for a better scene to start our day.
After our breakfast and a quick train ride we finally hit Pompeii. We had no idea this 6th century settlement was the size of a relatively small city. Just like a modern city there were the upper-class, working class and lower class neighborhoods – and, of course, the prostitute district. All the while the active volcano Mt. Vesuvius kept a close eye on us, letting us know she was still there with her half-blown mountain ridge from the 79 A.D. eruption that had deposited almost ten feet of ash on the beautiful city. The Italian National Park Service displayed glass cases of some bodies petrified in ash, where you could see gritted teeth and hands covering their faces.
It was one of the best days of our lives meandering through the streets of Pompeii. Like gladiators, we ran through the oldest, most complete pre-Coliseum style amphitheatre in the Roman world, built in 70 A.D. In full sprint, we dashed into the center of the 12,000-person amphitheater as if part of a gladiator ceremony, and did a parody of a bullfight with tourists cheering us on. We got lost in sectioned-off areas of the city with crumbling walls and stairs leading up to the sky. We accosted a stray dog, Snowball, that followed us throughout the city. (While in Italy we had four stray dogs become our friends – It’s A Dog’s Life in southern Italy.) To end our day, we found a bar right outside the Pompeii gates to drink some local wine and gawk about our amazing day.