Review & report of our short break to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast in April 2017.
This is a review and resort report for our 3-night short break in Italy, April 2017. We stayed at the Hotel Miramare Stabia in Castellammare di Stabia, travelled along the Amalfi Coast Road, stopping in Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, visited the ruins at Pompeii, and climbed up to Vesuvius's crater rim.
After a good, quiet, extremely early Easyjet flight from the awful Luton Airport to Naples, we dodged the long queue for the shuttle bus from the airport to Naples, and negotiated a cheap taxi fare to Naples Central Station in Piazza Garibaldi. This is a confusing rabbit warren, and we spent half an hour floundering around before we found the right ticket office, bought the right (incredibly cheap) ticket, and found the right platform for the commuter train to Torre Annunziata Central station, followed by a short mini-bus ride to Castellammare di Stabia rail terminus, just a five minute walk from the Hotel Miramare Stabia. A lengthy journey that needed a lot of research to put in place, not least because the town has three rail stations.
For the journey back to the airport at the end of the break we decided to take a taxi from the hotel – at €80 an expensive but safer option than a tortuous return journey by bus or train. The flight home was awful – Passport Control at Naples Airport was unbelievably slow, and I had the seat with the hyperactive 5 year old behind me, kicking me in the back all the way, plus the screaming baby just across the aisle.
Castellammare di Stabia is not a tourist destination – it's a working town on the coast of the Bay of Naples that used to be prosperous as a result of lucrative contracts providing equipment and services for the Italian Navy (there's a Navy presence in Castellammare's main harbour). However, the ship-building/servicing work has mostly gone elsewhere, and much of the industrial area to the north of the town looks run-down and abandoned. It's not helped by the dark volcanic sand on the beach, which will never look clean, no matter how much it is washed by the clear, clean Mediterranean Sea.
Castellammare hit the headlines in 2016 when two stolen Van Gogh paintings, said to be worth £100m, were recovered during a police raid on a house in the town. The house was owned by Raffaele Imperiale, a notorious Comorran gangster, responsible for smuggling cocaine and marijuana into the Naples area. Imperiale fled to Dubai before being arrested, from where he used the paintings as a bargaining chip to reduce his in absentia prison sentence - it is believed that he still lives there in luxurious exile. Although Italy has sought his extradition, the UAE authorities appear to be reluctant to send him back. I wonder why?
The town is ideally located for people visiting Pompeii just ten minutes away, and they are trying to stimulate the tourist trade by attractively renovating the promenade that stretches south from the hotel, providing an ideal location for joggers and boulevardiers to see and be seen. The town includes the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Stabiae, which was destroyed by the same Vesuvius eruption in AD 79 that did for Pompeii and Herculaneum. These ruins have also been excavated and can be visited (though we didn't).
The Hotel Miramare was excellent – elegant, luxurious, right on the beach, with all rooms having sea-facing balconies. Everywhere is painted brilliant white. It's so iconic and fashionable, that when we arrived, we discovered that there was a fashion-magazine photo-shoot, with bikini-clad models, taking place on the hotel's elegant sea-facing terrace and by the swimming pool. It's worth reading the hotel's History page online (use the flag to choose your language). It was built in the 1950s, but was abandoned in the 1970s for forty years, before being completely renovated from the shell starting in 2007, and it re-opened in 2013.
Our third-floor room was very comfortable with all the features you would expect from a modern hotel. Our balcony had a magnificent view out over the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius looming to our right, and the sun setting picturesquely next to the island of Ischia straight ahead. Every morning there were several one-man fishing dinghies out on the clear, clean sea just a few metres in front of our room, and often snorkellers hunting for octopus on the reef in front of the hotel. The restaurant served a good buffet breakfast, and enormous and delicious evening meals. The staff at Reception and in the dining-room were friendly, chatty and helpful. There's a minimarket just down the road where you can pick up supplies.
We thoroughly recommend this hotel. The only negative comment we can make is that one corner of our bathroom floor ended up a centimetre deep in water whenever we showered, due to the absence of an effective seal around the bath's shower screen.
You have to do the Amalfi Coast drive – the scenery is sensational, with the high limestone coastline plunging steeply into the clear Mediterranean sea, brightly-painted scenic towns like Positano and Amalfi spilling steeply down the cliffs, and the winding coast road bringing vista after vista every time you turn a corner.
We'd signed up to an all-day guided minibus tour, with a pick-up from our hotel, to Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi, Ravello and back to our hotel. We stopped half-a-dozen times, including in Positano, Amalfi and Ravello to allow us to take photos and wander around on our own, and we took a boat cruise along the coast from Amalfi to see the sights from the sea. Our tour guide kept up a (sometimes incomprehensible) commentary, pointing out the sights and explaining the history of the coast. It has been very popular with film stars and wealthy businessmen, many of whom have built their own luxury villas on the cliffs above the sea.
The popularity of the Amalfi Coast road is its undoing – when we were there (we'd unwittingly picked Italy's Liberation Day Bank Holiday) it was heaving with cars, tour buses and tens of thousands of other tourists, all, like us, clutching maps and guide-books and pointing cameras to record the sights. The bars and restaurants down by the beach or in the main squares can charge eye-watering prices for drinks and food. The region specialises in ceramics and pottery, and high-priced hand-made sandals and other clothes, and there are a lot of tourist shops selling items such as Amalfi-Coast-themed fridge magnets and tea-towels.
The excavations are only ten minutes by cheap local train from Castellammare, and cost €13 pp to get in. However, we absolutely recommend hiring a local guide at Pompeii's train station (this cost us €12 pp) for a two-hour tour to show you the highlights and explain the background of everyday life in the Roman town before it was buried under many metres of volcanic ash from the Vesuvius eruption in AD79.
Our extremely knowledgeable guide led an English-speaking party of a dozen or so around the buildings in the town, carefully selected to showcase the best of the ruins. She told us that it would take 2 whole days to see absolutely everything so far unearthed, so you have to be selective.
Very little of Pompeii has been rebuilt – it's nearly all exactly as it was after the eruption nearly two thousand years ago – only the wooden parts of the structures (eg doors, roof timbers) rotted away under the ash. The archaeologists carefully cleared away ash, collapsed roofs and so on, leaving the stone, marble and brick structures just as they were when the ash was cleared away. In some buildings, a new roof has been constructed to protect fragile wall paintings from the elements.
The highlights we saw included the sophisticated Stabian Baths bath house (with cold, warm and hot plunge pools, changing rooms, underfloor and cavity-wall heating), the Large Theatre (an amphitheatre where plays were staged), a couple of open forum areas (the Gladiator's Barracks and the Main Forum with its Temples of Jupiter, Vespasian and Apollo), the House of Menander (with many fresco wall-paintings), various shops including a couple of fast-food outlets and a bakery (with what looked like a pizza oven), and the Lupanare Brothel (with its famous erotic wall-paintings).
We also walked along the Via Stabiana and the Via Abbondanza main Roman roads, with their stepping stones to allow crossing the street without having to step in the raw sewage which used to flow down the street, and the deep grooves where the wheels of carts had worn away the basalt paving blocks.
Our photos show how popular the site is – we shared it with thousands of other visitors. What we know about the AD 79 eruption is mainly drawn from the two letters written by Pliny the Younger to his friend Tacitus, in which he describes the eruption and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, though there is some controversy over the exact date of the destruction in AD79. See the "Pliny" tab for the text of these letters.
We decided to go up to the crater rim of Vesuvius for €22 pp. The trip is mostly by bumpy bus from Pompeii up through increasingly elegant suburbs and then over rough National Park tracks through the forest to the upper coach park, followed by a 20-minute walk up to the top on an ash-covered footpath to the crater rim. Here there are guides from the Volcano Observatory who will tell you all about the volcanic activity in the area.
Although Vesuvius is currently dormant (the last major eruption was in 1944), you can still see plumes of steam emerging from vents in the rocks in the gigantic crater, showing that the volcano is not extinct, merely sleeping. We were told that there is a huge magma chamber only 5km under the entire area, including way out underneath the Bay of Naples, as far as the island of Ischia, and that there are a million people living in the danger zone.
There's a great view from the rim into the crater, and out over the entire Bay of Naples, with the islands of Capri and Ischia on the horizon.
Note that there are no toilets anywhere on this trip – make sure you use the facilities back at Pompeii before getting on the bus. It's a good idea to take a pullover, as it's cooler and windier at the top.
Here is the text of two letters written by Pliny the Younger to his friend Tacitus in AD79, describing the eruption which killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder.
THE LETTERS OF PLINY THE YOUNGER
By Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus
Translated by William Melmoth
Revised by F. C. T. Bosanquet
Thanks to: Project Gutenberg
LETTER LXV — To TACITUS
YOUR request that I would send you an account of my uncle's death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgments; for, if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I am well assured, will be rendered forever illustrious. And notwithstanding he perished by a misfortune, which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded, the mentioning of him in your immortal writings, will greatly contribute to render his name immortal. Happy I esteem those to be to whom by provision of the gods has been granted the ability either to do such actions as are worthy of being related or to relate them in a manner worthy of being read; but peculiarly happy are they who are blessed with both these uncommon talents: in the number of which my uncle, as his own writings and your history will evidently prove, may justly be ranked. It is with extreme willingness, therefore, that I execute your commands; and should indeed have claimed the task if you had not enjoined it.
He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself given me something to write out.
As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast.
Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, "Fortune," said he, "favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is." Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead in-shore, should go down.
It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it. Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence, was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside.
The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction. In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration.
They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them. It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise.
He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead.
During all this time my mother and I, who were at Misenum — but this has no connection with your history, and you did not desire any particulars besides those of my uncle's death; so I will end here, only adding that I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time to vary the truth. You will pick out of this narrative whatever is most important: for a letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing writing to a friend, another thing writing to the public. Farewell.
LETTER LXVI — To CORNELIUS TACITUS
THE letter which, in compliance with your request, I wrote to you concerning the death of my uncle has raised, it seems, your curiosity to know what terrors and dangers attended me while I continued at Misenum; for there, I think, my account broke off:
"Though my shock'd soul recoils, my tongue shall tell."
My uncle having left us, I spent such time as was left on my studies (it was on their account indeed that I had stopped behind), till it was time for my bath. After which I went to supper, and then fell into a short and uneasy sleep. There had been noticed for many days before a trembling of the earth, which did not alarm us much, as this is quite an ordinary occurrence in Campania; but it was so particularly violent that night that it not only shook but actually overturned, as it would seem, everything about us. My mother rushed into my chamber, where she found me rising, in order to awaken her. We sat down in the open court of the house, which occupied a small space between the buildings and the sea. As I was at that time but eighteen years of age, I know not whether I should call my behaviour, in this dangerous juncture, courage or folly; but I took up Livy, and amused myself with turning over that author, and even making extracts from him, as if I had been perfectly at my leisure. Just then, a friend of my uncle's, who had lately come to him from Spain, joined us, and observing me sitting by my mother with a book in my hand, reproved her for her calmness, and me at the same time for my careless security: nevertheless I went on with my author.
Though it was now morning, the light was still exceedingly faint and doubtful; the buildings all around us tottered, and though we stood upon open ground, yet as the place was narrow and confined, there was no remaining without imminent danger: we therefore resolved to quit the town. A panic-stricken crowd followed us, and (as to a mind distracted with terror every suggestion seems more prudent than its own) pressed on us in dense array to drive us forward as we came out. Being at a convenient distance from the houses, we stood still, in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene. The chariots, which we had ordered to be drawn out, were so agitated backwards and forwards, though upon the most level ground, that we could not keep them steady, even by supporting them with large stones.
The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it. On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger. Upon this our Spanish friend, whom I mentioned above, addressing himself to my mother and me with great energy and urgency: "If your brother," he said, "if your uncle be safe, he certainly wishes you may be so too; but if he perished, it was his desire, no doubt, that you might both survive him: why therefore do you delay your escape a moment?" We could never think of our own safety, we said, while we were uncertain of his. Upon this our friend left us, and withdrew from the danger with the utmost precipitation.
Soon afterwards, the cloud began to descend, and cover the sea. It had already surrounded and concealed the island of Capreae and the promontory of Misenum. My mother now besought, urged, even commanded me to make my escape at any rate, which, as I was young, I might easily do; as for herself, she said, her age and corpulency rendered all attempts of that sort impossible; however, she would willingly meet death if she could have the satisfaction of seeing that she was not the occasion of mine. But I absolutely refused to leave her, and, taking her by the hand, compelled her to go with me. She complied with great reluctance, and not without many reproaches to herself for retarding my flight.
The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud. "Let us turn out of the high-road," I said, "while we can still see, for fear that, should we fall in the road, we should be pressed to death in the dark, by the crowds that are following us." We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world. Among these there were some who augmented the real terrors by others imaginary or wilfully invented. I remember some who declared that one part of Misenum had fallen, that another was on fire; it was false, but they found people to believe them.
It now grew rather lighter, which we imagined to be rather the forerunner of an approaching burst of flames (as in truth it was) than the return of day: however, the fire fell at a distance from us: then again we were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to stand up to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap. I might boast that, during all this scene of horror, not a sigh, or expression of fear, escaped me, had not my support been grounded in that miserable, though mighty, consolation, that all mankind were involved in the same calamity, and that I was perishing with the world itself.
At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees, like a cloud or smoke; the real day returned, and even the sun shone out, though with a lurid light, like when an eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes (which were extremely weakened) seemed changed, being covered deep with ashes as if with snow. We returned to Misenum, where we refreshed ourselves as well as we could, and passed an anxious night between hope and fear; though, indeed, with a much larger share of the latter: for the earthquake still continued, while many frenzied persons ran up and down heightening their own and their friends' calamities by terrible predictions. However, my mother and I, notwithstanding the danger we had passed, and that which still threatened us, had no thoughts of leaving the place, till we could receive some news of my uncle.
And now, you will read this narrative without any view of inserting it in your history, of which it is not in the least worthy; and indeed you must put it down to your own request if it should appear not worth even the trouble of a letter. Farewell.
Here's 113 pictures of the beautiful Amalfi Coast and the excavations at Pompeii. Each page contains about fifteen pictures totalling approx five MB per page.
An excellent short break, during which we packed in much sight-seeing. We recommend all the trips we did – they were all worthwhile. Do check to ensure your visit doesn't coincide with an Italian public holiday. The hotel was one of the best we've stayed in, although the town was not very scenic. Getting to and from the airport is either time-consuming, fiddly and cheap, or easy, quick and expensive, depending on whether you choose the train/bus or a taxi.