Archive | June 2019

Pompeii for a Day

mt etna

See that hump-backed mountain in the background of the image above? That is Mount Vesuvius, and it’s the only European-based volcano to have erupted in the last one-hundred years. Back in 79 AD, it spewed a huge cloud of ash, stones, and volcanic gases in an eruption that ultimately killed over a thousand people and buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis.

The ash and stones have mostly been removed from Pompeii to reveal a seaside resort city that was once a playground for rich Romans. The amphitheater is in excellent condition as are many of the mosaics that can be found on the floors of the homes of the wealthy.

Frescoes adorned the walls of those homes, and many retain their brilliant colors, although earthquakes have caused some to crumble. This particular villa was home to the owner of a gladiator school.

Ovens for baking bread and public fountains for water can be found everywhere. Pottery, amphorae, bowls and other pottery, still in excellent shape, are on display.

How did they get water to those fountains? Why, lead pipes, of course! The Romans had discovered the malleable metal in England and brought it back to Italy. If the volcano hadn’t killed them, it was likely the citizens would have suffered lead poisoning at some point.

lead pipe

Although not all the walls survived the eruption, the purpose of many of the remaining structures has been determined by what was found inside. There is a treasury, temples, shops and more lining the main square.

Look closely, and you’ll find evidence of chariot wheels in the stone streets, detailed plasterwork along the edges of doors, and carved column tops. You’ll also find ancient graffiti.

And because this was a resort city, there is a brothel district. It’s not hard to find when there are directional signs right in the pavement.


Since language may have been an issue, fresco menus allowed a patron to simply point to what he wanted. Let’s hope those beds had some cushions, though.

A few plaster casts of bodies caught in the eruption on are display under glass. These were made when voids in the ash were detected. Plaster was poured into the void and then the ash and stone was removed to reveal bodies, furnishings—anything that had been organic. At the time of our visit, most of the bodies had been removed for use in a traveling exhibition.


Upon exiting the grounds, be sure to survey the area. We took a tour of a nearby shop that sells cameos and watched a demonstration of how they are created (they are carved from seashells) before having a traditional lunch. Then we headed back to Rome for our last night there.

Next up: Delphi

The Vatican Museums on Ash Wednesday


Back in pagan times, a Roman necropolis stood on what is now Vatican Hill. After the fire of 64 AD, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire. He executed them (we won’t go into detail, other than to say it was gory). Among those crucified was St. Peter—disciple of Jesus Christ and the first bishop of Rome—who was supposedly buried in a shallow grave on the hill. By the time the Christian religion was recognized as the official religion of Rome, Emperor Constantine started construction of the original basilica atop the ancient burial ground with the tomb of St. Peter at its center. The present basilica, built starting in the 1500s, sits over a maze of catacombs and St. Peter’s suspected grave.

Vatican City, a separate city within Rome, is home to that basilica as well as Christian and art museums. Linda, our guide from our tour of the Forum, once again proved how important it is to have a knowledgeable person leading the way. She took what was listed as a two-hour tour and gave us five hours in the museums and basilica. We gained access to places not on the schedule, a necessity considering there are five miles of corridors in the Vatican complex and 70,000 exhibits.

We passed a reproduction of the statue, Pieta, before heading into the Pinacoteca, 18 rooms featuring art in chronological order. Over the years, the popes have been amassing a huge collection of art. Some is altar art rescued from churches that have been destroyed or are simply priceless pieces requiring museum care. Most pieces were commissioned by popes or are from their private collections and include frescoes and sculpture. The collection boasts of 460 paintingsincluding absolute masterpieces by prominent artists like Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, il Perugino and Caravaggio.


We immediately recognized that painting of King George IV (Prinny!).

Along the way, it was important to look up. Art is everywhere, adorning the ceilings and the floors. Note: Although we did see the Sistine Chapel, no photography was allowed.

The Gallery of Geographical Maps includes a panel for every town in Italy as well as regional maps. The ceiling is more amazing than what’s on the walls.

The Pio Clementino Museum, twelve rooms in total, is made up the Octagon Courtyard, the Room of Animals, the Gallery of Candelabra, the Round Room, the Room of the Muses, and the Gallery of Statues (filled entirely with Greek and Roman sculptures, most marble but some in bronze).

We didn’t tour the nine rooms of the Gregorian Egyptian Museum or the Pavilion of the Coaches, but we did visit Raphael’s Rooms. Works include The School of Athens and The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple by Raphael Sanzio. Can you find Raphael? He’s the one who is peeking out at the viewer. Throughout these rooms, there are interesting architectural details as well as proof they have been toured by millions.

Normally, a visitor would take the helical staircase to exit the museums, but Linda had us heading to the basilica by way of St. Peter’s Square.

An Italian Renaissance church and one of only four major basilicas, St. Peter’s can accommodate 60,000 people and features huge paintings and sculptures. Michelangelo’s famous carving of the Pieta is here. Two lower levels house the tombs of all the popes (the Vatican Grottoes) and Vatican Necropolis, including St. Peter’s Tomb. Only three women are entombed in the Vatican Grottoes; Queen Christina of Sweden, Agnesina Colonna Caetani and Queen Charlotte of Cyprus.

After five hours, it was time for a stop at a outdoor cafe and some refreshment!

Next up: Pompeii


Rome at Night

Despite its size, Rome is a very walkable city. Given the amount of traffic, it’s sometimes preferable to simply pull on a good pair of shoes, preload a Google map of the area you want to explore on your phone (GPS works even if you don’t have cell service), and then head out with a few others to see the sites that aren’t included on your tour. For two nights, we did this, racking up miles on our pedometers while seeing some attractions that appear far more romantic at night.

basicila beyond river

We had to cross the Tiber River to begin our tours, but the view of St. Peter’s Basilica is breathtaking at twilight.

Fountains are Fab

Over two-thousand fountains can be found in the Eternal City—more than in any other city in the world. Fifty of those are considered monumental fountains. We made it our mission to visit as many as we could.

The Fontana del Pantheon can be found directly in front of the Pantheon in the Piazza del Rotunda. Atop the fountain is the Egyptian Obelisk. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII and designed by Giacomo Della Porta in 1575, the fountain was sculpted out of marble by Leonardo Sormani. The redesign of the fountain in 1711 by Filippo Barigioni added the the Macuteo obelisk (originally created during the period of Ramses II) set in the centre on a plinth with four dolphins decorating the base.


The Fontana Dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) can be found in the Piazza Navona. Designed in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Innocent X, the fountain stood in front Innocent’s family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili. It depicts the Gods of the four great rivers in the four known continents of the time: the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe, and the Río de la Plata in America.


At the north end of Piazza Navona is the Fontana de Neptune. This was once called the Fontana dei Calderan because a nearby alley was home to blacksmiths and those who made metal pots and pans.

fountain of neptune


The Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Boat), is a Baroque-style fountain found at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. This one has a particularly interesting history. According to legend, as the River Tiber flooded in 1598, water carried a small boat into the Piazza di Spagna. When the water receded, a boat was deposited in the center of the square. When Pope Urban VIII commissioned Pietro Bernini in 1623 to build the fountain, Bernini was inspired by the story. He designed the fountain to be the shape of a half-sunken ship with water overflowing its sides into a small basin.

The source of the water comes from the Acqua Vergine, an aqueduct from 19 BCE. Bernini built this fountain to be slightly below street level due to the low water pressure from the aqueduct. Water flows from seven points of fountain: the center baluster; two inside the boat from sun-shaped human faces; and four outside the boat.


At the top of the 138 Spanish Steps is the piazza Trinita dei Monti and the twin-tower church, Campo Marzio. This church has an interesting ceiling in that it’s not decorated with frescoes. The entire sanctuary is bright at night because there’s nothing to absorb the light.


Designed by the architect Giacomo Della Porta and constructed by the Fiesole sculptor Rocco Rossi, the Fontana de Piazza Colona is located near the Column of Marcus Aurelius. This Roman victory column is Doric and hollow. The exterior features a spiral relief of the emperor’s successful military campaigns against the Quadi across the Danube between 172 and 175 AD, while the inside contains a spiral staircase. Similar in appearance to its predecessor, Trajan’s Column, it’s not nearly as tall. However, its base has never been excavated—and up to seven meters is below the ground! Back in the 4th century, it was said this column stood 175 feet.


The most grand of all the monumental fountains is the Trevi Fountain in Palazzo Poli. Designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini and several others, this is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome (161 x 86′).  Yes, we threw a coin into the fountain, but we’re not sure if we did it right (you’re supposed to use your right hand to throw it over your left shoulder). The act of doing so means you’ll come back in the future. An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day.

trevi fountain

While on our trek, we passed by some unexpected sites, like this colonna (collonade) left from the Temple of Hadrian.


On the way back to the hotel, we walked along the river and had an entirely different view of the night lights. A quick check of our pedometers showed we had covered over seven miles on this trek. Time to put up our feet and have a glass of prosecco!

Next up: The Vatican

Ruins in the Heart of the Roman Empire

As an author of historical fiction, we’re fascinated by the places that still exist, even if they aren’t quite all there. The Roman Forum is one such place. Once the heart of the former Roman Empire, it featured a number of temples and government buildings that are now in ruins.

The first half of our day was spent traveling by bus from Florence to Rome, a comfortable trip with picturesque scenery. Early spring in Italy means everything is green—farm fields, vineyards, and trees.

After we checked into our hotel, we made our way to an outdoor lunch spot near the Forum. Our guide for this portion of our trip, Linda, was well-versed in the politics and archaeology of Ancient Rome. As we stood beneath the ruins of the Palatino Domus Severiana, she described the daily life of Romans and those who were important to the rule of Rome.


The Roman Forum spans a huge area.  Two large arches are featured: the Arch of Septimus and the Arch of Titus.


Ruins of the Basilica Aemilia, once strewn across the grounds, have been lined up to show the location of the foundation as well as the placement of the columns.


The House of the Vestals was once home to the Vestal Virgins. Statues of them line the walkway in front of this ruin.


The Imperial Forum is a mere shadow of its former glory.

imperial forum

The Temple of Antonius and Faustina is one of the best preserved of the structures, likely because it’s been used as a church, while the Temple of Castor and Pollox, the Temple of Saturn, and the Temple of Vesta have only a few columns left standing.



A short walk past the House of Vestals, and soon you’re in the shadow of the Colosseum. This structure was built between 72 and 80 AD from stone and concrete.


Once the home of gladiatorial combat and spectacles, the Colosseum at first feels small—how could this arena have hosted crowds of up to 87,00 people?—but once you climb the concrete steps and emerge into the arena itself, the scale changes completely.


It’s HUGE (and the largest amphitheater in the world). With 80 entrances and an efficient layout, thousands of people could make their way to their seats in a short amount of time. Fifty-thousand people would have been seated in the tiers that reflected their status in Roman society. On hot days, a retractable awning, or velarium, would cover the spectators.

On the day we visited, over half of the area beneath the level of the original arena’s floor was covered due to ongoing restoration work, but the visible areas provide a sense of the elaborate tunnels, passageways, and rooms that would have housed animals and gladiators during games.

As for that Roman concrete, there’s a reason it’s still intact—it grows stronger over time.  The Romans were known for producing the perfect concrete using volcanic ash, lime, and seawater. Mixed together with volcanic rocks, it was spread into wooden molds that were then immersed in more seawater. As the seawater percolated through the concrete, it dissolved components of the volcanic ash and crystals, creating new binding minerals to grow. Within a decade, a very rare hydrothermal mineral called aluminum tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) and a porous mineral called phillipsite formed in the concrete. Those minerals gives Roman concrete its strength.

Although these days those minerals can be made in a lab, they very difficult to incorporate into concrete. And to achieve that added strength? It takes centuries to achieve.

Even given the growing strength of the Roman concrete, only one-third of the Colosseum is original. The other two-thirds were damaged due to earthquakes, vandalism, and fire.

On the way back to our hotel, we passed by the Castle Sant’Angelo, better known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Originally built by Hadrian to be a mausoleum for him and his family, it was instead used as a castle fortress by popes and is now a museum.

Castel Sant'Angelo

Next up: Rome at night!


Leather! Gold! And Gelato with a Side of Siena!

On a day that was as perfect as could be in Tuscany, our group of travelers were all (finally) together in one place. Or rather, several of them. For this was the day we did a walking tour of Florence that included a leather factory store and the Ponte Vecchio.

ponte vecchio

Florence and the area around it are home to Italy’s largest leather producers, so the city hosts a number of leather factories and boutiques that carry the beautiful results—wallets, bags, belts and jackets—in every color imaginable. After a quick video describing  how leather is tanned and cut, we were let loose in one such factory store.

Let’s just say a number of souvenirs were purchased  (and not always for friends or loved ones).

Then it was off to Ponte Vecchio. Located at the narrowest point of the River Arno, this medieval bridge was originally home to butcher shops. The only original Florentine bridge (all the others were destroyed during World War II), Ponte Vecchio is now home to a number of jewelry shops, souvenir shops, goldsmiths, art dealers, and more jewelry stores featuring gold. Lots of gold. Unlike the wares sold in the shops, the view from the bridge is priceless. Although all the other bridges over the Arno have been built since the war, they were done as reproductions of their originals, so they retain their Old World look.

arno from ponte vecchio

Like most European cities, Florence features lots of thin streets and alleys that boast all kinds of fun finds, including boutiques, fruit stands, gelato shops, and … statue makers?

Most of the outdoor statues featured in and around Florence are reproductions. The originals are safely stored somewhere indoors, and not always in Florence, so an entire industry exists just to reproduce the priceless treasures. In the shop shown above, the sculptors use laser cutters and other fine chisels to recreate an original to exacting standards.

An Excursion to Siena

Having completed our quick morning sightseeing tour, it was time to make our way to the bus station to catch an express bus to Siena.

The center of this Tuscan city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brick buildings surround the fan-shaped central square, Piazza del Campo and include the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic town hall, and Torre del Mangia, which features a 14th-century tower. Stores and restaurants make up some of the other businesses that line the plaza. We had a late lunch in one of them, and the soup was amazing.

Oh, and there’s a storm drain that’s probably the most decorative one you’ll ever see.

Here’s a shot taken from inside the courtyard of the Pubblico and the entrance to the museum-like interiors.


A multitude of treasures await inside the Pubblico, including huge frescoes, paintings, sculptures and more. Shown below are Simone Martini’d La Maesta, a fresco along with some of the gorgeous architectural details, the sculpture Tristitia, commonly known as Il Doloreand, and the ceiling of the Room of the Risorgimento.


As for the gelato, we had an easy time fulfilling our goal of eating some every day. Instead of coffee shops on every corner, Florence features gelato shops on every corner.


Next up: Ancient Rome