Among the major reasons we planned a week in the Italian region of Campania was the desire to see some of the world’s best-preserved examples of ancient life. Most people have heard of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the towns buried and preserved in volcanic ash. The Naples National Archaeological Museum contains the best of the art and artifacts recovered from these and other sites. Less well-known is Paestum, an ancient outpost of Magna Graecia that survived the centuries relatively intact, without the “benefit” of volcanic ash.
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Sorrento (see previous post) was our base for the week. We planned for a day each in Naples, Paestum, and either Pompeii or Herculaneum (to be decided after our visit to the museum in Naples). Fate, in the form of broken toilets, conspired to change our plans for Naples and Pompeii, but more on that later. First, we’ll visit Paestum.
Since we couldn’t include Greece on this European adventure, Paestum would be the closest we could come. We rented a car for the day and braved Italian roads to get there. It turned out to be one of the brightest highlights of the whole trip.
The National Archaeological Museum of Paestum gave us a good introduction to the life of the Greeks who built the settlement of Poseidonia around 600 BC. When the Romans took over in the 3rd century BC, they changed the town’s name to Paestum.
The Paestum archaeological site is best known for three remarkably intact Greek temples. In order of age, they are the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Athena, and the Temple of Poseidon. All are Doric in style and were built within 100 years of each other, from 550-450 BC. Greece was moving from the Archaic to the Classical period during this time, and this evolution can be seen in the architecture of the temples.
Rick Steves had described Naples as a gritty place, teeming with life and character. It seemed fascinating, if a bit scary. But we wanted to visit the National Archaeological Museum there. We had loved the ancient Greek exhibits at Paestum, and were now looking forward to seeing the art and artifacts of early Roman civilization.
Added to this was the allure of the Secret Cabinet, a section of the museum only recently opened to the public, that contains the ancient erotica recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum. For hundreds of years, the contents of the Secret Cabinet had been deemed too racy for all but the most serious scholars to see. Now it is available to members of the general public who know about it and who request to see it. That would be us!
A short subway ride brought us from the main train station in Naples to the museum stop. It was almost noon, so we trudged many blocks looking for a particular Rick Steves-recommended restaurant for lunch. We finally found it and enjoyed some justifiably famous Neopolitan pizza. Then it was off to the the museum.
We were next in line at the ticket counter when the attendant was interrupted by an official. The museum would have to close, unexpectedly and immediately, for the day. When we asked why, the official gave some non-answer. Pressed harder, he said the toilets had stopped working. We protested that we had come thousands of miles to visit this museum, and we didn’t need to go to the bathroom; but they still wouldn’t let us in. So no museum visit — and no Secret Cabinet — for us. At least for this trip.
We made our way back to the station and boarded the Circumvesuviana again. Pompeii Scavi (the excavation at Pompeii) is a stop on the Circumvesuviana on the way back to Sorrento, so the decision was made. We would visit Pompeii.
Oddly, I took no photographs while in Naples. We had been focused on the museum visit, and when that fell through, on trying to salvage the day. In the city, on the way to and from the museum, I didn’t see anything that caught my eye. Between the closing of the museum and rushing through the city, Naples was something of a bust for us. But the pizza was excellent!
So ended our amazing three months on the European continent. But the adventure was far from finished. We had tickets to London!