Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Warning: Ancient Greeks in Italy

Ancient Greek temples of Paestum in Italy

[Kyle]With a few hours to go before sunset we left our Miseno anchorage and headed further South along the Italian coastline. The wind at our back to cross the Gulf of Naples should have made for easy sailing, but in this case the sea was a mess of choppy waves reflected in all directions by the rocks at the edge of the bay. Our speed was slowed to half of that which we could have expected from the wind alone; the hobby horsing caused by the chop constantly spilling the wind from the sails.

Nice passage - with sun set over Capri

By the time we reached the gap between mainland Sorrento and the island of Capri it was dark and Footprint felt as though she was lurching in all directions at once. Then, as we passed under the lighthouse of Punta Campanella and into the open Gulf of Salerno, the reflected waves stopped and in seconds we were sailing smoothly atop a tranquil night sea. We spent the night crossing the Gulf of Salerno under main and screacher with a dying wind until at sunrise we were slowly creeping up towards the beach at Paestum and dropped anchor just beyond the surf-line.

To get ashore we briefly contemplated a dinghy ride through the surf but soon decided it would be more sensible to swim ashore (there would be no way to stay dry through the surf on the dingy and we were uncomfortable leaving the dinghy unattended on a crowded beach). So we donned mask and fins, loaded supplies for he day in a dry-bag (which turned out not to be so dry!) and swam ashore. I’m grateful that we had an easier time of it that the Allied landing of WWII at the same spot. A quick change into our street clothes and we were off on our expedition to see Paestum.

Paestum is reputed to have the finest surviving example of ancient Greek architecture north of Sicily (especially on a Friday, which luckily for us it was). The ancient site is encircled by a zone of hotels, campgrounds and souvenir shops. We made the obligatory stop (pizza and gelato) to gather our strength for the day ahead.

Not possible to going hungry in Paestum's sea front

[Maryanne] Apart from the more inland ancient site, the modern town seemed to be made up only of the beaches and a seafront access road. The main road being lined with inflatables, buckets, spades, foodstuffs and day-tripper beach essentials; It seemed very much a seafront for local Italians, a basic take-the-kids for the day beach front rather than an international destination. We enjoyed our refreshments while watching the street scenes play out before us, especially enjoying the electricians installing decorative lights strung across the street, happily ignoring the very Italian gesticulations and complaints from the traffic they had blocked from reaching the beach. Such cheap and wonderful entertainment for us!

[Kyle]The walk to the actual site entrance was about a mile inland, beyond farm lands and with rugged distant mountain views, eventually leading us along the ancient city perimeter walls (composed of miles of huge blocks of volcanic stone). We started with the museum that contained many examples of pottery, decorated roof top guttering and a large collection of tomb contents and decorations. The museum was light, airy and modern and the exhibits were in great condition; unfortunately the accompanying descriptions (at least the English versions) were written in a very dry academic tone as if meant for an archaeologists’ textbook, we soon tired of the yet more examples of one type or another clay pot and made our way across the street to the ancient site. Many great views were available on the short walk to buy the ticket (from the road outside and through the fence) so it wasn’t surprising that few people were paying the entrance fee to view the same sites just a little closer up. We paid a little extra for the audio guide for the site which we generally feel is well worth the effort.

Paestum primarily consists of 3 large and well preserved Doric temples and the bottom 3 feet of walls and foundations of an entire town. This gives a good idea of the size and layout of homes, roads, baths and general town structures of ancient Greece (and the later Roman modifications). Paestum was in its hay-day about the 6th Century BC, but with evidence of occupation from the Neolithic period. The Romans took over after a war around 3rd century BC and filled in and built atop much of the civic Greek structures (including swimming pools and amphitheaters); our audio guide suggested they wanted to remove evidence of earlier highly-civilized society, but since they left the temples I find that hard to believe. It is believed the town was eventually abandoned after a the surrounding swamp land became malaria infested during the middle ages.

The name Paestum itself is a Romanization of the Greek name Poseidonia (basically the Greek god of the sea, along with earthquakes and horses, Poseidon). It was impressive to walk along the old cobbled streets and imagine the town alive and buzzing with ancient day-to-day activities and busy locals donned with togas. The town was more than just a clustering of homes; there were shopping areas, a mini coliseum style arena, public forums for political and civic discussion, playing fields, gymnasiums and even a temple with a large swimming pool (for fertility). The largest house (3800 m2, about 41,000 ft2 – yes, giant!) in town had It’s own swimming pool with slides and big enough for any modern day town to be happy with.

One of the unexpected shocks was the limited number of visitors. There were maybe only 30 people total, and this gave us the feeling of having the place to ourselves, and the privilege of waiting for people to move on to get a people-free shot. We hadn’t expected this since all our guidebooks we’ve read are clear that this is a must-see tourist stop, but it was similar for Maryanne’s earlier visit to Ostia Antica; I guess there are just too many sites for the number of tourists travelling outside of Rome.

Kyle insists on sampling one more gelato at the restaurant overlooking the ruins

After completing a circuit of the site we returned our audio guide and ambled back through the ancient streets to a more convenient (for us) exit. It was getting hot by then so we were fortunate to find a restaurant at the other side with shaded tables overlooking the ruins where we could sit and enjoy the breeze (oh and the purchases from a small gelato kiosk).

We entered the beach from a different access point (making for a shorter walk now we had our bearings) and had a long amble through foot warming sand. The beach was much more populated by now, and mostly seemed made up of family groups playing games, and splashing in the surf. We even happened up on a walled sand city, complete with rope bridges. Eventually we triple bagged our day wear and swam back through the surf for a relaxing dinner aboard the gently swaying Footprint.

[Maryanne]We really enjoyed the site, but there were a few interesting oddities. There were lots of staff, but few seemed concerned in the occasional tourist. On entering the museum and wishing to purchase our tickets there were three female staff on the other side of the counter none of which were interested in serving the rare customer, but all seemed to wish to finish their cafĂ© style conversation before deigning to notice us. There seemed to be several entrances to the main archeological site, but as we tried to use them we had to seek out officials only to be told to use the ‘next’ entrance along. When we eventually found the ‘official’ entrance we were rude enough to disturb a phone text conversation and purchase our audio guide (in exchange for a lot of tutting, and eye-rolling at the inconvenience of having to serve us, and a passport for security). And after doing this we took ten steps toward the site, only to be followed by an annoyed official (that had earlier been reading his newspaper atop a rock) chasing after us and insisting on seeing our tickets. He had an amazing ability to appear officious and disinterested at the same time.

After listening to the description associated with our first stop on the audio guide tour, we were treated to a low battery warning, and decided to return/swap our guide for one that would last the tour. Despite having served no customers since our departure, the audio guide official seemed to not know us, triple verified that we should even have a guide and told us to wait 5 minutes. At first we were unsure why we needed to wait (in fact we still are) but the 5 minute wait turned into a 15 minute one (where we sat on the rocks beside the ticket verifier) and eventually we were returned the original audio tour equipment; this time it lasted 3 sites before giving us the same warning, but we decided to ‘make do’ as the tour just got quieter and quieter in volume. After amazingly completing the audio-guide tour, we returned the unit and retrieved our passport, only to be accosted again by the newspaper reading agent wanting to see our tickets. The same one who had seen our tickets, and we’d sat next to for 15 minutes and who had perhaps seen about 5 other groups since our initial arrival. I guess he has to make it look as though his job is worthwhile???

Kyle already mentioned that the museum itself was beautifully presented, and given its ancient and amazingly well preserved artifacts (painted pottery, frescos, bronze pots – all over 2500 years old) could hardly fail to impress, but the poor, dry, explanations left us languishing uncomfortably through the museum rather than appreciating it.

Am I complaining? No, it’s all part of the Italian experience and we love it!

Kyle was loving all the old stuff, especially in the museum (despite the dry descriptions). There were several beautiful ornate bronze urns that were from 6th Century BC, with exquisite decoration and looking perfect, it would be absolutely impossible for me to date them to such an age but we trust the archaeologists here. When Kyle discovered a stunning statue of a female muse he actually pulled out his camera; he was most disturbed when I pointed out that it had been made in the 1940's by a New York artist and he hasn't appreciated me still chuckling over his talent for spotting ancient Greek art. So much fun.

1 comment:

Mommy Dearest said...

Fascinating, I tell ya! Well, they did make wonderful bronzes in the 1940s too, you know.

I'm reading this, and having to remind myself that you book-ended this excursion by swimming ashore and back, as if nothing at all. And I still search for the nearest parking spot to the entrance of an air conditioned building. Shame on me!