Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Comedy of Errors in Campania, with a happy ending

Yesterday was kind of a wacky day. I woke up in the morning all set to go to the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, and then took a look at my guidebook only to find that the museum is closed on Tuesday, not Monday as I had originally thought! So on Monday, when I could have been visiting the museum, I took the walking tour of the city instead. I would have been better off swapping the two. So at around 8:30 AM, I was left with the prospect of finding something else to do. Since I've recently decided to stay in Naples for my ten days in Campania rather than staying in Sorrento or Salerno, I figured I might as well buck my itinerary entirely and go to Paestum, which I had always imagined myself doing on my last night before heading back to Rome to catch my plane. Paestum is about an hour and a half from Naples, so it's a doable day trip.

Since there was no train to Paestum until noon, I hung around Giovanni's hostel in the morning, having breakfast with Emer, a lovely girl from Ireland, who was planning on catching a train to the very southern part of Italy later in the day. I also talked to Giovanni a bit about Paestum, and he strongly recommended that I try the mozzarella down there, since it is supposedly the best in Italy and the Queen of England always orders Paestum's mozzarella.

Emer and I left a little after 11 for the train station, but I guess I should know that's not enough time to catch a train when people are running on Italian time. I missed the first train, and then had some confusion while trying to figure out how to buy my ticket for the next train at 1pm. Apparently, all tickets for regional trains down here are sold by tobacconists - well, now I know! I wished Emer a good trip, and headed on my way.

The train trip was going pretty well - I had a seat, and I was watching the time, knowing that I was supposed to get to Paestum at 2:21. At about 2pm, the air conditioning in our car stopped working, and all of the Italians started freaking out: fanning themselves, yelling, and pulling down all the blinds in the car, so that I couldn't see out. The aisles were also full of people and luggage, so it was very hard to get to the door of the train. I left my seat a few minutes early to struggle to the door, and at 2:21 we pulled up to a station that had no sign saying what it was. I wasn't sure if I had missed the sign with all the confusion, so I got off the train.

Turns out, it was the wrong stop.

I didn't realize this at first, though. I knew that the archaeological site was about a half mile away from the station, and when I left the station, I saw those signs for cars to get to Paestum, which were so helpful when I got lost trying to get to Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli last week. So I started following the signs, and within about ten minutes, I knew that I was much farther away from the site than I had thought. I knew I was going in the right direction, though, so I kept plugging away on a road that was often in the sun and rarely had sidewalks. It took me about 40 minutes to walk to the site all told - I arrived in Paestum at about 3pm, starving because I had missed lunch in all the confusion of trying to get there.

Here's where the Giovanni fairy dust comes in: I could just see the first columns of the archaeological site when I saw a small grocery store and sandwich shop with a sign that said "Mozzarella", and another one that said "Menu: Panino + Coca Cola = 4 Euro". That's not a bad price, so I decided to check it out. Inside, there were no signs indicating what kind of sandwiches were available, but the lady behind the counter saw me looking confused, and asked, "Sandwich?" I nodded, so she proceeded to make me a sandwich: prosciutto, a ripe tomato, olive oil, crushed basil, and salt and pepper, topped with a nice spread of mozzarella. And a Coca Cola.

Oh man, that sandwich was delicious. It's definitely going to go on my list of memorable meals that I carry around in my head, and as for the mozzarella, well, it's fit for a queen alright. I'm starting to think that if Giovanni says to do something, you do it, and if Giovanni says to eat something, you eat it, and if Giovanni colors an area purple on your map, well, you stay the hell outta there.

Anyway, Paestum was worth the trouble. Once again, it was a photographer's paradise, so I'm going to select a few that give an idea of the place. Paestum is an archaeological site with some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world (it was a Greek colony before it was part of Italy), interspersed with the houses of a Roman town.

Here's the temple closest to the entrance, now believed to be a temple to Athena:

Not only were the temples beautiful, but the site itself was just gorgeous - scrubbed blue sky, wispy clouds, and a backdrop of dramatic mountains.

Here are some of the Roman ruins, with that gorgeous landscape behind them:

And here are the remains of some columns that would have held up the ceiling in the atrium of a Roman house, with a light well open to the sky and a pool for collecting rainwater:

I'm really starting to be a fan of brick columns.

And here are the two temples that are Paestum's claim to fame, and the reason we talk about the site in art history classes:

The nearer temple is called the Temple of Neptune, but was probably actually dedicated to Apollo, and the one behind it is the Temple of Hera. We use these temples in survey class because they are in pretty good shape compared to some other Greek ruins, and so they make great examples for teaching kids to read architectural plans. You can show the students plans, sections, and photographs, and generally they can figure out how things correspond to each other. Then, they have a much easier time when they have to read Gothic church plans later on.

And here's the Temple of Hera:

I find the Temple of Hera a little harder to photograph, because its proportions are much squatter and broader. But still, a lovely sight.

After looking at the temples (and swatting some biting flies - do I really need any more bites?), I headed out of the site, and browsed some souvenirs. I bought a pretty little earthenware jug, and was just thinking about getting some gelato before heading home, when I saw Emer waving at me! Apparently, all of her trains to southern Italy were sold out, so she checked her luggage at the train station and followed me to Paestum. I was glad to see her, and we sat down at a little cafe for some gelato (me) and cappucino (her).

My gelato was very exciting:

Mmm, stracciatella and Ferrero Rocher flavors, with fancy decorations! I paid more for this than I usually pay for gelato, but it was worth it.

After our refreshments, we headed back into the archaeological park. I was glad, because I've heard that the temples are particularly beautiful in the last few hours before sunset, and I wanted to get a chance to experience them.

Here we are in front of the Temple of Athena:

And here's the Temple of Neptune in the magical light:

You can really see the difference.

A long day, but a lovely one, and very rewarding at the end despite all the frustrations early on! And now, I'm off to the museum. I think the Secret Cabinet is currently closed, so I am sad about that, but I'm definitely going to enjoy the rest of the museum.


  1. I can imagine a few photographs taking advantage of that evening light.

    Are visitors allowed to walk into these structures?

  2. Unfortunately, no. This made me sad, because I really would have liked to walk inside.

  3. Sarah, I had a crazy train day one time like this in Greek ruins to boast of at the end of the day, but I remember it, nonetheless, as one of my favorite travel days ever.

    Your blog is wonderful -- a crash course in ancient art! Thanks for the full and fascinating daily entries.