What I love about Pompeii

As an archaelogist, I was amazed, surprised, and delighted by Pompeii. Other sites may be bigger (Tenochtitlan), have larger temples and pyramids (Moche), or more spectacular settings (Machu Picchu), but more is known and brings the city to life in  Pompeii than anywhere else.

There are lots of buildings, walls and streets. The owner is often known and many are marked .

Pompeii is so big there are addresses (e.g. Region VI, Insula 3). They are very helpful when you are trying to find a specific house, since some are open 9:30-1:30 pm. Others are open 1:30-7:00 pm.

Archaeologists know a huge amount about Pompeii from inscriptions, objects and documents. We stopped and chatted with an international team (French, Spanish, Italian) excavating in the Necropolis of Porta Nocera and they showed us their work. They have uncovered three individuals, one under the wall and two in the funerary structure, including a woman who was marked by the small tombstone on the right, above. They now know her name and that it was a family burial plot for some time before the tomb structure was added. A man was buried near the woman and they believe it may have been a couple, but he did not have a marker to tell us his name. The archaeologists dig very slowly, removing narrow layers. We also saw all the digital gear that is now standard in excavations.

The level of preservation is a real knockout. The Villa of the Mysteries is at one end of the park. All of the house but its roof was preserved and the walls are decorated with complex mythological scenes. The wall art is painting or fresco.


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There are more than forty houses that are named and visible, many with spectacular preserved wall painting like the Villa of the Mysteries above.

Three things I noticed in the elaborate houses–

The two lower panels are imitation marble.

People used a lot of painting to imitate decorative marble (R).






People often painted rooms very dark colors, black or dark red.






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People liked trompe l’oeil painting (making walls look three-dimensional). There were a lot of skilled painters.

The villas are not all of the story at Pompeii. People fled, taking jewelry or a sack of coins, if anything. Thus, businesses and homes were abandoned completely furnished, bakeries had loaves in the ovens, horses were in their stalls, grapes and pomegranates on the vine. Everything was covered with volcanic ash so rapidly that their form was preserved even after the physical remains burned up. Scientists have identified the trees and plants in the gardens from casts of their carbonized roots.The casts of family members who tried to hide from the explosion are among the most poignant features of the site.

Jonathan could have worked at the thermopolia–take out restaurants. Only the wealthiest people cooked their own food. Most people bought hot meals to go. He also liked the kitchens and the bakeries.

All food was farm to table back then. Each bakery had stones to grind grain to make flour, then they made and baked bread. Amphorae held oil, wine and even garum, the smelly fermented fish condiment that Romans loved. The artifact storage spaces hold hundreds of amphora, and countless others were removed from Pompeii over the years before the site was well protected.

I was impressed by the respect people at Pompeii had for their household gods. Most houses had a niche, a lararium, and these ranged from simple to glorious.

I knew that Pompeii would have great things to see. What I learned is that Pompeii has a lesson for great sites, it’s openly a work in progress. This has its good and bad sides. The good part is that as new buildings are restored and conserved, they are opened to the public, even when they are not yet on all maps and posters. We found this with the Taverna Hedones. Since I don’t read Latin, I don’t understand why the mosaic in its floor is a bear and the word “Have”.

You can spend two full days at Pompeii as we did and still not see all there is to see. It’s vast. You pass maintenance staff, people working on restoration at all levels, from measuring a pillar in a gated area to moving rock with mini-backhoes. There is storage of artifacts in some of the spaces along the side of the Forum. It’s not ideal artifact storage, but it shows some of the many amphora, casts, even a strongbox that used to be built into a Pompeiian house.

There isn’t room to hide anything backstage at Pompeii. Some areas are blocked with metal gates covered in images of the site. You have no idea how long it has been or will be like this. It all changes as it goes. If you are on a tour, your guide should know what’s available and you will barely notice streets and buildings that are blocked.

If you are on your own, and especially if you’ve done a bit of planning in order to see specific houses at Pompeii, you need to factor in buildings at Pompeii that are open at different times. Neighboring structures may be open at opposite times, requiring a visitor to pass the same spot twice at different hours in order to see both places. There are online lists of which houses are open and at what times and this can change at any time. It’s a tough place to keep together.

Sometimes the walls fall down.

In 2014, a chunk of temple wall collapsed after heavy rains and there was a lot of ranting in the press about whether Pompeii was mismanaged. Everyone knew it was underfunded, so there was a lot of finger-pointing.

Wall collapses at Pompeii after heavy rains

Today the funding situation seems to have improved and there is a master plan in the works (Grande Progetto Pompeii). Restoration is underway in several areas and there is general bustle. I like that. When we visited there were also interesting exhibits, one on Pompeii and the Greeks in the Grand Palestra and two smaller exhibits in the Antiquarium exhibit area near the gift shop. One exhibit was on looted items that have been recovered, including a section on fakes being sold as ancient artifacts from Pompeii. The second exhibit is on the House of the Golden Bracelet that is not presently open to visitors.

My personal gripes are small ones. There is only one cafe in the center of the city and it seemed like every time I wanted coffee we were at the other end of Pompeii. The other is that the gift shop isn’t very extensive, and not a single ball cap. I guess Italians don’t wear a lot of hats. I’ll end with a few more of my favorite images from Pompeii.

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Need I say anything?We ate lunch looking over the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius in the background, a six-masted cruise ship moored nearby and a ferry to Capri at the landing. Sorrento is charming for a stroll, shopping and lunch.

We had a lovely day. We did drive to Sorrento from Salerno, parking in the first garage we came to.

Driving hazards include cyclists who ride in the center of the road, heavy traffic, and narrow roads carved into steep hillsides. it’s not a place where you can cruise. Walking is the solution. You will be offered free tastes of limoncello so many times in a day that walking might be mandatory. There is lemon-themed everything in Sorrento.



I had not seen majolica-covered domes on the top of churches before.




Recipe of the Day

Seafood is on the menu when in Sorrento, and all of Italy. Here’s Jonathan’s latest. It was delicious.

Neopolitan Dish of the Day: Fish in Crazy Water

Good to know about Sorrento

Trains and buses serve Sorrento, and distances are not great. There are great walks outside of town and out onto the tip of the Sorrento Peninsula. Everything is steep.

That said, the ads that suggest you base your visit to Pompeii etc. in Sorrento are insane as far as I can see. You would be in traffic every day for every trip in and out of town. If you were to visit Sorrento, Amalfi and their neighbors with Capri and Ischia thrown in, and nowhere else, you could stick to ferries and avoid traffic, but anything toward Naples means traffic. Ferry rates are €6-20 each way depending on where you are going. If you’re not interested in archaeology, it could work, though this is not for us.

We found local parking for €2 per hour next to a supermarket and intended to do some shopping on the way home (70 minutes of complimentary parking, too). Then we discovered that the grocery store is closed from 12:30 to 5 pm. This is a holiday town.

After Ferragosto

Ferragosto is the annual down time for all of Italy. During the two weeks from mid-August until the first of September almost everyone takes a holiday, and every desirable hostelry in the country is jammed to the doors. That’s why we left for Ireland. We returned to Italy when order was restored on Sept. 1. Our first trips were to the beach and a major archaeological site, Paestum.

At the beach, the shift was dramatic. There were only two or three umbrellas in use at beachfront businesses with 40-60 umbrellas. Staff members were hosing off equipment, taking down cabanas and stacking the parts for storage. We had a lovely afternoon enjoying the sun and the breeze. No babes in bikinis, just other retirees and a few families with preschoolers.

The next day we tackled a real challenge, Paestum. This huge archaeological site was home to Greeks, Lucanians (ancient Italians), Romans, Lombards, pretty much everyone who passed through. The Greek temples are the best preserved portion of the site, though the museum holds the remains of painted tombs and artifacts from later periods. We chatted briefly with one of the archaeologists working at Paestum this year and we watched a staff member running ground penetrating radar across a section of grassy field that is probably full of ancient houses.


There is also a very large amphitheater and other round buildings that were used for meetings of different sized groups.

Excavations at Paestum recovered hundreds of painted tombs, four walls and sometimes a ceiling panel (the most famous, the Diver, was a ceiling panel.)

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There were not many visitors, and since Paestum is so large, we passed very few people as we walked around. There may have been more lizards than tourists. We could tell that the high season is over. One tour bus was parked in the lot beside a scattering of cars.  Everyone else was back at work.

Salerno, Italy

We now have a very comfortable apartment in Salerno, Italy, just south of the Sorrento Peninsula. From the long avenue along the harbor you can see the entire Amalfi Coast.Our house is a former worker’s cottage, now spruced up. The giant bread oven is now our bathroom.

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Tucked in here an there in Salerno are small hexagonal buildings. One is on the corner of our patio, another is near the beach. It turns out these were water pumps worked by donkeys. Looks like it’s been a while since they were in use.More about Salerno as we see it!

12 hours of madness, and incidentally, New Grange

(Things got a bit out of order and this should have appeared before the previous)

We left Bundoran on Aug. 30 and embarked on 12 hours of madness as we tried to get me in and out of the outpatient unit at University Hospital, Sligo for a shot in my eye to treat my macular degeneration and on to the destination we actually had planned, New Grange. We sat for what seemed like forever in the waiting area at the hospital, yet were able to cross Ireland and make it to New Grange in time to get on the second to last tour of the day. New Grange is an amazingly impressive site and sight. Its sheer size outdoes anything else in Europe. Purists may balk at the reconstruction, but the unreconstructed interior brings all kinds of images of past religious activities to mind (Photography is no longer allowed inside). The 93 or so huge stones encircling the mound at New Grange, as well as those on the inside, have been pecked with spirals, circles, undulating lines, cup marks and other symbols. I admit I did not enter the annual lottery–winners get 2 tickets to see the light of the winter solstice come in the upper window of New Grange on one of 5 days that this occurs each year.

As if that weren’t enough, we had decided to return our rental car and stay overnight in the city of Dublin. Leaving New Grange around 6 pm, the thought of driving into the city, disgorging the luggage of four travelers at the hotel and returning to the airport gave us visions of the 9th circle of hell. Around that moment, we discovered that the Dublin airport is on the route from New Grange into the city, so we stopped in, dropped the car, picked up a big taxi and arrived at our hotel for less than the cost of four bus tickets from the airport into town. Not only that but our 6’5″ retired army medic taxi driver told us his best stories of taxi driving. (Unfortunately, the one where the guy pulled a gun on him took place in Chicago….uh oh.) By 8 pm we were seated at dinner, having triumphed over all hurdles, visited a truly world class attraction, and were ready for our last day in Ireland. I am grateful for the patience of my traveling companions that allowed us to make this all happen.

Last stop Dublin, and what’s Good to Know about Ireland

Our last day in Dublin was spent inside the National Museum of Ireland. Lyra was wonderful in agreeing to stay with her crazy parents in the museum all day when all of Dublin was beckoning.

After visiting many archaeological sites around Ireland we had often read reference to finds made at a site followed by “now at the National Museum of Ireland.” I was most intrigued by reference to a purse-shaped reliquary of St. Patrick’s Tooth from the church of Killaspugbrone, now at the end of the Sligo airport runway. The church was first built by Bishop Bron, a contemporary of St. Patrick in the early 500s (!). When St. Patrick visited his friend, he either tripped and knocked out a tooth or it fell out and he gave it to his good friend who treasured it.

Much later, the relic case was made for the tooth, and after a trail of owners is now in the National Museum of Ireland. The relic case has images of Sts. Patrick, Brigid (missing), Brendan and Columcille on it as well as one of the earliest depictions of a harp in ireland.

Great jewelry of Ancient Ireland. Chains and amber, what’s not to like?

We went through with an eye for anything from our travels and found carvings and artifacts from all over. It was a pleasure to match some of the objects with their places of origin.

We saw the two most recent finds of people preserved in bogs (2003). Clonycavan man is an example of (possibly) the first man bun, held together by hair gel that originated in France or Spain.

The other find, Old Croghan Man, had very long arms and big hands, suggesting he had been 6’5″ tall (missing his head and lower body, it was difficult to be sure). His well-manicured nails suggested he was not a laborer, but of high status.


There was a leather scabbard recovered from a bog with an axe still inside. Leather preservation is impressive–single shoes from all over Ireland.


We moved to our hotel by the airport, readying for our 7 am flight to Naples and the next chapter of Llywinda Travels.

Good to Know About Ireland

♣ It rains. It may rain some portion of every day you are in Ireland, so be prepared. Bright sun can shift to a brief downpour in a few minutes. Carry an umbrella, wear a raincoat or be ready to run for cover. Forget about cute shoes. There are sunny days–appreciate every one of them!

♣ It is never hot. Ireland is a great place to go to escape the heat. July-August temperatures along the west coast were in the 60s, rarely breaking 70º F. Beachgoers of all ages wear heavy gauge wetsuits. You rarely see parents sitting on the beach staring at their phone while kids call to them from the sand—the rain would ruin their phone. We saw more families together on the beach here than in other countries.

♣ Driving on the left is always a challenge. Roads are narrow in some places and you have to be ready to pull over or back up to let an oncoming car pass.

♣ We found almost everyone to be friendly and helpful. We shared a table at the potato festival and enjoyed chatting with people from Dingle. We chatted with people on buses and at the store. It was easy to get directions. (That’s handy, because not all streets are marked.)

Some wonderful things about Ireland.

♣ Nature–The west coast is full of beaches and cliffs to walk on. The Burren, Benbulben, Bunglass cliffs are all in amazing landscapes, too. Archaeological sites are everywhere amid gorgeous views.

♣ There are some stunning gardens. Some are tiny house fronts, others are extensive yards. The mild weather keeps blooms fresh for a long time. These are the pinkest hydrangeas I’ve ever seen. Fuschia may be non-native, but forms high hedges along many roads. So do blackberries–we made jam and pie.

♣ We saw puffins, and possibly a whale or dolphin.

♣ The friendliness and good will of people we met was a real pleasure.

♣ Boxty, Irish whiskey, cheeses, butter.

♣ An appreciation of whimsy. Though fewer people today may believe in fairies, places where people saw fairies in the past are still marked, like the fairy bridges in Bundoran, or holy wells. There are decorative fairy houses, too. On a larger scale, you occasionally see a facade decorated with shells and broken pottery in seaside towns.

A couple of things to keep in mind.

♣ You can visit archaeological ruins all over Ireland. Many are marked on maps and listed in guidebooks, while others are not. Guidebooks don’t always list how long a walk it is to the site from the car park, and the walks can be very muddy. Sometimes only a vehicle with high clearance can drive to the end of the road, making the walk to a site a half hour each way. Be prepared.

Cliffs of Bunglass, Slieve Lieg

♣ Weather can get in the way of your views. We visited the Slieve Lieg, also called the Cliffs of Bunglass, some of the highest cliffs in Europe, but the top was in fog. The top of these cliffs is usually in fog, though they are still worth visiting. This is also true of Benbulben, a distinctive feature of the landscape between Sligo and Bundoran. Still worth visiting.

♣ There is a peculiar toll in Dublin, the M50. There are signs along the road that indicate it is an automatic toll. If you rent a car, ask your agency whether they cover the toll. If they do not, you have to go online and pay it (not much). If you do not, there are all kinds of threats of huge fines. Apparently rental cars are not fined as promptly but you are still expected to go to the eflow.ie webpage and pay. Our car rental company did not mention this until I called a couple of times in a panic.

♣ As in every country, the most highly publicized sights and attractions can be very crowded. We were in big crowds at the Cliffs of Moher and at the Giant’s Causeway. We skipped the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge when we found out that even with timed tickets the wait was often 90 minutes to walk across. We did not kiss the Blarney Stone. There can be 20 tour buses parked at such places. Brace yourself or don’t go. In Dublin, the Book of Kells had a long line. The National Museum of Ireland was full of wonderful things and had no line at all. Go there.

♣ If you are returning to the US from Ireland, you may be required to pass US customs in Ireland. This saves time when you arrive in the US, but takes at least an extra hour. Fine, except your airline may not mention that this takes place. Thus, everyone needs an extra hour at the airport but doesn’t know it. Lyra went through all this process at 6 am, including loading the plane an hour early (!). After that, they all sat for 45 minutes waiting for latecomers who didn’t know about customs and weren’t chronically early to the airport.

Irish Houses

As you drive around the Republic of Ireland, you notice only variations on a single house type.

Donegal countryside

Abandoned Cottage                                              Occupied cottage

Architecture in Ireland appears to take a simple cottage as the basic model for all housing. There are hundreds of abandoned cottages (L), and there are many restored, rebuilt, or new cottages (R). Some are drawn out longerwhile others built upward to two stories.Or both.Almost all houses (all freestanding houses) are variations of this shape, give or take a bunch of gables.

The counties we’ve lived in here (Donegal, Kerry) are both places that even today have a population that is about half of the population they had in 1841, the first year of the historic famines. Still, I am fascinated by the number of abandoned stone houses that we have seen. Some have interesting details like the decorative ironwork on the peak of this roof:Many appear to be very near to habitable, and I wonder why they are empty, though I don’t know any of the details–they could have weak foundations, they may be damp, and most are small.

Here and there, we see old cottages being restored. Some even get a new thatch roof. Older cottages often had a slate roof. Newly restored cottages tend to have contemporary alternatives to slate for the roof. Thatch is more common in Donegal than Kerry (by my observation).

I like this stone barn. Though the lower floor is open to the elements, the external stairs are in good shape and the interior is barred and presumably dry. All it needs is a few windows.

Here are a few other ruined stone houses we saw.

When you get back from looking at houses, you might want something tasty and warm for dinner. Try boxty, a traditional potato pancake made with both raw and cooked potatoes. It’s delicious.

http://Irish Boxty – potato pancake

Archaeology of Ireland–Northwest

The archaeology slide show continues in northwest Ireland. This includes all kinds of historic and ruined structures. If I posted about each one separately, there would be a lot of photos of rocky structures. You may enjoy browsing these. We had a great time finding and visiting all of them.

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These are the places in the slideshow.

KIllaghtee Church and Cross Slab, St. Johns Point; Carrowmore Megalithic site; unknown site near Manorhamilton; Wardstown House in Ballymacaward S of Rossnowlagh; Ghost village of Port; Dunluce Castle, Raghly, Cashel Baun, Asseroe Abbey and Mills, Kilbarron Church, Catsby Cave, Grainan of Aileach, Carrowkeel Passage tombs, Cloghanmore court tomb, Donegal Castle, Creevykeel court tomb.

Archaeology in Ireland–Southwest

We visited many, many archaeological sites and objects, from the stone lying by the sidewalk in Dingle to the ruins of Ardfert Cathedral. Partly as a way to remember what they all were, I’m creating a slideshow that include each site we saw in the Dingle region (Co. Kerry). Some of these I’ve already mentioned in a post, but here I’m showing more of my pictures. A list of the places included is below the slideshow.

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Places in the slideshow: Brandon Point; Kilmalkedar Church; cathair near Kilmalkedar Church; Kilmalkedar Church; Ardfert Cathedral; Grange stone circle, Lough Gur; Hussey’s Folley (Dingle); St. Senan’s churchyard; Fothrach an tSeansaileara; Minard Castle; Great Blasket Island; Cathair Deargann; Cathair na BhFionnurach; Ballycarbery Castle; Blennerville Windmill; Cahergall stone fort; Feonagh cross slab outside church; Slea Head Drive; Fahan group behive huts; Gallarus Oratory; Cloonduane ruins, Smerwick Bay; Leacanabulle stone fort; Dunbeg Promontory Fort; Slea Head Drive ring fort, Bullaun along the sidewalk in Dingle town.

All things green and beautiful…

I’ve been doing so many things that the space between posts has gotten longer. Most of our activities involve walking on beaches or visiting ruins that date between the twentieth century and 3000 BC. A real highlight was the cemetery that includes ruins of Asseroe Abbey in Ballyshannon.

Nothing is left of the Abbey but the back wall that is incorporated into a farmer’s stone barn, but there are fragments tucked in around the cemetery.

Nearby is a bridge that may be the oldest surviving stone bridge in Ireland. It has three arches and crosses the tiny Assaroe river.

The churchyard is the largest remnant of Assaroe Abbey with many old graves and headstones.




There is a stile that includes a fragment of trim from around an arched doorway. It’s the lowest stone in the group.








Inside the cemetery there are headstones from several centuries. The oldest have been incorporated into the walls. The headstone below has been reused by a later individual. You can see the elaborate carving on the upper portion, but the lower portion has been chiseled off. It was probably a dedication to a different person. It might even have begun, “Here lies…..”

Some pieces have broken and no one seems to know what to do with them.





There are pieces of ironwork that are merging with the stones they used to mark.

The cemetery is not large, but it is full of history and stories known and unknown. It is one of my favorite places of those we’ve visited.