Postcard from Herculaneum, Italy: Hot volcanic ash buried town for centuries

View of Mount Vesuvius from Vomero neighborhood in Naples

Although a gorgeous backdrop on the Sea of Naples, Mount Vesuvius is not sleeping. The only active volcano on the mainland of Europe erupted as recently as 1944, showering ash and rocks upon the Allied forces establishing an airbase nearby.

But the volcano is most known for its spectacular explosion in the year 79, an event reputed to have killed as many as 16,000 citizens of the Roman Empire.

From “Visiting Pompeii” on World Archaeology:

At peak intensity, the eruptive column reached a height of 30km (about 18 miles) or more as the mountain ejected 150,000 tons of material per second…. The air-fall of ash, pumice and occasional rock fragments, accumulating at about 15cm an hour, eventually covered Pompeii to a depth of almost 3m (close to 10 feet)….

The mountain had not finished its work, however, and only now, in the final six hours or so of the eruption, did it became truly lethal….

“A fearful black cloud,” Pliny reports, “was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size. …Soon afterwards the cloud sank to earth and covered the sea ….”

It took perhaps five or six minutes to reach Pompeii from the lip of the crater: a dense, rolling, ground-hugging mass of gas, ash and rock (the pyroclastic flow), preceded a few seconds in front by a scorching blast like that from a flamethrower…. At its hottest, where temperatures reached anything from 400 ° to 800 ° C, the ‘black cloud’ carbonized wooden timbers, doors and shutters, and killed those it struck instantly, as brains boiled and skulls exploded in the flash. Others, where the heat was less, were asphyxiated as they breathed in hot gas and incandescent ash….

In the 24 hours plus that the eruption had lasted, it is estimated that Vesuvius had unleashed thermal energy 100,000 times greater than that of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima.

Strangely, the destruction of Pompeii and other towns around the base of the volcano preserved the ruins for thousands of year.  Ancient cities frozen in time.

I was fortunate to have visited Pompeii in college, but much has been uncovered, restored and opened to public since then.

The flaw is that the 163-acre archaeological park is no secret. The number of tourists swarming through the treasured ruins is creeping toward 4-million annually. Photographs such as the lead one for an October story in the New York Times, “Can a Restored Pompeii Be Saved from ‘Clambering’ Tourists?,” scared us away. Paige McClanahan writes that nearly 450,000 people overwhelmed Pompeii in the month of July.

In contrast, only about 300,000 tourists visit Herculaneum a year. So instead, we opted for the much smaller town, a little closer to Naples, not as spectacular but not over-crowded.

The first official explorations at Herculaneum were begun in 1738, yet only a small portion of the once-wealthy port town has been excavated. While the archaeological zone is modest in size compared to Pompeii, the affluence of its residents is evidenced by abundant use of marble throughout.

For centuries, it was believed that almost the entire population of the town had been evacuated by sea before the worst of the eruption. But in the 1980s, digs uncovered skeletal remains of hundreds, huddled together under the arcades of the then-seaside boat houses, buried under ash while waiting ships that failed to save them.

We left them unmolested, as the hoards of tourists in Pompeii left us unmolested to explore Herculaneum at our own pace in peace.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Foods steeped in tradition

With a month of meals in Seville under our belts, it is hard to know where to begin to talk about food. So… starting with some of the traditional dishes we encountered over and over again throughout Andalusia.

Friends from San Antonio wisely insisted we all squeeze into and belly up to the bar at El Rinconcillo. The first tavern on this spot opened in 1670, so it would be fairly impossible to find a place more flavored by its history. Although, the current owners, the De Rueda family, only have operated a tavern in this location since 1858. A platter of boquerones fritos, fried anchovies, was chalked onto the bar counter next to our beer count as the method of recording our tab. These were perfect and perfectly addictive and are an order we repeat throughout our stay in Spain.

While Antigua Abaceria de San Lorenzo might not be an establishment as ancient, it certainly feels that way. The restaurant is located in a 17th-century house in a former abaceria, an old-fashioned grocery store specializing in vinegars and oils, dried legumes and cod. Locals claim most tables, so visitors without reservations rarely can obtain a spot. People often order and eat elbow-to-elbow at the counter or take food to go. The ham is cured on premise, and the featured croquetas naturally are filled with either that or with cod.

In two months, I am not sure we have entered a single restaurant or bar in Andulusia without croquetas on the menu. Seriously. Usually multiple kinds. It almost feels as though there must be a law requiring them to be offered if a business wants a license to open. Seville also seemed to require featuring patatas bravas; a spicy blend of spinach and chickpeas; and salmorejo, a cold tomato soup pureed with bread to thicken it.

In restaurants, few customers contemplate the menu without relishing the requisite olives and downing a cana, a small draft beer, even when ordering wine next. Reasonably priced wine is available in all but the luxury establishments, with wine by the glass generally running $3 or less. And that cana? Rarely above $1.50.

And my favorite, despite that recent column disparaging the custom in the New York Times, sharing of any and all courses is encouraged. And you rarely end up with just one large entree, unable to sample other menu items. Numerous dishes are offered in three sizes: tapa, 1/2 racion and racion. Unlike at home, there is no waitstaff glaring at me for ordering only from the appetizer section. Enjoying an all-tapa meal is totally acceptable.

Casa Antonio “Los Caracoles” qualifies as a sexagenarian. The inside fills up with locals of about the same vintage who crave homestyle food the way it was served when they were young. The recipes are classic; the dishes good and fresh.

The chickpea stew here was made with cod, which was a bit of relief. The Mister is a bean stew fan, but the traditional fabadas, callos and pucheros served in Adalusiacan sometimes prove challenging with their hodgepodge of meats all thrown into the pot together – chicken, chorizo, blood sausage, scraps of jamon, stew meat, panceta and even tripas. But wowsers, the resulting thick broth always is flavorful.

Our first taste of tortillitas de camaron, crispy shrimp fritters, was at Los Caracoles. I assumed they might be a limited-edition Lenten special on menus, but they survived Easter throughout the region. And padron chiles. So simple and often the only non-battered vegetable (the battered one being eggplant sticks drizzled with cane “honey”) at pescaitos specializing in grilled and fried seafood.

And the spot to find the freshest seafood? The markets. While often getting jostled by people trying to get close enough to a counter to order, there is a civilized air to eating in markets in Spain. No paper plates and flimsy plastic forks, but actual pottery plates, metal utensils and glassware for beer and wine.

At the always bustling Bar La Cantina in Mercado de la Feria, keeping track of orders has been modernized from the chalk-on-the-bar system used at El Rinconcillo. A dry-erase board is employed. We feasted on fried boquerones, stuffed mussels and octopus, and then, for dessert, grilled sardines and cuttlefish.

While Mercado de la Feria remains a traditional food market, most cities in Spain now have mercados that function only as prepared food halls. Mercado Lonja del Barranco is found in a handsome, soaring-roofed riverside pavilion. While the look is clean and contemporary and the traditional foods abundant, one misses the authenticity provided by neighboring stalls offering produce, meats, cheeses and seafood. And locals. The crowd is almost all-tourist.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Cleaning out remaining museum photos

Three months ago this blog took you to MACRO, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, to view the “mortal remains” of Pink Floyd, but totally neglected to invite you into the men’s room. The long bank of illuminated wash basins offering multiple reflections of your cleanliness habits in both the men’s and women’s bagni are must-stop spots in the museum housed in a former Peroni Brewery.

Apologies. The strange introductory photo is offered as a distraction because this grouping of museums makes no sense, aside from their location outside of the main tourist grid.

As this begins with the contemporary art scene, we might as well hop over to MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Arts. Even were the museum devoid of art, people would make the pilgrimage to MAXXI to view the striking design of the late Iraqi-born British architect, Zaha Hadid.

Following Hadid’s 2016 death, Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times wrote:

She was not just a rock star and a designer of spectacles. She also liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity. Geometry became, in her hands, a vehicle for unprecedented and eye-popping new spaces but also for emotional ambiguity. Her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd ways one entered and moved through those buildings and in the questions her structures raised about how they were supported.

The other trio of museums belong together, as they are all located within the 33-acre park of Villa Torlonia. The property originally was a farm and vineyards owned by the Pamphilj family, whose palace we visited earlier.

At the end of the 18th century, a banker to the Vatican, Giovanni Torlonia (1755-1825), transformed the former farm into a luxurious garden-like setting for his newly acquired mansion. The elegant Casino Nobile was renowned for lavish parties thrown by the Torlonia family. The palatial residence attracted the attention of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who purportedly paid the princely sum of $1 per year to acquire it for his residence from 1925 to 1943.

With parties often occupying the main villa, princes in the Torlonia family needed a villa to escape the throngs. An underground passageway connected the Casino Nobile to the smaller Casino dei Principi, or House of the Princes, guarded by a stately pair of sphinxes.

The third of the Villa Torlonia Museums is the Casina delle Civette, or House of the Owls, possibly because of the owls depicted in the stained glass above the entrance. Originally designed to resemble a rustic Swiss chalet, later architectural alterations added an assemblage of small balconies and turrets, more of a petite medieval hamlet look.

The entire Villa Torlonia compound was purchased by the city of Rome in 1978, which subsequently restored numerous of its buildings and opened the grounds as a public park.