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Exploring Italy’s Lost City: Pompeii

20th July 2012

IMG_1193As semi-well traveled history buff, I’m always a little skeptical about visiting ancient sites of great significance for fear of disappointment.  To me, Pompeii was one of those places.  Could a site like this live up to the tales we were taught in grade school about how an ancient people were frozen in time after a deadly volcano descended upon them?

After traveling throughout southern Italy I had heard mixed reviews about the famous city buried under volcanic ash. While some locals said the ruins were a must-see, others thought they were over rated.

I decided to go into my Pompeii experience with an open mind and with the knowledge that while I may not be able to see everything, I could stumble upon some of the city’s greatest authentic treasures.

The minute you step through Pompeii’s crumbling city gates you feel as if you have been transported to another century.

Pompeii is a city steeped in history and frozen in time. Around every corner is another mystery surrounding the city that has become more famous now for it’s destruction than its existence.

Once a thriving port community in ancient Rome, the fate of Pompeii was forever changed thousands of years ago. In 79 A.D., perched just above Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius spewed volcanic ash burying the city and all of its inhabitants.

Now a story of mythical proportions, archaeologists have learned much about daily Roman life since discovering the city’s existence in the 1600s. After the city began to be unearthed in 1748 tourists began flocking here from around the world and continue to do so today.

Because it continues to be one of Italy’s top tourist attractions, the country has recently undertaken an extensive restoration of Pompeii’s ruins.  Announced in April, the European Commission and Italian government are jointly pledging 105 million euros, or about $130 million, to a four-year restoration plan. One fourth of Pompeii has yet to be excavated, and the funding will also go to increasing the number of archaeologists on site.

But for tourists looking to visit Pompeii before the restoration is complete the ongoing construction will not take away from the experience.

With easy access from Naples by bus or train an expedition to Pompeii is well worth it’s 11 euro ($14) entry fee.

While parts of Pompeii are currently closed off to visitors, there is still plenty to see in the miles-upon-miles of ancient ruins.

The key to enjoying your experience is to embrace the fact that you will indeed get lost.

Because of the remodel many of the signs and maps throughout the city have been removed or are hard to find. And even with the help of a print out map from the ticket office I was still wandering in circles.

Walking along Pompeii’s cobblestone streets was so breathtaking I became bored, and a bit frustrated, trying to follow my not-so-useful map.

Luckily for me, getting “lost” is one of my specialties. And like other seasoned travelers will attest, getting lost often means stumbling upon hidden gems that become the most memorable parts of your journey.

As it happened, an unintentional detour lead me to one of Pompeii’s most interesting places.

Inside the remains of an ancient fish and produce market, alongside centuries old fresco paintings, are the body casts of some of Vesuvius’ victims.

During a part of the excavation process, archeologists found hollow spaces that had been created when some of the victims’ bodies decomposed. By filling these spaces with plaster, archaeologists were actually able to recreate the suffering in facial details and body reactions of two Pompeiians in their last few moments alive.

Looking into the facial details of the body casts, the emotion on their faces tells an entirely different story than the ones in the history books.

This eerie experience made the story of Pompeii seem come alive.

Just a five-minute walk from the former fish market is the incredible Greek Theater. Able to seat up to 5,000 people during its heyday, the Greek theater was the epicenter of entertainment in ancient life. Today, the theater looks different, and has been modified to include seats and row numbers. While this may surprise some to hear, performances are still held at the theater to this day, although they are few and far between.

Right outside the Greek theater are the cobblestone streets that run throughout the city. As I was wondering around, I began to see a recurring set of three large stepping-stones on almost every street. While at first I thought they were seemingly insignificant, much like everything else in Pompeii, these stones tell a story.

Each morning ancient Pompeii was flooded to clean the roads. In order to cross the street while the water dissipated, three large stones were put in place throughout the city’s streets so that pedestrians could cross as the water washed through.

By learning small details like this I began to construct my own image of Pompeii in its prime, with people bustling around the city living their daily lives.

Pompeii is the one experience I never fail to describe in detail to family and friends. It’s a place were the past comes alive, whether you’re a skeptical history buff or not.

(This article originally appeared on foxnews.com)

24 Hours on the Amalfi Coast

17th July 2012

IMG_1020One of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world is Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Nestled south of the bustling seaport of Naples, the tiny towns composing this scenic coastline offer some of Italy’s most breathtaking views.

The Amalfi coast stretches from the Sorrento Peninsular almost as far as the port of Salerno. The town of Amalfi is in the middle and at the northern end is the scenic town of Positano, with its hundreds of houses, restaurants and hotels built into and on the mountainside.

Compared to other tourist sites, the Amalfi Coast gives visitors a real taste of what life is like in Italy’s sun soaked south. While the coast is beautiful enough for a long weekend, it’s easy enough to see the best the Amalfi has to offer in one day.

One of the reasons is because of its many public transportation options that make it easy for even the most budget conscious tourist to enjoy the magnificent beauty.

The key to making a trip in the Amalfi successful is knowing a few details ahead of time.

From Naples a quick train ride to the quiet city of Sorrento is the perfect starting point for a trip along the coast.  This transportation hub is known as a launching off point for the Amalfi Coast, but the city has it’s own gems not to be missed.

One of the few major cities in the Amalfi, Sorrento, and the entire region, are world renowned for their lemon products. Sample some limoncello, a lemon liqueur, or some of Sorrento’s famous gelato while browsing the local shops. Tucked away behind lemon grove trees are Italian cafes and artisan shops specializing in wooden marquetry. The region is known for its ceramic work and offers some of the country’s best deals on hand made pottery.

From Sorrento, the best way to see the other cities along the coast is by local bus. For less than $10 visitors can purchase a round trip bus ticket that takes you from Sorrento all the way to the city of Amalfi, stopping at Positano along the way.

Even though it may be tempting to make the drive yourself, the small cliffside roads are difficult for even the most experienced Italian driver to maneuver.

Be sure to sit on the right hand side of the bus on the hour-and-a-half journey from Sorrento to Amalfi for the best views of the coastline.

Unlike Sorrento, which sits high above the water, all the shops and restaurants in Amalfi are within walking distance of the beach.  With more great shopping, Amalfi is also the perfect place to take a stroll along the water.

For those looking to get a different view of the coast a great way to get from Amalfi to Positano, or all the way back to Sorrento, is by ferry.

For around $8 tourists can take the 30-minute boat ride from Amalfi to Positano while enjoying the refreshing sea breeze and some magnificent views of these incredible cities built into the coast.

Unlike its larger neighbors, the beauty of Positano’s rainbow colored façade homes and shops have made it the most famous town along the Amalfi coast.

With similar stores and restaurants in both Sorrento and Amalfi, what sets Positano apart from its neighborhoods is fashion.

From the classic Italian linen shirt, to crisp white frocks Positano is one of the lesser-known places for exquisite handmade clothing.  While not cheap, all of Positano’s goods are locally made, some even before your eyes.

Each town offers its own distinct flavor and it is easy to see why this region of Italy has become such a tourist draw.

(This post originally appeared on foxnews.com)

A Taste of the Olympics

12th June 2012


With all the world focusing its attention on London this summer, it has finally come time for the city’s food to take center stage. Slowly emerging from its former lackluster culinary reputation, visitors to the 2012 London Olympics will be pleasantly surprised by the dishes local pubs are serving up.

Just recently, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) released the menu of food and beverages items that will be sold inside the Olympic venues. And with visitors expecting to pour in from around the globe, the LOCOG is hoping to please everyone with both British and international cuisine.

And it is not just the LOCOG who is getting into the Olympic spirit but pubs across the city as well.

One local pub in West London is making sure the food they serve during the games is as British as it comes.

With an estimated 50,000 viewers expected daily for the Olympic indoor volleyball competition at nearby Earl Court, the Blackbird pub is preparing for the masses.

“We’re lucky, not many pubs are so close to a venue,” says pub manager Dave Hay.

Part of the Fuller independent brewery and pub family, the Blackbird is a pub known among locals first and foremost for its food.

“We try to make the food the best with what we’ve got,” says Hay. And while the menu will be reduced for the Olympics, Hay is “trying to keep it similar to what we do day to day.”

With this emphasis on traditional English food it is only natural that such items as meat pies and fish and chips are expected to be the menu’s most popular. The country’s famous English ale is also expected to be a top seller at the Blackbird, specifically the Fuller label’s  “London Pride.”

While many pubs in London will be taking an approach similar to the Blackbird, some gastro pubs are looking to elevate the typical pub experience.

Located across from the Eurostar platform at the St. Pancras International train station in central London, the Betjeman Arms gastro pub won’t be getting much foot traffic from any nearby Olympic venues.

However, what they’ll be getting is an enormous amount of domestic and international travelers in need of a bite to eat and place to catch the latest Olympic events.

With this in mind, the Betjeman Arms has rearranged its menu and interior to provide for the ultimate Olympic viewing experience.

The pub’s entire menu, including the North Yorkshire free range herb chicken and British cheese board, focus on using the best local ingredients available.

“I think almost every dish has some British ingredient.,” says Yvette Blackwood, one of the events coordinators at the Betjeman Arms.“We are always trying to keep the traditional pub classics but with a modern twist.”

Like everything they do, the Betjeman Arms is giving the Olympics an air of sophistication with reasonably priced canapé boards as well as a two and three course price fixie menu.

With the direct train from London to the Olympic park in Stratford just outside the pub’s door, the Betjeman Arms is also taking full advantage of it’s location.

Just steps away from the train platform the gastro pub is setting up a grab and go buffet that, like the LOCOG food inside the Olympic venues, will feature international flavors.

And while both the Betjeman Arms and Blackbird pubs have very different approaches to food, when it comes to the Olympics they can both agree that for them it is all about showcasing the culinary world of London.

With such an array of options and price points available at this year’s London Olympics, both locals and tourists are sure to find something to please their palette.

(This article originally appeared on foxnews.com