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(For Travel Writers’ Tales)
By Jane Cassie

"Wel-a-come to Roberto's stress-a-free tour," our colourfully-dressed guide says, with a strong Italian accent. "I'm-a not like-a most Italians who are up-a-tight and always-a in a hurry." There's some truth to what our flamboyant leader is telling us. We'd witnessed aggression earlier in the day, when our taxi driver, Mario, and another expressive cabbie had had a major confrontation over which one got our business from the cruise ship terminal. With hands flailing and voices yelling, it looked like they were going to duke it out. We later learned that they had been good friends for twenty years. And probably would be for another twenty. That's how it is in Italy. Lots of eruptions and then a cooling off period—which brings me back to our guide and purpose of this visit—a day at Pompeii.

Roberto sticks to his word and caters to the needs of our varied group as we traipse behind him, entranced and wide-eyed. Although enshrouded by cloud today, Mt Vesuvius hovers like a sentinel above Napoli (aka Naples), one of the oldest cities in the world that dates back to 8 BC. We discover that this volcano remained dormant for eight hundred years, then in 79 AD tragedy struck when it blew its top. There were two eruptions over a couple of days. Twenty thousand residents fled and escaped the first, however two thousand servants who returned, perished in the ten-meter deep, 400 degree lava spew.

"The shore-a-line was pushed-a five kilometres out to sea!" Roberto states with exhilaration, "And-a more than fifteen hundred buildings were covered in-a ash." His expressive hands move in sync with his narrative spiel and it's clear that this local is excited to share facts about the ancient burial ground.

We stop for an update and a few photo moments at the outdoor amphitheatre, an open oval that's hemmed in by stone risers. At one time there were two theatres on these expansive grounds, one that hosted the traditional Greek comedy/tragedy shows and the other that lured the poet and classical lovers. It would have been quite something to see Pink Floyd perform here in 1971. Today, during our tour, one of the regular guides belts out an opera piece and the acoustics are amazing!

By 1749 when this seventy-acre graveyard was excavated, the roofs had all collapsed and disintegrated but the stone walls were still intact. Flamboyant Roberto raises his red umbrella above the throngs of other captivated tourists and leads us down the main streets, where the more affluent resided next to their shops. We notice that the rugged stony alleys are periodically intercepted by large boulders and our guide explains why. "There were-a no sewers back-a then. These-a laneways doubled as their toilets and the rocks-a served as bridges so people could-a cross over from one side-a to the other." Fortunately they were sloped so everything ran downhill!

We saunter through one of the more elaborate homes. Roofless rooms encircle an open atrium where water flows into a marble basin and then collects in a cistern. Clearly, the dining room is the most lavish of all—decked out in colourful paintings, one portraying Hercules who is chilling out with a cup of wine and the other is Poseidon, the Sea God.

Just beyond, are three skeletons that are preserved and protected behind glass. In 1863, the famous archaeologist, Gluseppe Fiorelli, discovered these buried souls. He would tap on the rocks, and when he determined which ones had hollow areas he made a hole and filled it with liquid plaster which encased the bones. When it dried, the rock was chipped away to reveal the plaster corpses. Pretty ingenious!

There are also a few stores that put our imagination to work; a bakery that boasts a brick open oven, perfect for baking those yummy pizza-pies, a millstone where all the flour was ground for buns and breads, and a wine store for producing lots of popular mulled vino. "There was a prob-lem with-a this bew." Roberto affirmed. "It was-a forty three percent potent. First-a sip makes-a you happy, a glass-a full is a killer."

The wine wasn't the only contributing factor for shorter life spans here. All the piping was made with lead so the contaminated water surely played a role. And prenatal care was pretty much non-existent. The average age for men was forty-five and women was only twenty nine years.

Roberto wraps up his tour in the forum, a large open square that's surround by the most important buildings—the courthouse and political arena, meat and fish markets, and a sacred temple that was dedicated to Jupiter. And right up until the end, this walking encyclopaedia leader is relaxed and stress-free. ...Unlike our taxi driver who takes us back home.

Mario is waiting for us in his car when we're ready to go. And do we go! Although it usually takes around twenty-five minutes to get from Pompeii to the hub of Naples, this speedy Gonzales does it in half the time. He hightails it around scooters, busses, bikes and anything else that invades his space and takes corners like he's racing in the Grand Priz. From my middle back seat, (when my hands aren't covering my eyes) I can see the speedometer—160kms and rising. Beads of sweat drip from my brow and my heart rate escalates to triple time. Before we're there, our cabby is answering to the name, Mario Andretti.

"I've been driving taxi for twenty-five years," he says calmly and with pride, giving us the peace sign. "No worries, this is just a regular day." Shopping, castle touring and the best pizzerias are within minutes of where we are dropped off. And just a short saunter away is our cruise ship, Holland where we will enjoy as much stress-free time as we like!


Photos by Jane & Brent Cassie

#5_ a_bakery_boasts_a_brick_open_oven
#7_our_cabby_AKA _Mario_Andretti

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