We pulled into our first port in Naples early in the morning. When I walked out onto our balcony, I was surprised to see dozens of heads leaning out over stateroom porches to watch the ship crawl into harbour. Old buildings on the outskirts of the city were sprawled across the rolling landscape between the mountains and the shore. The tan structures were a warm and welcoming sight when they lit up under the orange sun. After about 10 metres and 15 minutes, the boat had come to a faint stop.
Once we got off the ship we were greeted by a middle-aged Italian man holding a sign with our last name on it. His name was Adriano, an outspoken Neapolitan with a passion for food and a complicated relationship with his mother-in-law. After a few short introductions, we piled into a minivan and headed to Pompeii.
When we got there, Adriano left us with another softer-spoken tour guide named Giorgio. As you probably learned in one of your grade school history classes, Pompeii is famous for being buried by a volcano in 79AD, when the avalanches of superheated rock and gas from Mount Vesuvius swept over it and into the ocean. The city is wedged against the coast meaning the population and any hope for escape would have been trapped in the path of the terror that tore across the landscape that day. “It’s unlikely that any of the 70,000 people who lived here survived,” Giorgio told us.
So, the city was sealed like a fossil underneath all of this rock and dust spit up from the earth, not to be discovered again until the 1700’s. We walked through the uneven cobblestone streets and saw the ancient houses and brothels; the gardens and gladiator training grounds; the temples and the shops. Everything was it was before the eruption, only quieter than it would have been. Even the old frescos maintained their original colour.
“This was the way they lived,” Giorgio said. It was also the way they died. The most unsettling thing about this place was the remarkable similarity between the two. This archaeological dig is a snapshot of anyday in an ancient Roman city, as if there was barely enough time for things to descend into chaos. My Mom turned to Giorgio: “Unbelievable.”
Next on the tour was Positano, a small town on the Amalfi coast about an hour drive from Pompeii. To our left, tall cliffs stretched high above us and down on our right was the sea, dropped off hundreds of feet below. The road was the only thing between them. The beaches down there were packed with Europeans lining up for a shower, huddling under an umbrella or splashing around in the water. We stopped once or twice to take pictures and quickly continued down the narrow winding roads towards one of the more affluent vacation destinations in the area. As we drove into Positano, the roads became narrower and the corners sharper. Pedestrians walked around like there weren’t any cars and vespas whizzed through like there weren’t any pedestrians. Eventually we got out and walked the rest of the way down to the coast, stopping every so often to admire the vast blue sea, the vibrantly coloured fresh fruit in the shop windows and the flowing linen sundresses in the boutique stores.
By this point, my younger brother was bitching and complaining about the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything since we left the ship. Adriano recommended an obscure little hillside restaurant between Positano and Sorrento another city up the coast. After a short drive, we took a seat on their terrace overlooking the ocean. We were the only tourists there.
Now when I say this meal was a highlight of the trip it is for two reasons: One, I love food, so much so that I have even been known to give up good sex if it meant scoring a good meal. So, when I call this a highlight, it does nothing to diminish anything else we saw in Europe.
Two, the meal was really fucking good.
The linguine I had was perfectly cooked with fresh, split cherry tomatoes and topped with jumbo prawns, juicy mussels, clams, and calamari. The fish was so fresh I was convinced I could taste the same salt that rubbed off of the fisherman’s fingers hours earlier. After the rustic combination was tossed together, it was all wrapped in tin foil and quickly baked in the oven before they brought it out. We finished off the meal with some limoncello – a local liqueur made from lemons – and sweet figs.
After lunch we continued on to Sorrento where we had just over an hour to walk through its intimate alleyways. Of all the cities we visited, Sorrento was my favourite but not for any obvious reason. It might have been the fresh colours of the buildings, or the apartment windows so close from the ones across that you shake your neighbour’s hand. It could have been the ordinarily nauseating affection displayed by every single couple there, always holding hands when they visited flower shops and pasta stores or while they sat on stone ledges watching people go by. But, I think it was more than that. The place had a very distinct feeling – one that those people holding hands and sipping espressos seemed to be able feel too. There was something almost mystical about the teensy patios that lined the alleyways; something welcoming about the occasional undershirt hanging from a balcony. The warmth and mystery radiating from every street corner made it feel like a dream town, one so many of us would run away to if we had the courage or the excuse.
After our short time there, we dragged ourselves back to the minivan, exhausted. Adriano still had as much energy as ever. Aidan passed out in the very back while the three of us sat up listening to our guide. He didn’t stop talking once for the entire hour and a half back to Naples and he wasn’t the type to hold much back. We talked about his past clients and past jobs; about his time as a sous chef at a restaurant in Paris, a spaghetti food fight on Christmas day and an impromptu soccer game with a ball of tin foil. Then, there were all the almost-off-side jokes about his dead mother-in-law and the way he insisted that every word he spoke was the truth (even the things about his mother-in-law). We talked about religion, politics, crime, corruption, food, war, money and family. We laughed at fat men on scooters and shook our heads in disappointment at the graffiti labelling the pieces of history in Naples. There was something very authentic about him. He was having fun telling these same stories he told every day, if only because he knew they were new to us. By the end of the day, he was more of a friend than a tour guide.
Our tour finished early so Adriano took us through the actual city of Naples which we never planned to see. That was where the day ended on a sombre note.
“You see this column to the left?” For the first time that day, Adriano’s tone dropped off, almost to a whisper.
He told us a story about a young man named Salvo D’Acquisto, a 22-year-old who took responsibility for an accidental explosion that destroyed a German jeep during the Second World War. After what the Germans believed to be a deliberate act of resistance, they threatened to shoot 22 civilians if the bomber didn’t come forward. After being thrashed, insulted and forced to dig their own graves, D’Acquisto demanded the other 22 be set free, saying that it was he alone who blew up the jeep. He was then executed by firing squad. We were standing in front of one of the many memorials in the city commemorating that heroic act.
Being beaten from the early morning and the walks in the heat, that story hit like a fist to the gut. We didn’t have much to say after that. As the day wound down, he drove us back to the port where we said our goodbyes.
While our ship floated out of port, I walked out onto my balcony to look back on the same landscape I saw that morning. Everything was still so inviting yet so much more familiar. As I sat down to scribble in my book, hundreds of seagulls circled the ship, diving up and down and floating motionlessly against the wind. All of them were free to turn back to the fading shore.
While I was sitting there, I looked at the birds and wondered what it would be like to be back on that dock, watching the ship drift into the dusk.