Driving from Venice to Vesuvius

January 14, 2012

Justin: “Ahhhhhh…Venice” to quote Indiana Jones in the third installment of the intrepid adventure archaeologist. And this is exactly what this leg of the trip was about – adventure culminating in one of the greatest archaeological finds known to man. We are in Italy and boy is it good to be here. I found out in New Jersey that I have a great-grandmother apparently from the Mediterranean region, this explained why I have a blood condition called Thalassemia minor, an abnormality in the red blood cells, normally found in people of the Mediterranean region. So in some distant way I am going back to some roots here. Italians are not that dissimilar to Hungarians, a little quirky, a little hot-blooded and have the tendency to do things their own way. Italians have serious style too, it’s obvious why the titans of fashion labels come from the topographical boot. Everyone in their own way looks a little ruffled modelish and all the cops are sporting my style of authority sunglasses.


So I got a little sidetracked then, back to Venice. Well what can one say when you really step right back in time? In the National Gallery of London I got glimpses of Venice from Italian master painters artfully depicting Venice in 17th Century and from going to Venice in person I can testify that not much has changed at all. The intricate networks of canals, the architecture is a blend of the best of Gothic with an Arabic and Byzantine twist. Walking around the shadowy narrow alleyways through the congested ancient apartments was undeniably European to the highest degree imaginable.

The streets and canals of Venice
The streets and canals of Venice

Kat: In travel writing they say never to use the word “picturesque”, but maybe it’s one of the few words that apply to Venice. A city full of mazelike streets, abandoned alleys that lead nowhere, bridges between islands and buildings sinking into the sea. The city has captured the hearts of painters, writers and filmmakers for centuries. While in summer the queues can be  up to five hours long to visit the most popular destinations, we blazed straight into the Basilica San Marco and wandered the Palais des Doges with little interruption. Off season is a blessing.

The Palais des Doges, Venice
The Palais des Doges, Venice

But of course, being the nerds we are, Indiana Jones locations were high priority. After an hour of scouring the Dusoduro district without a map, we stumbled upon a handy map seller and located the church from the Last Crusade, the church of San Barnarba. This is where “X” marked the spot, although the interior is not actually the real interior of the church. Picking up a cheap lunch nearby, we wandered the city for hours, not really paying to go into anything but enjoying the atmosphere of the canals, watching gondoliers steer Americans down rivulets and back again.

San Barnarba church Venice
X marks the spot? Church from the Last Crusade
100 euros for a boat ride? I’ll just take photos.

From Venice we travelled southward through Tuscany to Montecatini Terme, a small spa town about 40 minutes from Florence. It’s easier to stay outside of the main towns, especially when driving. We then caught the trains into major cities, which works out much cheaper and less stressful. While Montecatini is known for the thermal baths, they were closed this time of year. So instead of relaxing Justin and I hiked up a steep hill to Montecatini Alto. The sweat was worth it; up the top was a quaint town with a 12th century church and fortress, followed by stunning views of the towns below. This felt like the real Tuscany to me, compared to the experience of Florence.

The view from Montecatini Alto

There’s been a lot written about Florence, but really it’s a collection of stunning buildings connected by dirty, claustrophobic streets. Thankfully, being winter, there was neither heat nor crowds to deter us from the main attractions: Gallery Uffizi, the Duomo and Galleria dell’Accademia. First stop Uffizi, home to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and hundreds of renaissance artworks. The collection was bequeathed to Florence by the ruling Medici family in the 1700s. My favourite artwork was Caravaggio’s Medusan shield, unfortunately we couldn’t take photos.


The Duomo is the enormous church in the middle of town, and it’s incredibly dirty. They were cleaning it at the time of our visit and you could clearly see the difference between dirty Duomo and clean Duomo. Inside the church is quite bare despite the elaborate façade. But the floor is full of magnificent marble patterns and the cupola is painted in intricate scenes of heaven.

The cupola of the Duomo

Housing one of the greatest contributions to western sculpture, David, is the Galleria dell’Accademia. You think it’s smaller in the pictures, but David stands 16ft high! But the David souvenirs are the best. The 2012 David calendar features twelve different shots of the statue, including a close-up of his bum, and a not so close-up bum. Or the dress your own David magnets would make a great gift…


From Florence we did our largest drive, to a city that was destroyed almost 2000 years ago by an erupting volcano…

mt vesuvius
View of Mt Vesuvius from the Herculaneum ruins

Justin: Many years ago I went to a Pompeii exhibition in Sydney Museum and was captivated by the whole story, something so ancient being preserved and discovered through archaeological serendipity. After seeing it first hand, wow I was really amazed at how intact everything was. If Venice was like stepping back into time, Pompeii goes further. You really feel like you’re in the heart of a Roman town. Pompeii was buried by ash and pumice in AD 79. A town frozen in time, people in defensive postures their quick fiery and fateful death captured grotesque Polaroid style.

The Basilica of Pompeii

I liked the design of private domiciles in Pompeii which encompassed servants quarters, porticos, and atriums (reminded me of a school quadrangle). These dwellings were often replete with frescoes depicting myths, rites of passages, cultist symbolism and in some cases plain erotic pornography. This town certainly was not prudish, I learned that phalluses were greatly respected and regarded as something akin to a magic wand, like in Reykjavik some cultures fascination with phalluses are intriguing to say the least, things like fertility, virility were linked to divine favour and its was obvious in Pompeii that the worshiping of various Gods were alive and thriving with various temples, sacrificial altars and Roman God worship found in corners of the village.

Fresco in the Villa of Mystery
Fresco of Venus in Pompeii

You really feel like you are back in those times. Some sophisticated constructions were evident, the amphitheater (gladiator stadium) was well designed with inbuilt crowd control functions, the water distribution in event of a drought would restrict flow to least vital public areas in an intelligent and logical way. You realize that the heart and function of a town really is not that similar from modern times. Sure we are over-connected restless global villagers but services and functions such as law courts, public forums, locals rows of shops and graffiti laden walls are part and parcel of most modern cities and made it quite easy to relate and feel part of this frozen village and in a way feel more pity on those that perished. We are on a road, like many, that leads to Rome, not too long now. Take care, Justin x

Roman stadium in Pompeii
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