Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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It would have been easy to dismiss Sorrento, Italy as just another attractive but over-touristy town. It offers the obligatory horse-drawn carriage rides, as well as a little white train that carries visitors from the upper level of town down to the beaches and marinas. Sidewalk cafes dot pretty piazzas that pop up around every corner and the town has its fair share of historic churches. And as with many tourist destinations, the main street is lined with upscale retail stores, while the narrow back lanes that wind down to the lower levels are chock-a-block with specialty shops.

Little white train carries visitors from the upper levels of Sorrento to the seaside beaches and marinas

Little white train carries visitors from the upper levels of Sorrento to the seaside beaches and marinas

After a day of hiking up and down the town’s hilly streets and long staircases, I sat down to rest inside the Church of Saints Felix and Baccolo. It was in no way exceptional. The church had a few nice paintings on its walls and the ceiling was covered in frescoes, but the marble floor was an uninteresting back and white diamond pattern, two rows of austere wooden pews provided the seating, and the altar was a common wooden table backed by brocade draperies strung across the back of the chancel. I’d caught my second wind and stepped outside, stopping to take a photo of the equally uninteresting exterior, when a a nicely dressed man interrupted my efforts. Read More

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After a week spent traveling around the Bay of Naples, I was still somewhat baffled by what I had seen at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa di Poppaea Sabina at Oplontis. To visit all these sites I’d ridden the Circumvesuviana, a privately owned train that runs around the base of Mount Vesuvius. At each, the collapsed cone of the volcano loomed over the ruins, but the sites were miles apart. I simply could not wrap my mind around the idea that a single eruption could wreak such devastation in cities so widely scattered. There was only one thing to do – go to the top of the volcano for a birds-eye view.

Map of eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, which buried Pompeii and surrounding communities, courtesy of MapMaster at Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:MapMaster)

Map of eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, which buried Pompeii and surrounding communities, courtesy of MapMaster at Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:MapMaster)

Though going up to the crater rim became a necessity, I would have made the trip even if I hadn’t needed to better understand the AD 79 eruption. Several days earlier I’d called my Dad to tell him about the Roman ruins I’d been visiting.

Are you going up to the top of Vesuvius?” he asked unexpectedly. “I flew over that volcano in 1945.

Dad was a ball turret gunner in a B-17 bomber during World War 2. After the end of the war their plane was converted for aerial mapping of Italy, Germany, and Austria.

They cut a hole in the floor of our radio shack and mounted a camera over it. We’d turn the camera on, fly straight for a long time, then turn and do the next strip. Back and forth all day long. We were on a training mission in Italy and our route took us near Mount Vesuvius. We weren’t supposed to do this but the pilot said we had a chance to see it and he grabbed the opportunity.”

Vesuvius had erupted just one year earlier and the volcano was a scar on the landscape. “We were flying through really green areas and all of a sudden everything was black, like a burned out area after a fire. We flew all around the edges and the pilot tipped the plane so that everyone could see down into the crater, it was a big smoking hole – black and totally barren.Read More

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On a fine afternoon in 1752, word reached King Charles III of Bourbon that his royal archeologist, Karl Weber, had discovered a treasure trove at Herculaneum. Sometime earlier, his excavation tunnels had brought to light the luxurious residence that would later be dubbed the Villa of the Papyri, however on that particular day his tunnels broke into a long porticoed garden in the villa that was filled with statuary. In the dim underground light, it was impossible to see details, but the architect dutifully sent word of his remarkable find. The king and his party, who happened to be hunting in nearby woods, rushed to the scene and set to picnicking while they waited for slaves to carry pieces to the surface.

In her book, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery, author Judith Harris relates what occurred next:

“Amidst a flotilla of courtiers in silks and befurred velvet finery, Charles and his Prussian wife Queen Maria Amalia arrived in a rustling, stately procession and took their seats on folding chairs. From the bowels of the earth the carved white marble group of two embracing figures, which Weber had found in the Great Peristyle, appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, borne upon a litter carried by prison labourers. A shiver of excitement rippled through the court. Already the dainty turn of that horn revealed the prized Greek look. When the whole sculpture group hoved into view two heads could be seen and two bodies. One seemed to be a man of sorts, though at closer look he wore two small horns on his head. He gazed fondly into the female’s languid marble eyes. For locked in his embrace was a female goat, surely the prettiest in the flock, whom he was in the act of penetrating.”

Statue of Pan copulating with a goat discovered at Herculaneum

Statue of Pan copulating with a goat discovered at Herculaneum

The king was horrified by the marble sculpture of the half-human, half-goat god Pan engaging in sex with a she-goat. He hastily led the party away from the site, ordering the sculpture to be locked in a cabinet at the Herculaneum Academy in Naples, where only those with express written permission from the King were allowed to view it. Read More

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As a perpetual traveler with no permanent home I live out of a suitcase, so I’m constantly searching for the perfect luggage and accessories. I began blogging and traveling for a living more than seven years ago at age 54. Initially, I chose an Eagle Creek wheeled backpack that had a zip-off day pack, but as I got older, I could no longer carry everything on my back; my laptop and camera equipment and accessories alone weigh 25 pounds! A few years ago I sent Eagle Creek the zip-off day pack from this case for repair. It had been used hard – thrown atop chicken buses in Latin America, endured sweaty hikes in the hills of Southeast Asia, used as a pillow on trains in India – and the zipper finally broke after years of abuse. Yet Eagle Creek never blanched at repairing it – for FREE!

Eagle Creek 25" Tarmac AWD, ready to roll

Eagle Creek 25″ Tarmac AWD, ready to roll

I must admit that over the years I’ve tried a few other brands, including one that everyone said was the best luggage on the market, but I was always disappointed by the design, durability, or the warranty of these other products. In the end, I always came back to Eagle Creek. So I was especially pleased when Eagle Creek invited me to participate in their blogger gear program this past winter. They allowed me to choose up to six products to test, including one suitcase. Frankly, I’d already been on the hunt for a new case to replace my 22″ carry-on. In the middle of March I was scheduled for an Arctic Cruise in Norway, and ten months later I tentatively planned to be in steamy Thailand. I needed a suitcase that would be large enough to hold cold weather and tropical clothes, but light enough for me to carry. I decided upon the 25″ Tarmac AWD Case, which features a super-light, 3-ply polycarbonate back shell combined with a fabric front, and is equipped with four rugged 360 Dynamic Spin™ wheels. Read More

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My first view of the ruins of Pompeii did not inspire awe or wonderment. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, I was perplexed. A few days earlier I had visited Herculaneum, the ancient Roman ruins that lay at the bottom of a 60-foot deep excavated pit. The same eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Herculaneum in A.D. 79 had also entombed Pompeii, yet here there was little in the way of excavation. At Pompeii I looked up to a town that roosted atop lush green hills.

Unexpectedly, the ruins at Pompeii perch atop a hill, rather than within a deep excavation pit

Unexpectedly, the ruins at Pompeii perch atop a hill, rather than within a deep excavation pit

Shrugging off my confusion, I strode into what was once one of the most magnificent cities of the Roman Empire. Ruins of homes and shops lined both sides of the steep cobbled roadway. Here and there, artifacts testified to the luxurious lives led by Pompeiians. Once-burbling fountains in private courtyards stood silent and decaying. A large terracotta jar awaited flour from an adjacent millstone. Wells in the counter tops of tabernas, the fast food joints of ancient Rome, stood yawning and empty. All this and more stood in plain view, as most of the rooftops and many of the walls had succumbed to the crushing weight of ash that fell on the city. Read More

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Walking through the Italian town of Torre Annunziata, one would never suspect that some of the most luxurious villas of the Roman Empire lie buried some 25 feet beneath its streets. The only indication that earlier structures existed comes from a notation on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a twelfth-century copy of an ancient map of the Roman road system. Just three miles west of Pompeii, the mapmaker indicated a cluster of villas, next to which he wrote the word, “Oplontis.”

Villa di Oplontis, more commonly referred to as Villa di Poppaea, was owned by Emperor Nero and used by his notorious second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

Villa di Oplontis, more commonly referred to as Villa di Poppaea, was owned by Emperor Nero and used by his notorious second wife, Poppaea Sabina. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

This small seaside suburb of Pompeii might have remained buried for all time had not a grain mill and arms factory required more water than the present-day town could supply. In the early 1590’s, work was begun on the Conte di Sarno canal, which would carry water to Torre Annunziata from the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. During construction, the ancient villa was discovered but no excavations were pursued until 1734, when Charles III of Spain conquered the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. The King of the Two Sicilies, or Charles of Bourbon, as he was referred to by local people, was an enlightened monarch who instituted reforms that strengthened the economy and civic structure. He avoided wars, facilitated trade, modernized agriculture, and promoted science and the arts, thus upon learning about the ancient cities of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Oplontis, he ordered that tunnels be dug to determine the extent of the ruins and search for objets d’art. Much of the statuary he unearthed landed in the gardens of royal palaces or was sold to members of the aristocracy, but to his credit, Charles shipped many of the most important pieces to the Naples National Archaeological Museum, where they are displayed to this day. Read More