Italian birthday

I’m back from Italy, where I had the good sense to turn forty-five. Shall I inflict pictures upon you? Indeed I shall!

I need to start with a little caveat, which is this: I was very nearly a classicist, at university. There are some aged classics professors who probably still lament this in their hearts – how did we lose her? Where did it all go wrong? – but in truth they never lost me. I couldn’t quite get my head around Greek cases, alas, and that’s the shameful truth. (This is one of the reasons there are so many grammar jokes in my books; I have a lot of grammatical issues to work through). I’ve wandered far afield since university, but my first love was always the classical Mediterranean world, and that has never changed. My husband loves this stuff as much as I do, and so when we go on vacation, we’re serious about seeing the antiquities.

So, fair warning: I mostly took pictures of rocks, although many of them are shaped like buildings.

We started in Rome, with the obligatory Colosseum and Forum (I say “obligatory,” but they were glorious) :

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View from the House of the Vestals

And the Pantheon:

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My heart leapt when I saw it

The next day we hit the Vatican museums and Castel Sant’Angelo:

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St. Peter’s, seen from Castel Sant’Angelo (Hadrian’s Mausoleum)

Then on to the Baths of Caracalla, Catacombs of St. Sebastian, and Appia Antica the next day:

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So huge. Later we saw the Baths of Diocletian, which were even bigger.

We spent the next day museum-ing and doing laundry, and then we were off to Napoli by train. Made it to Pompeii a little on the late side, thinking to miss the heat of the day, but we’re Vancouverites so that didn’t really help. However, Pompeii was everything I’d dreamed it would be, and more. Something I hadn’t quite thought through is that Pompeii was a city, and the ruin is, indeed, as big as a freaking city. It goes on and on.

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Pompeii was number one on my “Must See Before I Die” list. Don’t worry, plenty of things still on it. Not allowed to die for a while yet.

The next day we saw Herculaneum, which was a more manageable size, more like I’d always pictured Pompeii to be:

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And full of amazing, well-preserved details like this, a mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite. 

We took an underground tour of Naples, which wasn’t too creepy (I love ancient plumbing – to a weird degree, honestly – but ancient cisterns creep me out. Not a believer in past lives, but… I was definitely a plumber. Who drowned in the sewers.)

We never sit still! The next day (my actual birthday) we flew to Palermo, Sicily, and then drove across the island to get to Mount Etna, the famous (and famously active) volcano, home of Hephaestus and prison of the monster Typhon. We took the gondola halfway up the next morning, and then hiked the rest of the way to the top.

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Mio marito and mio figlio upon the endless lava fields. There are two actively smoking cones up ahead, and we saw half a dozen more that were dormant. 

We recovered over lunch, and on we went to Syracuse, site of one of the most memorable scenes from Thucydides, an ancient war crime. Seven thousand Athenian soldiers were herded into this quarry and imprisoned there for seventy days, given only a cup of water and a pint of grain per day, roasting in the sun, surrounded by ever-increasing piles of corpses and filth. I read this account in Greek, back at university, and never forgot it. We had to see where it happened.

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There’s a bit more shade now.

In Syracuse, we stayed on the island of Ortygia, which was picturesque. Ate real Sicilian cannoli. And we saw the Duomo, which is Baroque on the outside and contains almost an entire Doric temple to Athena on the inside:

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You’d never guess, just looking.

Finally, it was our last day in Sicily, so of course we had to drive across the entire island again, PLUS hit two more UNESCO Word Heritage sites on the way. The first one, in particular, blew me away. It was Villa Romana del Casale, and it has the biggest, most astonishing, best preserved Roman mosaics I have ever seen.

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Female athletes. If you’re like me, you’re wondering whether that was Roman underwear – or some kind of ancient bikini – but apparently it was an outfit specifically intended for sports.

I don’t even know how to describe it. Every single room, the first of us into the room would gasp loudly, and the rest of us would be like, “What could possibly make you gasp, after all the mosaics we’ve already seen?” And then WE would enter the room and gasp. Pompeii was on my bucket list, but this place I’d never even heard of, particularly, was the most wondrous thing I saw on the entire trip.

Even the Valley of the Temples, which we saw later that day, couldn’t measure up. Here’s the Temple of Concord, which inspired the UNESCO World Heritage logo, and which on any other day would have been the coolest thing I saw:

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*snore* Sorry, Concord.

So that’s the whirlwind tour. I have a few more amusing pictures to share, but will put them in a separate post, as this is already way too long.

It was a good place to have a birthday. Forty-five feels pivotal to me, somehow, like a halfway point. I’m sure it isn’t, literally, but it feels that way. I’ve climbed the volcano and looked around me. Onward, friends, toward wonders we haven’t even imagined yet.


3 Comments on “Italian birthday”

  1. Sally says:

    Lovely photos! Happy belated birthday!

  2. hoardofbooks says:

    Happy Birthday!
    Wow, those pictures are so cool! I’d love to go to Italy.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Thank you for all the travel photos! I guess I have to add Sicily to my bucket list. (All the Italian sites I’ve already seen have been re-added anyway, because now it’s “Show them to my KIDS.”)


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