Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Inferno

Friday, July 9, 2010

 Today our group toured Hell.
Well, OK, I am exaggerating slightly, but not by much. We took a tour of the Phlegraean (or Fiery) Fields, which was the region that the ancient Romans thought was the entrance to the Underworld. Aeneas goes there with the Golden Bough to go to Hell and back in the Aeneid. He does this partly to meet with his father to get further prophecies about the bright future of the Trojans' descendants in Rome, partly because he's as great a hero as Odysseus or Hercules or anyone else who went to Hell and made it back alive. 
Sibyl's assistant: our guide to the Underworld and back!

We stopped at the site near Lake Avernus that Vergil thought was the grotto of the Sibyl, a different site from the last one we attended. Probably these tunnels were hollowed out for military purposes. The same family has taken tourists for tours of this site for generations. Members of the group went down a side passage to dip their hands in an underground river, the “Styx,” according to our guide. Just past there is another spot where the Sibyl allegedly bathed, but our guide was talkative so we didn't have time to see that one. The guide speaks only Italian, but Tom gave us the gist of what he was saying. The entrance of the cave overlooks Lake Avernus. The descent to Hell is easy, says Vergil: it's the way back that is the tough part. Luckily for us, our guide and his dog led us safely back into the light. The dog's name in Italian is Junior but our group nick-named him Cerberus.
My colleague touched the "River Styx" and LIVED!

Other sites visited today included Pozzuoli or ancient Puteoli, well known for its Macellum and its bradyseism or slow earthquakes. The highlight there, besides the ancient latrine at the Macellum, was the amphitheater, the third largest in the Roman world. The carcere, the space under the floor of the arena, is in great shape for viewing, and tourists can still walk on the floor of the arena, which helps us visualize what the floor of the Colosseum must have looked like. We visited Solfatara and walked on the floor of a live volcano, located just past a campground. People come from all over to take in the fumes from the fumaroles for health purposes. A few of our group got adventurous enough to do the same. I took video of the volcanic activity that was visible there. The Romans knew that this area was volcanic whereas they did not apparently know that Vesuvius was. 
Near Mt. Vesuvius; ginestra to the right
Then the bus took the group up Mt. Vesuvius itself. Sadly, I did not hike up to the top this time due to my knee trouble. It is hot and strenuous, with no shade and no places to rest. I have hiked it before or I would have made the attempt. Instead I did some shopping around the tourist entrance area. The shopkeepers seemed to enjoy the business. The economy has slowed down sales, one of them told me. I also got some scenic pictures of the area. The ginestra, a yellow flower, is blooming right now. It is not only beautiful but also sweet-smelling, rather like honeysuckle back home but a little more subtle. 

I very much admired the skills of the bus-driver who took us up and down Vesuvius on narrow, twisty, mountainside roads past other tour buses on a route that I could swear it was impossible for two buses to pass on. The route is full of hairpin turns. I was sitting in the back of the bus so I could prop up my leg, and the effect from the back was rather like one of the better Disney rides. Somehow the drivers do it, although sometimes they need to pull over or even back up to make room for each other. Our driver seemed to get a kick out my admiration for his skills and my genuine gratitude when we got off the bus at the end of this route. He is as skilled in my estimation as a pilot.
When I last visited these sites in 1988 there was no such thing as an inexpensive digital camera. I can't believe what great images I got. I also got video of our guide in the underworld and of Solfatara. I can share my experiences so much better with my students with these new tools. I can't wait to have a chance to do so.
Tomorrow we leave for a full day at Herculaneum. In case it seems to you like our group is traveling at a breakneck pace.... we are! Everyone says it feels like we've seen and studied a month's worth of sites, and we've been here less than a week.

I would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for making possible this portion of my trip.

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