Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii was once a flourishing as a coastal retreat for wealthy Romans. It contained a bustling marketplace, beautiful homes, taverns, bathhouses, temples of worship, magnificent architecture, an arena (older than the Roman coliseum) that sat 20,000 people, and a flourishing arts and crafts science. Life was good.

That all changed on one horrific day in 79 AD with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The eruption blasted a cloud of volcanic ash and poisonous gas 21 miles into air that could be seen from hundreds of miles away as volcanic debris pummeled the towns below. About 12 hours into the eruption, the massive cloud of gas and volcanic ash collapsed resulting in a pyroclastic flow that rolled down the mountain at 400+ mph with temperatures reaching 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Only five miles from Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was instantly engulfed in this searing flow and buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash and pumice.

As many as 16,000 people perished that day in the cities and villas around Mount Vesuvius. The number of dead in Pompeii is estimated at 2,000 and several hundred more in the nearby town of Herculaneum. This suggests there may have been a short window to escape. Some of Herculaneum’s citizens were possibly able to escape to Naples before the pyroclastic flow hit. Others were likely killed along the roads beyond the cities while trying to escape.

In terms of preservation, one interesting aspect of this eruption is the apparent lack of fire. The poisonous gases were oxygen free and no oxygen means no fire. Instead of burning, natural materials like wood were carbonized. In Herculaneum there are some relatively well-preserved wooden pieces such as ceiling beams, beds, shelves, and even the famous papyrus scrolls.

Along with Herculaneum, Pompeii serves as a time capsule of Roman life in the first century. While much of Rome’s cultural and architectural grandeur were destroyed as the Roman Empire collapsed, Pompeii remained frozen in time and free from vandalism and looting for 1700 years. In 1748, archeological excavation of Pompeii began and soon revealed the city and life in ancient Rome to the world.

Pompeii was originally developed by the Greeks around 600 BC as a port city. Over time, Greek influence receded and Roman influence rose. By 200 BC Pompeii was part of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC. By 79 AD, Rome had transformed from a Republic led by Senators to an Empire led by an Emperor. The Romans always thought highly of Greek culture (adopting much of it as their own and adding to it) so transitions from Greek to Roman control were not typically disruptive or oppressive. The influence of Greek culture is evident throughout Pompeii.

In 79 AD the world was only 79 years removed from Jesus walking the earth. His relatively recent presence hadn’t yet registered in Pompeii as Roman and Greek gods were still being worshipped. The Temple of Apollo (image below), built in 129 BC, is one example.

Apollo was a Greek god also worshipped by the Romans. He was the god of light, reason, truth, art, and healing. This temple had 48 columns surrounding the perimeter. As I understand it, these columns would have supported a roof that formed a covered walkway around the courtyard with the temple in the center.

Moving closer to the temple (image below), you can see the remains of stairs once topped with white marble and the remains of what was once an enclosed temple. As you can imagine, there is little indication of any roofing in Pompeii due to the tons of volcanic debris that nearly leveled the city.

Across from the Temple of Apollo is the Basilica of Pompeii built around 120 BC. This was a covered structure with walls and 28 interior columns. In the picture below, we are looking into the Basilica from the Forum. The Basilica was a central building for matters of justice as well as commercial activities and one of the most important buildings in Pompeii.

Below, we are looking at an outer wall of the Basilica. There was another level to this wall that would have extended the height by 50%.

At the end of the Basilica is the elevated tribunal where magistrates would sit. The tribunal gives you a sense of the Basilica’s height that would have extended around building. The bases of columns in the photo below were on the interior of the building and would have extended upward to the second-story ceiling.

Given the administration of justice that occurred in the Basilica, it seems fitting the building would be located next to the Temple of Apollo – god of reason and truth. Leaving the Basilica, you step into the Forum. This was a central area of commerce and political activity in Pompeii.

The Forum was lined with columns, statues, and other buildings of importance. The image below is looking down the western edge of the Forum. There was a second level of shorter columns on top of what we now see and a roof extending to the left that provided a covered walkway around the forum.

At the north end of the Forum sits the Temple of Jupiter. Jupiter was the chief Roman god and held a position similar to Zeus for the Greeks. Jupiter was the god of the sky, thunder, and king of all gods. Symbols associated with Jupiter include the lightening bolt and eagle. This temple has six columns across the front and five down the side. The roof would have extended from a central building out to the front columns to create a covered but open entrance. To the left and right of the temple are triumphal arches. One was dedicated to Augustus, the first emperor or Rome.

Leaving the Forum, I traveled out to the edge of the city to visit the Villa dei Misteri. I had the unique experience of imagining what it would be like to walk through the Pompeii “suburbs”.

Knowing Mount Vesuvius is still active left me with an eerie feeling while walking along the destroyed homes and quiet streets. It erupted in 1700 BC and again in 79 AD with a dormant period of 1800 years between eruptions. Knowing it has been over 1900 years since the last eruption, I had the sense that it could happen at any moment. This feeling was even stronger on the quiet edges of the city.

After a somewhat lengthy walk, I arrive at the Villa dei Misteri. A highlight of this home is that it contains frescoes depicting the secret initiation ritual for women into the worship of Dionysus. Like Apollo, Dionysus was also a Greek god worshipped by the Romans. He was associated with wine, theatre, fertility, and spiritual ecstasy. The Romans often referred to him as Bacchus.

Having run low on time, I make my way back to the rendezvous point for the tour group I had abandoned after arriving at Pompeii. The tour guide was moving way to slow, burned time on rather mundane topics, and wasn’t going to all the places I wanted to see. I could feel precious minutes wasting away so I broke from the group rather quickly. If I were to do it again, I would download one of the apps for Pompeii, get to the city as early in the day as possible, and explore it by myself.

I really enjoy history and loved my visit to Pompeii. If you are visiting cities like Naples, Sorrento, or the Amalfi Coast you will be within striking distance of Pompeii. This is a trip should make. Also, the city of Herculaneum is about 10 miles away and said to be even better preserved than Pompeii. Designing a day that gives allows 4-6 hours in Pompeii and 3 hours in Herculaneum is how I will do it…next time.

Amalfi Coast, Italy

The Amalfi Coast is a breathtaking stretch of rugged coastline and vibrant villages. Located between the larger towns of Sorrento and Salerno in the Campania region of Italy, the Amalfi Coast has been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My family’s trek to the Amalfi Coast began with a train ride from Naples to Salerno. Once in Salerno (which is a charming town as well), we had the option of riding a bus through tight mountain roads to the smaller towns or taking a ferry. As you can see below, the ferry offers sweeping views of dramatic coastline, vibrant villas, terraced vineyards, and cliffside lemon groves.

Our time was somewhat limited so we were only able to spend time in the villages of Amalfi and Positano. Here are some of my favorites from Amalfi taken in the village and from the ferry.

From Amalfi, we hopped on another ferry and made our way to Positano. While already part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, my daughter informed me it is also a premier spot for a coveted Instagram photo. Let me tell you, it isn’t an easy shot to get. As you are gaining access to the beach, I wouldn’t mention anything about taking a photo.

Our time was cut short in Positano by rain and rough seas. The last image is where the ferry docks to load passengers. Somehow, the captain managed to get us loaded for the last ferry out. If you are planing a similar trip the Amalfi Coast, there are ferry options out of Naples as well as Sorrento which, in hindsight, may have been the most scenic option. The only real downside for taking the ferry is weather. If the forecast is good, go for it.

Burano, Italy – Color & Texture

Burano is an island in the Venice lagoon (a 40-minute ferry from Venice) famous for its vibrant buildings and lacemaking. I don’t believe I have ever seen a place more densely packed with vibrant colors and textures in my life. I’ll let the photos tell the story.

Leaning Tower of…Burano (built in 1703)

On The Way to Burano

Located along the waterway between Venice and Murano, there is a small island called San Michele that contains the San Michele in Isola church. Completed in 1469 and dedicated to Saint Michael, the church once served as a monastery and is one of the first examples of Renaissance architecture in Venice. Today, the island is a large cemetery.

San Michele in Isola

Traveling to Burano, you’ll also pass the island of Murano which is worthy of a stop. Murano is world famous for glass making…a tradition stemming from the late Medieval and Renaissance periods.


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Siena, Italy

Located in the Tuscany region of Italy, Siena is arguably Italy’s most well-preserved medieval town. Siena’s historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heartbeat of this area is Piazza del Campo which has long served as the social and political center of the town. It is a great place to stop when first entering Siena for a bite to eat or drink while taking a visual journey back in time.  A unique feature of the Campo is that it also serves as horse track for the famous race known as the Palio. You can get a sense of the track in the image below.

Piazza del Campo

There is a lot that could be written about the Palio but I’ll be brief. In short, the race is run twice a year with riders representing each of the town’s districts. The Sienese are extremely passionate about their own district. While winning certainly brings genuine joy and pride, the days of festivals leading up to race sound like a party of epic of proportions with everyone living their best life. Tickets and hotels for the Palio come at a premium and should be booked well in advance.

A key building in the Campo is the Palazzo Pubblico which serves as the city town hall with a museum inside.

Off to the left side of this building (as you are looking at it) is the Torre del Mangia (completed in 1348). It was built to be the same height as the Duomo (Church) of Sienna to show equality of church and state. 

Torre del Mangia

The tower’s bell was originally used to signal the end of the workday as well as the opening and closing of the city gates. It is one of the tallest medieval towers in Italy. The tower is open to climb…an opportunity I missed.  

All around the Campo, the aged palaces of a bygone era belie what lies beyond the walls – vast art collections from the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of these works are frescos. While tempting to visit, I tend to lean more towards architectural sights. And, given my limited time, I decide to hit the streets. 

Leaving the Campo, there are seemingly an unlimited number of streets to take with each offering such promise. It reminds me a lot of the Gothic Quarter (el Gotic) in Barcelona but much larger. I could have spent days just strolling through the tight walkways with medieval buildings lining each side. There is always another road to take and breathtaking sights to behold just around the next corner. 

Beyond the Campo, the next key building on my list was the Duomo of Siena, Completed in 1296, it is widely proclaimed as one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Italy and is a must see when visiting Siena. In fact, it will likely be impossible to miss because it dominates the skyline.

Duomo di Siena

After spending some time taking in the Duomo, I begin looking for high ground to get a skyline shot of Siena. This leads me to an old hilltop fortress – Fortezza Medicea – built in the mid 1500s.

The fort’s history is a sad one for Siena. Construction of a fort on this site first began in 1548 by Spain (supporting their Florence ally) after it defeated the Republic of Siena. The fortress was destroyed by the Sienese in an uprising a few years later but, after Florence regained control (assisted by Spain) they rebuilt it to prevent future uprisings by the Sienese. The fortress was eventually demilitarized in the late 1700s and, after restoration, today serves as a public park with events such as wine tastings and performances held inside. And, it offers a great view of Siena.

Basilica of San Domenico (left) and Duomo (distant right)

Sienna’s historic city center – as it looks now – took shape in the late 1200’s to mid 1300’s but Siena existed long before. Siena began as an Etruscan settlement in the period 900 – 400 BC. The Romans then colonized the area around 60 AD. Under Roman rule, Siena flourished as a banking and textile center and was a major city in Medieval Europe.

Siena’s status in the middle ages, as often the case, led to struggles for power and influence with other city states and from within. The war with Florence is one example with lasting implications. The victorious Florentines, directed all of the business once controlled by Siena into Florence. This left Siena isolated and, in a sense, almost frozen in time in its medieval splendor. 

Walking through Siena, I find a bit of pleasure in the irony of Siena’s history. Almost 500 years later after falling to Florence and enduring economic exile, Siena is now a prime travel destination. The impact of Florence’s conquest – Siena being locked in time – is now the very reason people come to Siena. Once again, the city is flourishing.