Monday, April 12, 2010

The Fruits of Pompeii

After an arduous March, as March tends to be, I am ready to open my arms to the splendors of Spring: the warmth, the sun, the flowers and new life everywhere. In my case, that new life is also realized in the arrival of the newest member of the family, my great nephew (great as in he’s wonderful, and also because he is the first child of my eldest niece). And for those of you wondering, I happened to have been a very young aunt – so I’m not quite ready yet for the polyester and bingo nights…

But I digress. Back to Spring and the beauty it brings to everything. When these days hit, it’s almost sacrilegious to remain indoors, and my husband and I are finding more and more reasons to be outside, including a lavish and beautiful picnic in Central Park last Friday. And like many moments in my life, the bliss of that moment brought to mind other times and places…

Pompeii, city of mystery and melancholy; where you walk through the streets and thoroughfares and can’t help but connect with the ancient citizens and wonder what you might have been doing on the day Vesuvius erupted: how would you have reacted? would you have survived? It is a chilling place, but also wondrous as you walk down Roman roads trodden for centuries by countless visitors, enter Roman villas with elaborately whimsical frescos, and see mundane signs of everyday life: herb gardens, decorative statuettes, and even graffiti. But the one thing you won’t see in Pompeii is a decent place to eat.

It’s a common mistake that most tourists make. Everywhere else in Europe, from the most visited site to the most far-reaching little landmark, inevitably has a snack bar, a food stand, a restaurant, and a chintzy but fun souvenir stand. In the vast expanse of the excavations of the entire city of Pompeii, there is only one cafeteria; and after walking through the captivating remains of the ancient world and marveling at the grandeur of Rome, it’s more than a little disappointing to have standard tourist fare that is far less than epic. The juxtaposition of the hard modern seats in a darkened, stagnant room, with bland, lifeless food, when the magnificence of the ancient world stands outside, all around you, is almost as tragic as the city’s destruction.

This is why one of the best tips to my Renaissance Journeys clients is to pack a picnic lunch when heading for the day to Pompeii. Whether driving or taking the train, it takes about 15 minutes to stop in the shops in the modern city of Pompeii, just outside the main gateway. Here you can delve into the culture and feel like a local, with short visits to the bakery, the deli, and the fruit stand – and you’re in Southern Italy here, so this is the stuff. (Don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian. Many of these shop owners are well versed in English, and if not, a smile and a finger point will take you a long way).

Now remember, in Italy, there’s no such thing as a 7/11, so you can’t go to just one place and have them make a sandwich – (Well you can, but it’s cheating. You can go to the local bar and have them wrap ready-made sandwiches for you, and they won’t be bad, but they won’t be as good). So to truly shop and eat like a local, you go to a number of different specialty shops and put your lunch together. I normally start with the deli (or salumeria), and load up on salamis, because there is no hunger in life that can’t be satisfied by a truly good Italian salami. From hot to sweet, they’ll have it all, just remember to have them slice it for you, because you can’t bring a knife into the area of the excavations.

Then you can add a few local cheeses. I always look for those I haven’t tried before, just to give me the feel for the local flavors that are so characteristic to each region in Italy. (If you ask nicely, shopkeepers will even let you taste them to make sure you like it). Again, have them slice it for you. Also, glance around the shop to see what else they’re selling, and if it looks good, it probably is; so add it to the bag and then it’s on to the next place.

Now in Italy, every self-respecting salumeria is right next to the bakery (or forno) and a good fruit stand or shop, and Pompeii is no exception. On the same street, you’ll find a great forno where you can go and pick your bread. If you’re a little particular and you want it cut just right, they’ll do it for you. But if you’re me, there is nothing like ripping a piece of freshly baked bread, so I usually get a long loaf. They’ll also have small breads for sandwiches (or panini – and by the way, the singular of panini is panino, – a pet peeve of mine in American “Italian” restaurants). Now the bakery should also have some nice little sweets or cookies. Feel free to load up on a few for dessert. After all, this is going to be a long day of walking, so any additional calories will be completely cancelled out by a run up the steps of the great amphitheatre. You’re covered.

Then it’s on to the fruit shop. I normally get some tomatoes for my sandwich, but beware that this isn’t for the faint of heart. You can’t have them sliced because they’ll just mush up in the pack; and you can’t bring a knife into the site with you. Being half-Sicilian, my hands can be used as a knife and can surprisingly slice a tomato quite cleanly and efficiently with no assistance whatsoever. If you don’t have that gene, then you might want to skip the tomato; but remember, you’re in Southern Italy, and the fruit here is food for the gods. You won’t get figs, peaches, berries, or any other fruit for that matter that is as good as it’s grown here, so be sure to get a few of your favorites.

Now you’ve got your lunch, but you still don’t have the pi├Ęce de la resistance. Remember that bar I talked about? Well, you’ll want to go there now and pick yourself out a nice bottle of local wine. If you like white, you can get one that is chilled here. And if red is more your game, they’ll have plenty of choices. Be sure to ask them to open it up for you before you leave, as the same rule of the knife in Pompeii holds true for a corkscrew. (Besides, even if you brought a corkscrew on your trip, what are the chances that you actually remembered to bring it with you from the hotel?) Remember to recork the bottle and store it safely in your bags to prevent spillage. It might seem like a hassle, but believe me, you’ll be happy you did.

And finally, you’ll also want to bring a few large bottles of water with you. You can get them at the bar, again chilled, and you’ll need it for all that wine. Also, the ruins are vast, and the days get hot in Pompeii, so without any convenient snack bars or stands in the ruins, you’re mostly on your own for water. And you don’t really want to drink from the water fountains there – trust me. So bring plenty of water and keep hydrated. (You’ll also want to wash your fruit with it, so save some for that).

And what, you may ask, are you expected to carry all this stuff in? If you’ve got a backpack or two, a bike bag, or some other comfortable sac, bring it with you. I normally bring one or two backpacks so that I can distribute the weight among a few people; but if not, the stores will provide bags; and it is allowed to bring backpacks and small bags inside the ruins. One last note, even if you’ve brought your own sacs, remember to get a few of the bags from the shops anyway, as you will need these later to either store leftovers or throw out your trash. And please remember to deposit your trash in a receptacle. There is nothing worse than touring one of the most beautiful sites of the ancient world and seeing a very modern bottle or bag sticking out like an eyesore, ruining the view and that perfect picture you were hoping to get.

Once you’re inside the excavations, you will be captivated as you walk the streets of the Romans, noting the worn strips in the stones where wagons once passed; touring ancients homes from the most modest rooms to the stateliest villas; passing by the ancient shops mimicking the ones you’ve just visited: the forno, the olive oil stand, the tavern; and of course, lingering in the majestic buildings of the Forum, the heart of the ancient city, lined with the remains of temples and governments buildings that once embodied the greatness of Rome. All the time, the sun that shone on Pompeian citizens so long ago will warm you; you’ll hear the voices of the past speak to you, your throat will be parched and lined with the dust of the old city, and you’ll be ready for your lunch.

You will find many breathtaking spots calling out to you. The small theatre is one of my favorites as there’s seating room and room to spread out your lunch. Afterwards, it is not impossible that I will be coaxed to go onstage and recite a poem or sing. You might find that refreshing wine on a sunny day does that to you, so you might want to prepare a little something. Sometimes passersby will even join in. But if the theatre is not your thing, there are so many other areas to choose from that you will be sure to find the perfect spot: in the grass among the flowers, under the arcade of the gladiators’ barracks, against the ruins of the temple of Hera; wherever you’re hungry and inspired.

I never send a client to Pompeii without this advice; and so far, every one of them has returned and told me that this moment, sitting on a dazzlingly sunny day against the backdrop of Roman ruins, with a glass of wine and hearty local fare shared among family, friends, and lovers, was the most memorable moment of the trip.

Where is your favorite picnic spot?


For more information on Pompeii, or a consultation on your travels, contact Maria Puma at

Pictures courtesy of Laura Puma.

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