The Rise and Fall of Civilizations…

One of the joys of extended travels is discovering the connections and overlapping layers of history, from the Neolithic to this shocking few weeks in Post Cold War Europe. You see snippets of history, in both the context of the ancient society, and the modern context of how it is presented.

Chariot ruts in Pompei show just how much traffic plied these streets, and that there are always infrastructure maintenance backlogs!

In this part of the world, it is still stunning to discover the vastness and complexities of the Roman empire from Morocco to England, and of course, in modern Italy.

Literally layers of history at Herculaneum, right up to the old shoreline.

The past week’s events in Ukraine overlapping with visits to two of the world’s greatest archeological sites, Herculaneum and Pompéi has been sobering. Most of us understand the risks of Putins end game, but it’s especially painful for Europeans who bore the brunt of two world wars and protracted Cold War. History does feel like it is doomed to repeat itself.

The empty Herculaneum on a Monday morning; a joy to explore!

There is a lot to take in at both UNESCO sites, so we decided it was best to separate our visits by a few days. We had planned on trying to get to Herculaneum early on Sunday morning from Naples, and set out from our hotel at 8am sharp only to be stymied by misinformation on the metro and train schedules….(BTW the Moovit app is best in Naples).

I wonder what was for lunch?

So as we sat on a crowded platform, with the prospect of getting to Herculaneum 1 1/2 hours after opening on by far the busiest day of the week, we decided eating €5 train tickets was a small price to pay for a better experience and left the station for another day. Another blessing of long term travels.

Looking towards the impluvium…Roman Villas are so impressive for their thought in design and layout; not much to improve in 2000 years of architectural development.

It was a great decision as we were able to stop at Herculaneum on the way to Sorrento on Monday, and had the place practically to ourselves….oh, and the sky was bluer on Monday too -:). This also gave us the opportunity to watch the excellent BBC documentary on Herculaneum which really did enhance our experience the next day.

Endless Pompei….20,000 lived here at its peak and 18,000 did get out on August 24, AD 79

Both Herculaneum and Pompéi are on the CircumVesuvia regional train line that runs from Naples to Sorrento, so an “on the way” visit is a great option, especially as both sites have left luggage facilities. The Pompéi entrance is very close to the train station, but Herculaneum is almost a kilometer away downhill, so best if you are traveling light with backpack luggage, but it is certainly doable with a roller bag (if you can stand the sound on the sidewalks!)

Left luggage at Herculaneum…simple services like this can make a travel day possible.

Herculaneum was a prosperous and smaller city than Pompéi; kind of a posh suburb. When it was hit by the huge earthquake of AD 62, many of its wealthier residents took the damage as an opportunity to remodel…of course, only to be buried by 50 feet of the pyroclastic flows of Mt. Vesuvius just years later in AD 79. The site is compact and surprising in its somewhat dense surroundings of a more modern town.

Yes, there were cats in Pompei

What was also surprising to us, was all the people that still live in the shadow of the mountain, taking a calculated risk that it won’t erupt soon, or with such force. They say there will be some warning from the vulcanologists and seismologists next time. And of course, we lived in San Francisco for 30 years, so can understand taking a risk living somewhere you love or is your home. Or both.

The restored vineyards of Pompei with Vesuvius in waiting.

After a nice day off in Sorrento walking in the local hills of lemon groves, we visited Pompéi by taking the train back from Sorrento on Wednesday, and again enjoyed an enjoyed light crowds.

Taking a Roman break walking in the hills of Sorrento, with spring finally showing it’s serious in Southern Europe

In fact we walked up to the ticket window at 9:30 am with no line. It did get a bit busier as the day went on, but still an apparent trickle compared to pre-COVID times, as the tour buses have not returned yet. Somewhat a golden time for travel if you can get here.

The tranquil footpaths to Marina Lobra, near Sorrento

Pompéi is vast and sprawling, and it stuns you with the scale of the city’s ancient streets, sidewalks, and lunch cafes. Romans ate lunch out routinely, apparently to feed their appetites building vast baths, forums, and an amphitheater.

The slight curves and meanders of Pompeii’s roads was insightful urban planning

It was so easy to visualize the vibrant community, with its rolling and meandering streets, variety of villas, and the detailed understanding that has been miraculously deduced about the residents of almost every significant building. Artists, traders, cooks, politicians, and more recently nearby, slave quarters that give insight into the reality of the indentured servitude that supported much of the Roman’s impressive legacy.

The work never stops at Pompei, as new discoveries await daily. Amazing.

It also helps to visit the fantastic Archaeology museum in Naples first as we did, so you can see many of the original artifacts, frescos, sculptures, and mosaics first, and the drop them into Pompéi and Herculaneum, like objects in SimCity AD79. There are a lot of in situ items still remaining at both sites, and many buildings at Pompéi are under restoration or access is limited to protect the fragile elements from so many visitors.

Art and story telling enriched every aspect of Roman life….it all feels so modern.

So as we headed out of Pompéi to continue along the Amalfi coast, we both relished this unique time to travel, our freedom, and the fact that our civilization is generally still thriving. But also more cognizant than ever that it can fall apart in an instant….or at least an archeological instant. We have to learn from history and react.

The happy travelers looking for their seats in the Amphitheater

Peace and love to all, especially to those who have recently fled their homes from an impending calamity.

Leaning in to slow travel.

In front of the big board at Bristol Temple Mead Station.

As we wait to sort out our booster records we’ve really started to take delight in our snap travel decisions. Our last booked evening in Bristol Rich asked, where should we go next? My reply was “How easy to get to the Jurassic Coast? Looks fairly close.”

Stop for salads from the M&S fine foods. We try to never board a train without snacks or lunch.
Waiting for our train.

And the travel planner makes it happen. I’ve wanted to visit Lyme Regis since reading the novel Remarkable Creatures, about Mary Anning, the renowned fossilist.

At Axminster station, about to catch the bus to Lyme Regis.
Wheeling and walking from the bus to our guest house.

Lyme Regis is the heart of the Jurassic Coast. We had a lovely day and a half of hiking, which I now realize we could have spent fossil hunting. Oh yes, I caught the fossil bug. I caught it bad.

The old train viaduct at Uplyme. A lovely afternoon hike. Could have been hunting fossils.
Beautiful houses in Lyme Regis on a street that slopes down to the fossil beach.
Goofing around on the Cobb, of French Lieutenant’s Woman and Jane Austin’s Persuasion fame – just up from the fossil beach.

The Lyme Regis museum, built on the site of Mary Anning’s house, offers a fossil talk and walk. We bought tickets for Friday, our last day in town, thinking we had plenty of time to do that and catch our bus to the train station.

Apparently her house flooded with high tides and storms. A new sea wall changed that allowing the museum to be built.

The fossil talk was amazing, we learned so much. I learned we didn’t leave enough time for actual fossil hunting.

The wonderful geologist who talked us through what to expect and look for. And answered all the whys of this area.
Fossil hunting. Everyone has their gaze turned towards the sand. There really are fossils just laying on the sand.
The limestone cliffs where the fossils are before they landslide onto the beach. And my intrepid fossil hunter.

The best time to fossil hunt is after a big storm has caused land slips and churned up the beach. We were on the beach after days of mild weather, so not prime fossil time. And it was still amazing. Apparently after a storm the professionals are at the beach before dawn with headlamps and hammers. There are no prohibitions about hunting, just warnings. As our geologist told us, if you don’t get the fossils the ocean will. But don’t let the cliffs get you. They let loose on a regular basis. He kept us away from the cliff bases and focused on the tidal zone.

Looking earthward for fossils.
Two different versions of fossilized ammenonites. The small partial one is iron pyritized.

I’ll let wiki explain how these jewel like fossils happen: Organisms may become pyritized when they are in marine sediments saturated with iron sulfides. (Pyrite is iron sulfide.) As organic matter decays it releases sulfide which reacts with dissolved iron in the surrounding waters. … Some pyritized fossils include Precambrian microfossils, marine arthropods and plants.

A tribute to Mary Anning on the coast path. Her dog Tray and a Plesiosaurus skeleton in metal on a section of fence.

Sadly, we only had a short time on the beach before we had to leave to catch our bus to the train. But we will definitely be back to fossil hunt again.

The happy travelers take a sunset usie. Should have been fossil hunting.

Our next snap travel decision was to go on to Plymouth by train. Since we were so far down SW England, why not go farther? so we did. We’re in an apartment in Plymouth for a while. Where will we go next? And how will we get there? Stay tuned.

The Engineer as Hero

Isambard Kingdom Brunel …a name hard to forget, especially in Bristol, England. As a professional Civil Engineer, it was so refreshing to see an engineer given their proper dues, as it’s usually the Architects that get (or take?!) all the credit for innovative projects. And boy did I K Brunel do it all: Paddington Station, the Great Western Railway, Thames Tunnel, SS Great Britain, and my personal favorite, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. His designs are credited with revolutionizing public transport and modern engineering.

Engineers are great, aren’t they….

We started our Brunel tour at the fantastic SS Great Britain, which is a magnificently preserved and restored steamship that Brunel designed in the 1830s and was the largest steamship in the world when it launched in 1843.

In the Dry Dock – that’s water up there!

I think the best way to see the ship is to start below the water in the dry dock. It allows you to appreciate the scale of the ship, as well as understand how the unique hull was constructed and is being preserved. It takes a massive array of dehumidifiers running 24/7 to keep any further corrosion of the steel hull at bay. The array keeps at about 20% relative humidity, similar conditions to “the deserts of Arizona”, and paralleling the path of millions of other retirees being preserved in the Sunbelt.

Brunel chose to use a new and highly efficient propeller for the SS Great Britain, shaving weeks off a Transatlantic journey

You also can see how they moved the ship from its near demise in the Falkland Islands in 1970 and dragged it all the way back home to Bristol on a special barge. But the dedication to restoration didn’t stop at the exterior of the ship. The cabins have been fully restored with the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the ship when it served as a passenger ship to the US and Australia.

The Kitchen…spooky realism abounds, as even rats can be seen moving about the cupboards.

The Steerage class quarters are strikingly small, but as a docent pointed out, still offered those crammed in 4 1/2 foot bunks a chance at better conditions and more opportunity in the New World. Life in the early industrial revolution days of Britain was hard. The crew barely had it better, as had to toil all hours shoveling coal into the furnace and keeping the ship going over grueling 3 week to 6 month journeys. Of course first class was quite grand and the Titanic-like dining hall is now available as a wedding venue, minus the swells and nausea of the open seas. (As it turns out, Brunel’s hull design was a little unstable…until a later wood extension was added to to the keel)

Morning dew on Brandon Hill, Bristol

Bristol and Bath were both a pleasant surprise. The crisp fall weather and foliage were perfect for exploring on foot and both cities offer fascinating sites, museums, culture, and vibrant food scenes.

Proper tea and a scone at the American Museum and Gardens in Bath

Bath is like a living Georgian museum, pleasantly frozen in the 1770’s, while Bristol offers a modern revitalized waterfront, lots of history, and more diversity, all supported by a large University population. The American Museum has beautiful views and a offers a unique British perspective on American history and culture. The Roman Baths are the big attraction and surprisingly engaging with brilliant holograms in each room and an audio tour featuring humor of Bill Bryson.

As much as you want to, you shouldn’t touch the water at the Roman Baths

After 3 nights up the hill in Bath near the Royal Crescent, we decided to stay just 7 minutes away from the Temple Meads station in Bristol. The Station itself is worth a look, and yes, I K Brunel provided the base design and inspiration for the main station as the terminus of his Great Western Railway from Paddington in London. How was he so many places? (4 hours of sleep helped apparently)

The Temple Gardens out the back door of our hotel

After a day on the waterfront and Brunel museum, we decided to explore more neighborhoods and walked out through the pleasant and upscale Clifton village. We walked back through the University and along Gloucester Road, which is full of an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, and restaurants. 8 miles overall and great walking up and down the undulating hills, with constant surprises and new views.

The Castle Bridge opened in 2017, offering an inspiring human powered crossing of the Bristol Harbour (but still not enough bike parking!)

But the hands-down thrill of the day was the Clifton Suspension Bridge. A structure that highlights the need for visionary technical leadership and perseverance. Brunel’s original design took over 35 years to be built. He succeeded in a design competition in 1830 with his proposed bold 700- foot steel chain suspension span. This span allowed a full span of the gorge, which was key to the intrinsic beauty of the structure in the unique context of the Avon River Gorge. But many, including his father, doubted that such a span could be built. Unfortunately, cost overruns and contractor financial trouble (sound familiar) put the half completed project on hold by 1843. Luckily, the bridge was finally completed in 1864 with the assistance of other designers, but sadly 5 years after Brunel died. And like many of his bold designs, the ultimate bridge required some design modifications to the deck to make it stiffer, as his original design would have likely failed in high winds. Engineering is a constant process of improvement and optimization.

The 1,300-foot long Clifton Suspension Bridge soars more than 300-feet above the Avon Gorge…so nice!

But his vision survives and his grand engineering projects are still serving millions of people today. So anytime someone doubts that a large infrastructure project can ever be finished or if a new design innovation can really work, just shout out the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or say it three times if you can!

A little forgotten history, and a push to include women in museums.

We’re in Zermatt, Switzerland, which is famous for skiing, being car free, and the Matterhorn. OK, that car free part might only be relevant to some for its fame, but it was a big reason why we came here.

Golden hour selfie with the Matterhorn being imposing in the background.

Who reads in room magazines at their hotel? Me! Zermatt Magazine has a super interesting article about the first woman to go up, and summit the Matterhorn – get ready, it’s earlier than you might think. And, like much of women’s history, kind of sort of ignored a bit.

This plaque was placed on the Zermatter Walk of Climb in …. 2019. A bit late, thinks me.
This plaque outside the Zermatt museum is a bit misleading, An Italian woman came close to summiting in 1867.

Per the excellent hotel magazine article (I’m a big fan of airline magazines too.), an 18 year old Italian woman, Félicité Carrel was the first woman to attempt to summit but had to turn back 100 meters from the summit as the wind came up, caught her wide skirts, and almost blew her off the mountain. Take a moment and imagine that, climbing in skirts- big skirts.

This American climber got there a bit late, the British climber Walker heard she was on her way to Zermatt and quickly got her team in place to try for, and reach, the summit.

Did I care about mountain climbing women before reading this article? No. Had I even thought about when women started mountaineering in the Alps? No again. But I made a point of going to find the plaques on the street and visiting the Zermatt museum because of the article.

The museum is trying to address the fact that women have been left out of so much cataloging of history. These orange signs were a new addition, reminding visitors that there were women and they were not included in the official accounts.

There’s Lucy Walker, on the right – the one in the dress. Bad photo, sorry.
These orange placards alerted you to a bit of missing history.

Oh yes, the excellent article by Thomas Rieder also points out that that the woman from Liverpool, Ms Lucy Walker, summited the Matterhorn only six years after the first ascent by Edward Whymper and team. Read that and think about Mt. Everest which took 22 years for a woman, Junko Tabei from Japan, to follow the first summit of Hillary/Norgay in 1953.

The American climber Brevoort, photo from Wikipedia.

I get overwhelmed just looking at that mountain and imagining climbing it. But I am so grateful to this excellent opportunity to add meaning to our visit here. Hotel room magazines for the win. Museums for the win, and adding women back into history as a goal.

The mountain has more meaning for me now. It’s not just a beautiful background.