Delia Bettaney recently travelled with her Church group on a pilgrimage to Pompeii, Sorrento and Rome. She tells us what it was like on her Church Tour.
In the early hours of Monday, April 4th, 18 of us set off from Connah’s Quay on a Tours for Churches pilgrimage to Sorrento, Pompeii and Rome organised by Susan Varah.
The Monarch flight from Manchester to Naples was trouble-free and we carried on by coach to Sorrento and the Hotel Astoria, pleased to discover that our rooms were clean and comfortable, tiled on the floors and walls with the green, blue, white and yellow tiles, typical of the region. Mine had a little balcony overlooking the pretty hotel garden, with its’ four lemon tree and walls clad with climbing jasmine. Lovely! A big bowl of apples was always on the reception desk, and served as a reminder of the Roman tradition of fruit offered to visitors at the entrance to their homes.
Six of us decided to see if we could get to Capri on the ferry and walked through the town to the central lift, which took us down to the boats. We caught one that would get us back in time for the evening meal and we enjoyed our own mini-cruise in the sunshine and the sea breezes. We went on the funicular up to the town and explored the narrow streets before going back down to the beach for the return journey to Sorrento, where we had a very good meal waiting.
The next morning we met our guide, Alessandro, an exuberant, larger than life character who accompanied us on the drive around the Amalfi coast. The views of the sea were spectacular and everywhere there were orange and lemon tree and the most beautiful wisteria covering walls and loggias. We passed the picturesque town of Positano before arriving in Amalfi for lunch.
The catherdral there is very interesting, especially the crypt, where the relics of the body of St. Andrew are kept. Alessandro pointed out that town’s narrow streets and network of secret passages and escape route, too narrow to swing a sword, were designed to confuse pirates intent on seizing valuables and slaves.
On the way back we stopped at Ravello and visited the gardens of the Villa Rufolo overlooking the sea. In Sorrento, the narrow Roman street leading to our hotel was crowded with laughing people and there was a long line of table, laden with fresh pizza. Every few minutes, waiters were rushing out of the cafes to add to it. They were to be sold later in aid of a local charity. The smell was wonderful and after our dinner we held a quiet service in the peaceful hotel garden scented with orange blossom.
The following day we set off for Pompeii, Herculaneum and ultimately Rome. Pompeii is so vast that we only had time to see a section of it. As we walked along the paved streets with their grooves for the chariots, our guide showed us the forum, the ladies’ bath house with its’ seats and lockers and the luxurious house of a relative of Nero, complete with inner garden.
The bath complexes were also used for business deals and rich men who went there, maybe three times a day, often ended up deaf, due to the changes in temperature between the hot, cold and tepid areas.
Further on, in the smaller of the two theatres, the guide demonstrated the effectiveness of the acoustics by standing on the spot assigned to the Narrator of the plays and bellowing out a few notes. It worked!
A house known as “lupinara” in one of the side streets had several small rooms fitted with just stone beds. Alessandro told us these were used by members of the oldest profession call “lupa”, because they made noises like wolves to attract new customers.
Our next stop was Herculaneum, a much smaller town although only about a fourth of it has been excavated. The rest is under later building, too expensive or important to demolish. A steep path led down to the site, which would have been on the seashore. We had a good view of the arches of buildings next to the beach where bodies of woman and children were found, sheltering while the men tried to bring in the boats, soon to be overturned by the ensuing tsunami.
People in Pompeii were killed by the dust and lava when Vesuvius erupted, but thoese in Herculaneum died from the pyroclastic flows after the explosion, which carbonised them. It did the same to wood, preserving doors, beams and so on, allowing us to have a better idea of the daily life of the Romans.
There are bars in which wine racks and wooden partitions can be seen as well as upper levels of restaurants with balconies. Men had their meals lying down on long benches, whilst woman sat modestly on chairs. there is even a laundry press in one of the shops.
Back on the coach for the three hour drive to Rome and another comfortable hotel. This time we had our meals in a restaurant a short walk away, which served very good food. The next morning we met Sonia, our guide for the last three days. We visited the Vatican gardens, then the museums and finishing with the Sistine Chapel. In St. Peter’s Basilica. the Pieta carved by Michelangelo, when he only twenty-three, is especially moving. He carved Mary’s face as that of the young fifteen-year-old chosen to bear the Son. She is stead, holding His body just taken down from the cross. The statue is placed before a panel showing a tree just coming into leaf and symbolising the rebirth and hope of eternal life.
Everywhere there are statues of St. Peter, showing him holding the keys to Heaven or the cross on which he was crucified upside-down.
Statues of St. Paul show him holding the sword, with which he was beheaded. As a Roman citizen he was entitled to an easier death than that of St. Peter.
In front of the basilica is Vatican Square, where the Pope holds a service every Sunday at 12pm. Sonia pointed out the windows of his private apartments and the balcony from which he gives his blessing to the people, but said that the present Pope Francis, prefers to live in a much more modest part of the building.
On Friday we visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major, with it’s magnificent marbles, mosaics and ceilings decorated with the first gold sent back from America by Columbus.
On to the Scala Santa, which the flight of steps brought back from Jerusalem by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity. The steps are said to be those which Jesus ascended when he was taken to Pontius Pilate. It is customary to go up them on your knees saying a prayer on each step.
Close by is St. John Lateran, where the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are enshrined. This basilica serves as the cathedral of Rome, because St. Peter’s is of course that of the Vatican.
Our visit to the Catacombs of San Callisto was very interesting; early Christian signs on the wall rarely show the Cross as it was considered a symbol of criminality. Instead there are the Chi-Rho, the fish, and the anchor, a symbol of eternal life but later drawn as a disguised Cross to avoid persecution. After this reminder of the fragility of human life we went on to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1823 and rebuilt during the following six years.
Saturday was our last full day in Rome and we made the most of it, visiting the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona with its very expensive designer shops and the wonderful Roman Pantheon, with its amazing original dome.
There is a circular aperture in the centre of the dome and on certain days in the year, when the sun is at the right angle, the entrance door is illuminated by a brilliant halo. This was designed so that the ruler of the time could enter and be haloed and hailed as a god.
On to the Trevi fountain, where you can throw coins depending on your wish, one to return to Rome, two to meet a love and three to get a divorce.
After lunch we had our final visit to the Colosseum. Such an impressive achievement, built to keep the population entertained and happy, so that rebellion was the last thing on their minds. The wooden floor covering the arena has long since disappeared, but the network of corridors and cages underneath it where the wild animals, and probably Christians, were kept can clearly be seen. It’s easy to imagine the gladiators saluting the emperor, not knowing if they would live or die and the people baying for blood. That evening we held Compline in the hotel and I though about contrast between the genius of artist and sculptors, whose work uplifts the soul and the cruelty of despots and fanatics, who seek only to inflict harm.
Sunday morning came and we were off to the Ciampino Airport for our flight back to Manchester. We saw and learned so much of this pilgrimage and I loved the opportunity to meet up with old friends and make new ones. Sunshine, good hotels, good food and most important of all, good company.