The Sunday porch: Puebla, Mexico

Veranda restaurant of the Hotel Diligencias, Puebla, Mexico, between 1880 and 1897, by William Henry Jackson, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (both photos).

The veranda seems to go around the second floor of an internal courtyard.

I believe this is the same eating area from the other side.

Puebla was once a layover point for those traveling between Veracruz and Mexico City. In the 1880s, Jackson had a commission to take photographs of the Mexican Central Railroad.

The Sunday porch: Pompeii atrium

enclos*ure- Pompeii courtyard, Hse of the Tragic PoetThe atrium of the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, Italy.  This house was built near the end of the 1st century B.C. and excavated in 1824.

Well-to-do Roman city houses had no openings to the streets other than the front and back doors.  After entering from the front directly from the sidewalk, one walked down an entrance corridor or fauces and into the atrium, which often had an ceiling opening to the sky, like the one shown above.

Underneath the opening was a shallow pool or impluvium to catch rainwater and channel it to a water tank below. The water could later be drawn up through the puteal — in the photo above: the short, round, hollow column beside the impluvium.

At the back of the atrium, opposite the entrance corridor, was the tablinum or central room of the house. The doors of family bedrooms also opened onto the atrium.

When I took the photo above about two weeks ago, I was standing behind the tablinum, looking across it and into the atrium.  On the other side was the fauces and then the front door of the house. Behind me was a very small enclosed garden surrounded by a colonnade and some other small bedrooms, a kitchen, and a latrine.

The walls of the atrium of this house used to be covered with six frescoes depicting scenes from the Iliad.  The three that survived can be seen today in the National Archeology Museum in Naples.

The house takes its name from one of the frescoes that was in the tablinum, which excavators mistakenly thought to be a picture of a poet reciting his verses.

Visiting Pompeii

To get to Pompeii from Naples, we again took the Circumvesuviana rail line from the Central Station (more information here).  We took the “Sorrento” train and, about an half hour later, got off at “Pompeii-Scavi.”   The entrance to the site is right there at the station.


For a 2 to 3 hour guided tour of the site with 8+ people, the cheapest options I found were:

  • Mondo Guide, a guide company loosely affiliated with travel writer Rick Steves.  Go to this link, and put your name/s on the list for the desired date.  If 8 people sign up, they will do the tour and everyone will be charged €12*.  If there aren’t at least 8 requests, there will be no tour that day (it didn’t work out for us).
  • Tempio Travel, a guide company with a ticket stand right where you get off the train (Infopoint).  They guide groups of 8+ as they collect enough people (we waited about 20 minutes).  For the price of €12* per person, our guide was OK, and since we have only a moderate interest in Roman history, we were satisfied.

Walks of Rome offers a group tour for a maximum of 12 people for €49 each, which includes the entrance fee.  They are recommended on the blog Revealed Rome.  (Its author also has a good, inexpensive Kindle guidebook by the same title.)  However, they were fully booked for our day.  For all these options, except Tempio Travel, book early.

If you have the budget, you can get a personal tour from Mondo Guides (see above) or Gaetano Manfredi (who is also recommended by Rick Steves).  There is also a Mr. Caporaso (, who was recommended to me in an e-mail from Mr. Manfredi. And, of course, if you do an internet search, you will find many others.  It seems that the per-person prices are €50 to €100+.

Of course, you can also rent an audioguide at the entrance.

Tickets and lunch, etc.

The entrance ticket to Pompeii is €11.  Contrary to what I read online, the site did seem to be accepting credit cards, but I would recommend having cash to be sure and for a faster line.  Mid-morning, near the end of May, it was not bad — about 5-10 minutes.

The ticket is for all day, but once you leave the site, you can’t re-enter.  So if you want to stay inside after your morning tour, you will have to go to the busy cafeteria near the forum to buy lunch (the restrooms are there too.)  However, there didn’t seem to be any restriction against bringing in a sandwich in a small backpack or bag.

Wear serious sunscreen; the site is almost completely open to the sun.

You will appreciate the ruins much more if you visit the National Archeology Museum in Naples and see the many frescoes and other artifacts that were removed from the site during the 19th and 20th century excavations.  (You may also want to check out this series of articles about Pompeii in The Telegraph.)

*Site entrance fee and transport not included.

In Amalfi


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Two Saturdays ago, we were just beginning a brief vacation in Italy, in  Sorrento on the Bay of Naples.

On Sunday, as a day trip, we took a local bus along the winding, narrow, cliff-hanging road that edges the gorgeous Amalfi Coast.

We rode it all the way to Amalfi itself– an important city back around the first millennium A.D., but now just a very pretty coastal resort selling hand-painted ceramics and products made from lemons.

The little strip of grey pebbles and fist-sized rocks that is Amalfi’s “beach” did not impress us, but the sparkling blue, clear-to-the-bottom water was very inviting.

There is one main street, which runs straight back from the sea and up into the surrounding hills about a half mile. On either side above it, houses and small lemon groves cling to steep slopes, connected by an extensive web of covered and open alleyways and steps.

The duomo or cathedral is the town’s major site. It was constructed and re-constructed from the 9th to 19th centuries and displays a mix of Norman-Arab Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, and Baroque architecture styles.

The photos above are of its Cloister of Paradise, built in 1268 as a gravesite for local wealthy merchants. The Arab style of the beautiful simple arches is not surprising, given Amalfi’s close ties during the Middle Ages with Arab traders throughout the Mediterranean (not excluding traffickers in European slaves).

Pretty as the cloister was, however, I have to say that my favorite Amalfi garden was this tiny terrace (below). Its horizontally espaliered lemon trees were guarded by a Roman soldier and the seven dwarves.


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Visiting Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast

Travel writer Rick Steves says this about Sorrento:

The Sorrentines have gone out of their way to create a completely safe and relaxed place for tourists to spend money. . . . Spritzed by lemon and olive groves, this gateway to the Amalfi Coast has an unspoiled old quarter, a lively main shopping street, [and] a spectacular cliffside setting.

That’s pretty much what we wanted for the first two nights of our vacation, and that’s what we got.   Like Amalfi, aside from tourism, the city is now mainly known for growing impressively large lemons.  Its limoncello is supposed to be the best.  (Although I think it tastes like an alcoholic lemon drop, much too sweet; Amaro is my Italian digestive of choice.)

A swimming area along the Sorrento waterfront.
A swimming area along the Sorrento waterfront.
Getting around . . . train

To get to Sorrento from the Naples train station (Stazione Centrale), follow the signs leading downstairs to the platform for the Circumvesuviana commuter train.  Tickets are only €4.10 and can be purchased right at the turnstile.  Make sure you get on a train marked “Sorrento.”  They leave every half hour.

The Circumvesuviana was the only place where we had any problem with crime during our trip.  The platform was very crowded, and almost as soon as we entered the train, a pickpocket tried to take my husband’s wallet. After that, he kept his credit card and money in a small zippered bag with a loop attached to his belt — something like this.

We were each traveling with a rolling carry-on bag and a “personal item.”  This is the most I would ever try to keep track of on this train.

From the Sorrento train station, it’s an easy walk to the historic part of the city.


To return to Naples, we walked to the Sorrento piers and took one of the fast hydrofoil boats. The boats leave about every two hours, and you don’t need a reservation. (From the same place, there are also boats to Amalfi, Positano, and Capri.)

To buy the €15 ticket, go to the sunken semi-circle area in the photo below, consult the extensive, yet unrevealing signage to the find the correct line, and then ask for a one-way on the “Jet”  to Calata Beverello-Naples (a brief walk away from the Piazza Plebiscito).  The view of Naples as you arrive by water is lovely.

That's Mt. Vesuvius in the center.
That’s Mt. Vesuvius in the center.

The SITA bus that took us to Amalfi and back was a bargain thrill ride (the road is often only one and a half lanes wide) at €6.80 for all-day, on-and-off access. Buses leave Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi about every hour (but not 24 hours, so check the schedule for the time of the last bus). The Sorrento-Amalfi trip takes one to two hours, depending on traffic.  In Sorrento, tickets are sold at the SITA bus stop in front of the train station.  The buses are blue, except when they’re red.

Hotel and restaurants

We stayed at the Hotel Rivoli in Sorrento, right in the center of the historic area.  The rooms were simple, clean, and comfortable.  The staff were very helpful with directions and advice.  The €5 breakfast offered croissants, cereal, and fruit, plus enough sweets to fill out a respectable Christmas buffet table.

We arrived in Sorrento after 24 hours of travel and by 6:15 p.m., we were exhausted.  At that very un-Italian dinner hour, L’Antica Trattoria served us their three-course “light lunch” very graciously.  Given the high quality of the food, it was a bargain at €20 each. We also had a very good meal the next night at the more unassuming Ristorante O’ Murzill’ at Via Dell’ Accademia, 17.

.   .   .  borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.

— Walter Savage Landor, from “To Robert Browning

A study in steps: Petraio in Naples


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I believe L’ESSENZIALE, inscribed at the top, refers to a song written and sung by Marco Mengoni.  Translated into English, one verse says:

As the world falls into pieces
I craft new spaces and needs
That belong to you too
You, whom I believe to be the ESSENTIAL

L’essenziale” was Italy’s third best selling single of 2013. It came in seventh at the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest.

Visiting Naples

We were on vacation in Italy last week, spending two nights in Naples.

The city has a reputation and a reality that puts off many tourists, but I have to say, I loved it and wished that we could have stayed another night.

I liked the sense of theater in its architecture and that its narrow lively streets made me think of Morocco and Istanbul, as well as Caracas and Havana.  And everywhere we looked, there was something wonderful to eat.

Added to that, we saw relatively few other tourists and no American food franchises.

While we were there at least, it was no more littered than Rome (granted, not really high praise).  We saw many patrolling police officers and had no crime problems (except for a pickpocket attempt while getting on the Circumvesuviana commuter train).*

The sights

This living medieval city is its own best sight.
Rick Steves

We are very low-achieving tourists, taking the flâneur approach. We spent most of our time walking along the little streets of the Spagnoli and Spaccanapoli (centro storico) neighborhoods. We also took the funicular up to Petraio for panoramic views of the city and Mt. Vesuvius — particularly good from the entrance to Certosa di San Martino.


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The only museum we visited was the National Archeology Museum, which houses many of the frescoes and other artifacts from nearby Pompeii.  This was essential preparation for a visit to the site, which took more than half a day of our stay in Naples.

If you arrive at the museum after lunch, don’t be disappointed if many of its galleries are closed off and dark.  They will open a little later.  The museum does not have the funds to keep all the rooms open during the lunch hours. (It’s closed entirely on Tuesdays.)

If we had stayed another day or two, I would have visited the Capodimonte, some churches in Spaccanapoli (particularly the Cappella Sansevero with its “veiled Christ”), and maybe the National Museum/Monastery of San Martino.  There are also a number of interesting underground sites, but I don’t do well with underground.


We stayed at the Chiaja Hotel de Charme on Via Chiaia, a pedestrian shopping street on the edge of the well-to-do Chiaia (or Chiaja) neighborhood.

The hotel is 27 rooms on the second floor of a multi-story apartment building with a central courtyard.  Don’t panic if you come back from dinner and find the building shut up like a fortress.  Push the hotel’s doorbell (on the panel to the left), and the front desk will buzz you in through a tiny door set into the huge main doors.  The hotel is attractive, quiet, and comfortable in a traditional style.  The staff was very helpful, and the breakfast was good (sfogliatella, fruit, yogurt, cereal).

The hotel is an easy walk to the waterfront and to Via Toledo, a north-south (partly pedestrian) street, which runs from the Piazza del Plebiscito — between the historic neighborhoods of Spagnoli and Spaccanapoli — to the National Archeology Museum (a little over a mile-long walk).  It is also about a half mile to a subway stop on the line to the main train station.

(I got a better room rate on, by the way, than on the hotel’s own website, so check both.)


We wanted to eat our dinners fairly close to the hotel, so the staff directed us to Pizzeria Mattozzi (on Via G. Filangeri) and to Umberto (on Via Alabardieri).  Both were excellent, and both serve traditional Napoli dishes, including pizza.  We also enjoyed lunch one day at Hosteria Toledo on Vico Giardinetto in Spagnoli.

*We generally felt quite safe, but do carry a well-zipped crossbody bag. (Men might like one of these.) Avoid empty, dark side streets (well, they are all rather dark, but most are full of working or strolling people). I would only enter or leave the train station by the main Piazza Garibaldi entrance and only during daylight hours.

Continue reading “A study in steps: Petraio in Naples”

Snapshots: Istanbul

After visiting Prague, we spent Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day in Istanbul. It was wonderful, of course, as everyone said it would be.

Here are some snapshots and a few travel tips.

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(If you would like to scroll through larger versions of the images, click on ‘Continue reading’ below and then on any thumbnail in the gallery.)

We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel.  Going on public transportation would have involved a bus and then a tram.  It sounded do-able, but would have taken about an hour and a half, and we arrived rather late in the day.

We stayed at the Hotel Ibrahim Pasha, which I loved for its tasteful, comfortable decor and the thoughtful approach of its staff.  It’s a small place on a side street along the south side of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, steps from the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque.  Downstairs in front of the sofas, the fireplaces were lit all the time.  Books were everywhere.  The standard rooms are very small (think Paris small), but well designed. Breakfast was delicious.

We practically levitated off the bed every morning at about 6:00 a.m. when the call to prayer began, but I enjoyed it — and also listening to the sunset call from the rooftop, while looking at the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara. Upon arrival, the hotel provided us with a map and their own lists of recommended restaurants, shops, and walking routes.  Everything we tried was excellent.  They also have their own app for iPhone and Android.

Really, if I ever run away from home, you will find me at the Hotel Ibrahim Pasha.

We really enjoyed the food at Khorasani,* a kebab restaurant very near the hotel.  We had dinner there twice (the kebabs “marinated” in pistachios were my favorite).  In Karaköy, the wharf area just to the east of the north end of the Galata Bridge, we had a lunch of mezes at Karaköy Lokantasi. It has a decor “reminiscent of the Turkish Republic of the 1930s,” in the words of the Ibrahim Pasha.

When eating in Sultanhmet, have your hotel make you reservations at your chosen restaurants, so that when you are lost, and the waiters of all the other eateries are trying to pull you in, you can say, “Sorry, we have reservations.”  Then, they will kindly guide you.

[Addendum:  If you are vegan or vegetarian, you might appreciate this guide to eating in Istanbul.]

Do buy your Turkish Delight candy** at a stall in the Spice (Egyptian) Market (rather than pre-packaged at the airport), so that  it will be fresh and you can choose the flavors (and taste samples). The best of it is so good. Get the kind made with honey and flavored with pomegranates, cherries, or pistachios.  We bought some rolled in chopped rose petals. (The merchants can vacuum seal your boxes.)

The only guidebooks we bought before leaving home were the e-book versions of DK’s Top 10 Prague and Top 10 Istanbul.  I think they were 99¢ each, which was about right.  After perusing the shelves at the hotel, I would recommend Istanbul: Memories and the City (a personal memoir) by Orhan PamukIstanbul’s Bazaar Quarter: Backstreet Walking Tours by Edda Renker Weissenbacher and Ann Marie Mershon, and Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City by Hilary Sumner-Boyd  and John Freely.

Cornucopia magazine and its blog are also interesting.  There are some beautiful old photographs of Istanbul by Pierre Loti in a recent post, here.

When necessary, we had no problem finding people who spoke English or signs in English.

*Khorasani is at Divanyolu Caddesi Ticarethane Sokak, No. 39/41 Sultanahmet. Karaköy Lokantasi is at Kemankes Caddesi 37/A, Karaköy.
** I think it’s actually a requirement of your visa that you take home several boxes.  You will see crates of it at the airport.
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