Saturday 9 February 2013

Jupiter Pluvius & Hot Mark Twain

Caroline & Richard, Villa San Marco

by Caroline Lawrence

We have fled snowy London for Naples in January. We arrive at lunchtime. Naples is cool and overcast, but blessedly free of snow. Our Cambridge alumni tour group is taken by bus to the Hotel Scapolatiello in the charming hill town of Cava de' Tirreni near the Amalfi coast. We check in, drop bags, and an hour later we set out to visit some Roman villas abandoned after the eruption of Vesuvius.

Castellammare del Stabia
Our coach – driven by the angelic Angelo – swishes along a rain-slicked motorway through an afternoon winter storm past un-picturesque buildings along an agro-industrial motorway. We pass through a town called Castellammare. (No town should have that many double consonants.) The pavements are decorated with the same pale wave pattern you see in some Pompeian villas.

ticket booth for the Villa San Marco
We arrive at a car park by a link fence in what looks like an ugly suburb. It is raining hard and almost closing time at the site of a few luxurious Roman villas rarely visited by tourists. Luckily someone is manning the ticket booth – you can never be sure in Italy – probably because our tour guide Valerie phoned ahead to make sure. Professor Valerie Higgins is no ordinary tour guide. She is a professor of Classics at the American University of Rome. She beckons us on.

approaching the Villa San Marco
Down a concrete path, sidestepping rivulets and puddles, we come to the impressive entrance flanked by two fat columns and an un-Roman pot plant out front. Through the entryway and into a big, dim atrium. Spattering, clattering rainwater is pouring through the compluvium, but perhaps not quite as the Roman builders intended. Despite four lions' head gargoyles (that word comes from gargle) at each corner, the lack of a gutter means the water falls from each edge and hits the sides of the impluvium, making the area around it very damp indeed.

Professor Valerie Higgins
Surely all the water should be carried into the rainwater pool?

But we get a sense of the Dickensian darkness that Roman villas would have experienced in the depths of winter. Here the frescoes are obscure or almost invisible. You are almost upon a little figure before you notice him or her. Some are so dim that you pass them by. They’re watching you but you don’t even notice.

Past a baths complex with a nice plunge bath deep enough to require three steps. Hopefully the slaves will have filled it with hot water so you can soak in a steaming tank with rainwater covering your upturned face with cold little kisses.

Roman garden and swimming pool
Passing this, you emerge from dark frescoed rooms into a long garden, bright even with lowering grey clouds. The grass is neon green, the sky electric with lightning as Jupiter Pluvius (Jove who rains) thunders and sends down increased volumes of ‘pluve’. There is a long swimming pool, Olympic-sized, sunk between the spiky rank of pollarded plane trees (not original). Water pours. A gutter channels mini-torrents along to a cistern which will provide the household with fresh water for many a day to come.

Perseus with Medusa
We hunch under umbrellas or hoods and make a dash for the balancing colonnade on the other side of the pool. Jupiter strobes us with his glory and roars his might. Jupiter Pluvior! Along this portico, through rooms, up a ramp, inviting and slick, promising us a view of the Bay of Naples and il Vesuvio looming beyond. What do we see? Grey mist and cloud. And a wonderful (but tiny) fresco of Perseus with the head of Medusa. Jupiter roars a laugh and flashes a picture of our consternation. Bah! Jupiter. We don’t mind. It’s atmosphere! We love it. Bring it on!

And he does. Jove pours wetness from the wooly heavens, roaring and flashing in quick succession, closer and closer, lower and lower, nearer and nearer: Jupiter Pluvissimus!

We scurry through the chilly rain, muttering curses, not at Jupiter but at our husbands who have left their umbrellas in the hotel room requiring us to nobly give over our own brollies and submit to rain in nothing but our hoodies.

The road back to Cava de' Tirenni
Finally reaching the safe haven of the coach again, we stamp up the steps into its warmth, the other British passengers smiling ruefully at the inclement weather. Our coach aquaplanes down torrents that were streets and sends great bow waves up onto the pavement. Back along an ugly motorway that cuts inland across the gulf, not even glimpsing that pastel kingdom of Lemon-dom: Sorrento. At last we reach our hotel on a hill whose rain-slicked terrace can almost – but not quite – show us the Amalfi waters of Solerno.

Sabbatino makes a Hot Mark Twain
Damp and shivering, we congregate by a the hotel bar and try to think of variations on hot toddies. I ask Sabbatino the bartender, what the locals drink. He turns, surveys the colourful bottles on the shelf and finally chooses a bottle of something orange. This is very good, he says. But when he can’t undo the top and has to run it under boiling water I get suspicious. Is this that notorious bottle that has been lurking at the back of the others? Does he finally sees his chance to offload it on an unsuspecting tourist?

Scapolatiello fireside
The previous week my friend McAvoy Layne AKA Mark Twain visited London from Nevada to promote a whiskey. At the reception, they served a drink called a Mark Twain. It consists of whiskey, lemon juice, sugar syrup and water. We could make one with hot water and call it a Hot Mark Twain!

Do you have lemons? I ask Sabbatino. But of course! In a region that produces four crops of lemons a year, the hotel has plenty.

And it turns out that a Hot Mark Twain is just the thing to sip after a chilly afternoon spent with Jupiter Pluvius on the Bay of Naples.

Caroline travelled to The Bay of Naples with Andante Travels via CamTravel at her own bleeding expense! But it was worth it.

1 comment:

Sue Bursztynski said...

I must admit, I like my storms only when I'm inside with a hot Mark Twain! ;-) If I'd been doing a tour during a storm I would have been thinking of getting out of the rain, but you thought Jupiter Pluvius. Well done! A lovely description.