A Day in Pompeii

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April last year I had the idea that I wanted to visit and explore the ruins of Pompeii, possibly staying in nearby Naples as they was the closest big city.  I was considering it for my summer holidays last yet, as I generally always take a week off around my birthday.

But I made the mistake of asking an Italian mate of mine his opinion of visiting Naples, and whether he could suggest which areas to stay in.  His response – go somewhere else.

He literally didn’t have a single good thing to say about the area – dangerous, dirty, uninteresting – and suggested I go to Sorrento instead on the other site of Pompeii (about the same distance from the ruins, but to the south).

Well, I look into staying in Sorrento or further south on the Amalfi Coast (as he also suggested), and the rooms were probably at least 3 times the cost as they were in Naples.  And from what I read online, there really wasn’t anything historic in that area.

It was more of a tourist trap, even if the views are gorgeous.

So I talked myself out of going and went to Spain instead (again).  Barcelona and Sitges were amazing, but it was more a beach holiday than the city/historical break that I’d wanted.

Anyway flash forward to my disappointing trip to Paris this past Spring (read about that here and here), I started to think about where I wanted to visit next, and I looked at Pompeii once more.  Figured the weather might still be decent in late September…

Only this time I almost gave up booking as it seemed like EVERYONE was visiting that area the month before I was looking to go… including my Italian friend (and his husband) that talked me out of going last year!!  The cheek!

I almost went somewhere else, but said screw it.. I want to go to Pompeii.  So I booked my trip, and I had an absolutely amazing time.

Honestly, I don’t know what my friend’s issue with Naples was as I quite liked it.  Perhaps it helped that I had rented myself a little studio apartment in the historic area so it was easy to walk around everywhere (which I did.. my poor feet).

But think it also helped that I met several locals that made me feel welcome.  One guy I was chatting to online as I arrived offered to pick me up and show me around the area a bit in his car.

I was somewhat hesitant (being a stranger and all..), but I went with my gut and we had an amazing evening driving up the coast, and then he took me to the ‘best pizzeria in Naples’ according to him – the pizza and home-made beer were astounding.

I spent most of the next day relaxing in the studio before going out in the afternoon for more wandering around the city.  This time I ended up just north of the historic area where it was clear this was the ‘real Naples‘ – narrow streets, washing hanging from the doorways/balconies, people talking to their neighbours across the street.

It really allowed me to see the true city away from the tourist crap, and I love that about a city.

Finally on the Sunday I made my way out of the city to Pompeii.

I hadn’t realised just how big this excavated city really was until 4 hours later when I was still walking around and still hadn’t seen it all.  Guess the online travel bloggers were right after all – don’t try to do all of Pompeii in one day.  It was just too much.

But luckily the route I’d unintentionally took (I just picked a direction and started walking, then got out the site map to see where I was) allowed me to see most of the major buildings – the amphitheatre, multiple gardens, the Basilica, the baths, and the grand theatre (pictured to the right) just to name a few.

But more than anything it was just amazing to be standing in a place so enriched with history (and mystery), to see the reconstructed ruins, and read about the different buildings (had the site guide on my mobile).

Just being there made all the idiocy in planning the trip worth it.

As for Naples itself, I do hope to return for another visit sometime in the future and see more of the surrounding areas.  There was just too much to see in such a short period of time.  Plus now I know some people in the area, so that helps.

Now.. where to next?  😀

Ceremony of the Keys – Tower of London

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A few weeks back, a mate messaged to see if I was free on an upcoming Wednesday evening as he had a spare ticket for something that evening due to his partner being out of town for work.

Well as luck would have it I was totally free!  What a shocker!  😉  So I agreed to meet him and another couple they’re friends with (who’d arranged the tickets), though I was still a bit baffled as to what we were doing.

It turned out it was for something called the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London.  I’d previously visited there a few years back with a friend from Canada (click HERE to read previous post), so was a bit surprised I hadn’t heard of this ceremony.  We’d definitely explored the entire place as far as I was aware.

Well it turns out this ceremony is actually only ‘performed’ at night (between 9:30pm and 10:05pm to be exact) and has nothing to do with the regular daytime tours.

About the Ceremony of the Keys

The Ceremony of the Keys is the traditional locking up of the Tower of London and has taken place on each and every night, without fail, for at least 700 years. The importance of securing this fortress for the night is still very relevant because, although the Monarch no longer resides at this royal palace, the Crown Jewels and many other valuables still do!

This meant we got to be in the Tower of London well after it normally closed to witness something that most people didn’t even know existed.  I know I didn’t.

beefeatersThe ceremony itself was quite interesting, as we were lead from the main entrance down the main avenue inside the tower by one of the traditional yeomen warders – also known as ‘beefeaters‘ – who gave us bits of history as we went.

All warders are retired from the Armed Forces of Commonwealth realms and must be former senior non-commissioned officers or petty officers with at least 22 years of service. They must also hold the Long Service and Good Conduct medal. (Source: Wikipedia)

Once we reached the gates leading to the inner courtyard where the Crown Jewels are kept, we were given more instructions and explanations on the ceremony itself. As well as very strict instructions that absolutely no photos were allowed.. something one of the women in the group got sternly reminded of when she tried to snap a pic of a marching guard.

Basically, a guard contingent will escort the keeper of the keys from the main gate after he’s locked it up for the night into the inner court yard.  En route he is challenged first by the aforementioned marching guard before entering the court yard, and then once again by a second guard contingent inside the court yard.  Once he’s confirmed both his identity and that the outer tower has been locked tight, he’s given leave to complete his circuit of the inner town and finish locking up.

ceremony of the keysTo some it may seem ridiculous to continue such an ancient and perhaps unnecessary ceremony every night for 700 years (one person joked, “Doesn’t the Queen have insurance?” lol), but I disagree.  I found it absolutely fascinating and enjoyed every moment of it.  It’s a hidden gem of a tour that most don’t know about.

Plus it reminded me of how much of this city’s history most of us take for granted or just outright ignore.  We’re living in one of the most historic cities in the world, and most of it’s residents have no clue about any of it.

Here’s hoping I’ll get some more opportunities to see more of these hidden gems.

To read more about the ceremony or to arrange tickets (minimum 6 months in advance.. they only allow a small group each evening), please go to the Tower of London – Ceremony of the Keys website.

Exploring History – Tower of London

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It’s so easy to forget sometimes that I live in an amazingly historic city, where there are tons of things and places to see, visit and explore in London.  It’s not just the historical sites or museums, as there’s a plethora of more modern things to do as well.  But it’s more that I’m here in this city and I tend to not think of ‘playing tourist’ in my own city.IMG_1795

I really should do it more often.. we all should really.

Instead, I tend to get stuck into my day-to-day life of work, sleep, eat, and occasionally having a social life (whatever that is lol).

If anything I think there are tons of people living in this city (or other historical cities around the world) who’ve never actually done the touristy things because it’s ‘just there’ and you get in the mindset of maybe you’ll go visit this place or that one when some relative comes to town to visit.

Well that’s kinda of what happened with me last Sunday.  A dear friend of mine from my days in Montreal (he lives in Vancouver now) was in town on a 24 lay-over (flight crew for a Canadian airline), so he suggested we do something touristy.  He tends to get a London flight once every 6 months or so, so we usually just spent it getting pissed in Soho and not doing much else.

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After messaging back and forth on Facebook, we eventually decided to meet at London Bridge station, walk down the river to cross over Tower Bridge, and then over to the Tower of London itself.

Now despite my living here for 5 years or so now, I’d never been to the Tower of London.  Sure I’d walked by it a couple times, or passed by on a bus, but never considered going inside and taking a peek around.  It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested, because I was, it was more that it just never happened..

First thing you need to know about Tower of London if you’re going to visit is you better be wearing comfortable shoes and be able to stand for long periods or climb lots of stairs.  Walking by it doesn’t necessarily look like the towers would be that high, and they’re really now, but there are tons and tons of tiny stairwells.

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As for the standing around, we had to wait in the queue for about 40 minutes to get into the Crown Jewels exhibit and then walk through the exhibit itself at a very slow and halting pace (though there is one section where they have a moving sidewalk past some displays).. only to have everyone crowding around one little display of the Crown Jewels themselves.  It was cool to see (you’re not allowed to photograph it though..), but just seems like the rest was a build up for something that didn’t happen.. but that’s just me probably.

The other exhibit we had to queue for was the Torture Tower.. which was actually in a basement/dungeon, and wasn’t that exciting.  We went into a tiny lower room that had maybe 3 torture devices on display, then up and our again.  Just a tad disappointing.

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Maybe I’m a bit of a sadist, but I think it could have been cool if people could have been strapped into some of the devices (like the rack) to get pictures taken.  At least it would have made a fun Facebook pic.  Hahahah

Overall it was a cool visit to the Tower of London and I did enjoy it, but probably not as much as someone else who’s really into history or war memorabilia.

More than anything it was cool to hang out with my friend, joke around, and just catch up on life.. and take pictures of course. 😀

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