Alumni News... College Trip to Italy

Two Weeks in Rome and Pompeii

By: Richard Catherina
GWCS Graduate - Class of 2014

Each winter, George Mason University runs two-week study abroad trips where students can earn up to three credits in the discipline of their choosing. As a student of history at George Mason University, and someone who has a great interest in travel, I signed up for a trip called “From Fire, Stone, and Water: The Rise of Roman Civilization.” An interdisciplinary course in geoarchaeology, the trip focused on how the Romans used the territory and climate to their advantage to create one of the most powerful civilizations of all time.

On January 2nd, 2017, I finished my first transatlantic flight and landed at Capodichino airport in Naples, Italy. I had my first culture shock when I saw uniformed men standing outside the airport holding assault rifles. For the duration of my trip, I saw a military presence throughout the country at nearly every airport, train station, and high-traffic area.  My second culture shock came when a driver came to pick us up and take us to our hotel near the excavations of Pompeii. It was then I learned that in Italy rules of the road are more like guidelines, speed limits are suggestions, and aggressive driving is both expected and required.

picture 1

Our first day was dedicated to exploring the site of what used to be the city of Pompeii. Within the ancient city we saw the remains of restaurants, resort villas, temples, forums, etc. What stood out was the quality of the preservation. Some of the buildings were still structurally sound; some of the buildings still had their original artwork. One of the best examples of this preservation that I encountered was an ancient brothel complete with pornographic paintings that had been impeccably preserved since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The most haunting of the sights in Pompeii was that of a man who had been caught in the pyroclastic flow. (see picture 1).

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The following day, we hiked to the top of Mt. Vesuvius. Mt. Vesuvius is an active volcano; steam and volcanic gases emanate from the crater now, carrying with them the smell of sulfur (see picture 2). The height of the volcano and the clarity of the day provided for an unparalleled view of the bay of Naples (see picture 3).

We visited other places during our time around Pompeii, including the city of Herculaneum (another city destroyed in the eruption of 79 A.D.), the Piscina Mirabilis (where the Roman navy stored drinking water), and the city of Naples. After three days-worth of adventures near Pompeii, it was time to move to the second place we would be staying: Trinity University’s Roman Campus housing, managed by the Camaldolesi Nuns.

We got to walk through Circus Maximus, which was less than half a mile away from our housing. Once the track where the Romans would host their greatest chariot races, the Circus Maximus is now a public park used by runners, cyclists, and dog owners looking for somewhere to play fetch (and according to our professor, it is also sometimes used as a venue for concerts).

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For two days in Rome we were free to explore as we wished. The first day, I went along with a few friends to St. Peter’s Square, where Pope Francis gave an address to a crowd of hundreds. That was an experience unlike any other. Even though I couldn’t understand a word he said (the address was in Italian), Pope Francis commanded my attention for the duration of his speech. The second free day we decided to see the Vatican Museums. Stepping into the Sistine Chapel, I marveled at the height and size of the ceiling and the detail with which it had been painted. They don’t let you take pictures inside, so you’ll have to just take my word that it is one of the most amazing things you can ever see. This theme of enormous size and flawless detail pervaded the rest of the sites we visited.

During our stay in Rome, we visited multiple historic sites including the Colosseum, the Diocletian Baths, and the Imperial Forums. Seeing Trajan’s column, a pillar roughly 100 feet tall covered in an artistic depiction of the Roman wars with the Dacians and their eventual conquest by the emperor Trajan, all I could think about was the massive amount of time and the colossal effort that must have gone into building it. Standing on the outer rim of the Colosseum, looking in toward the center, I could envision how amazing it must have been to be a Roman watching the games (see picture 4). At each site we visited, the size and intricacy consistently captured my attention.

picture 4

As students, we had the benefit of visiting places most tourists dare not tread. One of the first places we visited after arriving in Rome was the underground tunnels around a small volcanic lake called Nemi. Exploring these caves was on one hand thrilling and on the other hand painful. Making my way through the hills with nothing but my headlamp to light the way, covering it at times to avoid waking up the bats hanging from the ceiling, and crawling through tunnels on my stomach were some of the most unique and unusual experiences I had over the entire two weeks. The only downside to this experience was that the height of the tunnel was often considerably shorter than my own. I spent much of my time in the cave walking doubled over, which provided for effective, yet unpleasant, lower back and glute exercise. I now understand why there are few 6’3” speleologists in the world. Later we went to the catacombs of St. Sebastian. We saw long bones, digit bones, skull shards, and teeth of people who were buried there thousands of years ago. For most of us, it was a thrilling and intellectually stimulating experience. Others in our group found it creepy and uncomfortable.

After experiencing 16 days of unbelievably good food, beautiful scenery, and fascinating history, it was time to come home. There were many other experiences I had on the trip, such as seeing the city of Ostia and hiking through an aqueduct, but those I have described were the ones that stood out most of all. Going to Italy was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I had an amazing time and became close friends with some awesome people. I miss Italy now, and I hope I can see it again.