Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to do an Egyptian Temple Tour

Temple of Isis at Aswan
If you're going to Egypt, chances are you're going to Luxor. And if you're going to Luxor, you're just a short day tour away from four COOL temples! Between Luxor and Aswan is a leisurely air-conditioned van ride and the Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo temple complexes. And, of course, Aswan boasts THE Temple of Isis. Read about my adventures in Aswan here.

I actually did the van tour in reverse - I took an overnight train all the way south from Cairo to Aswan, and then the van ride north (which is to say, "down" from upper Egypt - I love Egyptian geography) to Luxor. The decision to do it this way was mostly made by the logic that if I was taking the sleeper train anyway, I might as well sleep a little later and get to Aswan, instead of waking up at the crack of dawn to disembark in Luxor. It turned out to be a good decision.

Temple of Horus at Edfu
Another good decision was NOT doing what I had originally planned - trying to take the temple tour on my own, by train. This would have left me (three times) wandering the desert like Moses with luggage, as I tried to hop on and off of trains, grab taxis and get to the temples and back to the train stations. IXNAY.

Instead, I signed up for the van ride.

I normally avoid anything with the word "van" in it because I can get seasick washing my hair and carsick sitting in a parked car anywhere near a windy road. Which can make for an unpleasant day. But I popped a Bonine before the van tour and was quite fine. The roads weren't windy, the air conditioning felt heavenly between temples, and there was quite a bit of entertainment along the way (see Mick Dundee and Spaghetti Strap Girl.)
Dude Playing Tennis or Zombie Apocalypse?

First, there's Kom Ombo. This Greco-Roman temple pays tribute to Cleopatra's ancestors (one of my favorite Egyptian topics) and boasts images of Sobek, the crocodile god. There are crocodile mummies in the Chapel of Hathor, excavated from a crocodile necropolis that was near the site. Another subject of interest to me, which found its way into The Vesuvius Isotope.

Next, we stop at the temple of Edfu. I found the Temple of Horus here quite reminiscent of the Temple of Isis at Aswan, with the symmetrical walls surrounding a lower entrance. The reliefs are quite well-preserved, and remind me a lot of two dudes playing tennis, or maybe a zombie apocalypse.

Finally, we arrive at Esna before moving along to our final destination at Luxor. The Esna temple features one of the cutest statues in Egypt. It is supposed to be the falcon god Horus, which I would envision as powerful and intimidating, but the statue to me looks like an owl in a top hat. Sorry.

Falcon God, or Owl in Top Hat?
A temple tour might seem like a peripheral activity on your Egyptian vacation, perhaps less important than the sites in Luxor or the pyramids. But if you have an extra day and are into temples, I highly recommend it. And it's a great excuse to visit Aswan.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How to do Luxor

Luxor Temple
Linked within this post are some of the "What Would Katrina Do" adventures - the real-time, solo travels that accompanied me on my research trip when I was writing The Vesuvius Isotope. Also linked are some of the websites for locations mentioned.

They say that Venice is Disneyland for adults. I think you can say the same about Luxor. From filtering through ancient tombs like ants through a child's ant farm, to enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride along the Nile; from relaxing pool-side near a hookah lounge to searching for the hidden papyrus in Luxor Temple, Luxor has something for everyone.

You can arrive in Luxor by flying or by train. Overnight trains from Cairo are efficient and safe, but it is recommended that you avoid the food on them (I certainly did.) Because I was alone, I reserved an overnight cabin for one, which had a good lock and was quite comfortable.
Luxor train

Once you arrive in town, there's a lot to see in the vicinity of Luxor Temple. The area is walkable, but in the 120 degree heat you might want to taxi parts of it. Spend some time exploring the temple itself and check out the impressive avenue of sphinxes that leads to it.

One thing about Egyptian temples that I loved was the tributes to agriculture, and specifically to the papyrus (symbol of lower Egypt) and lotus (symbol of upper Egypt.) Many of the pillars are in the shape of papyrus plants, the sun is often represented as an inverted papyrus plant, and the lotus and papyrus are shown intertwined throughout temple reliefs.
Luxor Temple, featuring Abu al-Haggag Mosque

Another interesting feature of Luxor Temple is the fact that there's a mosque built right on top of it. The temple was once completely buried. The mosque was built on top, and only later were the temple and avenue of sphinxes excavated. But the mosque remains.

Across from the temple is a tourist bazaar and adjacent to that, the Winter Palace Hotel.

Winter Palace Hotel Suite
I stayed at the Winter Palace. I initially booked a "normal" room in the Winter Pavilion, which is a smaller, less opulent hotel next to the palace. Because it is part of the Winter Palace complex, the palace grounds are open to the pavilion. When I arrived, I was upgraded for free to a corner suite in the palace featuring views of the grounds from two sides.
Winter Palace Hotel Grounds
Because I was nearing the end of my Egyptian trip, I found myself feeling a bit lazy (and the Luxor heat didn't help.) So I spent a day in Luxor enjoying the vast swimming pools of the hotel, the beautiful gardens and the hookah lounge. And in the study, trying to follow in the footsteps of Madame Christie, who wrote Death on the Nile here.
Hatshepsut Temple

But I did manage to get out and see Luxor.

An air-conditioned van (thank GOD) takes you around the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and Tombs of the Nobles. You can also visit Hatshepsut Temple, and from there catch a breathtaking view of one of my favorite Egyptian phenomena: the sharp, drastic contrast between lush Nile valley and forbidding desert sand.

Colossi of Memnon
When you visit the tombs of the pharaohs, remember this: each of these tombs was built and decorated in the lifetime of the pharaoh by manual labor alone. POOF! Yep, that was your head exploding. And not only from the heat. Did I mention it's hot in Luxor?

Crossing back from the West Bank to the East Bank of Luxor, you'll probably get to stop for a photo op with the Colossi of Memnon, guards to the long-gone tomb of Amenhotep III. From these statues, the Nile/Desert Contrast Phenomenon is also evident (see above.)

Except for the pyramids, Luxor is probably the most touristy place in Egypt, giving it that "Disneyland" feel. There is always a bit of crowding at the tombs, especially during the "cooler" times of day (which is to say, low 100s instead of 120s.)  But because the Luxor/Thebes sites are so spread out, there is still a lot of solidarity and the feeling of an authentic vacation in an exotic land.

If you're looking for an adult Disneyland that features pharaohs instead of Plutos and ruins instead of rides, look no further than Luxor for an adventure trip of a lifetime.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

How to do Cairo

Linked within this post are some of the "What Would Katrina Do" adventures - the real-time, solo travels that accompanied me on my research trip when I was writing The Vesuvius Isotope. Also linked are some of the websites for locations mentioned.

Cairo and the Nile
From her walled tributes to Christianity and Islam to the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, Cairo is a wonder in her own right. "The city of a thousand minarets" is also the city of a thousand personalities, and each one should be on every traveler's bucket list.

Of course, there are the pyramids. But the pyramids are far from Cairo's only treasure. To fully appreciate all that Cairo has to offer, a visitor should plan to spend at least a few days.

The cab ride from the airport to the city center will be your first adventure. If you've never been to Cairo, I can almost guarantee that you have never seen traffic madness like this in your life. Never. I personally found the traffic conditions flat-out fascinating, but one ride in a taxi was enough for me to use the Metro and my feet from that moment forward.
The Ramses Hilton Nile View King Executive Suite

I stayed at the Ramses Hilton. Not usually one to splurge on the swankiest hotel in town *by a long shot*, I only made this decision because I was traveling through Egypt alone and, as an American female, I just felt safer that way. I also upgraded to a Nile View King Executive Suite, which comes with a private balcony overlooking (you guessed it) the Nile. And VIP treatment, for the whopping added cost of $5 per night. VIP treatment includes unlimited computer use and your own private concierge - something that came in handy when I got sick and the concierge trotted out in the middle of the night to the pharmacy (which isn't in the Hilton) to deliver medicine to my room.

From the Hilton, one can spend a great first day exploring the center of Cairo. A pleasant walk along the Corniche el-Nil riverfront brings you past the historic Nile Hilton (not to be confused with Ramses Hilton) and then to the Parisian-influenced Qasr el-Nil bridge. Turn left at the bridge and follow the street to Midan Tahrir, the "Freedom Square" famous today for igniting the Arab Spring of 2011. But don't go there if protests are currently in progress.

Mummified Crocodile in Egyptian Museum
Follow the traffic circle counterclockwise through Midan Tahrir and you will pass the American University in Cairo on your right. This leads to Sharia Talaat Harb, on the opposite side of the square from the Qasr el-Nil bridge. Sharia Talaat Harb takes you to Midan Talaat Harb, home of the world-famous Groppi's Tea Room. From this smaller square, you'll see an entirely different Qasr el-Nil street than the one with the bridge (this is par for the course in Cairo) and following that street will lead you to the Cairo Egyptian Museum.

No visit to Cairo is complete without a trip through the museum, home of the world's largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, a wealth of human and animal mummies, the world-famous Fayoum portraits, and the funereal mask of Tutankhamen. After your visit to the museum, when the sun is setting and the sky is cooling, take a pleasant walk through the quieter part of Cairo in Garden City. Then enjoy a nice dinner in the roof-top restaurant of the Ramses Hilton.

An entire day can easily be spent in the vicinity of Islamic Cairo and within the Citadel. Start your day at the Mosques of Sultan Hassan, of ar-Rifai, and of Mohammed Ali. Pass through the age-old Khan al-Khalili marketplace for some souvenirs and an old-fashioned haggling experience. And end your afternoon with a visit to the Whirling Dervish theater to see the spiritual dance you'll never forget.

Mosque of Mohammed Ali

The Hanging Church of Coptic Cairo
The other walled city within Cairo is the birthplace of Coptic Christianity. Coptic Cairo is easily accessible by Metro and a walking tour through the site is a must-do that takes about half a day. Within the walls of Coptic Cairo are the Hanging Church - named for its suspended model, not something that was done there - and a pair of cemeteries filled with elaborate mausoleums from Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic citizens of early Cairo.

When you've seen all that Cairo has to offer, I suppose you'll also want to visit the pyramids.

The Great Pyramid at Giza is remarkable in itself, but it is even more remarkable that this last-standing wonder of the ancient world was already almost two thousand years old when the oldest of the other six ancient wonders was built. It's no wonder (pun intended) that tourists flock to the pyramids like pilgrims to Mecca. It is impossible to understand the true size of the pyramids until you stand beside them, but I'd like to try to offer some perspective:

The Great Pyramid and the Sphinx
The pyramids are not really pyramidal, as they appear, but are instead constructed of blocks that are approximately cubical. Each cube is about the height of a tall man. The rock that was used to construct the pyramids was excavated from a quarry near where the pyramids were built, and at the bottom of the quarry, a long shape was left behind. The ancient Egyptians attached a head to the long shape, and that is how the sphinx was born.

Today, a short van ride takes us between the pyramids and the sphinx, lying regally in the center of the excavated quarry like a lion in a giant bathtub.

The Alabaster Sphinx of Memphis
Your day trip to the pyramids need not only include Giza. An air-conditioned van will take you to Memphis and Saqqara as well, where you can visit the oldest pyramid in the world (the step pyramid of Saqqara) and the Alabaster Sphinx of Memphis, a sphinx I like to refer to as the World's First Mona Lisa for its curious half-smile. The sphinx is thought to be honoring the pharaoh Hatshepsut, one of most successful rulers in Egyptian history, who maintained power in her dynasty by dressing as a man. 

I'd be smiling too.

When you return to Cairo after your day's outing, enjoy some quiet time enjoying the smog and the prayers from the comfort of your own room.




This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How to do Naples


Views of Naples from atop Castel dell'Ovo
When I was a child, I loved “Neapolitan” ice cream – the kind with chocolate, vanilla
and strawberry, separate but neatly aligned within the same carton. Having been to Naples, I finally understand the metaphor. The city, like the ice cream, features multiple flavors that taste great together.

In the past, Naples has earned a reputation ranging from “a bit of a slum”, to “criminal/mafia hangout." In recent years, this activity is considerably on the decline in most areas. The most offensive crime I observed was the occasional political statement expressed in graffiti - which, by the way, also exists in Venice - but don’t tell a Venetian I said that. As her streets and her reputation improve, the hidden treasures of Naples are increasingly revealed. Today, the tourist can still enjoy a rare treat: almost total freedom from other tourists. In early September (still considered high season in Italy) I encountered no lines or crowds – anywhere. In contrast to the mandatory cattle herding that occurs at the major attractions elsewhere, the visitor to most Naples sites is essentially free to wander at leisure.
Naples streets

Additionally, prices are a fraction of what they are in the Big Three (Rome, Venice and Florence,) and certain luxuries (using the restroom and sitting at a table, for example) are often totally free. Imagine that.

A hodge-podge of atmospheres from Roman ruin to decadent High Renaissance, and from beach to active volcano lies juxtaposed over and rippling outward from the chaotic city. Radiating from the Stazione Centrale and Piazza Girabaldi, the city center is a bustling marketplace. By mid-morning, the narrow streets are crammed with one vendor’s tent next to another peddling food, jewelry, handbags and countless other goods. Hurried pedestrians zigzag back, forth, and across like ants, biblically parting on cue to accommodate a racing Smart-Car. Or a moped.

And a moped is a family vehicle (see video.)


Generally, the Neapolitans don’t seem to have any traffic rules at all; specifically, they seem to lack a correct side of the road and a speed limit. There are sometimes traffic signals, but all they seem to do is flash yellow – which I think might be Italian for, “GET OFF THE SIDEWALK IMMEDIATELY!” It is not an exaggeration that when drivers don’t want to wait, they jerk onto the sidewalk and let the pedestrian beware. Few of the streets are labeled, but if you ask any street vendor for the name, he will probably answer with a smile. He will definitely answer in Italian, and you may or may not understand.

If you can survive the trip from the train station to your hotel, the rest is a breeze. When I arrived, I spent my first fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to cross the street without abruptly ending my Italian vacation as road kill. There was never a break in traffic, so I began watching the locals to see how they did it.

I wasn't too fond of the answer…they just blindly walked out into the street and expected the cars to screech to a halt (which, fortunately, they did.) Occasionally, a driver would lean out of the window and yell at someone. Choosing to ignore the incessant sirens in the background and my own common sense, I took a deep breath and said, “hey, when in Rome…er, Naples..." At first a bit too timid to charge into the war zone like a local, I mixed into a group of them and crossed in disguise. Nonetheless, by the end of the first day, I was confidently navigating the streets by myself. And lived to tell about it. You can also get around by bus, but be sure to stamp your bus ticket to avoid trouble with the metro cops.

As I walked through the streets, dodging mopeds as needed, a new palate of smells was there to entice me at every turn. While there is no shortage of Italian cuisine, those craving a change can follow their noses to restaurants featuring many other ethnic varieties. Few things are quite as confusing as an American tourist trying to understand an Indian immigrant speaking Italian in Neapolitan slang, but whatever you finally manage to order will probably be delicious. When in doubt, point to the menu and smile politely.

At the deli
Overall, I found that the locals in Naples were much more willing to engage in a conversation than those in The Big Three. I assume this directly relates to the fact that Naples is not as over-run by Ugly Americans and their Ugly American-isms. I found three nooks that felt like home. The first was a corner coffee shop on Piazza Garibaldi at Corso Novara, where I made it my morning ritual to have coffee at the outside tables while watching the vendors set up for the day. The adorable old man who served me was friendly and even willing to help me with my Italian, when he wasn’t too busy.

My second favorite place was a deli. When I couldn’t make up my mind about what to have for lunch, the owner just made me a sandwich of his own choosing…and it was heavenly.

The third place was a restaurant and wine bar where I ate dinner and conversed with yet another Italian grandfather type who seemed to be the owner, bartender, waiter, bus boy and cashier. He stood by my table explaining in words and movements what was being said on the TV mounted above, all the while seeing to it that my wine glass was never empty. I paid four Euro for a HUGE bottle of pretty good wine which I had no hope of finishing.    

Mount Vesuvius from Molo Beverello
Not if, but when, you need to escape from the cacophony of the city, head to the water. It’s a bit too far to walk, and if you take a taxi without knowing your way around, you run the risk of being taken for a ride figuratively as well as literally. I recommend the tram or the bus, but remember to stamp your ticket as soon as you climb aboard. At the coast is the Molo Beverello dock and beach, hugging the Gulf of Naples. Water traffic swirls in and out from the pier, headed to Capri, Ischia and Sorrento, among other destinations. Fishermen, swimmers and sunbathers pepper the shoreline. The water and the sky are brilliant blue, the air smells of sea instead of city, and there is a significant drop in decibel level. Mount Vesuvius looms overhead, a constant reminder of the fragility of this fabulous city.

Entering the seafood district
A pleasant, short walk down Il Lungomare – the waterfront – leads past the charming, semi-hidden restaurant community of Santa Lucia to the 2000 year old Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg). Admission to this castle is free. While somewhat oddly (albeit geometrically) egg-shaped, it is actually named for the legend that it was built by Virgil upon an egg of mystical powers. According to the legend, Naples will fall if the egg breaks.

I recommend an early morning visit to the imposing Castel Nuovo, a walk along Il Lungomare for a seafood and pasta lunch, and then an afternoon visit to the enchanting Castel dell’Ovo. Make this your first day in Naples, as the castle roofs are open to tourists and offer breathtaking views of the city and the water - a great way to get your bearings and melt away the stress of having just mastered crossing the street. Standing at the top of the fortresses and looking out over the bay, it is easy to understand why kings would choose to live there. The term Castel Nuovo (New Castle) is a relative one; the castle actually dates to the 13th century. Featured within are the Museo Civico and the Palentine Chapel, containing painting and sculpture from that era forward. Even the artistically challenged can appreciate some of the morbid paintings hanging in the Chapel of the Souls in Purgatory, the medieval bronze door with a cannonball still stuck in it, and the skeleton-littered dungeons you can look at while walking over them on a glass floor.
Royal Palace Gardens

Exiting Castel Nuovo through the triumphal arch, the shopaholic will want to cross Piazza Municipio to the Galleria Umberta. The mall is indoors, but has a very open feel - the ceiling is a stunning, crystalline glass archway over stone walls. While you are at the Galleria, you might want to pick up some evening wear for a night at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples’ biggest opera house - literally, across the street. On the opposite corner is the Royal Palace, but the entrance is actually around the other side in Piazza Plebiscito. The palace gardens are a park-like oasis in the city, crowded with tall shade trees, playing children and relaxing parents.

With a map and some good walking shoes, an ambitious day can be spent weaving through the historic Northeast section on a treasure hunt for art, religion and architecture. Begin at the Castel Capuano (now a courthouse) and take in the Renaissance gateway of Porta Capuana. Of course, there is the 13th century Duomo of San Gennaro. It’s not as impressive as its cousin in Florence, but it is beautiful and there also is not a line all the way across town to see it.

Another must see is the Capella Sansevero, containing Giuseppe Sammartino’s amazing “The Veiled Christ." Other sites of interest include the Baroque San Gregorio Armeno, Gothic churches San Lorenzo Maggiore and San Domenico Maggiore, Gesù Nuovo, and Santa Chiara. Be on the lookout for paintings and frescoes by Luca Giordano, one of the most prolific artists in Naples’ history. The art lover also won’t want to miss the Museo di Capodimonte, featuring magnificent works from the Farnese family collection by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian and Perugino.

Some of the most spectacular day trips in Italy are best taken with Naples as a home base. A short drive leads to the bizarre Campania landscape that inspired Dante's Inferno. And a thirty minute ride on the Circumvesuviana railway takes you back in time two thousand years. In the first ten minutes, you arrive at Herculaneum, where you can visit the ruins or climb Mount Vesuvius. To get to the Pompeii ruins, remain on the same train for an additional twenty minutes. Visiting both Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day is quite a bit, and it takes a while (and usually some price negotiation with the mandatory guides) to climb Vesuvius. If you plan to do all three, I recommend taking two days. And definitely, bring a map of the ruins or take a guided tour in order to fully understand and appreciate what you are seeing.

Mount Vesuvius fresco from Pompeii, Naples Archeological Museum
If Pompeii and Herculaneum are of interest, you should plan on spending at least half a day in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Among other exhibits, the museum holds a massive collection of artifacts rescued from the lost cities, from Borghese and Farnese collection artwork, to china, to petrified loaves of bread. One of the most intriguing exhibits is from the Villa dei Papiri.

Of course, not everyone’s idea of a pleasant vacation includes paying homage to the volcanic decimation of civilization – and that’s fine. If you’d rather pamper yourself a bit, consider instead taking a day trip down the stunning coast to Sorrento or Positano, or out onto Ischia or Capri. The latter can include a truly unique experience - a breathtaking boat ride through Capri’s famous grotto azure.

Admittedly, these lovely, romantic resort areas boast well-deserved reputations as tourist traps, making them expensive and relatively crowded. If traveling by car or bus down the coast, the word “trap” may be a bit literal – the drive is one of the scariest in the world. If you have high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness, are an expectant mother or less than 44 inches tall, I recommend the train or a hydrofoil. And hold on to your hats and glasses.

Nonetheless, the indescribable beauty and gorgeous weather brings people back time and again to the coastline of Campania.

Each of the twenty regions of Italy takes pride in maintaining its own flavor, color and personality. Embodied in the Neapolitan, the personality of Campania is that of the genuine, unpretentious, and unapologetic Italian. Rome introduced the world to Caesar. Florence to Michelangelo. Venice to Casanova. Naples gave us pizza, spaghetti and Sofia Loren. The Big Three offer an overwhelmingly lavish feast of history, architecture, art and culture. A heaping scoop of Neapolitan is a delicious and sinful dessert.

Try to save some room.

Recommended Info:

Italian State Tourist Board                   
Italian Government Tourist Board 
Hotel Reservations and Travel Information
Circumvesuviana Railway
Sorrento Information
Ferry and Hydrofoil Information
Italian Railway

American Embassy
Via Vittorio Veneto 119° 00187 Rome, Italy
Phone: 06-4674-2382
Fax: 06-488-2672
Open Mon-Fri: 8:30-5:30

Hotel Zara
Via Firenze 81
80142 Naples
Phone: 081-287-125

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Comments on...comments off...comments on...comments off...

Since converting this website into a blogger format, I have been schitzophrenic about whether or not to allow comments. On the one hand, this is my official website and a part of me feels it should be "website-like." Which would mean professional. Which would, potentially, mean you can read it but not participate. So I kept turning comments off.

On the other hand, the whole purpose of converting it to a blogger format was to make it a bit more interactive and dynamic, as opposed to a stationary page offering information but no dialogue. Professionalism be damned. So from time to time, I have turned comments back on. Which is why there are currently a few meager posts with comments and the rest of the posts have none.

There must be a full moon or something, because the part of me that wants to allow comments has just emerged again. Comments are turned on. Comment away! Until the next new moon.

Naples Versus Cairo: Cairo Wins on the Chaos Scale



On the chaos scale, you start with Boston. Talk to any Harvard-going Mass-hole and he'll consider himself some kind of war hero for surviving it (and I say that with nothing but affection for my Harvard-going Mass-hole friends). Multiply Boston by about ten and you have Tijuana. Multiply that by about a hundred and you get Naples. Now multiply that by about ten thousand and you're still nowhere near Cairo.

The top video is Naples. The bottom is Cairo.

I brought these videos to my blog to counter the readers who didn't believe my descriptions of entire families on mopeds and traffic converging in three dimensions. At about 0.20 of the first video (Naples,) and again at the end of the same video, you can witness the entire-family-on-a-moped phenomenon.

About 1:10 is where the traffic really picks up and starts looking like Naples as I remember it. I'm not sure if there is a correct side of the road or a speed limit, but it's clear that sidewalks are open terrain for both motor vehicles and pedestrians and that vendor's tents can be erected anywhere in the middle of the street. It's awesome.


Then there's Cairo.

My editor actually edited the narrative in The Vesuvius Isotope that read, "traffic converged in three dimensions." She thought I meant in three directions. Starting at 0.20 of the second video, you can see that I really did mean three dimensions. It comes from above and below, as well as from all sides.

At 0.53, you see a man walking casually between the cars dragging a large hand cart behind him. This is a common occurrence in Cairo. About 0.55, a guy steps out of his car to have a conversation with another driver, presumably a discussion of who should go first and how.

Another note-worthy phenomenon is what I like to call the "force field effect." At 1:35 you see an Egyptian man and child walking nonchalantly through the middle of the chaos, seemingly protected by some kind of supernatural force field, and then emerging unscathed on the other side of the street. In The Vesuvius Isotope, I incorporated a force-fielded character I had seen while in Cairo: a woman in a full niqab ensemble, leading a toddler and carrying a large basket on top of her head.

But even better: at 3:00, it's a sheep. Near the end of the video, a horse-drawn cart cruises through.

I miss Cairo, and I'm not saying that sarcastically. Cairo is Egyptian for Chaos. It's my kind of town.

For more about traveling through Egypt solo as an American female, visit What Would Katrina Do?

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How to Go to Jail in Naples, Italy


Two Metro policemen boarded and began shoving their way between the wall-to-wall passengers. The police approached each passenger in turn, and each passenger extracted a ticket for the policemen to see.
“Billete,” one said when they reached me. I produced my ticket.
The two policemen looked at each other. Motioning between my ticket and my face, they began a heated discussion in Italian. Finally, the dialog ceased, and one of them turned back to me. “Settanta-cinque euro,” he said.
“Huh?” I asked and shrugged my shoulders.
The policemen turned back to one other, and they began yelling back and forth again, shaking their heads. Finally, one took out a small notepad and wrote on it. “75€” his script read.
“Does anyone here speak English?” I asked, straining to turn my head and peer through the crowd. Dozens of pairs of eyes dropped to the floor of the bus. Others continued to stare straight ahead as if I had not spoken at all.



-Excerpt from The Vesuvius Isotope, debut novel by Kristen Elise, Ph.D.

Order your copy of The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon (print or Kindle version,) BarnesandNoble.com (print or Nook version,) Kobo.com (Kobo version,) or iBookstore (iBooks version.) Or purchase a SIGNED copy at www.kristenelisephd.com.


Author's note: This really did happen to me in Naples. Unlike my protagonist, I refused to pay the fine for not stamping my bus ticket. I really did get arrested. The moral of the story: stamp everything in Naples. Your bus ticket. Your ferry ticket. Everything. Just stamp it. 

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Italy's Best-Kept Secret: Cappella Sansevero



If you've been to Italy, you have been to Rome, Venice and Florence. Have you been to Naples?

If you've been to Naples, you've been to the two castles, the Naples Archeological Museum, the ruins of Pompeii and perhaps Sorrento or Capri. Have you been to the Cappella Sansevero?

I consider this chapel one of Italy's best-kept secrets. When my editor stepped out of Chapter Fourteen of The Vesuvius Isotope, she asked me, "Why have I never heard of this chapel?" Excellent question. To be fair, it is a hole in the wall. I mean, we're talking, practically impossible to get to. It took me three attempts before I actually found it, and that was with GPS on my phone.

The winding, labyrinth-like historical center of Naples is full of signs directing lost tourists to the major sites. But not this one.

But the relative obscurity of the Cappella Sansevero really needs to change, IMHO. Not only is the chapel itself amazing, but it holds some fascinating, if lesser-known, history. And arguably some of the most incredible sculptures in the world.

The chapel is the vision of Raimondo di Sangro, scientist, alchemist, and the Prince of Sansevero. At about 0.50 of the video, we see the chapel as a whole. Centered beneath the altar is a piece that is truly hard to even fathom. The Dead Christ, also referred to as The Veiled Christ, was carved by Giuseppe Sanmartino from a single slab of marble. Even that delicate, transparent veil.

The Veiled Christ http://www.museosansevero.it/it/
At 1:27, we see another veiled sculpture, a counterpart as impressive as The Veiled Christ. This is Modesty, a vision of Mary Magdalene. The statue is a representation of the Biblical scene in which Christ appears to Mary Magdalene dressed as a gardener. The chapel stands on the site of a former Temple of Isis, and where Modesty now stands, a statue of Isis once stood. Modesty makes here the same statement first attributed to the veiled Isis: Nature loves to hide.

Modesty http://www.museosansevero.it/it/
The third statue in the Triad of Artistic Excellence is shown at 3.15. This statue, Disillusioned, shows a man struggling to emerge from within a binding net. It is a statement from di Sangro, a follower of Englightenment principles, of light emerging from darkness - knowledge from ignorance.

Disillusioned http://www.museosansevero.it/it/
Di Sangro lived his life on a quest for knowledge. Grand Master of the Neapolitan Freemasons and a Rosicrucian, it was he who first attempted to unroll the recovered papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum's lost Villa dei Papiri. Unfortunately, the scrolls dissolved when di Sangro immersed them in mercury.

But there are many examples within this chapel of success in the science of the Prince of Sansevero. At about 3:45, we see the chapel's ceiling. Di Sangro did not paint it, but he invented the paints. To this day, it is unknown how he composed them, but the ceiling of the Sansevero chapel represents one of the most well-preserved frescoes from the Baroque era.

He also created the epitaph for his own tomb. The epitaph is not engraved, but rather chemically etched. Again, nobody knows now.

Tomb of Raimondo di Sangro http://www.museosansevero.it/it/
At 4:50 of the video we enter the underground chamber beneath the chapel, and it is here that we see perhaps the most disturbing experiment of Raimondo di Sangro. The "anatomical machines" are actual corpses - one a man, the other a pregnant female - which di Sangro somehow preserved for posterity, their entire circulatory systems on display as they emerge from petrified hearts. It is not known how di Sangro accomplished this preservation, but it is rumored that he injected these poor souls - thought to be servents who had angered him - with mercury while they were still alive.
Di Sangro created the underground chamber and adjacent to it, a tunnel that led to his laboratories beneath the chapel. He had originally intended for the underground chamber to hold his own tomb, which would be illuminated by his "eternal flame" - a flame that would burn forever without refueling. Toward the end of his life, he claimed to have actually accomplished this invention. And then, to guard his scientific secrets forever, he burned his laboratories to the ground.

Macchine Anatomiche CS 1 by David Sivyer, CC BY_SA 2.0


For more information, visit the chapel's website.


Since, therefore, it cannot be doubted that this is a true light, similar to our candles or lamps, and has burned three months and some days without any reduction in the material used for fuel, it can rightly be called perpetual, much more so than those imaginary lights which can sometimes be found in the ancient tombs and any other light which does not have the same properties as mine, i.e. all the qualities of other natural flames, does not deserve to be called eternal.
-Letters of Raimondo di Sangro (1710–1771)

For the poor people from the streets near the di Sangro Chapel, the Neapolitan incarnation of Dr. Faustus made a pact with the devil, and almost became a devil himself, to master the most secret mysteries of nature.
-Storie e Leggende Napoletane Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) 

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.




Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California.