Advantages walk into history
Disadvantages tinged with sadness
When Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, it buried centuries worth of Oscan, Etruscan, Greek and Roman influence in the small city of Pompeii. The original Oscan settlement dated back to 7th century BC, so Pompeii already had quite a history by the time it was engulfed. The eruption gave archaeologists a time capsule of life in Pompeii in 79AD, and also clues to the ways of life in earlier times. Pompeii's misfortune, and the terrible fate of her people, have given us a legacy of fascinating discovery which has lasted for generations. Excavation of the site began in 1748, and continues to this day. People flock to Pompeii from all corners of the world, both as academics to study the site, and as tourists to experience the thrill of walking those ancient streets.GETTING THERE
If you've hired a car, follow the signs for Pompei Scavi [the Italians write Pompei with one i, and scavi means excavations in Italian] from the Autostrada A4 (Naples to Salerno). By train, you want Pompei Scavi station on the Circumvesuviana (Naples to Sorrento) Line. Leave the station and walk along the road to your right past various stalls selling drinks and snacks, then turn left up the hill to the ticket office. This is quite a climb, and there is another sharp climb into the site itself. These climbs and the general terrain make the site completely unsuitable for wheelchair users and people with limited mobility.MONEY MATTERS
Entrance is €10 per person, but over 60s receive a substantial reduction if they can show a passport or driving licence with date of birth on it. Various guides will approach you as you are buying your tickets and offer their services, naming their price. These people are self-employed, and conduct tours in a variety of languages, but remember that you have no guarantee of quality and no comeback from the site authorities if you are dissatisfied. They can be quite pushy, but if you don't want a guide just say no firmly but politely. However, if you refuse a guide I wouldn't recommend asking any of the guides anything once inside, as you will get short shrift. It's their living, after all, so why should they give their knowledge and experience to you for free? Another alternative is to hire an electronic guide. If I remember correctly, these cost €5 in September 2003 when I was there. They look like oversized mobile phones, and play a commentary to you triggered by identifying transmitters in the signposts around the site. The best value option is to buy a guide book and take things at your own pace. You will barely scratch the surface going round with a human guide, and it's in their interest to give you the whistlestop version so they can fit as many tours into their day as possible.WHAT TO TAKE
Pompeii is very exposed, so in hot weather you need to make sure you have sunblock and a sun hat. There is very little shade. Drinking water is essential. Although there is a café/shop where you can buy drinks, it's a big site and you won't always have easy access to the shop. I suggest taking as much drinking water with you as you can carry, and planning for at least one trip to the shop to get fresh supplies. The toilet is also upstairs in the café/shop. Hot meals and snacks are available in the café, and prices are reasonable for a tourist attraction, but if you're on a budget you may want to take your own lunch with you. There is also a more formal restaurant, but I didn't venture in there, so can't comment on the quality or prices.Good walking shoes are also a must, as the ground is very uneven. Although they sell guide books (most with a map of the site) in the bookshop by the ticket office and in the café/shop, it makes sense to pick one up before going to Pompeii. Most bookshops in the tourist areas of Italy sell these. The site is so big that you won't see it all in a single visit. We were there for 6 hours, and saw roughly half! If you are planning to make your own way round without a guide, it is really helpful to be able to decide which bits you are interested in and plan a route before you get there.
WHAT YOU'LL SEEOK, I could go through the site building by building and tell you what is known about them, but we'd be here all day and you can learn all of that from any good guide book. Instead, I'll try to give you an overview and my impressions of the experience. The first thing that strikes is that this is definitely a city. Unlike many archaeological sites, which are nothing more than a few stones in the ground to those who haven't made it a lifetime's study, you can put a layman down in Pompeii and he will see streets, houses, public buildings, temples, shops, theatres…. you know, a city.
The streets are paved with huge stone slabs, so you have the eerie experience of walking on the actual stones Pompeians walked on till 79AD. The main roads are rutted by centuries of cart traffic as the merchants plied their wares and moved goods in and out of the city, except in the pedestrianised area (see you thought that was a modern idea, didn't you?) of the forum, where the important business of the day was discussed by the important people. There is even a crude traffic calming device to discourage cheeky hauliers from venturing into the areas reserved for foot traffic - ok, it's a couple of giant rock slabs in the middle of the road - crude but effective. Evidence of planning and civic mindedness is provided by the drainage systems, stepping stones to allow pedestrians to cross from pavement to pavement without stepping into the road, public drinking fountains, as well as the lavish Basillica and Forum.The city experience is enhanced by how built-up the streets are. Buildings line the streets on both sides throughout the city, with most having at least the ground floor walls surviving. You really get the feeling of walking through the city streets, and popping into houses to see what's there. Impressive as the civic buildings and temples are, the private houses made the biggest impression on me. Fine living and ostentatious wealth were the order of the day, if the lavish villas are anything to go by. Intricate mosaic floors, indoor pools, and beautiful frescos abound. After all these years, and all that the city of Pompeii has been subjected to, the rich colours of the surviving frescos have to be seen to be believed. It's hard to believe these spent centuries underground and forgotten. Deep reds and blues dominate, and are impressive enough in the dark interiors, but where light spills in through a window or doorway the colours literally glow.
It's easy to get a picture of the Pompeians going about their everyday life when you wander into buildings which still have clear signs of the activities which took place inside. Bakeries, bars, shops, laundries, all retain features which tell their story. The bars are very distinctive, open to the street, with huge earthenware jars set into beautiful marble counters for dispensing the local brews. These, of course, are not to be confused with the earthenware jars used to collect urine for use in bleaching cloths, or the benches set with a companionable row of round holes which served as public toilets. I'd be willing to bet that somewhere in Pompeii was a maker of amphora and jars, judging by the sheer number of amphora found around the site, and currently in the storerooms off the Forum. These are not open to the public, and are really just for the archaeologists to store the artefacts they are still recording. Most of the important stuff has already been removed to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. However, it's possible to peer in through the fencing and see row on row of amphora, statues, and small artefacts. Quite an impressive sight.Of course, it wasn't all work and business in Pompeii. Some of the coolest places to be, then as now, are the baths. Thick walls protect from the heat of the day outside, as you move from room to room in the bathhouses, each used for a different stage of the cleansing experience. A little culture could be soaked up in the large and small theatres, and a bit of excitement and spectacle was on offer at the amphitheatre as the gladiators showed their skills in deadly combat. Standing in the middle of the arena of the amphitheatre, you feel very small, and can almost hear the bloodthirsty roar of the crowd as you gaze up at the tiers of seating on all sides. Then there are Pompeii's brothels, with their stone beds and erotic frescos, where women from all corners of the Roman Empire obliged the Pompeian appetite for recreational sex. Not all depictions of the phallus indicate that the building was a brothel, mind you, as the phallus was deemed to be the main amulet against the evil eye, so is often included in carvings, pavings, and domestic frescos too. I don't know about the evil eye, but some of the depictions are of overblown proportions that could easily have someone's eye out!
Before you leave Pompeii, you must just pop along to the Garden of the Fugitives and remind yourself of the tragedy and human cost involved in preserving this amazing city in time. Here, there are plaster casts of young families who were trying to flee the city towards the sea when they were overcome and engulfed. As their bodies decayed over the years their outlines were preserved and the archaeologists were able to fill the spaces with plaster to make casts. The resulting scene is touching and heartbreaking, as lovers died clinging to each other, and parents tried desperately to shield their children from the approaching horror. We owe them a little moment of sadness for the tragedy that gave us an unforgettable glimpse into the past.*note the pictures with this review are copyright Janie Thomson, and may not be reproduced for any purpose without permission of the photographer. Further photographs and contact through http://www.janiethomson.co.uk
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