In the year 62 AD Pompeii was devastated by a massive earthquake. A lot of the city was badly damaged but as soon as people figured that further quakes were not coming, reconstruction started. This brought a new wave of prosperity to Pompeii. But, alas, the gods have such awful games with us poor humans and in 79 AD Vesuvius erupted and completely covered the place in dust and ashes. Of the population of 20,000, 2,000 were killed, a lot of them instantly, as casts of their bodies show – one of the saddest is the mule driver, sitting huddled by his mules.
No-one is really sure how old Pompeii was – estimates have it dating to the 7th century BC and founded by the Campanian Oscans. It then fell to the Greeks and someone called the Samnites before the Romans took it in 80 BC. All of this history is on the site. It is a city in stasis. It is a truly amazing (and very popular) place.
We decided, for our assault on such a popular spot, we would leave to catch the 7:55 train which would get us to the gate as it opened at 8:30. This meant no breakfast or coffee just a quick brush of the teeth and out. It was tough but we did it.
At first the train (it starts at Sorrento) was packed with noisy school kids but, fortunately, they were destined for school and left the train after a few stops. When we arrived at Pompeii station only a few people left with us. Fortunately the station has (like most Italian stations) a little coffee bar where we stopped long enough for a latte and a pastry before hitting the ticket gate.
The crowds were already starting to amass behind leaders carrying all manner of long thin implements. We were instantly accosted by local guides offering their services for €10 each person. But I was prepared. I had my 1979 New Practical Guide to Pompeii by Eugenio Pucci and Mirinda hired an audio guide – we had all the guidance we needed.
Actually before describing this amazing city, I just have to say how this place is so NOT a rip off. As you enter there’s a guy selling fruit and cold water. He could charge anything but, no, he charges a reasonable amount (€1 for a bottle of water). The entrance fee for Pompeii itself is only €10. The audio guide? €6.50. I guess it’s because people will come back if they can afford it. There is far more than you can see in one day no matter how keen you are. Just don’t hire the local guides! They make up most of what they tell you and are not authorised.
So we bought our tickets and entered.
You walk up to the main gate into the city along the big cobbled stones and suddenly you are there. It is incredible. Obviously the place is a ruin but it looks so incredibly real. If a citizen of Pompeii was whisked to the future the day before the eruption, he’d recognise it. It’s frozen in time from 79 AD. There’s a lot of things gone, obviously, like most of the wall decorations, a lot of the marble and fascia work and the rooftops but it all looks so perfect.
The roads are amazing. Great big cobbles with wagon ruts, raised footpaths on each side and, at regular intervals, big stones placed so pedestrians could move across the road without stepping down onto the road. These big stones have gaps between them to allow the wheels of the carriages to pass. Apparently the animals they used to pull the carts would walk between them as well – I’m not sure how! The Romans used a simple yolk which made this possible or so I’ve read. There is a definite difference between main and minor roads as you move away from the centre so I’m figuring they mostly stuck to the main ones.
I’m not going to write about every bit of Pompeii we saw (we were there four hours) but just a few snippets for fear of boring all! So…
The Basilica: This was the most important building in all of Pompeii (and most Roman towns). Law was dispensed from here as well as business meetings of the powerful and successful. It is a massive building with very impressive columns. Mirinda felt she should pose for a photo being as she’s a lawyer and all. The building has been dated to 120 BC, so pre-Roman.
The Forum: This is where everything happened. It’s the centre of the city, the heart of life. It was surrounded by arcades and columns line each side. Large pedestals remain where statues of Caesar and his family as well as leading business people would have stood. People would have met here to chat; country dwellers would have met city people to discuss life. People probably sat around and played dice. At the back, the Forum is overlooked by the massive Temple to Jupiter.
The Sanctuary of the Lares: This is really a big open space. I include it for the inherent irony. After the earthquake of 62 AD, this was built to please the protective gods and, hopefully safeguard the rest of the city. D’Oh!
Macellum: This was a big covered market where meat and fish were sold. One of the walls still bears a massive fresco (of the 4th style). In the centre there was a big circular building used, we think, for the gutting and preparing of fish. It would have contained a big water tank. The guts would have been slushed down the drains, which line the centre of the building. We have seen this sort of thing in many medieval towns in both England and France – though not always for fish. It was here that Mirinda made a couple of new friends.
Pompeii is home to many vagrant, feral dogs. They’re not horrid growly type dogs, they just hang around in the shade. Except when someone like Mirinda makes a fuss of one and strokes it. Naturally as we sat in the banquet area of the market two of these canines sat and rested with us. One of them was of quite odd parentage.
House of the Faun: This is where we want to live. It’s brilliant. After the entrance there’s a thing called an impluvium. It is a marble tiled area, slightly depressed, to catch rain water from a hole in the ceiling. In the centre of this impluvium, there stands a small faun. This is a copy of the original brass faun which is in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. Actually a lot of the original objects have been moved to Naples. Mosaics and statues mostly. Anyway, back to the house.
After the impluvium (which would be a sort of entrance hall) there’s a mosaic of great heroic detail in a small open room. Around the sides are the bedrooms. Further back is the garden, enclosed by the house walls. The Romans were a very introverted race. When inside they saw no reason to look outside. So, instead of windows they had gardens inside. And big holes in the roof for their impluviums.
The Large and Little Theatres: These are quite amazing. The large theatre has a capacity of 5,000 and is of primarily Greek design though the Romans developed it further. It was open to the air and the acoustics are still incredible. Sitting in the top row I could clearly hear a tour guide talking in the middle of the arena to a small group. On the other hand, the small theatre seats only 1,000 people and was originally roofed. It would have been used for poetry readings and the like while big farces would have been mounted in the large theatre. Naturally we both loved these!
However, of all of this, the most amazing thing we saw was a Japanese woman dressed in a magazine. Someone had cut up a celeb glossy and fashioned the pages into a 50’s type dress with a jaunty hat to go with it. It was all held together with industrial strength sticky tape. This woman wandered around behind a large Japanese group and a couple of guys with her would photograph her at various spots. I’m sure there was a very good reason for it but I like to think she just lost a bet.
Oh, and Mirinda found a garden centre! Right in the middle of Pompeii. In the only spot of major greenery is a little table which sells oils from various plants, like rosemary and so forth. It was a welcome relief strolling amidst the trees and foliage and, of course, Mirinda was in heaven. Fortunately she resisted the urge to buy the massive pots.
So that was Pompeii. I cannot believe this is not a World Heritage Site but according to the Lonely Planet Guide it is not. One thing it is, is still being dug by archaeologists! I texted Dawn to say we have to get in on this!!
Enough bouquets, I do have one little brickbat. When you leave the site, it isn’t by the same gate you entered and suddenly you find yourself completely confused. You have to return to the main gate in order to return your audio guide but there are no signs. Fortunately we were helped by a man sitting by a parking sign. And I should add, it was mostly our own fault as there IS a sign at one point that leads you back in the direction of the main gate but like sheep we followed the mob the wrong way! we found this out the next time we visited.
The train back to Sorrento was very crowded. It is a regular service from Naples. Still, Mirinda managed to get a seat and after two stops I did too. The highlight was the appearance of a little girl of about 7 playing Torno a Surriento on a small piano accordion with half a water bottle taped to the side for the English people to put small change in. She wasn’t very good and the train was so crowded that she soon gave up and just chatted in the vestibule with her mother (I assume) until the next stop where they left our carriage. Presumably for pastures new. At least it’s better than the ugly hags on the London Tube who thrust their equally ugly babies into your face.
Back in Sorrento (which is rapidly becoming ‘home’) we popped into the café on Piazza Tasso for a pizza lunch and a little bit of tourist watching before returning to our room.
Mirinda had a sleep while I visited the rooftop to type up the day. But not just any day. The most fantastic day.