The big mystery

There are many things the modern tourist should be armed with. But apart from the guide books and helpful advice, the sunglasses and cream, a few helpful phrases in various languages should be perfected before leaving home. One mandatory phrase should be “Let the people OFF the train first!” in Japanese. I know they come from a crowded island where queuing and the idea of fairness is unheard of, but couldn’t their guides tell them it’s not the same over here? Why do they all think it’s every person for themselves and fight tooth and nail for a plastic seat? If a train stops and the doors open and lot of passengers wish to leave the train, surely it makes sense to let them leave before trying to get on yourself. Or maybe I’m alone in this. After all, it happens on the Tube all the time as well.

After looking at our options for today, we decided to return to Pompeii to see, specifically, the Villa of Mysteries and the amphitheatre, both at complete opposite ends of the city.

We woke to rain. After so many days of brilliant sunshine and blue skies, this was very odd but we thought it helped our cause. Although many tourists would simply visit Pompeii because it was on their agenda and they’d just have to follow the guy with the numbered lollipop, the ones going on spec, would probably stay in bed. Anyway, that was our thinking as we wandered up to the station in the drizzle. At least it would be cooler without the sun.

We had the same train journey with the school kids and arrived at Pompeii to have a cup of coffee before entering, just like Tuesday. This time the entrance wasn’t as packed and the many buses failed to turn up. We bought our tickets and audio-guide and headed off the Villa of Mysteries.

The excavated area of Pompeii measures 45 hectares and the Villa is at the extreme western end, standing outside the city walls. It is an amazing place. It was excavated between 1909-10 and completely restored between 1929-30. It has around 60 rooms and is pretty much a complete structure.

The Villa of Mysteries

The name comes from one of the rooms, which has a fresco that covers all four walls. It tells a story but the story has been interpreted in many ways. The most accepted explanation is it tells the story of a woman’s initiation into either marriage or the secret sect of Dionysis. The fresco is incredible, painted by a very accomplished artist.

Fresco detail

The senate in Rome had outlawed the practise of worshipping these cults in secret so a lot of people would have rooms in their villas where they hoped no-one would notice. The owner of this villa, when the paintings were executed obviously had little time for the law! Unless, of course, it is just about a marriage. Perhaps that is the key to the fresco. Perhaps she disguised her cult-ish behaviour so she could pretend it was simply her daughter’s wedding album, when important people from Rome came to visit. I like this explanation – not least because I just made it up.

The rest of the villa is also amazing. Drawings on the walls are everywhere. It’s almost like someone lived there a few years ago and it had just become abandoned. It just needed some furniture. There is an interesting piece of Roman graffiti in one room. It shows an old-ish looking, wreath wearing chap with the name of Rufus. It’s an odd thought that the Romans, who naturally invented scrawling over public buildings, would have drawn this little cartoon in someone’s house! The guide book does not indicate when this was scrawled into the wall but perhaps it was during the original dig when some bored rubble mover was moved to express his boredom.

Of course, Mirinda wants a fresco like the Mysteries painted on our dining room wall. I have to admit it would look fantastic but tend to blanch a bit when I think of the cost. Plus I don’t think the artist is able to do outcalls anymore.

The villa is so far away and off the beaten track that it has to be recommended to people to visit. Most tourists will go to the forum and basilica and a few houses in the main central area but if you have the time, the Villa of Mysteries is absolutely incredible.

Mirinda through the necropolis

From here we tramped the entire width of Pompeii to visit the amphitheatre. This is huge. It’s apparently one of the oldest and most complete amphitheatres left in the world. The visitor enters via either the gate from which the gladiators would have marched in or, opposite this, the gate by which the dead were carted out.

To the amphitheatre!

In 59 AD there was a massive riot here between rival fans from Pompeii and Nocera (an area close to Pompeii). It was so bad that the amphitheatre was ordered closed for ten years! And we think we invented soccer hooliganism. Think again. The Romans did it all.

One complaint about Pompeii (didn’t you just know there’d be one) and it’s only slight. Because they wish to funnel exiting and entering visitors via specific areas and gates, the trips to the toilets can be somewhat laborious. Naturally, being a city, you can’t expect toilets within Pompeii itself (though I’m sure the Roman’s had very good public toilets) but a few shortcuts would be appreciated. Which reminds me…

The Tale of the Pathetic Boy
The toilets by the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance are the type that wash themselves out automatically between visits. As I was waiting to use one, a large Italian boy of about 12 years was with his mother trying to work out how to use it. I should point out that there appeared to be nothing wrong with this child that a good haircut wouldn’t have fixed.

Anyway, he stood and watched the people in front of him as one went in then came out then the toilet wooshed and hissed and then the door opened for the next person. This seemed to totally freak him out. To the point where he shook his head at his mother and started to walk behind the toilet to go there. Fortunately a guy stationed nearby to make sure people didn’t get a shower from these things, stopped him in time.

And so his dilemma. He obviously needed to go but was frightened by this strange machine. What could he do? He went in WITH his mother! I kid you not. What a total sissy. Naturally this was all played out in Italian but it was pretty obvious from his actions what the problem was. I just laughed and shook my superior head.

After sitting in the amphitheatre hearing to those long ago pitched battles between rival spectators, we set off for the long march back to the main entrance. The rain had vanished over the day and the sun was starting to peek out and the tourists where gathering apace. By the time we reached the forum at Via dell’Abbondanza all we could see ahead of us was a wall of people. I formed a wedge with my arms and ploughed confidently into them as Mirinda walked in my slipstream.

The one black spot at Pompeii today was as we were leaving. Mirinda went to use the toilet. A guy was sitting between the two doors demanding the usual 50 cents. As she came out I realised there was a sign saying the toilets were free. Boy, what some people will do to earn a buck.

As we waited for the train back to Sorrento we played a game of chasings with a Japanese tour group who must be declared winners in that they managed to score all the seats…except for one, which I liberated for Mirinda. I know who won the war! Needless to say I spent the entire trip in the vestibule listening to Italian girls discussing various things from a baby in the carriage to one girl’s breasts. Odd, but it passed the time.

Clearly my Italian is improving.

Back home in Sorrento, we strolled along to the Bar Fauno for some pasta and the obligatory though oddly French, strawberry tart then, finally, back to the hotel for a much needed siesta. Mirinda was asleep the moment her head hit the pillow and I wasn’t far behind her.

Much later we strolled down to Villa Communale for an evening coffee while watching the sun vanish behind the dark storm clouds that had descended. Fireworks from some distant event briefly flickered. The various shapes in the clouds would have driven any members of the Cloud Appreciation Society instantly insane with pleasure. A little rain. Lots of lightning over Naples. And we met Rob.

Storm over Vesuvius

Rob is an American travelling through various bits of Europe. He’s an animator but is taking extended leave. We spent a lovely couple of hours chatting to him about everything from the people who carry the stupid lollipop numbers in tour groups to the problems with gun control and the Bush administration. And naturally Mirinda spent some time talking about Happiness Economy, as is her want. He was a lovely guy and, we thought, a bit lonely. We gave him our email address and Mirinda offered to have coffee with him when he’s back in London.

By 10:30 all three of us were frozen and Mirinda needed a loo, so we said our goodbyes and wandered back to the hotel. The temperature has dropped considerably.

Villa fresco detail

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