Visiting the ruins of Pompeii was number #15 on my bucket list, so pretty high up and one of the first that I thought of when writing it (even though the list is not strictly speaking in order of priority). It’s also a place that my mum has long dreamed of visiting. We went to the exhibition at the British Museum two years ago and we were both thrilled to finally have the chance to visit the real thing together this year, using the advent of our 99th birthday together as an excuse. Pompeii is a unique place in the world, a place of story and legend, a place where a natural disaster had a devastating effect on a town and its people but where this has led to its preservation for us to look back on in modern times.
Pompeii is, of course, located on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius where land was fertile thanks to erupted lava from many centuries prior. As of the sixth century BC it came to be under Greek, Etruscan and, eventually, Roman rule. With about 20,000 inhabitants at its peak, the town was first hit by a big earthquake in 62 AD, and while reconstruction was still taking place on the town’s buildings it was wiped out in the space of 24 hours by the famous volcanic eruption in 79 AD. It’s thought that around 2,000 people died, although it’s impossible to know exactly, with many of the inhabitants having fled the city in the early phases of the eruption. The town was forgotten for centuries until excavation of a canal in the early 17th century revealed the traces of an ancient city; it was only in the 18th century that they were linked to the story of Pompeii.
To get to Pompeii from Naples, we first looked at taking the Circumvesuviana train but the station was a 40-minute walk from our hotel while websites warned of stuffed carriages; we also considered group bus tours but these involved sitting on a bus for an hour while it picked up and later dropped off passengers from other hotels. Luckily I discovered a company that offered private tours at not much higher a price than those group tours, and we booked onto a day tour with a personal driver who would take us to Pompeii as well as to Herculaneum, another site hit by the eruption, and Vesuvius itself.
The next morning, a black Mercedes pulled up to the hotel and as we got into the car we entered the world of The Godfather. “Tony take care of you. Like family!” Our driver Tony, already known to me from the favourable Trip Advisor reviews, told us about the history of Naples as well as the modern-day city as we drove towards Pompeii (“People drive like donkeys here!”). They were building a new underground line and had discovered Roman ruins – “Wherever you dig in Naples, you find ruins.” Vesuvius is still active and might erupt again? “Not today, ladies.” *Phew!* Tony also advised us against the long trek to the peak of Vesuvius in the afternoon heat, instead recommending a visit to a third site, Oplontum.
My biggest impression of the ruins of Pompeii was the sheer size. It is a whole city, after all. There are city walls and meeting places, residential homes and bakeries, theatres and a big amphitheatre. The most popular place to visit now, if not then? The brothel! Erotic drawings were in fact discovered in many different locations and could not have been restricted to being only in the brothels, but this one was confirmed and had ten rooms and explicit paintings in each one. As we approached the brothel we somehow got swept up in a big group, ushered in by the German tour guide who explained what we were seeing on the walls: “bla bla bla anal sex bla bla bla”. Danke schön for the clarification!
As I said, Tony advised us against trying to get to the top of Vesuvius – in fact you’d need a four-wheel drive if you want to avoid doing a long, hot trek to the top, and even wandering around Pompeii in the heat was quite exhausting – and instead he took us to a suburb of Pompeii called Oplontis.
We finished our day tour at Herculaneum which, though less known than Pompeii, also suffered serious damage in the earthquake of 62 AD and was equally devastated by the eruption of 79 AD. The difference is that Herculaneum was hit by a flow of boiling mud (ash and dirt combining with river water) that solidified and created a hard crust on which a new city could be built. For this reason, only a small part of the town has been revealed and the rest remains hidden under the modern buildings of today. Pompeii, on the other hand, was covered by a relatively thin layer of material on which no new cities have been built. Herculaneum was a smaller town of maybe 5,000 inhabitants, a popular summer retreat for holidaying Romans. Its destruction came on the second day of Vesuvius’ eruption, when clouds of hot gas, ash and rock known as pyroclastic surges made their way across the town.
After a long day of exploring the ruins and imagining life, and death, almost 2,000 years ago, we were taken back to our hotel and handed a bag of pasta by Tony. Grazie! The next day, we added to our experience with a visit to the Museo archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; most of the mosaics, the statues, the jewellery and so on that were found in Pompeii and in the other sites have been removed, with many on display at the archeological museum. We bought two different books as well to learn more about the town and its people, which hold as much fascination now as ever.
The practical bit:
Tour company: World Tours offers group tours as well as private tours of Pompeii, Vesuvius, the Amalfi Coast… Ask for Tony – he take care of you! Tony is not a guide, though, so once you’re at the ruins you’re on your own. We chose to use a combination of a map and an app; both were quite rubbish, so a guide might be advisable if you want to have a proper tour of the city and be able to ask questions! We spent three hours at Pompeii in the end, maybe 45 minutes at Oplontis and an hour and a half at Herculaneum. Tony also took us to a lovely little restaurant to regain our strength with a little pizza (of course!) at very reasonable prices.
Museum: The National Archeological Museum of Naples has a website that’s impossible to understand, it’s closed on Tuesdays, and the ice cream machine is a veritable Russian roulette of what you’ll get! But a visit is a good complement to exploring the ruins.