The columns of a rich merchant's atrium

Pompeii is one of those very, very special destinations. It’s not the only archeological dig in the world that ordinary people can walk through, but it is one of the very few such places where you can really feel a part of the ancient city, and understand the lives and suffering of its last inhabitants.

Pompeii is located a small distance inland from the Bay of Naples, just a short drive south-east of Naples itself. For those that aren’t aware of the history, Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were buried under about six metres of ash and pumice when Mount Vesuvius, a mere eight kilometres away, erupted in August 79AD.

As a rich merchant city, and something of a holiday playground for many Romans, the town enjoyed a small but wealthy population. Despite knowledge of previous eruptions, regular earthquakes, and other signs (there are suggestions all the wells dried up in the day or two prior to the main eruption) the people of Pompeii were strangely unprepared for the inevitble eruption. All up, from a population of around fifteen thousand, an estimated two thousand people were killed in the first six hours; and the eruption continued for at least two days.

Pompeii ruins, with naughty Mount Vesuvius still looking across

Pompeii ruins, with naughty Mount Vesuvius still looking across

The town remained buried for around 1500 years, until it was accidentally re-discovered. Initially many of the ancient treasures were plundered, until in the 1700s the site became protected. It is still being excavated, and small sections of the town have been reconstructed.

The site is much larger than Teddy was expecting. You may be like Teddy, and imagine it as an acre or two of half-walls and a few columns. But it is so much more. In all there is currently over 100 acres (40 hectares) of excavations, and more is being uncovered all the time. You will need at least four or five hours (preferably a full day) to get around enough to feel you’ve done it justice.

All around are examples of everyday life in a wealthy Roman village of the first century. Chariot and wagon ruts can be seen in the cobbled streets, and there are drawings and frescoes on the walls of many of the uncovered buidlings. During the dig archeologists unearthed countless examples of pottery and statues. Many of these are on display at the site, and others were taken away to museums (such as that in Naples).

Walking these streets is a weird feeling. You certainly develop a new respect and appreciation for the skill and talent evident in the architecture, but you also feel a little sad knowing that you are walking in the footsteps of a town devasted by a tragic and cataclysmic natural event. Looking at the plaster casts in the storerooms for example, it is clear that for many victims this was not a quick, painless death. Looking across the site to the iconic shape of Mount Vesuvius – still looming so large and ominous – is a chilling feeling.

There aren’t many ancient sites in the world where you can touch the history the way you can in Pompeii. Here, you will walk the streets, enter the buidlings, touch the walls, sit on the marble steps.

Inside one of the houses

Inside one of the houses

Highlights of the site are many. You can visit a bakery and see pizza ovens and dough-making urns, a refreshment stall where cold drinks were served from deep pots, a brothel (with an illustrated “menu” on the wall), and a number of houses both large and small. There are two large public areas – the main forum and the temple – which each have a significant amount of their civic structure intact or reconstructed. There are long streets lined with houses and shops, and the large villas of the rich with their ornate decorations and large gardens.

The eruption in 79AD that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum was not the first time Vesuvius erupted, nor the last time. In fact, the most recent eruption was less than eighty years ago (1944, to be exact). Driving along the main coast road between Naples and Pompeii you can even see the rock formed by previous lava flows as it edges out between buidlings.

According to the experts, it is only dormant (not extinct) and so could erupt again at any moment. Even now the people of Naples live with strong earth tremors several times a year – which makes it only more puzzling why they continue to live so close to this deadly mountain. In fact, the suburbs of Naples are creeping further and further up the slopes of Vesuvius every year, and today an estimated 600,000 people live within the “red zone” (or danger area).

(Teddy has lots more pictures of Pompeii on the desktop backgrounds page, and the iPhone background page.)

Pompeii, main forum

Pompeii, main forum

Things to be aware of:

  • There are no taps or drinking fountains on the site. Be sure to take a good supply of water with you, especially on a hot day.
  • Speaking of hot days, there is little in the way of shade, and the site is on top of a small hill, so if the sun is beating down dress appropriately and take a cool hat.
  • There are no public toilets on site, so make sure you go before entering.
  • Some of the streets are narrow and some buildings are small. On busy days this can mean that you may not get as much chance to see the things you want to see. Naturally, weekends are worse. Be patient.
  • Some of the “jump-the-queue” tour operators (such as those out of Rome) have deals with tourism operators either in the vacinity of the Pompeii site, or on the way there from Rome (such as the shell carving museum outside the site). Take care that you know exactly what you’re paying for, to ensure you’re not being dragged around to places other than the dig that you will possibly have little or no interest in. Having said that, a good tour guide will help to bring the site to life for you.
  • Pompeii is famous for its stray dogs. They don’t appear to be dangerous, but they do leave behind little reminders.
  • There are a lot of souvenir operators set up outside the site. Most of these are licensed and well-behaved, but beware of people walking up to you.

2 Responses to Pompeii

  1. Catrina says:

    your website is a great source of information.

  2. faca says:

    Thanks for helping out, great information.

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