In the shadow of Vesuvius – a day in Pompeii

There is something ominous about visiting Pompeii.

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Pompeii used to be a bustling port town in ancient Roman times, until it was completely destroyed in 79AD when Vesivius erupted, burying the town in ash and killing all the citizens with deadly shock waves.  Centuries later, Pompeii was rediscovered and rescued from the ash.  Most of Pompeii has now been excavated and underneath the ash the town remained remarkably well preserved.

But over Pompeii, Vesuvius looms.  I suppose the people who lived and worked in Pompeii would not have known how destructive Vesuvius could be.  Knowing what happened at Pompeii did give me a little shiver when looking at the volcano, which can be seen prominently all over the town.

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Walking through Pompeii feels like walking into the past.  A lot of the artefacts that have been recovered from Pompeii have made their way into various museums, mainly the National Archaeology Museum in Naples.  For me, walking round Pompeii does so much more to bring history to life than looking at a display of artefacts in glass cabinets.

For Jim, the most striking part of Pompeii was the fact that you could still see the grooves of the cart wheels cut into the roads.

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For me, it was being able to see the wrinkles in the clothes of the plaster casts they had taken of those that were killed in the eruption.

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I had always been under the impression that these were bodies covered in ash and turned to stone – in actual fact they are plaster casts of the hollow spaces where bodies had been trapped under the ash.

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Then there are the murals…

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the ones in the brothel are particularly well preserved…

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the mosaics…

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the ovens in the houses…

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the pools and fountains…

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the arena and gladiatorial training ground…

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and the famous bath house.

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Walking round it was so easy to picture Pompeii as a bustling, elegant and modern town.  It is much harder to get that across in a sterile museum environment and so it is a shame that there are not more artefacts remaining on site.  Those that do remain we found locked behind bars.

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When visiting Pompeii, here is what you need to know:-

1. Pompeii is big

That might be stating the obvious, but there is an awful lot to get around.

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You can buy a combined ticket to also visit Herculaneum and some of the smaller sites, but I would not recommend trying to do this in one day.  We spent a whole day in Pompeii and we still didn’t get around everything.  Comfortable, sensible shoes are a must as the uneven, cobbled streets are tough on feet and ankles.

2. There is not much information…

There is a complete lack of any kind of information boards to tell you more about what you are seeing.  We debated whether to get an audio guide and decided against it in the end, but in hindsight I think it probably would have been wise to get one.  At the very least, I would recommend buying a map of Pompeii from the gift shop before starting out.  Even with this, we still managed to get lost and had many disagreements about which way we needed to head, but it did help us navigate our way around so we didn’t miss any of the main sights.

3. …and there is even less shade

It was hot when we were there and there is little in the way of shade, or rest points where you can escape from the sun.  Jim & I are both adults and we know our limits – we know that we can push ourselves and be a bit uncomfortable, but I think this would be much more difficult for anyone travelling with children.

4. Once inside, there is only one cafeteria

And to be honest, managing to fit that within the ruins is probably a bonus.  Jim & I didn’t stop – we hadn’t really planned to, but when we passed, it was absolutely crammed full of tour groups as it is the only place for a refreshment stop.  I would suggest taking a picnic – we only had a couple of little cakes that I had pilfered from the breakfast buffet in the morning.  I would definitely be more prepared and take some proper food, and importantly, much more to drink, if visiting again.

5. Pompeii is busy

Again, that is stating the obvious – it is one of the busiest sites in the world.  In parts it doesn’t feel that way – we found ourselves on quite a few occasions wandering down some little street or through ruined houses where there was no one else but us and the lizards.

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However, the main attractions, i.e. the bath house, the brothel and the main street on which there are current excavations get very busy indeed.  I’m not sure there is any escaping this – we just tried to keep one step ahead of the tour groups and patiently wait our turn.

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My expectations were high coming to Pompeii and I was not disappointed.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the highlight of the whole trip to Italy for me.  Walking around ruins in the baking hot sun may not be for everyone, but I think anyone with an interest in history would really enjoy a visit, as it really did feel to me like I was walking into the past.

How to visit

We visited from Sorrento.  The Circumvesuviana train has a stop at Pompeii (Pompei Scavi – Villa dei Misteri) and costs around €2 each way.  Entrance costs €11 for just Pompeii, or €20 for a 3 day ticket covering Pompeii, Herculaneum and three other sites. A map can be purchased from the gift shop at the entrance for €2.

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2 responses to “In the shadow of Vesuvius – a day in Pompeii

  1. About 31 years ago I arrived at Naples at about 7:15 in the morning. I had travelled overnight sleeping in the corridor of a very crowded train from Brindisi, where I had arrived by boat the day before from Patras in Greece. I wasn’t at my most compos mentis! I wanted to get to Pompeii. English isn’t much use at 7.15a.m. in a busy Napoli Centrali just as Italian wouldn’t be much good at Newcastle Centrali either. Circumvesuviana and a gesture were the best I could get. So to cut a long story short I am almost certain that I got off the Circumvesuviana at Eroclano Scavi. I still have to this day a Guide book entitled the New Practical Guide to Pompeii by Euginio Pucci, but I honestly havent a clue whether I actually visited Pompeii or Herculaneum. The station would suggest Herculaneum, but the guide book tells me Pompeii. I remember it was bakingly hot and the Via de Mercurio looks familiar, but why get out at Ercolano Scavi! Its a mystery cos my memory remembers all of the baking heat, but non of the precise architecture.

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