I was not convinced that a visit to the ruins of Pompeii needed to be on the itinerary. After having seen the comprehensive exhibit from Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli in Canada, I thought there was little to add to my understanding of the volcanic eruption on August 24th, 79 CE. Thankfully, I was out voted and did not miss this unmissable site in Campania.
The Gulf of Naples is dominated by the hulking presence of Vesuvius, which has the bemusing quality of never quite being where it ought to be. As I travelled around the curve to Pompeii, Vesuvius was behind me when I expected it would be in front, and seemed to move out front when I thought I’d passed it. The twin peaks used to be one before it blew its top, an event which also increased the distance between Pompeii and the sea from 500 metres to two kilometres.
Our post-lunch, late-afternoon visit to the scavi had the advantage of being crowd-free, which made it easier to hear the echoes and see the outlines of the 20,000 people who lived there nearly 2,000 years ago. In my mind, it took no effort to reconstruct the roofs, reanimate the human and animal residents, and replace all the pots, egg cups, baskets, jewellery, and other detritus of ancient life back in its rightful places. The ambience was definitely aided by a small volcano puffing away unnecessarily, getting darker and darker. Someone is monitoring this, right? There’s someone on this?
The entire city was much larger than I had imagined, from the wide spaces of the marketplace to the temple square. It was impossible to see everything, so we focussed our efforts down certain stick-straight Roman streets; an easy task with the excellent free map and guide that came with our entrance ticket.
The ancient city offered many practicalities and comforts. The sidewalks were raised extra high and crossed with stepping stones to allow for daily flooding to keep the dust down and the streets clean. Humans kept clean in the famous bath houses, which reminded me of a modern Turkish bath. Those were besides the 114-foot recreational swimming pool. Further entertainment options were available at the Amphitheatre (where Pink Floyd performed in 1972), or, if you didn’t like what was on there, the Big Theatre or the Little Theatre. The houses of the rich revolved around beautiful gardens and the vermillion and ochre of their wall paintings was still intact, along with decorative statues and mosaics. I couldn’t miss seeing the practical Cane Cavum (‘Beware of Dog’) mosaic still warning visitors at the House of the Tragic Poet.
One of the delightful surprises was the fast food outlets: a stone counter facing the street with circular holes cut out. Back in the day, the holes held bowls of food for purchase by busy labourers and artisans. I was thrilled to see the first one, then realized they were as ubiquitous as a Starbucks on every street corner today.
At the end of the museum exhibit, there are plaster casts of bodies, including a chained-up dog whose owner did not return in time, a couple embracing in their final moments, a child. It was a painful and powerful conclusion, a sobering reminder of the death of 2,000 people. But leaving the ruins of Pompeii on a sunny afternoon, I was filled with awe and incredulity for the ingenuity of the ancient world, the comforts and vibrancy and humour and creativity of those times. It was good to remember that 18,000 people survived the cataclysmic eruption and escaped the end of Pompeii.
If you find yourself in Napoli, do not miss the museum or the ruins of Pompeii. Until then, you can virtually explore much more information here.