Walking Beneath the Shadow of Vesuvius at Pompeii

Pompeii is the best preserved Roman city I know, which leads me to think that, for towns at least, a good dose of lava and hot ash is a recipe for longevity of a sort.

Typical Pompeii street

A typical Pompeii street

We arrived early in the morning to avoid the worst of the sun and the crowds and walked up a steep path with cart ruts cut deep into the stone. I had just been reading Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii, which describes the days leading up to the eruption of AD 79, and walking around the site brought the story vividly to life. The remains of houses and shops are clearly visible, making it easy to imagine the street lined with villas and tavernas, crowded with people going about their everyday business and horses trudging up the hill.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The well preserved site gives lots of clues about everyday life in Roman times
  • You will enjoy the many frescoes, especially the graphic pictures in the brothel!
  • Good for: history lovers, especially those with an interest in the Romans or social history.

All of daily life is here. We pass villas large and small, shops with partially intact marble counters, the public baths with their separate bathing areas for men and women, and the vast forum where crowds would gather to shop, listen to speeches and chat with their friends. But often it is the tiny details that connect the past to the present, like the mosaic embedded into the wall of a house that warns would-be intruders to beware of the dog.

Frescoes

Many dwellings, however humble, have the remains of colourful frescoes upon their walls. I speculate that they were the Roman equivalent of wallpaper, decorating houses according to the owners’ tastes. Sometimes they drop tantalising hints about their owners and the activities that took place behind closed doors: An example is the picture of the initiation of a young woman into the cult of Dionysus in the palatial Villa dei Misteri, which is situated just outside the city walls.

But for many visitors, it is the frescoes in the official city brothel that are a major attraction. The narrow alleyway leading to the cramped building  is packed with eager tourists, cameras at the ready. Above each of the rooms is a picture showing the speciality of its occupant in graphic detail. But the exotic pictures notwithstanding, the miniscule cells with their hard stone benches are a harsh reminder of the reality of a prostitute’s life.

Forum and Vesuvius, Pompeii

The Forum, with Vesuvius in the background

Vesuvius

A walk around the old city walls provides a pleasant contrast to the bustling town below. Now, as then, the surroundings are agricultural. We pass a field where onions have been spread out to dry in the sun and enjoy the peace, the only sounds a faint tinkling of goat bells and the chimes of a church clock in the distance.

Wherever we go, the landscape is dominated by Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79. It is still active, its fumes visible to anyone who makes the trek up to the crater, but has not erupted seriously since 1944.

Rich and Poor

Pompeii Mosaic

Mosaic at the Villa of the Faun

Every so often, you get a reminder of the distinction between rich and poor. Most of the houses are small, giving little space for families and their servants. The crowds of visitors clustering on the narrow streets today give an idea of how the town would have looked when it was full of Roman citizens jostling past one another on their way to the shops, or the Forum, or the amphitheatre at the far end of the town.

But it must have seemed very different to the rich. The walk to the Villa dei Misteri takes you down the Via dei Sepulchri, a wide and peaceful avenue lined by memorials to the rich and famous. Then there is the Villa of the Faun, in the middle of the city, with its spacious garden and courtyard, allowing its owner to step out of the busy town into an oasis of calm.

For us, tourists on a schedule, there is no such respite. It is getting hot and crowded, and it is time to go in search of lunch before exploring the nearby site of Herculaneum, another city that lived and died under the shadow of Vesuvius.

Practicalities

  • Pompeii can be reached by train on the Circumvesuviana line which runs between Sorrento and Naples. If you use the train, watch out for pickpockets.
  • Tours are also available from Naples or Sorrento, and occasionally from other parts of Italy.
  • If you don’t take a guided tour, it is advisable to have a map and guidebook that explains the significance of each building.
  • You can buy snacks and drinks at on the site and near the station.
  • If you are also visiting the site of Herculaneum, you may find it cheaper to buy a joint ticket which is valid for 3 days.

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