May 26, 2007
Pompeii, a place Anne and I had visited separately many decades before, felt as if it might disappoint us. Coming back is always uncertain – will the good memories prove to have been inflated? Especially so when you were just twenty years old the last visit, or in Anne’s case, a young teenager. However, there need be no fears with Pompeii, we discovered, as it is one of those places that is better than one remembers.
I think one reason this is so is the sheer drama of its demise. Over two mornings in August, 79 A.D., the thriving resort town of Pompeii just near the stunning bay of Naples was first showered by light ash and pumice from conical Mt. Vesuvius some five miles away. Then came successively heavier rock, and then searing flows of hot, poisonous gas. When it was over, the city was dead, buried under some 12-15 feet of volcanic debris which had collapsed roofs and crushed every living thing. When the smoke and haze finally cleared, Vesuvius was found to have literally blown its top. The top of the cone was gone, the summit now more gently sloped, not unlike Mt. St. Helens in Washington state’s southern Cascades.
For reasons I’ve not understood, Pompeii lay largely unplundered and eventually forgotten for some 1700 years. A chance discovery of pieces of inscribed marble led to some probing and the town was gradually excavated beginning in the 1800’s. It is still partially un-excavated and work is ongoing. The hollow pockets found in the ash layers were mysteries until about 1880, when the chief archaeologist realized these were imprints left by human bodies. He ingeniously poured plaster into the cavities, then carefully chipped away the ash and rock to reveal grisly statues of people as they lay trapped in the eruption. These famous plaster casts of humans and animals caught in their last agony are a moving part of this horrific, unforgettable drama: huddled against the hot rain and gasses suffocating them one sees a mother and child lying together, hands stretched toward each other; a man sitting upright hugging his knees to his chest; a pregnant woman lying face down, arms extended.
More positively, Pompeii, despite its sudden death, lives hauntingly to tell its story to us today. We empathize with the people of Pompeii. We imagine their dilemma as the mountain threatened them – flee and leave everything behind, or huddle at home and hope for the best? The best did not come, unfortunately. Today, their recovered household goods in Naples’ Archaeological Museum show that they lived amazingly like we do – they cooked in frying pans that look as if they’d come from a kitchen store in Ashland, drained food in colanders that are like ours, had small painted pictures of loved ones sitting (as do our photos) on dressers, enjoyed nice necklaces and earrings, drank wine from hand blown glasses not unlike ours in shape, and (like us too) frequented some 90 restaurants and fast food places fitted out with marble countertops.
As one wanders the streets of the town the audio guide comments on some of the finer houses. Only some of these can be entered (the rest have chained metal grills blocking entry, although the atriums and gardens are sometimes visible from the street) and I found myself pleased to get to see the “backstage” places the wealthier residents enjoyed. As in most of the Mediterranean, walls out front secluded the living areas and open gardens and fountains, making these houses real places of reguge and comfort. Not unlike our own lives, where the well-off have larger houses, gates, swimming pools, and privacy. Anyway, two other thoughts on this: the owners of these places and even their names, are mostly unknown today. Houses instead are called after some feature found there, as in the bronze dancing Faun found in one house, an utterly magical sculpture now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. Another precious sculpture in marble that lent its name to a house is Bikini’d Venus! See the photo of this small marble statue with a costume painted in gold leaf — sure enough, a bikini in 79 A.D. Imagine that in 2000 years your house is unearthed, your names and your lives are unknown, but your house is named by future archaeologists after some item in it — house of the big pink sofa! I doubt the Pompeiians are happy about this!
Anyway, this was a magnificent day, one in which we feel we made a start at understanding this intriguing town and its past. There were lots of other visitors there, but it’s a huge place and it is quite easy to escape the crowds and find quiet places to sit and ponder, eat one’s sack lunch, read, or listen to the audio guide.
Tips for visiting Pompeii:
a) Allow a full day, early morning til closing time (they open about 8am, close at 7:30pm in summer). There are frequent busses from the port of Napoli (30 minutes, about 2.30 Euros one way), as well as the Circumvesuviano train from Garibaldi station.
b) Rent the audio guide (E10 for two of them), one for each person – extremely well done, this not only describes individual buildings, villas, etc but has general sections on history, the eruption, extracts from plays performed in the Pompeii theater, etc. Superb.
c) Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat, wear shorts and very comfortable shoes (we both wore comfortable jogging shoes with good soles). Take lots of water (at least a liter a person). We brought a sack lunch too, and snacks and fruit. There is a single modern snack bar with public restrooms, but it is the only one in the large area of Pompeii. It sells sandwiches and snack foods, coffee and other drinks, and has a hot food cafeteria. Except for the coffee, it has fairly high prices.
d) DO go all the way over to the Amphitheater and work your way back. Its grassy interior is a good resting place too.
e) Although most tourists congregate closer to the snack bar area, the main street heading east toward the Amphitheater has some of the best preserved parts of town, including many painted political slogans and some parts of two storey buildings. Just north of this street is a large as-yet unexcavated area, so the building fronts you walk past are cleared but the buildings themselves are still filled with 15 feet deep volcanic rubble. A great contrast to the more fully excavated parts of the town.
f) Enjoy one of the icy fruit drinks available at the Marina gate upon exiting
Finally, to get the most out of this incredible town and its history, you might wish to think of your visit as having three parts, best savored in this order:
* A day-long visit to Pompeii itself
* A 3-hour visit to the Archaeological Museum in Naples the next day (all the “stuff” found at Pompeii is there and is very impressive)
* Reading Pompeii, the novel by Robert Harris (2003), soon afterward. Having just been there, you’ll find that this “good read” captures the last few days of the city, taking you to familiar places you’ve just walked in, but as it was 2000 years ago just before life and the city was snuffed out.
The story, and it is a good one, not just history, is told through the eyes of the aqueduct chief engineer, who discovers sulfur in the water supplies of Naples and has to go to Pompeii to try to figure out and fix the problem. Its a bit of a mystery and page-turner, definitely to be enjoyed.
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