I clutched my camera firmly to my chest, hunkered down and learned against a wall made 2000 years or so years ago. My nylon poncho flailed around in the wind as a bitterly cold rain lashed my face. The ceiling of this building had been blown away in a storm of a different kind long ago, leaving the wall as my only protection from the elements. I had seen the cloud coming over Mt Vesuvius, but thought the storm would take longer to hit so I hadn’t sought shelter. As water trickled into my shoes I thought to myself I should be miserable, but instead I was having the time of my life.
Getting to Pompeii from Rome is easy, and… hard. You can pay your way onto a modestly expensive bus tour and get transported from the door of your hotel on a “luxurious” bus to the ruins. You are then guided around the site and shown as many of the key locations as they can in an allotted amount of time.
Or you could jump on the high-speed rail from Rome to Naples, then catch the suburban public transport train to the rear entrance of Pompeii. Weary of being rushed by guides after the Vatican experience, we chose the latter.
We missed our high-speed train and had to get the second one. We went looking for lunch south of the station in Naples, only to find ourselves walking into an urban ghetto filled with surprised looking refugees who were wondering what these white people were doing there. At one stage I saw a group follow us. After that we returned to the station and struggled to find our way to the correct train to Pompeii, prompting me to wonder if this was going to be all worth the pain.
But once we got there and started to walk around we found it was. The beauty of the Pompeii excavation site is that it’s not a location built for tourists, but you are free to walk around pretty much go wherever you want. With nothing dictating how we were to use our time, Pompeii opened up to us with the magic you would expect of a ruin. At the entry booth we had a moment of sunshine breaking what was at this stage several days of miserable European rain. But as we entered the park a dark ring of cloud passed over Mt Vesuvius, and soon I was sent scurrying for shelter in a location that had suffered one of the most catastrophic pyroclastic flows in history when the fore-mentioned mountain erupted.
For those unfamiliar with Pompeii, here’s a potted history. On August the 24th, 79AD, Mt Vesuvius threw a plume of ash into the air that fell across the near-by port cities of Pompeii and Herclaneum. As the hot ash and pumice coated the buildings like snow, some of them started to collapse, while others were rattled and cracked by rumbling tremors.
With much of the city collapsing most of the residents who weren’t trapped decided sensibly to gather as many things as they could and run. Early the next morning the side of the mountain blasted open, sending what is known as a pyroclastic flow or surge gushing over the two cities, with Pompeii hit the hardest and fastest.
At the time some 2000 people were still in Pompeii, and were buried instantly by a scorching cloud of hot gas and finely ground rock particles moving at incredible speed. The city was lost, and its location forgotten. But this all changed in 1748 when explorers digging for artefacts rediscovered entombed city. As excavations commenced in earnest, they discovered much of the city had been captured in time by the ash and preserved, with many of the artefacts of daily life still in their place. Not only that, in the cavities of ash, they found shadows and skeletons of the people that died there. Fascination of the discoveries helped drive the influence of antiquity and Neo-classicism in art and architecture across the world for decades afterwards.
Here’s a bit of a video of the eruption time-line that was created by the Melbourne Museum:
Roving around Pompeii.
If you are expecting an incredible show to be put on for you and your fellow tourists, Pompeii isn’t for you. Unlike theme-parks where attractions are marked, mapped and queued with attention abundant retaining material around you, Pompeii is only what it is – a ruin of a once affluent trade city. It’s easy to find people online moaning that it ‘sucked’, an unfortunate outcome in a world filled with low-attention frame entertainment options.
But Pompeii for Jane and I was a touching and personal experience. Without guides and only the vaguest of maps to get around, we were left to walk and explore the city on our own. Some of the major locations have small signs and plaques, but not many. And most of these only line up with the self-guided tour handset you can hire at the gate. Which we did, which proved valuable in many places to give us some context as to what we were looking at.
It was the feeling of discovery that made it such a moving day for us. With so little documented but so much open for you to explore, simply walking into people’s houses of 2000 years ago never felt so rewarding. Walk into one room and you find wonderous frescoes on the walls. In another tile work that showed how much the inhabitant loved their dog. Giant male and female wash-rooms and basins. Temples, mansions. Stone ovens. Even tint museums filled with cabinets holding artefacts dug up from the site can be found in the most unexpected of places.
At one stage we walked down an alley towards some large trees where we found a park that had been set aside for athletic tournaments. A double-storey building was next to it, and I convinced Jane that we should jump the puddle in the doorway and walk through to see what was in it. On the other side of the door I was shocked to find a huge amphitheatre which I hadn’t expected.
What added to the magic of the day was the rain. Every so often another storm would crash across the city, leaving us to again scurry for shelter. Moments after the sky would open up again and flood the city with sunlight. As the day progressed and the rain made many of the tourists in the groups miserable, and they waned off. At times it felt as though Jane and I were the only ones left in the city.
In a way my experience with Pompeii became to feel spiritual. I was just a passing entity exploring the walls that have been excavated – a third of which still remaining under the ground, but I was un-rushed by a guide. This meant that I could spend however long I wished looking over each spot I stopped to sit, with only the rain occasionally forcing me to run inside and hide inside some of the still complete standing structures. But even then this often led me to discover further interesting things. It is a haunting place tragedy and abandonment, and has a way of etching its self into you unforgettably, if you give it the time.
And time we did. I’m not sure how long we spent there, but it was between 6 to 8 hours – and even then we left only as the site was about to close.
The Ghosts Of Pompeii
I mentioned earlier the ‘shadows and skeletons’ of the people of Pompeii being found. The shadows, for those familiar with Pompeii, were the cavities in the ash that were left by the bodies of the dead as they decomposed. One of the things that has made Pompeii so famous, or rather infamous, are the plaster castings taken from these cavities by Archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1863. Most of these casts contain the skeletal remains of the bodies, and many of the casts show the details of the victim’s clothes, faces and fingers.
Most of the casts have been removed from Pompeii and now live in a museum in Naples. However some can be found, as well as copies of others, in Pompeii. Many of them are now encased in glass to protect them from the elements.
Off to the side of the main square a building has been closed off and is being used to store many of the artefacts found on the site. Most of these are pots, water jugs and garden ornaments, however a handful of the casts can be found here.
Even sadly there are bodies, well casts, of pets and children. Even as a casting of a void in the ash, it’s hard to see the remains of a child’s body with its toes curled in as its muscles spasm as a 1000 degree centigrade wall of gas and pumice buries it. The same horrifying and excruciating pain suffered by every one that died that day in Pompeii.
We exited the park via, as always, the gift shop. I turned and snapped a photo of the afternoon sunlight giving the city a lovely glow, then we made our way down to the train station.
In the underground tunnel beneath the tracks I stopped to use the toilet. As I walked in a man in a khaki jacket and a baseball cap passed me, making his way out. 5 minutes later when I too exited, he was strangely still at the entry of the toilet in the tunnel. He then followed us up to the train platform.
We go on the train, and Jane was lucky enough to score a seat. I stood, with my new friend rather close to me, and avoiding eye contact. I messaged Jane’s phone to tell her I had a pickpocket problem. I deliberately used my phone to gauge his responses to seeing where I kept my valuables. My coat overhangs my pocket by a long way, making it hard to slip a hand in un-noticed. The pickpocket then circled me, either brazenly or incompetently, looking to see if he could gain access to the bag I carried my camera gear in. But my bag is hard to get into, and I pack it carefully so that the contents of my bag don’t easily spill out when slashed open. (Experienced traveller tip: use a bag with Velcro and clips keeping it closed, and has a large neoprene pouch sewn inside that has another noisy Velcro enclosure to hold your crucial valuable items off the bottom of your bag).
As he circled me trying to Figure out how to gain access to my valuables, I started looking for his friend. They usually work in groups of two or three. He messaged someone on his phone, then got off at the next station. Immediately two other men his age ran up the platform to get in through the door quickly.
There they are. The game is on.
A seat opened up next to Jane, so I sat down. Both men turned and watched me, and continued to stand close, casually glancing in my direction. Jane’s backpack is obvious but she keeps her more valuable items in a smaller unseen bag on her front and under her jacket. We probably looked like easy targets but were far harder than they realised. They too tried to get close and subtly to measure us up. One pulled out his phone, possibly to send identifying details up the track to his friends at the busier station we were likely to get off at in Naples.
After that, Jane, while maintaining eye contact with the two took off her distinctive coral coloured scarf and stuffed it into her backpack. Immediately the two men became visibly frustrated and moved away from us. Jane had correctly guessed they were using her scarf to identify us to their friends, giving them a very firm signal that we were onto them. Their body language changed quickly and they stopped looking at us. With something of an angry huff they got off the train at the next stop.
We made our way back to the high-speed train and then on to Rome, not stopping to see much more of Naples. But that’s okay. That’s something for another trip to Italy if I have the chance to return. It isn’t easy to explain why I fell so deeply in love with Pompeii, but after spending a day there, our visit to the Roman forum and the Colosseum the next day was a comparative let-down. Spending most the day in the cold and bitter rain should have dampened our spirits, but the wonder of Pompeii never for a moment disappointed us.