If you’ve ever read a newspaper, poured concrete, used a public toilet or walked across a floor with radiant heating, your life has been touched by an invention created by the ancient Romans. Even our current Gregorian calendar was based on the older Julian calendar. The months of the year? All named by the Romans. To say that they’ve been influential in the way we live today is an understatement. So with that in mind, let’s walk down an ancient Roman road into one of their most famous cities: Pompeii, Italy.
This travel review is based on our trip to Italy in 2006. This was the first vacation overseas for my husband Mark and I, as well as our first big trip together. I’d wanted to visit Pompeii since reading about it in my dad’s National Geographic magazines when I was still in elementary school. It was a fascinating, mysterious place that helped foster my love of archaeology and classical history, which I still carry to this day.
Background: In the 1st Century AD, Pompeii was a thriving resort town for wealthy Romans looking for a little vacation getaway. But the town was established long before that, perhaps as early as the 7th Century BC. Around 20,000 people were estimated to live in and around the town at its height. Pompeii had cafes, factories, taverns, bath houses, street food kiosks, and world-class shopping (for its time). It was also well-known in the ancient world for its high-quality wines and garum, a fermented fish sauce (a predecessor to today’s Worcestershire Sauce).
Everything changed in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted. 13-20 feet of ash, pumice and poisonous gasses rained down on the towns at its base, including Pompeii. Thousands of residents died when the town was buried, and over time it was largely forgotten. Although a few walls were unearthed in 1599 while an underground channel was being dug, it remained mostly hidden until 1748, when focused exploration at the site revealed the remains of buildings.
Back then, archaeology wasn’t scientific, systematic or kind; artifacts ended up in private collections and across many museums through looting, pillaging, and chiseling frescoes and decorative elements off the walls. Numerous paintings were destroyed in the process, but luckily some paintings survived.
Things started to change by the end of the 18th Century, and more detailed journals and drawings were made to preserve the information gleaned from the excavated areas. Archaeological digs have continued in Pompeii ever since, but chronic under funding has caused some serious issues, and about 2/3 of the town has yet to be uncovered.
What It Offers: If you’re keen on history, archaeology, or architecture, you will love Pompeii. If you’re fascinated by the power of nature’s destructive fury, it has that aspect as well. If you enjoy tales of the salacious, or even creepy kind, Pompeii will give you what you’re after, too, you salacious creepers, you. Because there is definitely a creepy vibe going on here. Mostly because of these:
Hollow spaces under the debris from Vesuvius revealed body imprints, left behind after the victims’ remains decayed. Excavators filled the cavities with plaster, resulting in the plaster casts of those who didn’t escape the destruction. This really brings home the fact that there were real people here at one time, just going about their daily activities when tragedy struck.
Now for the seekers of the salacious: brothels. Pompeii had them, as well as many other Roman towns. They also had signs for travellers so they didn’t get lost along the way, or, heaven forbid, have to ask for directions:
Not only did they have brothels, but they had paintings on the walls to indicate each lady’s, shall we say, particular specialties. The ancient Romans certainly weren’t prudish, but the people who uncovered the paintings centuries later were. So the brothel walls were covered up again for many years to protect those with delicate sensibilities. The Romans loved bawdy humor, graphic graffitti, and erotic art, but changing standards of morality in the 1800s forced the museums to lock this kind of art away into a Secret Cabinet. Metal cabinets were built over art at Pompeii deemed to be erotic or pornographic, and was only opened to men for an additional fee. (Women weren’t allowed to view them at all). This became an early form of peep show. The cabinets were opened and closed again to the public several times throughout the years, but were finally opened permanently at the Naples National Archaeological Museum in 2005 in a separate room.
One of the many things that I loved about Pompeii was realizing how little people have changed in 2,000 years. Take this floor mosaic for example, an early welcome mat:
Cave Canem, or “Beware of Dog.” How fun is that?
But there was one thing I wanted to see more than anything else. The House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno). In university I took a course on classical architecture. For my big presentation I chose to research the House of the Faun, all because I had seen a photo of their fountain statue in a textbook and instantly fell in love with it. Totally, completely, love at first sight:
Oh, how I adore him! Just the slightly crazed look in his eyes, his wild untamed curls, his wacky dancing pose. He just makes me smile. When I talked about the statue in my presentation, I made a side comment to the class that “he kind of looks like some of the guys I’ve met at the bar.” To which my professor replied dryly, ” perhaps you should frequent a different establishment.”
As a side note, this isn’t the original statue, only a replica. The original was moved to the Naples National Archaeological Museum. But you know what? If I didn’t know better it wouldn’t have mattered, I was perfectly overjoyed at seeing the replica at the original site and that was good enough for me.
Unfortunately, the entire site is under threat due to poor preservation, so the sooner you visit the better. In 2010, the House of the Gladiators collapsed; in 2013 a wall of an ancient shop toppled; and in March of this year three walls crumbled within three consecutive days of heavy rains. At least a dozen buildings at this UNESCO World Heritage site have fallen in the past four years. This is another reason only 1/3 has been excavated: if they can’t preserve what’s already been exposed, how can they continue to dig and leave more buildings open to the elements?
Getting There: There are numerous tour bus operators in Rome to get to Pompeii, or you can take the Circumvesuviana Napoli-Sorrento train from either Naples or Sorrento, which takes 30-40 minutes. If you’re starting in Rome, take the train to Naples first, then the Circumvesuviana to Pompeii Scavi. There’s also the SITA bus from Naples, so there are no excuses for missing this open-air museum; it’s an absolute must if you’re going to Italy.
Food and Drink: There are plenty of food choices once you step out of the museum gates, everything from fast food to high-end restaurants. As mentioned in a previous post, gelato is definitely something to try here if you just want a sweet treat, but you can also find just about any other kind of cuisine nearby, including pub food and vegetarian options.
Shopping Level: Fair, if you’re just looking for cheap souvenirs and dust collectors. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of vendors, because there are, but it’s very touristy so you have to be careful about high pricing and scams like fake coral jewelry. I was personally on the hunt for a little House of the Faun statue to bring home. Well look no further, they have them, in every size and decorative finish you could imagine. Haggling is expected in the markets in Italy. I learned this quickly, because when I asked a vendor the price of one of his statues, he said 15 Euros. At which point I hesitated, only for a split second, but before I could squeal, “SOLD!” he waved his hand and said “Ok, 10 Euros. But only for you.” I don’t normally enjoy haggling, and that had been my first experience ever with it. Really, that’s all it took? It was like he wasn’t even trying. Be aware though, it’s usually not that easy and you’ll probably have to go back and forth a few times to get the price you want.
How Long to Stay: Several hours, even half a day and you probably still won’t see everything. We spent a few hours there and felt like we missed a lot. But also, after a while you get a bit ruined-out, and everything starts to look the same. So aim to see the highlights and most spectacular frescoes and paintings first if you can, and then take time to just wander the streets at your own pace until you reach your own “ruin threshold.” The Pompeii website can be found here for more information: http://www.pompeiisites.org/