How often do history and geography culminate to give you a once–in–a–lifetime experience? Not often I guess! And there are very few places on this planet that can give you such a feeling… places like Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, Hampi in India… and that little town on the Italian coast – situated at the foot of its nemesis, Mount Vesuvius – Pompeii.
A Brief History
Immortalized by the 19th-century novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, the small town has been capturing the imaginations of historians and amateurs alike since its discovery… for no other historic site has ever been able to provide such a true glance into the lives of the mighty Romans. Today, when one visits Pompeii, one finds two towns within one – the old town of ancient Roman ruins, and the newer settlements adjacent to the ruins, developed after the discovery of the ruins of the old Roman settlement. Located in the Campania region of Italy, Pompeii was founded in the 6th century BC and came under the jurisdictions of the Roman Empire a couple of centuries later. Being located in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano at that period, gave the town and its surrounding regions nutrient-rich soil. The soil and the climate proved optimal for vineyards, and therefore, wine production formed the major trade of the inhabitants. Under the Roman administration and through successful trade, the town thrived as a commercial center and a port. However, the success was short-lived. In AD 79, a major eruption of the Mount Vesuvius took place, which resulted in molten lava and ash covering the region, destroying the whole town along with its population. A thriving town vanished from the face of the earth in a few days. At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had a population of 11,000 and was a model town by the standard of those times – huge villas, temples, a drainage system, paved roads, fountains, a Palaestra (wrestling school) with a swimming pool, a Grand Theatre and an Amphitheatre for Gladiatorial games.
The lost town of Pompeii was rediscovered – its ruins first excavated – in the year 1599. The excavators found, under the layers of solidified lava and ashes, a town frozen in time. Even today, the 2000-year-old town looks pretty much as it was back then. Many of the villas still stand erect, the amphitheater and the streets intact… even the colors from the frescos on the walls still vivid. Through this blog, we illustrate for you the marvelous experience we had walking through the ruins of Pompeii…
Chubbies’ Tip: We were in Pompeii twice… once in July and another time in November. While July was pretty hot, November – through a little rainy – was much more comfortable. You would not mind a little warm rain when walking around old, stony ruins with nearly no shade.
Getting to Pompeii is an amazing experience in itself. We have been to Pompeii twice, but I will focus on the first one… they are always the trips you remember the best. During this trip to Italy, we had halted for the night in Rome before proceeding to Pompeii the next morning. Of course, one can also halt in Naples – as was the case for our second trip. Getting from Rome (Roma Termini) to Naples (Napoli Centrale) is a pretty regular affair, taking trains either from Trenitalia or Italo (runs only the fast trains). The journey can be between 1 to 2 hours, depending on the train. From Naples (from the station Napoli Piazza Garibaldi, a short walk from Napoli Centrale), the only option to Pompeii is via a narrow gauge train run by a company Circumvisuviana. The trains run around the Mount Vesuvius, with one of the more popular routes being along the western side of the mountain – between Naples and Pompeii (we actually managed to circumnavigate the Vesuvius, when we travelled from Naples to Salerno on our trip to the Amalfi Coast – a story for a later time.). The travel time is about 45 minutes, and it is a fantastic ride in these rickety, graffiti-covered wagons. If you are lucky, you will find and empty-ish wagon. But don’t count on that if you are there in peak summer months. As we got used to the clickety-clack of the wheels on rails and the excited chats of old Italian ladies, we could see the Vesuvius rise on our left with the pristine blue Tyrrhenian Sea on the right. This train ride is a once–in–a–lifetime experience that should not be missed. At Pompei, getting down at the station and Pompeii Scavii (meaning ruins) will bring you to the doorsteps of history.
Chubbies’ Tip: Sit on the left side of the train (with respect to travel direction) when traveling to Pompeii from Naples. Then the Vesuvius is on your left side… a treat to the eyes.
Getting down at Pompeii, we walked a short way to our budget hostel (Otello Deluxe Hostel) to drop our luggage. After a short stop for an early Pizza lunch (what else!), we entered the Ruins of Pompeii through the eastern entry – Porta di Nocera. The nearest sight for us was the huge Pompeii Amphitheatre. Built in around 70 B.C., the 2000-year-old Amphitheatre, we were told, is the oldest Roman Amphitheatre discovered – that is about a 100 year older than Colosseum in Rome which was built between 70 and 80 A.D. Back in the days, it regularly hosted Gladiatorial fights. It was also the venue of a deadly mob riot that led to a ban in Gladiatorial events.
- Teatro Grande (Grand Theatre)
Next, we walked up to the Theatre area of the ruins. In addition to the larger Teatro Grande or the Grand Theatre – there is another smaller theatre. While the Grand Theatre was mainly the place for entertainment, it was also used for public meetings. The small theatre was mainly for rehearsal of plays. With a capacity of 5000, the theatre was divided into three sections – separating the senators (lower seats), the nobles and the commoner (higher seats). From the top rows of the theatre, one can also see the barracks of the gladiators behind.
- Forum and the Temples of Apollo and Jupiter
The Forum (or the town square) of Pompeii is in the center of the ruins, enclosed by the Temple of Jupiter in the north-west, the Temple of Vespasian, the Macelleum or the food market on the east, the Temple of Apollo in the south and the Curia or the town council meeting hall. It is a marvelous view of the intricately designed columns, with the majestic Vesuvius looming behind. Among the several temples, the Temple of Apollo catches the eye with 48 columns surrounding an open court. Unlike the Temple of Apollo, not much exists of the Temple of Jupiter, except for its high base.
- The Victims of Pompeii
A tragic yet interesting discovery was made during these excavations. Due to the eruption, a huge chunk of the population was buried under the molten lava. While these buried bodies decomposed, the lava on top solidified – resulting in perfect casts of bodies buried. When these casts were discovered and filled with plaster, the resulting figures showed the figures of the victims, as they died of this tragic event. The most famous of these casts were found in the part known as the ‘Garden of Fugitives’, where thirteen body casts were found together, lying side by side.
At the end of the day we walked out of the Ruins, and lazily walking through the modern town on our way back to the hostel. A word about the Pompei of today… The modern town of Pompei (mind the spelling difference!) is situated adjacent to the ruins. It is a small town with all basic amenities and facilities available. And like any other European city or town, it has beautiful street cafes and pubs, and cozy hostels for backpackers. A dinner of Neapolitan pizza with fresh olive oil, followed by a cup of Italian Gelato is recommended.
Next morning, we walked back to the ruins. It was a shorter day as we had planned to hike up the Vesuvius later in the afternoon. Through our walk amongst the ruins, we discovered the trade, art, and culture of the long-dead Romans…
The region is famous for its wine, and the old residents of Pompeii were no different. Back before the eruption and destruction of the town, the town people engaged extensively in winemaking and managing vineyards. There are innumerable amphoras, pots, urns, and vessels of wine from the olden days that have been dug out. A large number of these winemaking urns and other artifacts are nicely preserved and displayed in the museum or the Antiquarium. To recreate the scenery of the old days, they have cultivated vineyards in the ruins premises as well.
- The Casas
Through the ruins o, e can find a large number of columned villas – or Casas. Most of these Casas have been destroyed, but a selection of them still holds out with the pillars mounted with Corinthian capitals standing proud. In many of the Casas, the upper story, with its balconies and loggias, has been preserved by girders, giving a better idea of how these looked two millennia ago.
Chubbies’ Tip: Check out these notable Casas in the ruins –
- House of Menander – Belonged to a wealthy merchant who gave notice of his status right at the entrance
- House of the Tragic Poet – Famous for its elaborate mosaic floors and frescoes depicting scenes from Greek mythology
- House of the Lovers – Well-known for the inscription that translates “lovers, like bees, wish life to be as sweet as honey.
- Cryptoporticus House – Has a magnificently painted frieze in a passage
- Casa Della Venere (House of Venus) – One of the loveliest frescoes in Pompeii, showing Venus on a seashell
- House of the Vettii – Home of two well-off middle-class brothers, showing aristocracy and elegant decoration
- House of the Faun – Palatial mansion but without any preserved art
- House of Marcus Lucretius – Casa with well-preserved paintings
- The Frescoes
The well preserved and brightly colored frescoes or wall paintings – depicting the gods and the goddesses, or even scenarios from the Illiad can still be seen today. One of the most popular frescoes today is the Mural of Venus, in which the goddess Venus lays on a sea-shell. Interestingly, the excavation process of Pompeii was hugely affected by the frescoes. Due to the erotic nature of the frescoes, they were considered inappropriate for the times. Through 16th century to 19th century; many sites were excavated and reburied to hide them, only to be re-excavated again.
Finally, walking back we passed through the main Necropolis (or the burial ground) of Pompeii. The tombs found here are beautifully adorned with high columns, urns, and statues. After a quick view of the high-platformed and column adorned tombs, we walked out to the Pompei bus-stop, from where we took a bus to the base of the Vesuvius… the nemesis of the old Roman town of Pompeii.
Chubbies’ Tip: Other than experiencing the ruins, a hike up the Mount Vesuvius – the infamous but now dormant volcano – is highly recommended.
Since its discovery, the ruins have been carefully excavated through the centuries and have been opened to the public to experience the Roman way of livelihood, as it were two millennia ago. The ruins of Pompeii and nearby towns of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata are declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites today.
A walk through the ruins will certainly make you go back to the old Roman days. Visit Pompeii and relive the past!