I usually start off posts with the claim that "____ is an easy little day trip from ____." That format doesn't really work for Pompeii, however. Even if you're staying in Naples - which is very close to Pompeii - getting there isn't really easy
, per se... but certainly worth the effort.
We started from Rome, leaving for the Napoli Centrale train station at 7:30 am. Rome to Naples is in fact a quick little journey on a comfortable Frecciarossa
train. My advice: enjoy the comfortable seats, neutrally smelling compartments, and speedy yet stable
transportation. The next leg of the journey is considerably lacking in all those regards.
The Pompeii ruins are on Italy's west coast, just south of Naples. To get from Naples to Pompeii, you'll have to take the Circumvesuviana
- a regional train line that loops around the west edge of Mt. Vesuvius. The tracks are hidden in the darkest depths of the Napoli Centrale station. Tickets must be purchased from the ticket counter - no handy automated machines here. Make sure you specify POMPEII SCAVI
(Pompeii ruins) not just POMPEI
(the modern day town of Pompei). If your journey is anything like ours was, the ticket man will shove five tickets your way and inform you that the train leaves in one minute. Your brother and dad will have gotten defective tickets somehow and will still be trying to scan them through the machine as the train comes to a stop on the platform.
Don't worry, you'll make it on.
Your relief once inside the graffiti decorated car won't last long. There are a slew of colorful adjectives that could suitably describe the Circumvesuviana
train, but safe
is not one of them. The anxious feeling you have could be attributed to any number of things... perhaps it's the shady, creepy look you're getting from all the other passengers, making you all too aware how very foreign
(read: touristy) you must look. It could also be the very loud domestic dispute happening right behind you. Maybe it's the fact that you're not really sure if you're going in the right direction and each stop seems to have less helpful signage than the last. And even if you are heading in the right direction, the sight of the run down, abandoned buildings making up the urban jungle that is Naples isn't very heartening.
Then again, it's most likely coming from the horrible realization that the train itself feels as though it's being driven by the old man who drives the Knight Bus in Harry Potter... lurching, wobbly, and far too fast for what you suspect is less than adequate structural integrity.
Come to think of it, everything in that clip is a pretty accurate representation of what it's like to take the Circumvesuviana
, particularly Harry's reactions to the entire experience.
Anyway, you will get there eventually. Hop off at the Pompeii Scavi: Villa dei Mistiera
stop and follow the crowd to Pompeii's entrance. For a basic Pompeii experience, just collect your ticket and the free guidebook and explore on your own. For a bit more organization and education, hunt down one of the freelance tour guides and join a tour.
Founded somewhere in the 7th century BC, Pompeii was a thriving Roman metropolis by the time of its destruction in 79 AD. It was home to a complex plumbing system, an amphitheater, a gym, a sea port, bakeries, and the Roman version of fast food restaurants... all enjoyed by its 20,000 inhabitants.
At some point between August and November (the date is disputed*) Vesuvius began to erupt - ironically, sometime shortly after the festival to the Roman god of fire, Vulcanavia. While many inhabitants fled at the first signs of danger, others stayed behind, likely realizing their error once it was too late. Scientists estimate that those present in Pompeii during the eruption would have been exposed to waves of 482 degrees fahrenheit heat as lava and fire rolled down Vesuvius.
The most likely cause of death was probably suffocation from the heavy ash and tephra that rained down on the city for over six hours. Taking shelter inside homes wouldn't have helped, as the weight of the residue caused cave ins. When it was over, Pompeii was covered in 25 meters of volcanic ash and rock. The city was destroyed, yet perfectly preserved and frozen in time until its discovery in the 18th century.
Bodies were literally frozen in moments of agonizing death. Over the centuries they decomposed, leaving shapeless skeletons behind within the now-hollow cavities. Upon excavation, these cavities were filled with plaster and the resulting forms were dug up.
The ruins are vast and you could easily spend hours wandering among them.
If you don't want to pay for a guide, do a little research ahead of time and be sure to pick up one of the site's free guidebooks, which are full of interesting little historical tidbits to look out for. Some of my favorites are:
The raised stones in the streets. When the streets were being flushed with water for cleaning, these stones were used to cross without getting your feet wet. One stone indicates a one way street (cart wheels would pass by on either side) while three stones indicate a two way street.
The "Roman fast-food restaurants." These consisted of a smooth, L-shaped counter with holes. Inside the holes, vats of prepared food would sit and you could stop by and fill up a plate or bowl. Historians are, as of yet, unsure as to whether or not supersizing was an option.
Colorful mosaics, most notably the "Cave Canem:"
an ancient warning to "Beware of the dog." Floor decorations were a sign of wealth.
The bakery, or at least one of the twenty or so that Pompeii had. Its large oven and flour grinders are still intact.
Evidence of the ancient city's advanced plumbing system (and a Pompeian zombie who roams the streets, terrorizing tourists).
Wandering around the ruins is a bit eerie, especially when it begins to hit you how similar their daily lives were to our own - maybe with the exception of the copious, socially accepted brothels dotting the city.
On the outer edge of the ruins you'll find the amphitheater. Thanks to its preservation over the centuries by Vesuvius' ash, it now has the distinction of being the oldest known Roman amphitheater.
Like each Roman arena that would come after it, the Pompeian amphitheater functioned as an area for various sporting spectacles; namely, gladiatorial fights. One such fight in 59 AD between Pompeii and the neighboring town of Nuceria escalated into a brawl between spectators, and a ten year ban was placed in effect.
Just beyond the amphitheater is a seemingly random collection of small temples, tombs, and gravestones.
Getting back to the entrance/exit requires you to meander back into the twisting streets of Pompeii and of course, getting back to Napoli Centrale requires another treacherous journey on the Circumvesuviana
. It goes without saying that Pompeii is worth the effort, though. Even if history isn't a personal interest of yours, it's hard not to feel a bit humbled and in awe as you walk through the streets and into the homes of the ancient Pompeians. If history is
a personal interest of yours, you'll probably find yourself wondering what people 2,000 years into the future would think if they took a stroll through one of our cities preserved in time. Would they see us as primitive and unintelligent, or would they find distant connections between our habits and their own daily lives?
*Documentation of the eruption by historians of the time, notably Pliny, point to a date around August 24, 79 AD. However, modern historians have noted that the clothing on victims was warmer than what would normally be worn in August and food remains point towards the types of fruits and vegetables that would be grown in October. Coins discovered bore an imperial acclimation that wouldn't have been minted until after the second week of September.