Due to heavy rain forecast we had deliberated whether to visit the Pompeii archeological site first, literally opposite our campsite or one of the several great local options all commutable from the train station next door – Amalfi coast, Naples, Herculaneum etc. In the end, we went for broke and booked a guided tour for Pompeii this morning at 10am as it was just too intriguing being able to see glimpses over the wall.
It was actually dry when we set off this morning, we decided to take Lizzy and Lola with us as small, but not medium and large dogs are allowed according to the sign and we did not want to leave them shut up all day. We did the blind date challenge of meeting our guide, Riccardo, I only had to approach one strange man incorrectly before we found him. Joining the tour was also three Americans, so a nice small group, no headphones and groups of 25 so you can’t actually see what is being described. Everyone was happy to let Lola and Lizzy tag along thankfully so we all headed in.
I had been doing a little bit of advance homework for today after reading some reviews before we got here, by reading “Pompeii” by Mary Beard. A very no nonsense but very detailed book of the history of Pompeii, it’s founding, events of the 79 AD eruption of the nearby Vesuvius volcano which encapsulated the town in volcanic ash and preserved the time capsule it is today plus discussions on the evidence they have found there and what it tells us. It is especially good at debunking some of the tourist myths that have grown up from tour guides, explaining the evidence behind and other probable / possible explanations. I am pleased to say that our guide Riccardo, who also works as an archaeologist at Herculaneum, a nearby Roman resort town which was also buried in the same eruption, did not fall into any of the sensationalist traps in his excellent tour today.
We only covered maybe 40-50% of the available area of the vast city, 25% of the city still being under ash and gradually being resurfaced by international archaeologists. It is, for example a 40 minute walk from the Porta Marina city gate where we entered and the amphitheatre at the other end of the city and there is so much to see in between. It is also the finer detail which is so enticing and so revealing about life in a Roman town, the cart ruts in the road, the plaster models of peoples remains found, the phallus signs pointing out brothels to visiting sailors, the doorway ruts for shops from their sliding wooden doors, versus steps for villas.
It is not a city which was entirely captured by the eruption in a single moment as some marketing would suggest, there had been an eruption 17 years earlier, so some temples were not completely restored when the eruption occurred. There was also seismic tremors in the days preceding leading to some evacuations. There was also 200 bombs dropped by the allies on the site during WW2. However, the restoration work is really impressive, seamless in terms of materials and style but also labelled – by for example a thin line of red brick or a plaque. However, it is nonetheless the most exceptionally preserved Roman site we have ever visited. It has suffered none of later remodelling / material theft of later populations. Although apparently the King of Naples who funded the earliest excavations did steal some travertine for his palace 🙄😫
We walked down ancient streets, saw the bakeries, the Tavola Caldo “hot table” eateries with pots built into a counter over a brazier which would serve hot food to passing visitors. There even found carbonised bread in the ruins complete with a stamp for whose loaf was whose in a public oven. There are two theatres as well as an amphitheatre, a gladiator training ground, a forum for civic governance, markets, bars, shops, vast rich villas, a courthouse, and multiple temples. Where you may have to visualise based on some foundations in other sites, here the columns stand, the plaster is on the walls. Amazingly, from what I have read they have learned a lot from posters and graffiti found on the walls – in those days graffiti was more political, intelligent and witty than today’s bubble words!
Probably the highlight of today‘s visit was the villa which was only opened to the public on Christmas Eve 2022 after 20 years of restoration work. Sadly, the exposure of the Pompeii site is also leading to its gradual decay as the structures which were buried in over 50ft of ash and pumice in 79 AD is exposed to the elements again in the last 200 years. However, the villa we saw today, the fresco painting, mosaic floors were so fresh, bright and vivid. You can really see the opulence of the lifestyle the Romans led. Maybe that is why we love to visit these sights so much, you really do leave them thinking that they really had it right (well perhaps except for the slavery 😳) and we have gone backwards as a society since.
The rain had started by the last 30 minutes of our tour and even our rough tough border terriers were shivering. It was bitterly cold and the rain increasing. We decided we would retire to the restaurant outside for some hot food to warm up. Kevin had his “best ever” lasagne and I had some delicious gnocchi. We happily dashed through the downpour to our cosy warm motorhome this afternoon and enjoyed a rare afternoon off with a good book (more Pompeii for me!). Plan is to go back tomorrow to see more.