Joe Hendren

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Travels: Italy

Pompeii and Herculaneum

Monday September 29, 2003

The excavations at Pompeii are certainly larger than I expected.  It is a real revelation to find Pompeii a complete city, together with many houses, cafes, temples, laundries, inns, forums and stadiums.  A ghost town since the fateful day in AD 79, when Mt Vesuvius erupted, but the completeness and the scale of the old city of Pompeii help to give it the life that is often missing from the ruins of old.  

Not knowing quite what direction to take, I ended up trekking through Pompeii from the back entrance to the front.  As it turned out, this ended up being a good way to avoid the crowds.  I came to one of the most inspiring ruins first, the amphitheatre.  It was built the year Pompeii came a Roman colony in 80 BC, making it the oldest known amphitheatre.  As can be seen from the photo, quite a bit of the stone step seating is still there, making it easy to imagine what it would have looked like.  I loved walking through the tunnel to the centre of the stadium, wondering what it must have been like to come out of the tunnel to face the (usually bloodthirsty) crowd.  Later I climbed up the other side so that I could take a seat in the arena to eat my lunch.

Amphitheatre in Pompeii

When wandering about something as novel as a Roman city it becomes easy to forget the tragedy of Pompeii .  It is surprising that the source of one of the most famous images of Pompeii, the group of thirteen people suffocated and encased in lava, is so hard to find.  I spent over a half an hour looking, only to come across it by accident.  Although the ‘Garden of the Fugitives’ includes adults and children, all the people are significantly smaller than average sized humans today.  Facial expressions encase terror held in time.

House of the Faun.  A large ancient dwelling in Pompeii

With many of the recent excavations it was possible to also excavate the entire building, including the roof.  Roofs were then repaired in order to provide some greater protection from the elements.  This helps to give the effect of walking around real roman buildings, rather than just ruins.  For example the House of Venus, damaged by bombing in 1943 has been completed excavated and restored and even includes three large paintings on the back wall.  There is even a brothel in Pompeii, including a number of paintings that may have served as a price list!

Quite enjoyed investigating the theatres – as I entered one spirited tourist spontaneously sang a few bars of an opera.  It actually sounded surprisingly good, receiving 'spontaneous' applause from other tourists sitting in the theatre.  Both theatres were in very good nick, especially the smaller theatre which reminded me of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London.  Returning to the main street, glancing up at Mt Vesuvius through the Arch of Caligula made me think of how the lava would have looked running down the streets and through the archways.

Walking on the uneven stone streets can take a bit of effort, especially if you try to walk it, as I did, in sneakers.  On either side there are raised footpaths.  Wandering around I came across a lot of buildings housing a Thermopolium, a sort of Roman cafe that served hot drinks.  Perhaps I could not but notice them as they included many round holes that looked very like toilet seats.  One would hope no one got confused.  

Inside a Pompeii Thermopolium

It was a very hot day, so I was pleased to find a drinking fountain in the central square that actually worked (the tap wasn’t original, but the rest of it was).  Could not worry too much about quality of the water as there was nothing else available and it would not have taken long to get heatstroke.  I spent a good six hours wandering around Pompeii – there is so much to see there!

Around 4pm I left Pompeii in order to try and complete the day dash around ruins with a visit to the other major archological site in the area, Herculaneum.  I found out I needed to go to Ercolano.  Hopping on the Circumvesuviana, an over ground metro that runs along the coast between Naples and Sorrento, I was not exactly sure how long to stay on the train as I had no idea how far away my stop was.  I must have looked a bit lost, as I met a couple of Italian middle aged women on the train who asked me where I was going.  One had spent some time in London and appeared to appreciate practicing her English (they helped me out with pronounication of some Italian words too).  They told me when the train was about to arrive in Ercolano so I had some confidence again about where I was going.  Grazie!

Overall I found Italians to be a friendly bunch, especially if I was able to struggle out a few words of Italian as an appropriate greeting.

Main Street Herculaneum

Whereas the events of 79AD covered Pompeii in lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone), Herculaneum was covered by volcanic mud.  Because of this the ruins in Herculaneum are meant to have been better preserved than the ruins of Pompeii .  Apparently they even found fruit on the tables, but things like that are now safely somewhere else (the museum in Naples).  While seeing the nearly intact roman floors and many of the pretty wall decorations were preserved in Herculaneum , to be honest I didn’t think the difference was that significant.  While I spent six hours wandering around Pompeii I covered Herculaneum in just over an hour, so overall I thought there was much more to see in Pompeii .  It could well be that I tried to do too many ruins in one day.