During our Italian trip in February, we spent three nights in a town called Minori on the Amalfi coast. For me, a big attraction of heading this far south in Italy was to see Pompeii.
Our first full day in Minori the weather was a bit crap, but the second day was brighter so we headed off to Pompeii, which was only about 40 minutes away. We had planned to spend a couple of hours there, and then head off to Herculaneum/Ercolano, another Roman site destroyed in the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD.
So here’s what I thought Pompeii would look like – in my head. You’d drive well away from the city, head towards some sort of forest, down a long dusty road, park your car and then stroll into “Pompeii”, which itself would be mostly a flat dusty field but with a few scattered Roman ruins here and there. There’d be a museum with some “ha, you didn’t get me” unbroken amphorae, a bunch of broken ones, a few posters about the eruption, and the centrepiece would be those macabre mouldings taken from the victims who died covered by ash, but whose bodies left “moulds” as the ash cooled, and as their bodies decomposed. Awesome.
So, when we actually got there, what I found was quite a surprise:
“You’d drive well away from the city”
You don’t really leave Naples to get here, and there’s a motorway offramp right beside Pompeii, plus another main road running past with shops and usual Italian city stuff.
“A flat, dusty field with a few scattered ruins”
It’s an enormous, sprawling Roman city – and apart from roofs, almost completely intact. It has an enormous wall all around the outside, and once you’re in, it perches just slightly above the rest of the city. Inside are hundreds and hundreds of buildings – public buildings, baths, temples, workshops, giant amphitheatre, posh houses, modest houses, bars and cafes, political graffiti… 11,000 people used to live here.
“We had planned to spend a couple of hours there”
You need ALL day to cover Pompeii – forget about doing Herculaneum the same day.
“There’d be a museum”
There’s no museum here – although in the forum (the main city square, which is also enormous) there is a sort of big garage with wire fencing so you can look in, and here are the amphorae, other artefacts, and yes, a couple of ash mould bodies. It’s best to bring or buy a guide book so, as you’re going around, you know what you’re looking at – but there are signs inside each building as well.
So what are we really looking at?
Yeah, so before I went, I thought the focus of Pompeii would be Vesuvius – that it would really be “about the volcano”, about the eruption, you know, and looking at how it destroyed the town. But it’s not at all. It’s more that because the volcano preserved the town, what Pompeii is really about is being able to visit a place where you get to rewind 2,000 years and see almost exactly what a large Roman city looked like.
Many, many buildings still have their original mosaic floors or wall paintings. Of course, the houses were built and decorated at various different periods, and art history scholars have defined four distinct Pompeian Styles of mural painting, eg the First Style was fashionable from 200BC to around 100BC, then they noticed a change which they describe as the Second Style from 100BC to around 20BC, etc. The influences, designs and colour palettes change through each of the styles.
The roads – made of giant flagstones – still have grooves in them where they were rutted by cart wheels. At various points there are large stepping stones which allowed people with log hems to cross the road in heavy rain without soaking their togas.
A day at Pompeii is a long one – and although there’s no museum there is a cafe and plenty of toilets, etc. A few sections of the city were closed for restoration work – and that was frankly a blessing, because we really wanted to see as much as possible but the kids (and us) only had so much gas in the tank.
But it’s an amazing, fascinating day – taking in everything from the enormous scale of the city as a whole … down to a tiny portrait painted on a wall in a small bedroom 2,000 years ago.
Check out some of our pictures: