Revisiting Pompeii

Having recovered from the infamous Naples drive, we awake the next morning eager to visit the most important pull of the region: Pompeii. I have been to Pompeii before, when I was a child, with my parents and sister, but somehow had retained a disappointed feeling from it – I had remembered somewhere kind of, well, meh.

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But today, after an al fresco breakfast on our balcony in Agerola and a drive during which no one died (yay!), we enter the ruins of Pompeii and I immediately wonder how I could ever have found this place disappointing! We are walking on a Roman paved street, and on either side of us stand Roman buildings (ruined, yes, but still), and in the background the volcano Vesuvius as a constant reminder of what happened to this town.

The first impression of it is that it’s massive – it’s a full size city, and we’re free to wander its streets; Heather is the only one of us who’s opted for the audioguide, and she occasionally shares bits of wisdom from it with a smug smile, and we love her for it. Zaza is contentedly drooling in the sling. We arrive at the forum, the main public space of Pompeii, in which modern statues with an antique inspiration have been placed, and more are dotted throughout the city. I’ve read reviews complaining of these, but I like them, I like the feel they lend the place, a real melancholy, it fits well with the ruins. As Zaza expresses a desire for sustenance, we decide to have food too and take out our picnic to enjoy it on the forum.

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The next few hours are filled with walking and wonders. We see the old stores, where thousands of amphoras are piled on shelves, and a really poignant cast of a dog caught by the burning cloud of ashes that buried the city, all twisted up with his feet up in death. We enter the lavishly decorated baths of the Forum with their stuccoed ceilings.

We pass countless houses, rich and poor dwellings intermingled (there were no posh neighbourhoods in Pompeii, but there certainly were posh houses), some with fancy mosaics on the doorstep like the famous “Cave Canem” (beware of the dog) one. In some places there are plaster casts of people, too (as they were buried in the hot ashes, the shape of their bodies and even the folds of their clothes were preserved in the solidifying stone, leaving a perfect hollow imprint after they decayed, so when plaster was poured in those hollows, casts of the people as they were when they died were made) – it’s quite something to see their attitudes of fear and flight as they failed to escape their death.

We follow a street along which the ruined houses stand eerily similar to those we saw a month ago in Oradour-sur-Glane, the French village destroyed by the Nazis – the reflection of a lively place stopped dead in one instant. There are bakeries with milling stones and ovens, and small “fast food” joints where the people without kitchens would come and eat – the beautiful coloured stone counters containing large holes where the pots would sit with the food inside, and where you could buy barley, lentils, beans and other cheap fare.

In the road you can still see the deep gouges left by countless chariot wheels in the stone, it’s quite moving because of how vividly it conjures up the image (and even sound) of a lively street with busy traffic. Reaching one end of the city, we pass the gate into the necropolis, which was a cemetery where rich families erected monuments to their dead.

At the end of this dirt road, at the periphery of the city, we enter one of the buildings I was most excited to see: the villa of mysteries. It’s a large house, inside which we are amazed to discover almost intact wall paintings: decorative flowers, dancers and paintings of architecture, with vibrant reds and yellows, but also deep blacks; even a room with an Egyptian theme. But the best is yet to come: we enter a room in which three sides of the walls are covered with the most magnificent fresco on a deep red background. There are life-size people feasting, a woman doing her hair, a child being schooled, and representations of a mysterious ritual which gave the house its modern name, in which a young woman is being whipped on the lap of an older lady. Seeing the paintings in their original setting, in that Roman house, is wonderful, I am awe-struck.

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Zaza is uninspired, or rather she is moved to perform a very smelly bowel movement, so I have to improvise and change her nappy in a corner of the garden of the villa of mysteries (the things this child has seen while being changed!) on a Roman stone wall (sorry, archaeologists), before we return to the streets of Pompeii. Eliza falls into a coma-like slumber as we take in the raised zebra crossings of the Romans (this was to avoid getting your sandals and togas wet when the streets were flooded with water to clean them), some beautiful mosaic-covered fountains at the back of ruined gardens, and more of the “thermopoliums” (the take away food places).

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We reach the most tourist-infested place in all of Pompeii at the end of the day, when most of them have gone, but there’s still a little crowd around: this is of course the brothel… Inside there are little cell-like rooms with a stone bed and pillow (these used to be covered with mattresses and real pillows, fear not) where patrons would go with the prostitutes; all around are paintings of the various things you may want to do with said prostitutes, and most cells have Roman graffiti warning of venereal diseases that were caught with this or that lady, and which ones were particularly amazing at what they did.

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We see more villas than I can recount, some with beautiful frescoes and elegant columns; we see more spectacular decoration in the Stabian baths, where the clever system of under-floor heating is also on display.

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Then it’s on to the great theatre, which is surrounded by a field of poppies! Next to it is a smaller theatre and a big square area lined with columns which was the gladiator barracks. There are more magnificent villas, almost empty here away from the main entrance of the site, and in the end we reach the huge amphitheatre (colosseum) where gladiators fought in front of twenty-thousand Romans; it’s weird to think of these men entering the arena and seeing the view we’re seeing now, but as their last ever view, as Alex remarks.

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We’ve stayed so late that we’re starting to worry that our car park will close with our car locked inside it, so Jo and I decide to run ahead to get the car out while Alex and Hev follow with the baby. We pass through the Forum which is now deserted, and beautiful in the setting sun. As we come out of the site, all the images of today replay in my head and I wonder again how I could be anything but amazed by this place twenty years ago!

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The car park is not closed, as it turns out, but the car is, and Heather has the key, so Jo and I mill around despondently as we wait for the other two to arrive. We manage to not die once more on the way back (yay!) and to celebrate the fact that we have “only” walked twenty-four thousand steps today (as opposed to twenty-seven thousand yesterday, says Jo’s phone) we decide to walk to one of the top rated restaurants in Agerola, “not far” says Heather looking at Google Maps. Unfortunately Google Maps does not show topography, and the “not far” is going down a huge hill and then up the other side, through some almost abandoned-looking areas. Anyway, we reach the pizzeria where we are delighted to find bottles of local wine for six euros each (we have two, because we need courage for the way back, despite the fact that in Alex’s words, it’s “lightly fizzy tasting”). While we stuff our faces with pizza and wine, we happily chat about what a poor performance the football players from the Juventus of Turin and Barcelona are giving (football looks exhausting).

On the way back, somehow Google Maps gets confused and sends us down someone’s driveway first (we get followed by an angry dog), then on a weedy, unlit path on one side of which is a big hole – with the phone torches, we go about fifty metres down that path before deciding that it probably isn’t a great idea and going back on ourselves. The walk is eventful and really fun, I feel lightly drunk, on wine and good friendship and great sights. I stop to pick a bouquet of wildflowers for Heather (who’s got hay fever, sorry Hev), and we get home ready to collapse into bed!

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