Note – This article was originally published in October 2013 and was redesigned and updated in July 2015.
Just a short train journey from our fantastic art hotel in Napoli is one of the worlds most internationally recognised archaeological parks – Pompeii – and with it so close and us so keen to see classic Roman period architecture in the flesh we decided that the chance to see such well preserved history was unmissable.
After the around thirty minute train journey from Napoli Centrale, we disembarked at the closest station to the ancient ruins to be met with almost instantaneous hollers of “Join our walking tour, spaces left” and “Get you guided tour tickets here” – classic lines that you’ll hear at every major attraction around the world – but it’s over before it’s started as they snare a couple of people and commence their well practiced verse.
Once you’re past the initial few people at the station exit, the direction towards the architecture and archaeological site is quite clear, but failing that you can always just follow the flow of walking traffic heading to the main ticket offices at the bottom of the road.
Prior to arriving at the site we chose to join up with wonderful Walks of Italy who not only run multiple tours at the site but also at several attractions and cities across the nation and for that day we’d be taking the ‘Best of Pompeii’ tour.
Breaching The City Walls
After joining up with our bubbly tour guide and the rest of the comfortably small group of other travelling tourists at the site entrance, we picked up our tickets and began to walk through the tree lined pathway to enter through the city’s remaining territorial walls, hearing the tale of the demise of Pompeii from our guide before shortly arriving into the beautiful open space of the restored gladiators barracks.
As you step into the covered space there are two thoughts that pass through your mind, firstly;
“How can this be real?” followed rather swiftly behind by; “This feels more like a film set than an actual place” such is the magnificence of the architecture and the setting you are in.
The columns line the walk way in which you stand and the guide begins to explain to the group as just how things began to surface as architects, restoration artists and teams of preservation experts arrived in Pompeii to help discover more and preserve the location.
Our guide explained the ways in which to recognise where history stopped on certain buildings and restoration began on others, pointing out that on some walls the lowest half is original, the top most half being a restoration – but if it wasn’t for her pointing it out to us I don’t think we may have noticed the difference such is the care and expert dedication that’s gone into making Pompeii what it is today.
As we circled our way around the gladiator barracks we snapped photos before turning to enter one of the smaller amphitheatres to the side of the much larger and accommodating and simply named large theatre.
After a further moment of detailed explanation from our trusty guide we then took ourselves over to the incredibly grand and towering large theatre, learning just how much had been preserved and how that even today concerts still take place during the summer months in the classic style of the period, or sometimes for bigger light show spectaculars..
The view from the top of the ‘cheap seats‘ as they were called then very much as they are we call them today was spectacular and as you stand there you can see over the tops of the walls that appear throughout the site to view a stunning panorama.
To think that the stone we were standing on had been lain down around 2000 years before any of us were born was incredible to consider, that someone elses craft and determination to create something spectacular can still be appreciated and even used in the same way it was intended with such a distance of time between creates a feeling of bewilderment and joy that you can be amongst the history too.
Making Your Mark On History
After climbing down the steps to the floor below and navigating around the other much larger group tours at the bottom where people are lucky if they can hear anything at all, our guide took our smaller and more intimate group through a narrow corridor towards one of the main roadways, but not before stopping and pointing out someone trying to communicate to us.
On the walls that lined our path you can still see the classic gold and Pompeii red paint that still covers the wall even if a little faded, and on the walls were personal messages scratched in, not from other tourists, but from the people of Pompeii!
Markings and pictures line the walls, some small reproductions of what must of been classic scenes of the time such as gladiators fighting, a ox pulling a cart and a sketch of the nearby amphitheatre in all of its architectural beauty.
Aside from that, our guide was cheekily pleased to point out (with schoolkid like giggles coming from group) the few more physical depictions on the wall, probably from some hormonal teens of the time with a little too much spare time 😀
Roadways and Walkways
Exiting the corridor you’re immediately on the city streets, lined as they were at the time with flagstones the whole length of the way, with markings amongst them, lines the cartwheels would cut into them as a combination of time, repetition and the weather wore them down.
Running parallel to this his large and wide road along the sides are buildings where the people of the city would stop for something to eat or to perhaps trade at a time where Pompeii was still a port town (the sea was much closer than it is today during Pompeii’s economical height) and evidence of this can be seen as you peer into the combined shops and houses as people lived where they worked in or above their shop, much like we saw in some parts of Asia today.
Knowing Where To Turn
Pompeii is huge, much bigger than I’d personally ever imagined regardless of the knowledge that it was a city that was uncovered, not just a few houses; but once you’re amongst the houses and the warehouses, the sheer size of it is overwhelming and without a map in your hand or a guide to lead you it’s quite possible to find yourself lost amongst the traffic of people or even all alone down a side alley.
In fact, there is still a large part of the site where digging and discovery is still going on and there is still much for the team that operate and preserve the site to uncover and reclaim from the soil.
Luckily for us our guide knew exactly where she was going and navigated us to the stunning villa complex of the House of Menander.
As we waited our turn to enter the villa (so as not to overcrowd the site) our guide took us further through the history of the park and specifically the villa complex to paint a better picture in our imaginations of the scene at the time of not only the volcano, but the day-to-day life of the common folk and the richer merchants that lived at villas such as this.
To see paint on the walls as it once was and mosaics on the ground preserved and in a better condition than any Roman mosaic I’ve seen elsewhere in the country was fascinating. To think that someone once scurried in their sandals across the very same spot I’m standing to fetch something for their master was astounding and the feeling of history is like no other I’ve felt anywhere else in the world (with the possible exception of Roma’s Colosseo).
Highway to History
Back onto the streets of the city and you see further examples of the lives of the people of Pompeii and the accompanying description of the time from our guide paints the picture even more so that you can almost see the townsfolk making their way from warehouse to stall and then onto a small bar for a hot meal or a drink of Pompeii’s chief export – wine.
The Oldest Profession In The World
Now to some this may come to a surprise, to some others it may not, but in the heart of Pompeii lives a little naughty secret.
Obviously kept away from the history textbooks from schools like mine across the world is the preserved local house where the sailors, local townsfolk and other passers through could take a moment to relieve ones’ “stresses“.
Featuring one of the largest crowds and queues of the day, the Lupana draws biggest crowds much in the same way Amsterdam’s Red Light District does today – pure curiosity and a humans nature to take a peek at something they feel they shouldn’t.
In this house of sin you can see the incredibly basic conditions in which people would spend their time (and their money, of course) with stone beds topped with stone pillows to rest their heads on and most notable are the pictures above the doorways to each small ‘room‘ where people would enjoy the company of another, and it’s these pictures that probably draw the largest part crowd.
Without having to use too much imagination it’s plain to see that the pictures act less like decoration of the establishment, but more as a menu for the people coming through the city from other ports across the Mediterranean and further afield. Without the need for words and using the international communication tool of getting what you want – money – all a prospective client had to do was point at their chosen preference of pictures and select someone to enjoy it with.
Much More To See
Following on from what was less than five minutes of waiting and viewing the local ‘entertainment‘, our guide led us to the central forum where the city did the majority of business, where people would have paid their respects at each of the temples that line the sides of this large square and where the marketplace would most likely have been.
Most magnificent of all is the foreboding message of the past, but also of the future as the still active volcano of Vesuvius sits in the background looming over the city which it once destroyed and is highly likely to destroy again the next time it erupts.
From here our guide took us past more notable attractions of the site such as mosaics and buildings that most of us will have seen in history classes before leading us past shelf-after-shelf of recovered artifacts and eventually coming to the end of our well led tour.
The tour doesn’t have to end there, of course.The tour being the ‘Best of Pompeii’ there is of course very much more to see, but having paid your entrance fee you are very much encouraged to make the most of it and to go off into the city with your map in hand to make your own adventure and perhaps to make your way to one remaining larger attraction of the park which is the huge amphitheatre at the other side of the enormous park.
We both really loved not only being amongst the recovered architecture and archaeological history of Pompeii, but also the history we heard about from our guide who did her most to paint a picture for us and answer any question we might have.
For those who like to go a little deeper into the history or perhaps to walk a little bit further in the company of a specialist guide of the city, there are of course alternative tours run by Walks of Italy ‘Best of Pompeii’ tour that we joined in on which can easy be booked before you even arrive in the country which is exactly what we did.