The first time we visited Pompeii was some years ago when we were staying in a village called Scala (literally 'Steps' - and they weren't fibbing!) on the Amalfi Coast. Scala itself is roughly about three or four miles from the nearest bit of coast at Amalfi, reached by pursuing a torturously winding road which snakes its way through the steep hillsides.
Until the 1930s, when the road was built, the only way down was via the numerous steps that run up and down the hills, on which you might still encounter the occasional farmer riding a mule carrying water bottles. We found it was possible to get to Amalfi from our hotel in the village in under twenty minutes. We waved goodbye to a nice Italian couple one morning who had rushed through breakfast, intending to get a bus from the village to Amalfi, in order to catch a coach to Sorrento. We finished our breakfast in a leisurely fashion and took the steps. We were waiting at the coach stop in Amalfi as they alighted from the village bus - trying hard not to look too smug!
We took a day-trip organised by our tour operator to see Pompeii and the volcano Vesuvius. The one and a half hour guided tour of Pompeii, with a commentary in English and Italian because the group was mixed, was inevitably disappointing. It was a bit like taking a trip to the British Museum and finding you only have enough time to look around the foyer and bookshop!
The Amalfi Coast because of its terrain is not an easy place to get to and from without difficulty. The coach to Sorrento, probably a distance of less than twenty miles, takes over an hour and a half for example, as there is just one narrow road that weaves and bends its way along the coast. The trip to Pompeii convinced us to enjoy Scala as a place for walking amongst lemon groves and spectacular scenery. After a few days of going up and down literally hundreds and hundreds of steps we also developed calf muscles worthy of Popeye. However, we did formulate a plan to 'do' Pompeii properly sometime.
We did some research, and two years later we chose to book a hotel as base in Sorrento. We discovered an excellent thing called an Arte Card, which for a reasonable price included bus and train travel anywhere in Campania, and free entry at a certain number of historical sites. The ancient ruined city of Pompeii is only about twenty minutes on the Circumvesuviana train route, which runs from the centre of Sorrento to Pompei Scavi. We spent about fifteen hours at Pompeii over the two-week holiday and literally only scratched the surface - but inevitably there were other places we wanted to see and of course had to find time for relaxation too. It is the most incredible place, a city that met a sudden irrevocable end, and has been frozen in time since that moment. The human plaster casts (some of which are on display) were made by filling the space in the ash left where the two thousand asphyxiated victims of Vesuvius, including their domesticated animals fell and rose no more. They lay buried for the next fifteen hundred years beneath approximately 16 or 17 feet of volcanic ash.
You can picture wives gossiping on the streets of the easily imagined porticoed shops. Or see whole families as they go to the theatres, or revel in their municipal excellence at the games put on for their appreciation by the city fathers. Or imagine craftsmen, or businessmen, or the many visitors the town must have had, sitting around in the various bars with a glass of wine: or chilling-out in its marvellous baths (I think the only place in the city where its curved and corrugated ceilings remain intact), or indulging in more carnal pleasures at the brothel with its pictorial menu of sexual offerings ( because not every tourist and visitor to the city spoke Latin). Apparently, the townsfolk of nearby Herculaneum ( also destroyed and equally worth visiting) found the people of Pompeii a little garish and vulgar - snobbery it seems is nothing new. Pompeii was renowned for its 'Garum', a kind of sauce made from the fermentation of fish, pretty stinky and probably a bit unpalatable to modern tastes, but the Roman world loved the stuff and Pompeii was famous and rich from the export of it.
However, conservation at Pompeii and the vast area it covers is a major headache, and every year the site deteriorates a bit more. For over fifteen hundred years the molten ash that had destroyed and buried it was its protector, but exposed to the sun, air and the 2.5 million tourists that visit annually, the site is under huge pressure. When we visited the Villa of Mysteries, beyond the Necropolis and outside the city walls, decorated with the most exquisite wall paintings, we were horrified to see our walking boots scuffing the ground and unintentionally kicking-up pieces of two thousand year old mosaic floor tiles. Pompeii is a marvellous piece of human heritage, a place where people lived, played, worked and died. I felt like they were reaching out across two millenia and saying to me, 'we were much the same as you, had similar ambitions and passions, vanities and foibles'.
The ancient Roman city of Pompeii lies close to the modern and similarly named suburb of Naples, Pompei. Together with the neighbouring town of Herculaneum, it was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The population of Pompeii is estimated to have been about 20,000, and it's thought about ten percent actually died there. An eye-witness account of the eruption exists, written by Pliny the Younger who watched the whole thing from across the Bay of Naples.
There is currently a major exhibition about Pompeii on at the British Museum.
M J Johnson
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