Pompeii was the reason for my visit to Italy. When I started studying Classics, I was fascinated by the lives and stories of the people who lived in the ancient world. Over and over again, I’d be bowled over by how advanced those people were.
So, Pompeii was an obvious draw. A perfectly preserved time capsule from the Roman world? Yes, please.
Pompeii was once a thriving Roman city that was wiped out during the Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79 A.D. Many people lost their lives, but their homes and buildings were all preserved under ash.
Naples was my base for exploring this part of Italy, and getting to Pompeii was easy (albeit a really, really crowded train ride). We hired a guide from the site when there, which was a great way to see the ruins, but maybe something I wouldn’t do again. This was one of those rare occasions where I actually preferred exploring on my own.
You’ll need a full afternoon.
These are a few things that sparked quite a bit of emotion from me as I explored Pompeii.
The Forum is the first thing you’ll see when you enter Pompeii. It’s was one of the political and commercial hub of town, and you’ll find many of the original columns dating here to the second century B.C. You should probably note that the giant sculptures in the courtyard are art installations and NOT original relics!
There’s a storehouse-like area containing a ton of artefacts dug up from the site, including a few glass classes of preserved victims’ bodies. The dog on its back writhing in pain might be the most notable — it’s not for the faint of heart.
This is Pompeii’s main street, once lined with shops and private homes. You can peer into shops along the way, and you’ll notice stone “countertops” with circular holes carved into them. This was for holding hot dishes of food to be served out to people. There are also public baths and a brothel here.
The baths are incredibly well preserved. Entering the colonnaded area, you’ll see a swimming pool on the left, and male and female baths on the right. It’s not all that different from our modern day spas — there are even racks for clothing.
There’s a tavern here as well, the Thermopolium, complete with drinking glasses, a kettle, a stove, and a lamp. You can see the last customer’s money on the counter. Because there’s no better way to deal with a catastrophic volcano than drinking all the wine.
Villa of the Mysteries
This one is just outside the main area of the city, and nobody’s quite sure who the owner is. Although it’s not technically on the excavation site, your ticket includes admission. But it’s home to some of the best preserved paintings at Pompeii, and experts are still trying to figure out what it all means. (I love a good mystery.) The frescoes MIGHT represent a young woman joining the cult of Dionysus…or she might simply be preparing for marriage. Kinda the same thing, I suppose.
The Garden of Fugitives
This might be the most heartbreaking site of them all.
In a glass, you’ll find the bodies of 13 victims of the eruption, including men, women, and children. They died by asphyxiation from the gases, and their bodies were slowly covered with ash.
The bodies show what the victims went through in their final moments trying to get out of Nocera Gate — they lie on the ground in twisted positions, or cover their heads as if to protect themselves. It’s eerie, and haunting, and a reflective way to end the day.
House of Menander
This was one of my favourites at Pompeii. It belonged to a wealthy merchant, and the atrium (like the main area of a home) has a temple and a roof that drained water into the pool below it. The rooms are elaborately decorated with depictions from Homer’s Iliad.
House of the Vettii
This one is definitely my favourite.
Two wealthy brothers lived here, and they spared no expense in decorating their home. The frescoes are remarkably intact, everything has marble decoration, and there’s a re-planted garden so visitors can see what the original looked like. The paintings are vivid — the colours so sharp, it looks freshly painted.
And below it all is a thermal area. A home with a built-in spa. No biggie.
House of Venus
The design of this house looks a lot like the House of the Vettii, but the focal point here is an elaborate painting of the goddess Venus. She reclines in a large shell while cherubs fawn all over her.
The whole thing is a mythological piece of work in stunning detail. It makes me want to paint my walls, although I suppose my landlord would not be okay with that. We shall see.
This quite literally skims the surface of Pompeii. The site spans an enormous area, with countless preserved villas, rooms, and public areas.
And excavation work is still being carried out. Wrap your head around that for a moment.
One of the beneficial things about doing the guided tour was being led to places that other tourists didn’t get to see. Overall, I kinda wish I hadn’t done the tour so I could have had more time exploring the other, better-preserved places. But at one point, our guide covered us while we snuck looks inside places recently discovered. (It could be a gimmick; it could be wrong. I don’t know. It was exciting.)
If you go:
Plan to spend your whole day here.
If you MUST take a guide, do lots of advanced research.
Pack a picnic because the neighbouring restaurants/bars will gouge the shit out of your wallet.