The city of the lost
Pompeii (with double ‘ii’ in the English-speaking world) is one of those places that not only every traveler, but also every tourist has in his bucket list.
And here’s where all the problems originate! Hordes of sweaty tourist flock to this magnificent, yet sad place. Packed trains and climatized buses unload thousands of curious people who in their school days heard about those unfortunate people who had the stupid idea to build their mansions under the infamous, furious, fire and lava spitting Vesuvius.
Pompeii has been a popular tourist destination for over 250 years; it was on the Grand Tour. It attracts almost 3 million visitors per year, making it one of the most popular tourist sites not only in Italy, but worldwide. To combat problems associated with tourism, they have begun issuing new (combined, of better value) tickets that allow for tourists to also visit cities such as Herculaneum and Stabiae as well as the Villa Poppaea, to encourage visitors to see these sites and reduce pressure on Pompeii. The site is today generally less accessible to tourists, with less than a third of all buildings open in the 1960s being available for public viewing.
The term "Grand Tour" refers to the 17th and 18th century custom of a traditional trip to Europe (through France and Italy) undertaken by mainly upper-class young northern European men of sufficient means and rank (typically accompanied by a chaperon, such as a family member), when they had come of age, in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. Young women of equally sufficient means ("debutantes"), or those of either gender of a humbler origin who could find a sponsor, could also partake.
The custom—which flourished from about 1660 until the advent of large-scale rail transport in the 1840s and was associated with a standard itinerary—served as an educational rite of passage. Though the Grand Tour was primarily associated with the British nobility and wealthy landed gentry, similar trips were made by wealthy young men of other Protestant Northern European nations, and, from the second half of the 18th century, by some South and North Americans. The tradition declined as enthusiasm for neo-classical culture waned, and with the advent of accessible rail and steamship travel—an era in which Thomas Cook made the "Cook's Tour" of early mass tourism a byword.
Nevertheless, the sections of the ancient city open to the public are still extensive, and tourists can spend several days exploring the whole site (!!).
I spent no more than 3 hours there, which is alot for me. But this was because the place needs lots of walking, and not because my amateur eye needed to admire every single wall painting of the city (besides the nice ones have been moved to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) or every single still standing wall.
The day I visited was a hot early June day (I do not even want to think how hot the place gets in July and August) and the bright merciless sun had turned north European tourists into walking bright-red 'lobsters'. Walking is difficult on the paved roads, so you need good trekking shoes and good reflexes so you do not bump upon other dumbfounded exhausted and thirsty tourists.
The good thing is that the further you walk away from the entrance to the archeological site the less crowded the place gets.
Pompeii is also a driving force behind the economy of the nearby town of Pompei (with one 'i'). Many residents are employed in the tourism and hospitality business, serving as taxi or bus drivers, waiters or hotel operators.
Pompeii is located about 25km from the center of Napoli and can be reached either by car, bus or train. The easiest way is to get a tourist bus advertised everywhere in the city or the Airport of Napoli.
If you do not want to fall into these tourist traps (and believe me, Italy is full of tourist traps) the easiest way (with several drawbacks of course) is to take the Circumvesuviana train.
The Circumvesuviana Train Station is at Porta Nolana, a couple of blocks south of the Napoli Central Station (Napoli Centrale).
You need to take the Napoli-Sorrento train that runs every 30 minutes (give or take).
The trip to Pompeii lasts about 30 minutes and costs 2,80€ one way. Buy the ticket at the ground level ticket-booths and go down one floor (no elevator, no escalators going down).
Check at the electric boards the platform number for Sorrento and put your ticket into the automatic gates for them to open. If they do not open, do not worry, obviously they are often out of service (fuori servizio)… in this case, you just push yourself thru them or try another one.
The first train stop after Porta Nolana is called ‘Napoli Garibaldi’ train station, which is actually part of the Central Station, but Italians, always happy to confuse you, have a different name (and a lower level track) for the station for those using the Circumvesuviana trains passing from Central Station.
My advice: TAKE the TRAIN from Porta Nolana NOT from Napoli Garibaldi station.
By having boarded on train at the start of the line, you will certainly have a seat and you can smile (with plenty of sympathy) at tourists who enter by huge numbers at Garibaldi station... do not pity them as they are not clever enough to have read Kostas’s blog (www.kostas66.com) before coming here!
All of a sudden, the train at garibaldi gets very crowded and very hot as there is no air-conditioning. The trains are old and dirty and noisy.
Neapolitans often do not just talk to each other, but instead they shout to each other, or at least this is the impression you get by listening to them.
At some point, in a train from Napoli to Ercolano, my ears were aching because of the voices of two women talking to each other, while sited at least six rows away one from the other. The situation got even worse when in front of me sat four extremely loudly-speaking American teenagers… wow, several gore ideas passed through my mind during those endless 15 minutes of journey!
You get off the train at ‘Pompei Scavi - Villa dei Misteri’ station. The train station is only some meters away from the archeological site. The first thing you will see getting off the train is big signposts bearing the words ‘tickets to archeological site’, ‘escape the lines’, ‘ticket office’, etc. written on them.
Do not get fooled!
These are not official ticket places, but just private tourist agents which charge you more just to “escape the lines”, as they say. The reality is that you do not escape any lines, though, you just get into lines to escape some other lines. This should not be allowed, but …oh well, this is Italy.
At the Archeological site
Instead of getting your entrance tickets outside the train station, walk about 150 meters on the road with the tacky restaurants, bars and souvenir shops and you will see the big gate to the archeological site (PORTA MARINA-Entrance).
Walk through the gates and line up for your ticket. Even though the lines may look long, they are fast and you will go through hassling free.
The ticket costs 15 € and they accept cash and credit cards. After getting your ticket, enter in the small pavilion (Info Point) next door to get your free booklet-guide and map.
There is also a book/souvenir shop here in case you need that expensive souvenir to bring back home and put it on the top of the fireplace for your friends to admire.
Well, here we are: hat, a bottle of water, map, sunglasses….and off we go!
An unfortunate event...
In 62 AD, a violent earthquake struck and shook the entire area surrounding Mount Vesuvius. Reconstruction works in Pompeii began immediately, however, they took a long time to be completed due to the extent of the damage and the seismic swarm that followed.
The sudden eruption of Vesuvius 17 years later, on August 24, 79 AD, buried Pompeii under ash and lapilli.
The city was "rediscovered" at the end of the 16th century but explorations only began in 1748, under the King of Napoli, Charles III of Bourbon, and continued systematically throughout the 19th century, right up to the most recent excavations, restorations and enhancement of the city and its exceptional heritage of architecture, sculptures, paintings and mosaics. The archaeological site of Pompeii spreads over 66 hectares, 49 of which have already been excavated.
Walking around the ancient city
Enter the city through Porta Marina. This gate (not to be confused with the modern gate bearing the same name, you passed through earlier to buy your tickets) was called that way because it was the gate leading from the city out to the port. Obviouslly the sea shore was much more inland than it is today.
Walk on Via Marina popping in and out the buildings along the road: among them are Casa del Marinaio, Casa di Trittolemo and Casa di Romolo e Remo on your left and Abtiquarium, the Sanctuary of Venus and the Basilica on your right, before entering the big open space, the Forum.
The first impressions you have of the place are overwhelming. The place looks really big and you have that sad feeling of visiting a lost under the volcanic ashes city.
The Forum (Foro Civile di Pompei) was the core of public daily life of the city. Here were located all the main public buildings for administration, for business management, for trade activities (such as markets), as well as for worship.
The square of the Forum originally looked like a simple open area with an overall regular shape, made of clay and its western side opened on to the Sanctuary of Apollo, whereas the eastern side had a row of shops. The Forum was significantly modified between the 3rd and 2nd century BC when the shape of the square was regularized, surrounded by porticoes and paved with slabs of tuff. The axis of the square became the façade of the Temple of Jupiter, aligned with Mount Vesuvius.
The significant buildings around the Forum (as you walk clockwise from the point of entrance into it) are: the Sanctuary of Apollo, the Granaries of the Forum, the Temple of Jupiter, the Archi Onorari (Arco di Traiano), the Macellum, the Sanctuary of Lari Pubblici, the Tempio del Genius Augusti (di Vespasiano) and the Portico della Concordia Augusta (Buiding of Eumachia).
Exit the Forum to Via dell’ Abbondanza (at the side of the Building of Eumachia) and walk this road all the way to the end (Porta Sarno).
There are lots of building to see and visit in Via dell’ Abbondanza and it depends on how much time you have to spare.
Some of the buildings (mainly houses) you may be interested to see here are (in the order you encounter them): Casa del Cinghiale, Casa dei Cornelli, Terme Stabiane, Casa dei Epidii, Casa del Ciarista and Casa de P. Casca Longus.
The main entrance of Terme Stabiane (Stabian baths), on via dell'Abbondanza, leads to a large courtyard.
The pool is found to the left, whereas a colonnade is found to the right, which leads to the men's quarters, which are split into the apodyterium (dressing room), with the frigidarium (for cold baths), which leads to the tepidarium (for medium temperature baths) and then to the calidarium (for hot baths). The heating was guaranteed by a piping system in the walls and double floors that circulated the hot air coming from the furnaces and from mobile braziers.
The women's quarters, located close to the men's quarters, were split the same way: in the apodyterium, tepidarium and calidarium. However, all women's quarters were smaller and had no rich decorations that make men's quarters so distinguishable.
Women entered through a separate door, on which “Mulier” (woman) was written, in the NW corner of the courtyard, which opens on to via del Lupanare. The separation of the sexes was normal practice in the ancient world.
The Stabian baths, which date back to the 2nd century BC, are among the oldest we know of in the Roman world.
Before continue further on the same road, across the Casa de P. Casca Longus (after Vicolo di Tesmo) there are some steps taking you on a small hill with a modern building on it (Casina dell’ Aquila). The building is neglected or under renovation (I am not sure), but it seems that once here was a bar, a shop an d public toilets.
From there you can have wonderful views over most of the archeological site.
Continue further and you see: Fullonica di Stephanus, Casa del Lalario di Achille, Thermopolium di Asellina, Casa di Fabius Amandio, Insula dei Casti Amanti, Casa e Thermopolium di Velutius Placidus, Casa di Giulio Polibio, Caupona di Sotericus, Casa di Trebio Valente, Scuola Armaturarum, Casa del Moralista, Casa di Octavius Quartio (which looks like a "miniature version" of the grand aristocratic villas scattered in the countryside outside the city, is a type of dwelling used by the Pompeian elite just before the eruption), Casa della Venere in Conchiglia (Venus in the Shell) and Praedia di Giulia Felice.
The Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus is a bar/restaurant and represents social mobility in Pompeii, where merchants and craftsmen also held a high social status, reserved only to landowners in older times.
Drinks and hot food were served in this place, stored in large jars placed in the richly decorated masonry counter. The lalarium (a painted shrine resembling a temple) on the back wall is well-maintained, and represents the Lares (protective deities of the home), as well as the god of trade (Mercury) and the god of wine (Dionysus).
The house is at the rear, interconnected with the shop, is decorated with precious frescoes and has an outdoor dining room.
The Casa della Venere in Conchiglia (House of Venus in the Shell) was built in the 1st century BC and underwent a number of significant changes in its internal layout.
The tablinum (the room that opens on the atrium, opposite the entrance, and separates it from the peristyle) is the focal point of the house around which there are various frescoed rooms.
The back wall of the peristylium is decorated with a great and spectacular fresco. On the lower part, a luxurious garden is depicted over a barrier with exotic plants and animals. The upper part of the wall is divided into three panels with different scenes: to the right, a fountain that birds drink from; to the left, a statue of Mars with a spear and shield on a pedestal. In the center one can see the fresco which gives the house its name: two cherubs accompany Venus, protectress of Pompeii, lying in a large shell. The goddess, completely naked, wears only a tiara on her head and jewelry around her neck, wrists and ankles.
The house belonged to a branch of the family of the Satrii, very prominent in the last few years of the city.
The large complex of properties of Giulia Felice is realized at the end of the 1st century BC, following the incorporation of previous buildings into a single building complex set as an "urban villa", characterized by the predominance of green areas.
The property is set into four different cores with separate entrances: an atrium house, a large garden which opens on a number of residential areas, a thermal facility and a large park. The name Giulia Felice was found on an inscription painted at the façade after the disastrous earthquake of 62 AD when the owner announced the lease of part of her property (can be seen at the National Archaeological Museum of Napoli). A unitary decorative renovation of most rooms dates back to this era. In general all the open spaces were rich in vegetation, running water and lavish decorative features as fountains, statues, pillars and other extravagant elements.
After visiting Casa della Venere in Conchiglia and Praedia di Giulia Felice walk back on the main road. On the last alley before you reach porta Sarno, turn right and you will soon see the huge Amfiteatro and across it Palestra Grande.
This Amphitheatre is the oldest among those known in the Roman world. Built in 70 BC on the initiative of magistrates Caius Quinctius Valgus and Marcus Porcius, who also had the Pompeii Odeon built.
Aside from being a historical landmark and an object of archaeological study, the Amphitheatre is used for concerts and other public events in modern times.
In October 1971, over a 4-day period, Pink Floyd recorded a concert film at the Amphitheatre, titled 'Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii'.
Although the band performed a typical live set, there is no audience beyond the basic film crew.
David Gilmour, the Pink Floyd guitarist, performed two concerts at the Amphitheatre in July 2016 as part of his 'Rattle That Lock Tour'. Gilmour's 2016 concerts saw the first public performances in the Amphitheatre since 79 A.D.
The "Large Palaestra" consists of a large open-air square, approximately 140 x 140 m, surrounded by porticoes and enclosed by a high wall with battlements in which there are 10 doors. It was built in the Augustan period, at the beginning of the 1st century AD, and was intended for the physical and intellectual training of young citizens.
This is as far as you can go, so start your walk back (towards the two theaters) in Via di Castricio. Some of the buildings you may want to see in this street are: Casa della Nave Europa and Casa del Menandro.
The theater complex consists mainly of three interesting buildings: the Large Theater (Teatro Grande), the Small Theater (Teatro Piccolo-Odeion) and Quadriporticus of the theatres or Gladiators Barracks (Caserma dei Gladiatori).
Get at the top of the Large Theater, where a small park is, to rest and enjoy the views. Then, follow Via dei Teatri towards the north which changes its name to Vicolo del Lupanare.
After a couple of blocks you will arrive at the famous Lupanare or otherwise the Brothel.
The building is much smaller that you have imagined and there is an employee in front of the door to restrict the number of persons allowed in the building at the same time. You enter from the front entrance (Vicolo del Lupanare) and exit from the second exit to Vicolo del Balcone Pensile.
The prostitutes in the brothel were mostly Greek and Oriental slaves who were paid between two and eight 'asses' (a glass of wine cost one ass) for their services.
The building has two floors. The rooms of the owner and the slaves are at the top and there are five rooms at the bottom, all fitted with a built-in bed (incredibly small for today's standards), on either side of the corridor that connects the two entrances of the ground floor. The rooms were closed by a curtain. A latrine is seen at the end of the corridor, under the staircase. Small paintings with erotic depictions on the walls of the central corridor informed customers of the activities that took place (something like a services catalogue). The brothel is named from lupa, a Latin word meaning 'prostitute'.
You find your way back to the Forum and head for the Forum Baths (Terme del Foro) which are located behind the Temple of Jupiter (next to the restaurant) and date back to 80 BC.
Women's and men's quarters had separate entrances. The man's section presents an apodyterium (dressing room), used also as a tepidarium, a frigidarium and a calidarium. Like many buildings in Pompeii, the baths were heavily damaged during the earthquake of 62 AD.
The current state mainly derives from the results of the subsequent restoration works. Significant attention and effort was devoted to the decoration of the rooms, such as the niches for storing clothes and objects for the bathroom decorated with male figures in terracotta (telamones) and the vault with elaborate stucco in relief of the apodyterium-tepidarium. In the same room one notices a great bronze brazier that was used for heating. The women's quarters, which is smaller, was being renovated at the timeof the eruption. More than 500 lamps found in the entrance of the men's quarters were used for lighting during the evening openings.
If you feel hangry or thirsty you can have some pizza and a drink at the Café-Bar, located just after Arco di Traiano, back to back with Terme di Foro. The prices are very high, as expected.
From the bar continue walking till you meet the other Arch (Arco di Caligola) and instead of passing under it, you turn left on Via delle Terme. Admire the famous mosaic that reads CAVE CANEM ("beware of the dog"), at the main entrance of Casa del Poeta Tragico, and now protected with glass.
At the end of this road turn right and continue to the very end, where your last destination is: Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries).
This road, Via Consolare, leads through Porta Ercolano (Herculaneum Gate) out of the city at Necropoli di Porta Ercolano, located along Via delle Tombe.
The necropolis of the Herculaneum Gate, which stretches along the road that led to Napoli, was already used during the first centuries of life in Pompeii, although the funeral buildings visible today date back to the 1st century BC and thereon.
The monumental tombs illustrate the most common types of funeral at that time. One can see two tombs upon leaving the Herculaneum Gate, on the left, which consist of a semi-circular seat in tuff, called schola (from the Greek word 'σχολή', which is the root word for 'school'), typical of Pompeii and dedicated by the city assembly to distinguished and deserving citizens.
As you walk down the road towards the Villa of the Mysteries you have great views of Vesuvius.
The Villa of the Mysteries is named after 'the hall of mysteries', located in the residential part of the building, which faces the sea.
A large continuous fresco that covers three walls of this hall, one of the most preserved ancient paintings, depicts a mysterious rite, that is reserved for the devotees of the cult. The scene is linked with Dionysus, who appears on the central wall with his wife, Ariadne. Female figures as well as fauns, maenads and winged figures are seen on the side walls, engaged in various ritual activities. Besides Dionysian ecstasy expressed in dancing and drinking wine, one sees the ritual flagellation of a young girl resting on the lap of a seated woman (bottom right of the painting).
The other rooms also preserve wonderful examples of second style wall decoration, that is with depictions of architecture.
Egyptian inspired miniature paintings are seen in the tablinum. The villa also includes an area intended for the production of wine with a rebuilt wooden press. The complex dates back to the 2nd century BC but was given its current shape in 80-70 BC, which is the same period of the frieze of the mysteries.
You can now leave the archeological site from the local exit where there is a souvenir shop and public toilets.
You start your way towards the train station by walking along the archeological site boundaries on Via Villa dei Misteri.
The same people who have the souvenir shop also run a restaurant located some meters down the road you already took to go back: Bacco e Arianna. You know that, because from the moment you exit the archeological site, they try to convince you that you are hungry and thirsty.
This restaurant has a great shady yard where you can have great lemonade made of local lemons, they cut off the trees right after your order! You can also have a rest over a cone of gelato.
If you do not feel really hungry do not have lunch here. Not that the food is that bad, but it is what you expect of a monopolistic-restaurant at a very touristic place like this. In any case we had the fixed-menu lunch, which at least costs only 15€.
After a kilometer or so, you are back to the train station. Mind that, like at every station in the area, there are no escalators or lifts. Thus, to go to the platform to take the train to Napoli you have to go down and then up steep stairs again.
Well, I am very tired to start again the grumbling! I just need to go back to my hotel and have a shower and some rest.
Good night Pompeii.
Note: Do not take me wrong. Pompeii is an extraordinary archeological site and certainly one of the places you have to visit before you die! (quoting this stupid phrase we read again and again about things we have to do or places we have to visit before we die… as if we’ll take our memories with us in the afterlife).