On a warm summer’s day in 79 A.D. residents of Pompeii were engaged in their day-to-day activities when they were overwhelmed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The residents didn’t know the mountain was a volcano, so the deadly eruption caught them unaware. As a result, more than 13,000 people died. Walking through the ruins, we couldn’t help wondering what the people were doing when Vesuvius erupted. What were they thinking when the eruption began? It would seem most people simply continued their daily activities, unaware of how deadly the mountain had become.
Pompeii was rediscovered at the end of the 16th century but explorations began in 1748. There are some 120 acres of ruins to see, many very well preserved. Read more about Pompeii here. Here are a few ruins that impressed us.
One of the more sobering areas is the Garden of the Fugitives. This area was a vineyard used for outdoor gatherings. In the 1960s, researchers found the remains of 13 adults and children encased in ash who were trying to escape the eruption. The ash hardened around their bodies, leaving hollow spaces where the bodies had been. Archaeologists filled the spaces with plaster, which revealed the shape of the bodies. The plaster casts of the victims can be seen in a protective glass case near the back wall of the garden.
The Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus shows in some detail what a local tavern looked like. Drinks and hot food were stored in large jars placed in the holes in the counter of the tavern. Researchers found a hoard of coins in one of the jars, which indicated how popular the place must have been and also the speed at which the owners fled, leaving everything behind. The owners lived in quarters in the back.
The House of Venus in the Shell was built in the 1st century B.C. The garden was the focal point of the house around which there are various frescoed rooms. The back wall is decorated with the fresco of Venus.
In the background, the spectacular view of Mt. Vesuvius overlooks the Forum Boarium, which was uncovered in the 1800s. This was an area of vineyards with a fairly large wine output. The vines we see today were replanted to replicate what the area might have looked like. Nearby, a wine press and 10 large containers sunken into the ground were found, which likely were used to contain the harvested grapes.
One of the most spectacular ruins is the Amphitheatre. Built in 70 B.C. it is said to be the oldest Roman colosseum. It could hold 20,000 people. On the day we were there, we ate lunch alone on the steps, imagining what spectacles might have been held here, and who might have sat in our seats. As you walk into the place, look for the paintings of gladiators that adorn the walls.
When You Go To Pompeii
If you plan to leave from Rome, we suggest taking the high speed train to Naples. It’s a time saver, taking about an hour and costs about €20 one way if you buy in advance. In Naples, go downstairs to the Circumvesuviana Railway Station where you can take the train to the Pompeii Scavi (Villa dei Misteri) Station. Cost is about €3.20 each way. Be sure to get off at this station. A kind passenger on the train explained which station to use, as there are two Pompeii stations.
The entrance is right across the street from the station. At the entrance we were asked if we wanted a guide, but we declined preferring to explore on our own.
A personal note about guides. While we likely miss some key historical points, we have found in our travels that having a guide slows us down. With limited time, it’s quite frustrating to stand around listening when you can be exploring. Guides often have a wealth of knowledge, dates, key events etc., but we find that we can’t remember much of this anyway, so we often find ourselves better off with a guidebook (the link is a downloadable PDF) and wandering on our own.
On this trip, we were visiting in winter/early spring. It was cold but as we walked the ancient streets we found the city was virtually deserted!
The tourism office encourages downloading your entrance ticket to your smartphone. By showing your ticket this way you can skip the line.
On the first Sunday of each month the museums and archaeology sites are free. Of course this means dealing with larger crowds. Regular ticket prices are €13 (confirm before you go). You can access five sites (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplonti, Stabia, Boscoreale) over a three-day period for €22.
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