It was put on the map by the very thing that erased it from map and memory. That is the paradox of Pompeii, the small Roman resort town south of Naples on the western coast of Italy and built in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
When this volcano erupted in August of 79AD, it buried the city, its streets, homes, businesses, citizens – even half-eaten meals – beneath 25 feet of ash and lapilli (burning bits of pumice stone), in effect, flash-freezing Pompeii into a tableau that would slowly emerge as a result of excavations that got underway in the 1700s and continue today.
You could easily spend the entire day wandering the streets of this well-preserved, 2,000-year-old city, marveling at the size of the Forum and Amphitheatre, ducking into the homes of everyday Pompeians and the more prominent citizens to see how each half lived, making your way (as every visitor does) to the brothel with its cubicles and erotic paintings.
There are a handful of sights you absolutely don’t want to miss, beginning with the Garden of Fugitives. Here, 13 Pompeians attempting to flee the city on the morning of the second day of the eruption, according to scientists, lay as they perished. To see these bodies – lifelike plaster casts of long-dead men, women and children – some covering their faces, and imagine their terror and fate, is incredibly moving.
The House of the Faun is famous for its dancing faun bronze statue and mosaics. The House of the Tragic Poet typifies the villas of Pompeii with their elaborate mosaic floors and frescoes; this one further charms visitors with its mosaic of a black barking dog. The Temple of Isis is a treasure that is beautifully intact. The Stabian Baths, a marvel of a bathing complex which predates the Romans, has a heating system, exercise area, dressings rooms and more.
To do justice on your visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, wear sturdy, comfortable shoes (the streets are treacherously uneven) and a hat for sun protection. Bring along a water bottle (you can get refills from the ancient street fountains just as the Pompeians would) and a map that annotated with those sites you most wish to see.
This advance planning will keep you from being easy prey for the guides who rush the Circumvesuviana train with arriving tourists. You don’t want to find yourself hustled onto a tour with 40 others, barely able to hear the guide and wasting precious time on a generic agenda. Rather, get your map and an audio guide and stroll back two centuries in time to Pompeii 79 AD.
Today, Pompeii takes up a quarter of a square mile. Although large-scale excavation has ceased and one-third of the city remains underground, there is plenty to give visitors a glimpse into the daily life – and the tragic end – that was all but erased it from time – of this ancient Roman city.
INFO: Pompeii can be reached via the Circumvesuviana train from Naples or Sorrento. A number of cruise ships make a port call at Naples, making it an especially convenient way to spend a day in Pompeii. Pompeii Tourism: www.PompeiTurismo.it; www.PompeiiSites.org (NOTE: the English-language website was under construction in early December.)