The Ruins of Pompeii are the most fascinating in Europe. This sprawling city was mostly destroyed and buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of volcanic ash in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Due to its convenient location next to Naples and along the coast, the site has been popular with tourists for 250 years, and ranks as Italy’s 2nd most visited attraction. Despite that, it is so big that you will have a lot of space for yourself and won’t feel packed like sardines.
Pompeii has fascinated me since I was a kid. In fact, here’s a comic I wrote as a 10-year old, following a visit to a Phenician restaurant, about how this very restaurant had its origins from a humble baker shop in pre-Vesuvius eruption Pompeii:
A Brief History
Pompeii was founded around the 7th or 6th century BC by a people called the Oscans. It came under the dominion of the Roman Empire in 4th century BC, tried an unsuccessful rebellion a few centuries later until it fully became a Roman colony.
The Vesuvius eruption of AD 79 destroyed the town and killed almost all its inhabitants, burying them under tons of ash. At that time, the city had 11,000 people, a complex water system, an amphitheatre, a gymnasium, and a port. It laid undiscovered under the ash until 1599. Excavations started for real in 1748 under the helm of Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. What they discovered must have blown their mind: the artefacts, which were preserved for more than a millennium due to lack of air and moisture, provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life and culture of the city. During our visit, we had the chance to see some of these artefacts.
Exploring the Ruins of Pompeii
We had planned to spend about 3 hours there, but when we arrived and were given a map, we soon understood that that would not be enough. This place is absolutely gigantic! It is not a bunch of ruins surrounded by walkway platforms. You’re actually walking through the streets of this sprawling city, and there are interesting things to see in all parts of town. So one piece of advice: make sure you allot enough time! In fact, this place is so big that despite coming in June, and the site receiving 2.5 millions visitors a year, we were mostly by ourselves during our visit.
Second piece of advice: don’t pay too much attention to the tour booklet you’re given. It is extremely confusing, as the coverage of the different interesting points isn’t in the same order of the visit. So you end up looking at a place in real life, and having to scroll through 15 or 20 pages to find what it’s about. Better to just read the explanations on the signs posts next to the place you’re at.
The visit starts at the bottom of the street that divides sections VII and VIII (bottom left on the map). There are a lot of interesting squares, statues, amphitheatres, and… people molten in lava to see there. You could easily spend 1 hour in that section.
Jarelle was speechless at the people molten in lava:
It also has a museum with some perfectly-preserved sculptures and artefacts of day-to-day life. Your visit through the museum is accompanied by texts explaining the history of Pompeii and its region.
We then walked up to section I, which has several huge villas, previously owned by rich local merchants and nobility. The cool thing is that you can actually visit those villas. They have beautiful atrium, gardens, frescoes and mosaics.
Moving on to section II, there’s a huge gymnasium, with beautiful mosaics on the ground. You can just picture a bunch of young men engaging in ruthless Greco-Roman wrestling.
Next to it is an amphitheatre I had completely forgot to recognize: being a Pink Floyd fan, I love the Live at Pompeii concert:
But it was only when we stepped in the arcades below the seats of the amphitheater that I realized where I was. That’s because they had a whole exhibition about the Pink Floyd live recording there. As you can imagine, this was pure bliss for me, and I spent a solid 10 minutes staring at the DVD playing on a screen like a baby staring at a mobile over his crib.
As we had a ferry to catch in Sorrento, we sped through section III and IX, and skipped V and VI (though I’m sure that latter has some great villas). We could still observes some remaining structures from gone-by lives, and I finally found the bread over from my childhood’s comic book:
Some Naughty Business
Despite my best attempt at sharing my admiration for this rich history, I know some of you are yawning and saying “who cares about this old crap?”. So let me wake you up.
As you know from my Brac article, I am fascinated by the perverse mind of our ancestors. I don’t know, maybe it’s my way of feeling a connection with them through the millennia (by realizing we’ve always been a bit naughty). Pompeii is a goldmine in that regard. Here are some funny things you may find in Pompeii (please consider listening to this song while you read this section):
You can find penises carved into the streets, pointing to the nearest brothel:
I’ve already mentioned the satyrs and maenads in my Brac article, but here’s a fragment of a wall painting in Pompeii of these two creatures frolicking:
There are plenty of graphic frescoes too. Like this one of the god Priapus weighing his member against a sack of gold, from the entryway of the House of the Vetii:
What about graffiti? Did you think they’re the exclusive property of the dirty toilets of your high school or highway gas stations? This graffiti below was written to a woman named Thyas, and reads “Thyas, don’t love Fortunatus. Goodbye.”
This was found carved into a Pompeiian theater:
As I’ve previously explained, penises back then didn’t necessarily have a sexual connotation. Like today, they were used as humour, but they also represented luck, protection, fertility, and guidance. In fact, children and soldiers wore phallic amulets called fascina just for that.
The deity Priapus was perhaps the most heavily tied to phalluses. And that’s why the condition of having a permanent erection is called “priapism”. Priapus was seen as a god of navigation, his member being a guiding force. That is why it was used to point people in certain directions (from the collection of poems, the Priapaea: “Priapus, terrific with thy sickle and thy greater part, tell me, prithee, which is the way to the fountain?”). The engraving of his penis on the pavement to point to the brothel just went from rational (“go there for sex) to batshit mystical.
Final Tips for Visiting Pompeii
The ruins of Pompeii are a short 24km drive from the Naples city centre, or 28km from the airport. The site is opened from 8:30am and closed at 7:30pm (April-October) or 5:30pm (November-March). When you get there, park your car in one of the parkings across the entrance. Be careful to buy your ticket from the actual entrance of the archeological site. Next to the parkings, there are a lot of official-looking tour offices which will charge you an arm and a leg. The ticket from the official entrance costs 13€ (or 7.50€ if you’re a EU citizen aged 18-24 years old).
Make sure you bring enough sunscreen and water because it can get very hot, and there aren’t a lot of places with shade.
After visiting Pompeii, you can head 55km south to Sorrento, which marks the start of the Amalfi Coast. That’s where we went, so we could take our ferry to Capri.