Our afternoon trip to Pompeii was a couple decades in the making. I’d wanted to visit the ill-fated city ever since I’d heard about the volcanic eruption in primary school. Growing up in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada, I thought my chances of going there were next to nil.
20-something years and five trips to Italy later, 2018 would finally be the year!
Having already walked a lot on this trip, including a walk along the Path of the Gods on the Amalfi Coast and two days walking around the hilly island of Capri, the big question was: would my feet allow me to spend yet another day walking on 2,000 year old stones?!
So what happened to Pompeii?
Prior to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD, the two cities of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum were bustling with trade, with Pompeii acting as an important coastal trading post. As Vesuvius erupted, the ash and mud covered the two cities, keeping them relatively intact until their accidental discoveries in the 18th century. Being buried in mud has its advantages as the cities were not pillaged over the centuries like many other cities after the fall of the Roman Empire. They were buried in mud and ash though, so you can’t have everything!
Excavations started back at the time of its rediscovery, and continue today. With an area of over 60 hectares, there’s still a lot of area undiscovered.
Keep in mind, despite years of excavations, this is a former disaster zone, with many of the buildings losing their roofs under the weight of the mud and ash. As you walk around the site, the condition of the buildings vary from complete structures to only walls and floors. With a little imagination, you can transport yourself back in time and picture what it would have been like to live as a first century Roman.
On a side note, the lack of roofs, trees and miscellaneous infrastructure means there is next to zero shade throughout the side. We visited at the end of April and it was pretty hot. Without any shade, the sun can be pretty unforgiving. Make sure to bring plenty of water and take your time to wander the ruins and take advantage of any shade you can find!
What’s the best way to visit Pompeii?
While an organised tour tends to be the easiest way to visit an attraction, it also happens to be the most expensive. That extra cost takes away the worry about organising the day, figuring out train schedules and you’re less likely to get ripped off. For many people, this is the way to go.
With the odd exception, I prefer to do things on my own. I weighed up the idea of booking an independent guide to walk us through Pompeii, but with our plans somewhat flexible, I didn’t want to be locked into a time. I’d also read that the guides at the site can be a bit hit or miss or make you wait a long time while they form a group, so I thought I’d take my chances and visit unassisted, equipped with a map and an audioguide.
There are always pros and cons to any approach, but I figured I could pass up having in-depth knowledge from a guide for the benefit of having a flexible schedule. Also, seeing as the eruption happened so long ago, where are the guides getting their stories from? Seems like a whole lot of guessing and making up stories to me!
On the day I visited Pompeii, I visited the Naples National Archaeological Museum in the morning, which provided a lot of context for what we would see at the actual site in the afternoon. All the treasures taken from Pompeii during the excavations, are kept safe in the museum, so try to go to both if you can.
How to reach Pompeii without an organised tour
Starting in Naples, the trip to Pompeii is fairly easy and costs under 10 euros return. We took the metro to Napoli Centrale and then the Circumvensuia train to the Pompeii Scavi stop. The train can be very busy and packed depending on the time and day of the week. We went at noon and we were able to snag a seat for the 30 minute journey.
Jumping off the train, we were immediately asked if we wanted to buy tickets to the archaeological site from the “Info Point”. We walked right on past them (the unofficial agents tend to add a mark up or try to sell you things you don’t need). The main entrance and the official ticket sellers are at the entrance to the park, a hundred or so metres from the train station. Prices are all clearly marked and there was no queue (it was early afternoon in early May).
Armed with a map of the site (ask when you get your tickets), and Rick Steves’ audioguide, we were off to take in Pompeii in all its glory.
Our visit took us about 3 – 4 hours, including the colosseum, theatre and palestra. While a guide would provide much more context, I found the audioguide gave the right level of information I was after and I find Rick Steves’ audioguides quite entertaining as well. (He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously).
My number one highlight was simply being there and taking in the history. I caught myself looking off in the distance and seeing Mount Vesuvius, missing its top for the past 2,000 years. The people living and working in the area wouldn’t have had any idea what was happening and for some people, didn’t realise it until it was too late.
The Forum and the Temple of Jupiter
Located near the entrance, this was definitely the busiest part of the site. Besides the great views of Vesuvius, this part of the city included the Forum area, Temple of Jupiter and the Basilica.
Baths of the Forum (Terme del Foro)
Very well preserved bath house, complete with sauna room and in-floor heating.
Fast food shops, Roman Style
Masterchef style cooking hadn’t reached Pompeii, so many of its citizens ate at one of the many takeaway shops like this one.
One of the most memorable sites at Pompeii was the sophisticated plumping and water distribution system throughout the city, including the use of giant arches like this one to transport water to the masses. For current day visitors, there’s a tab nearby for filling up water bottles.
House of the Faun
One of the largest properties in the city with an area of about 3,000 square metres, the House of the Faun was named for its bronze faun statue (the original is in the Naples Archaeological Museum). The floor mosaic of the Battle of Alexander (that we saw at the Naples Archaeological Museum) was also found at this property.
The brothel came with a handy menu of services frescoed onto the walls. The stone bed and pillows didn’t look all that comfortable, and they were about a foot too short!
House of the Vettii
This was one of the more impressive houses, with lots of frescoes including some in a strikingly bright red, and an open aired courtyard.
House of the Wounded Bear
Named for the wounded bear fresco founded during the excavations.
Strolling Pompeii’s streets
Strolling along the cobblestone streets, you can see the tracks through the strong where chariot wheels worn down the stone after hundreds of years of use. Seeing the grid street plan, the raised sidewalks, the elevated walkways for pedestrians, the Romans seemed to be a bit ahead of their time. And really, were they that different to how we live today?
Set pretty much as far away from the entrance as you can get, the colosseum was huge and fairly well intact.
Views of the city
Tips for visiting Pompeii
- Make sure to bring plenty of water, or at the very least, a bottle that can be refilled at one of the water fountains.
- There are limited facilities within the historical site, including a single cafe and limited toilet facilities.
- The site is ginormous and the walking is quite taxing since it’s mostly on stones. Don’t underestimate how much walking is involved and pace yourself accordingly.
- Make sure to ask for a copy of the site map when purchasing your entry tickets. The map is invaluable to provide your bearings in a place where a lot of the streets look the same.
- Enjoy and take in the history like no where else in the world!