The archaeological site of Colonia Venerea Pompeianorum Sillana, as it was named 2 millennia ago, should be declared a wonder of the world. Over 12 square kilometres of preserved roman life in a bustling seaside city open the window into an ancient lifestyle that we may find ourselves rather envious of.
"Just a few steps from your luxury, affrescoed villa lies a spa complex with soothing, heated waters, restaurants serving the finest Amalfi cuisine and local wines to compliment your food. Sea breezes blow through wide streets beckoning you into temples and forums adorned with marble statues, markets and brothels. Manicured gardens of lemon and olive trees, two amphitheatres showing regular favourites - gladiator sparring, comedy, poetry and song, it's all on your doorstep, if you choose Pompeii.
The standard of healthy living here is exceptional with modern latrine available now in the comfort of your own home. Sophisticated neighbourhoods thriving under an azure Mediterranean sky boast river access with excellent transport links and state-of-the-art plumbing. With developments and employment opportunities on the rise, this expanding city offers a wealth of housing options ranging from affordable to luxury. In the shade of mighty Mount Vesuvius, only 23km from the port of Naples and an easy distance from Rome, glorious Mediterranean weather makes Pompeii your perfect resort escape."
It was booming until 79 AD.
Like any major city, Pompeii started as a settlement. The River Sarno was a handy navigable route in the 8th century BC and let's be honest, who wouldn't want to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty beside the Tyrrhenian Sea. Pity about the volcano, perhaps it had remained dormant until then? Look at Naples now, any such repeated eruption of looming, active Vesuvius would surely cover the sprawling city in toxic debris, yet ask a Napolitan and he'd never live anywhere else.
And everybody wanted to live in glorious Pompei; the Italic founders lost the city to invading Etruscans who lost the city to the Samnites in the 5th Century BC who lost it to the Romans in 80 BC. Rich surrounding lands producing olive oils and wines for exportation as well as the clearly amenable climate and an expanding modernised city easily convinced well-known politician Publius Cornelius Silla to relocate from Rome. Accompanied by his veteran buddies, they settled in, loved the place and renamed it Colonia Venerea Pompeianorum Sillana, 'Pompeii' for short.
The Ancient Romans were notorious builders and after seizing the city from the Samnites wasted no time improving the plumbing to ensure fresh spring water from the nearby mountains in every wealthy home with sparkling fountains inside and out. Large underground sewers had been laid down by the early Etruscans, aptly named 'Cloaca Maxima' but the Romans set to building more and constructed rainwater tanks called impluvium while masterfully directing waters into public spa complexes (thermae) which they built in the centre of town and made accessible to all as a fundamental part of daily life. The two main spas boasted three baths of hot, warm and cold water, a gymnasium and large swimming pool. A nifty heating system piped hot water through the walls and channelled excess water to flush out the nearby foricae, public toilets. These were open, albeit dark and dingy, rooms with cleaning facilities in the form of a communal sponge on a stick rinsed in flowing water if you were lucky, otherwise salt-water and vinegar did the job. The elite would have a modern latrina installed in their home, consisting of a private hole with a bucket. Everything would end up in the street, so much so, that handy stepping stones were built to allow carriages to pass and people to cross the road without stepping in the muck and mire. Fortunately, spring water would run off the mountain and periodically flush out the streets, yet another advantage of Pompeii living.
Delving into the intricate details of this city's lifestyle would take pages and pages of blog posts and hours of fascinating reading, it truly is a never-ending source of mind-blowing history and then, there's the neighbouring city of Herculaneum, also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Here's a fun fact - in recent excavations, a large sewer was discovered jam-packed with sludge under the ancient city. The sewer was used not for drainage but as a rubbish pit. From well-to-do homes, a chute would transport any old junk into the underground tunnel which would then presumably be emptied by prisoners or slaves. You can imagine the glee in finding 1.35 x 86 metres of hardened history from food scraps to jewellery to pottery, 775 bags of the stuff including myriads of details of their diet. Many an archaeologist's dream came true in 2011.
There's a high standard and palpable pride you can feel walking through these ancient neighbourhoods, much of what was laid down by the Etruscans and earlier Samnites. It's a balance of nature, art and functionality with spaces built for political and public decisions (forum), spaces built for relaxation (thermae), good food (thermopolium) and pleasure (Lupanar brothel). Construction and art was made to last millennia because of the craftmanship invested, a leaf we might take from their ancient book?
How to Visit Pompeii
Pompeiisites.org is the official website and suggests 3 planned routes depending on the time you have at hand (2,3 or 5 hours and combinable) If you love to wander at your own pace, grab a map at the entrances or download one here or if you love lots of information and a good guide, check the same website for suggestions. There are endless online options and many guided tours on offer, our advice is to stick to the official ones.
Guide or no-guide?
Pompeii can be tiring, especially visiting on a sunny day. The sun bounces off white stone and all the food and drink spots closed down millennia ago under a cloud of toxic fumes (except the trusty Auto-Grill behind the Temple of Jupiter). There are kilometres upon kilometres of jaw-dropping sites to see, just to get your head around one or two is a feat, imagine a city-full! Rather like the Uffizi Art Gallery in Florence, a lot can suddenly become too much and the appreciation dwindles. Our advice? Less is more.
Choose an easy route that gives you time to just sit and take it in. You can picture life here in ancient times with your back against a cool stone wall, sitting on the gigantic main forum like they must have done so long ago. Let your imagination be more exercised in this archaeological site than your feet. There's lots of walking! That said, if you only have an afternoon and you want to make the most of it, grab your backpack, good walking shoes, charge your phone, pack your camera and bring lots of water. You can rest your weary feet in a nearby pizzeria when you're done.
Pompeii with children
Bring the bambini!
As we said, expect lots of walking and hot, weary feet but it's 1000 times worth it. Every shady house you walk into, every summery affresco you spot, it's all magical just taking a little extra time, a lot of describing and answers at the ready to a myriad of 'But why?' questions. Our children loved this book Pompeii Reconstructed (aged 9 and 10) and enjoyed the whole experience, especially sitting high up on the Great Theatre steps to test the acoustic quality.
When to visit
Spring/autumn months are cooler and less touristy, we visited in Easter and it was perfect. The site is open from 9-5pm November to March (last entry at 3.30) and 9-7pm April to October (last entry 5.30). We'd suggest checking the weather report if you visit between November and March especially, Pompeii would not be fun in the rain.
Tickets can be bought in advance online here or at the main gates Porta Marina, Piazza Anfiteatro and Piazza Esedra.
What to see
depends on your interests, there's something for everyone, spend some time on the official website to decide what you'd love to see most. Our faves were the Thermopolium, House of Octavius Quarto, Teatro Grande, the Main Forum and House of the Garden of Hercules.
A visit to Pompeii would not be complete without a visit to the smoking crater of the volcano that destroyed it, but that's another blog post...
Giovanni Artieri, a native Naples politician and journalist born in 1904, describes this ancient population in his book 'Pompeiani e Napoletani' with succinct romance.
Here's an extract I've translated:
"(The ancient people of Pompeii) were first of all lively, loving the good life, erotic, adoring shows and parties, largely superstitious. Balanced between the natural, obvious mercantility of any coastal population and a certain romantic melancholy provoked by the horrid but marvellous Vesuvian hill, they gave in to the sighs of love and sadness of which we've spoken: the same that Napolitans had to translate into music and song. Into this almost perfect balance of character crept the delightful inclination which today's Napolitans call "lo sfottò" - the ridicule or tease. The Pompeians adored the adjective "azzeccòso" , the satirical verse, irony, the jibe. Their mastering of language, the dry wit of certain graffitied epigraphs, may sometimes seem miraculous to those, non-Napolitan, who don't know how among today's people, these ingrained poetic and artistic virtues are alive and splendid and verified at every crossroad."
'[Gli antichi pompeiani] Era gente prima di tutto vivace, amica del buon vivere, erotica, amante di spettacoli e feste, largamente superstiziosa. Bilanciata tra la naturale, ovvia mercantilità di ogni popolazione rivierasca e una certa romantica malinconia suggerita dalla vicinanza dell'orrida e meravigliosa altura vesuviana, si lasciava andare ai sospiri d'amore e di tristezza che abbiamo detto: gli stessi che i napoletani dovevano tradurre in musica e canzoni. In quest'equilibrio quasi perfetto del carattere si insinuava il dilettoso inclinare a ciò che i napoletani odierni chiamano lo «sfottò». I pompeiani adoravano l'aggettivo «azzeccòso», il verso satirico, l'ironia, la battuta. Il maneggio della lingua, la secchezza pungente di alcune epigrafi graffite, appaiono talune volte miracolosi a chi, non napoletano, non sappia come nel popolo odierno queste naturali virtù poetiche e artistiche sono vive e splendide e comprovabili ad ogni quadrivio.' (da Pompeiani e napoletani, pp. 335-336)