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A fascinating walk through Pompei

Home -> Europe -> Italy -> Travelogue Italy -> 29 May 2004

Saturday 29 May, a fascinating walk through Pompei

A flash and wham! That is how we wake up at 4 in the morning by a heavy thunderstorm, hanging right over us because there is less than a second between the flash and the stroke! The god Jupiter is apparently disturbed or just feels like indulging himself, since, contrary to all weather forecasts, the thunderstorm exactly stays above Pompei for half an hour before slowly retreating towards Naples. Despite our doubts, our tent proves to be totally waterproof, but then we suddenly remember we have forgotten to put away our chairs (they are not of plastic). Hopefully they will dry again later today.
After a breakfast, which we have in the car, we walk across the square to the entrance of the Roman town. Big tourist busses drop their load of tourists and tour guides try to keep their groups together, waving with papers, coloured materials or umbrella's. It is much busier than yesterday, but maybe that is caused by the entrance fee: today everybody can enter Pompei for free! We remember having read something about special days when some sights can be visited without a ticket, as we have visited the Colosseum for free. Here that is probably the last saturday of the month (the normal price is € 10 per person).
The forum of Pompeï The VesuviusThe sky still looks a bit threatening when we enter through one of the old gates and we almost can't see the Vesuvius standing on the forum (left) or from the narrow streets (right).
But then the sun breaks through the clouds and we wander, with a detailed map in our hands, through this town which was devoured alive by the Vesuvius. About 20,000 people live in Pompei in 79 AD. and almost 18,000 fled from the town in time. We are curious what happened to these people after the disaster since we don't remember ever having read or heard about them. The result of the eruption we see here and for four hours we walk around, loosing all sense of time, impressed and amazed by all tat we see. We only notice when our feet tell us we need a break and we can't believe the time when we check our watch.
Street in PompeïWe won't describe the city, therefore one can better read a travel guide, see a documentary or even better, come and see for yourself. But we have almost the impression that the town is still alive, especially with all the tourists wandering about, as if they are doing their shopping. The streets are lively, only the houses and the shops are abandoned, although some look as intact as if the inhabiatnts only left yesterday, and not 2000 years ago!
Wallpainting, PompeïIn 62 AD. the town had suffered from a heavy earthquake and restaurations were still going on when the Vesuvius erupted, bringing life totally to an end in this center of commerce. A lot of damage was done, but more surprisingly is that so much has been preserved. It is not a reconstruction, based on excavations and the foundations of houses, but a real town where we are walking through, with all the dwelling houses, the shops, the quarters of the rich and the poor, temples and paintings which are sometimes still very colourfull and detailed.
Now and then we see the plaster casts of the people like they died. The people and their skeletons have disappeared, left are the cavities in the lava that surrounded them. Some seem to lie peacefully on their backs, others try to protect their faces or mouth, or embrace other people, kids, to protect them. Even the belts that held a sandal together are still visible, or the pleats of trousers or a tunic and the muscles of arms and legs.
Thermopolium of PompeïA cafetaria, an old-fashioned snackbar as there are many at Pompei, with a shop counter where amphora were placed with food and beverages. To get a good idea of the town one needs a good map, which can be obtained for free at the information center near the entrance.
Now and then we see the plaster casts of the people like they died. The people and their skeletons have disappeared, left are the cavities in the lava that surrounded them. Some seem to lie peacefully on their backs, others try to protect their faces or mouth, or embrace other people, kids, to protect them. Even the belts that held a sandal together are still visible, or the pleats of trousers or a tunic and the muscles of arms and legs.
Venus in a shell, Pompeï The deity Mars, PompeïThese paintings are in the house of 'Venus in the shell'. Knowers of art call them cheap, but we like the colours and the fact that people decorated their house like this (the paintings are at the back of a small garden) and surrounded themselves with things they liked, gives evidence of the joy of living.
Wallpainting, PompeïSometimes we find on a painted wall a small portrait, often very delicate, although the signs of decay are already showing. Everybody takes pictures, often with flashlight, people touch them and the paintings are also exposed to the air. So, how long before they are totally gone, as has happened to many paintings from older cultures. We presume there must be some protective layer on them but we can't detect it.
Mosaic, PompeïThe most valuable paintings and mosaics are kept at the museum of Naples and some in the town are replaced by replicas. That is probably the reason that we can walk on many of the mosaic floors. As far as we are concerned they make a replica of the whole town but that is impossible with a town this size. Walking here is so much better than seeing all the seperate things on display in a museum, it gives an easier way to imagine how these people must have lived!
After so many hours of walking we are worn-out and we haven't even seen half of the town. We won't name all the houses, temples and theatres we have been to until now, you really have to come here and see it for yourself.
We haven't found the modern restaurant yet, but since there is no entrance fee today, we walk back to the square outside the walls for a well deserved break. Normally the ticket is valid for only one visit and one has to pay again after having left the area.
Looking at the map we estimate that we have seen a third of the town now and we make a list of things we really want to see, since we will not have time to visit everything. The list is enough to keep us busy for a few more hours. The sky to the north is pitch-black, but the wind comes from the south, so confidently we enter the town again with 2 new free tickets.
Dark clouds above PompeïThe sun shines in the south but to the north Pompei looks like this. Would the sky have been a bit like this, back in 79 AD, threatening, but the people being confident that it will blow over, or at least into another direction?
Temple of Apollo, Pompeï A dark forum, PompeïWalking from the temple of Apollo (left) to the forum the dark sky quickly approaches and the tourists in white stand out against it. The wind has turned 180 degrees and within seconds a heavy thunderstorm breaks loose, with heavey winds and downpours. Pompei becomes covered in darkness and we shelter in one of the houses with a roof.
The storm doesn't subside and eventually we run through the rain to the restaurant that we happen to be near. Since the rain doesn't seem to stop we go out again when it is a little less heavy, since we want to see more of the town, even in the rain! Our hands full with a camera, maps and books, we run from covering to covering until we notice that we have lost one bag, the one with all our papers (passports, drivers license, car papers, etcetera). We can only think that we have left it at the restaurant and we are fortunate, a couple of French tourists has found the bag and given it to the staff. Apparently, some gods are still in a good mood.
Pouring rainEverybody tries to take refuge in the restaurant, and within a short time a new bussiness has started here, the people who work here are obviously prepared for an occasional shower: plastic cloaks that tear very easily are being sold in great numbers, for € 5 a piece! We are already wet and just go outside again. And what happens after a few minutes: the rain stops, the sun starts to shine and it becomes nice and warm!
Excavated objects, PompeïWe explore the last houses and buildings on our list, but most of them are closed. Some of them have the best fresco's as we can see in our books, so that is really a pity. Still, we see enough other impressive buildings, wallpaintings, mosaics and depots (like the one on the picture) where articles are stored that were found in the houses. To archeology and our understanding of the past, this is a golden city. Somebody (Goethe?) seems to have said that no other disaster of this size has provided so many generations of people with so much pleasure.
A clear VesuviusAt the end of the afternoon we finally get a clear look at the Vesuvius. Now a volcano of 1200 meters but 2000 years ago it was almost twice as high. Pompei was just one of the towns that was buried beneath the ashes, the whole area was affected by the eruption.
We have walked for 7 hours now through this town and the only thing we can say is: wow, very, very impressive! When you are only slightly interested in history this is the place to be; a walk here is better than seeing a dozen of museums. People lived here, and it is as though they have left only yesterday, as if the disaster took place only yesterday. A society which was very much like our own, apart fromt the technical progress. A museum can never make the past more human and easy to imagine than this place!
Nowadays PompeïWalking out of the Roman town we see modern Pompei, a big city hidden behind the old one. And, like Naples on the other side of the Vesuvius, it has no contingency plan in case the volcano erupts again. Over the past 2000 years it erupted averagely every 20 years and the last time was in 1944, so it is a bit late. But maybe the people are confident nothing will happen to them, as some did when they refused to leave Pompei so long ago...
Ok, it has become a long story today, but in fact we haven't told much about the town itself. For us this visit is a highlight of this holiday and we can recommend it to anybody who is even a little interested in history and how people lived. But to learn more about the town one needs a good book about it, since there is so much to tell about it. For us, if we had only seen Pompei, this trip to Italy had been already worthwhile!


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