Pompeii, History Rising from the Ashes
Sweaty bodies, women flapping fans, it was standing room only on the train to Pompeii, temps hovering around 100 degrees. I’m wishing I brought my daypack with a water bottle, the small fan my Japanese Air B&B host gave me as a gift, and my umbrella for shade, instead of my small purse, but it’s too late now.
On the good advice from my hostel host, I already had a tour ticket so I didn’t have to wait in line. If you go to Pompeii, definitely pay for a tour, it brings a place that would otherwise be a lot of dusty roads, stones and bricks to life. Our very nice and smart young guide, an archeologist by degree and experience, gave a great tour, and she handled the large group like a pro.
We learned about where people lived, how they lived, their bath houses, and their lead plumbing, which led to mental illness and short lifespans.
We were shown how their road systems worked, using stones for people to walk across above the roads where the waste flowed, that were placed just the right distance apart for carriage wheels to roll through, and how little chips of white stone were imbedded between the large paving stones, to glow like reflectors in the moonlight.
We were told about the red light district, with “arrow” carvings in the road to lead the sailors to the brothels, about the public meeting places, and the “fast food” restaurants.
Row upon row of vases, sculptures, and other antiquities line shelves at the site, like some form of ancient self-storage units, giving you a glimpse into the possessions of the people of Pompeii.
Our guide wisely told us to buy a bottle of water for a euro at the ticket office before we set off, as there were none for sale after the tour started. Once you had a water bottle, you could refill it at various fountains throughout the site -don’t worry, the lead pipes have been replaced.
I’d heard about Pompeii as a child, but it turns out there are several different cities that were buried by the volcano, Pompeii is just the biggest and most well known. It was buried in ash, whereas Herculeneum was buried under lava. So the people of Pompeii were actually killed by falling debris and suffocation from the ash. Quite horrific!
After the tour, we were allowed to stay as long as we wanted, to go to the arena for a special exhibit of the plaster casts of many of the victims. They were able to drill holes into the hardened ash, and pour plaster down into the cavity around the bones where the bodies had decomposed and left spaces, then carefully chip away the ash to leave plaster casts of bodies in frightening positions – sad, scary, and macabre all at once.
When the tour split up, the guide gave me her map, and 3 young women from the group came up to me and asked if they could share it. “Sure,” I said, and a 4th woman came along as well. The 3 were from Lebanon, and one of them was living in Canada, near Toronto. “Not far from Michigan, where I”m from,” I pointed out. The 4th, who was traveling on her own, was Italian, but grew up in Canada, and had lived in Windsor, just over the border from Michigan, but has been living in the UK for the past 3 years. Small world, we all agreed!
The site at Pompeii is huge, about a half-hour walk from one side to the other. Besides the plaster cast exhibit, on the opposite side, there was another, very well-preserved house with a newly restored fresco. It was worth the long, hot trudge over the dusty uneven roads. I’d drank about 4 bottles of water by then, but this was Italy, so there were no toilets in all of the archeological site. I was absolutely thrilled when one appeared at the exit right when we left the last house with the frescoes. Just something to bear in mind.
Right outside the exit, a lovely little very Italian restaurant appeared. The 3 girls from Lebanon said they needed to catch a bus, inviting me to visit them in their home country as we parted ways. The woman living near Cambridge and I decided to stay for lunch. They had a fixed-price menu for 15 euro that included either spaghetti with clams, or gnocchi with tomato sauce and basil, a seafood plate with calamari, anchovies, shrimp, and octopus, a basket of bread, a mixed salad, some little fried bread balls with tiny pieces of seaweed in them, and coffee or a slice of chocolate cake for dessert – a very good deal for a tourist hot spot. We had a lively conversation about education – she’s a teacher – and it’s Italy, so there is no pressure to give up your table. The restaurant was filled with funny statues and bottles and fishing nets, an eclectic mess, and the old guy in charge, probably the owner, fussed over us. We caught the same train, though she got off first, promising to friend me on Facebook, a great way to stay in touch with fellow travelers. You meet the nicest people on the road! It was a fun and educational day at Pompeii.