I first learned of Pompeii in a Natural Disasters class back in high school. It was morbidly fascinating and has always been a place of interest in my mind. So actually going there was one of those ‘woah, I can’t believe that we’re actually here’ experiences.
For those in need of a refresher, here’s a very quick one (please do not rely on this for accuracy as it comes from my totally unreliable memory). Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Two neighbouring cities were affected: Herculaneum and Pompeii. The people of Herculaneum felt precursors and were able to escape to the sea. When the volcano erupted, Herculaneum was suffocated by the smoke of the volcano, instantly petrifying and preserving the city. The people of Pompeii had no escape and they were taken by surprise by a massive, fast-moving ash flow which completely covered the city, and the people. Both cities have been frozen in time and both deserve visiting. However, for the sake of our budget and for our long-term travel plans we made the tough decision to visit just one. And so we chose to see Pompeii.
We used Naples as our home base for visiting Pompeii. From Naples, Mount Vesuvius is always visible in the skyline and is a constant reminder of the mad forces of nature so close by. On our way to Pompeii we stopped off to climb up the volcano. A mini-van with 30% more people than seatbelts and a maniac driver sped us most of the way up the mountain, jerking around hair-pin turn after turn. Relieved to be standing on solid ground, and that I didn’t lose my breakfast along the way, we had only a 15 minute hike up to the top of the volcano. The volcano visit is quite a touristy thing to do and so there were quite a few people and tacky souvenir shops along the hike up. Up top, though, it felt like we were alone. The crater seemed to suck all ambient noise and sound into it and you could see for miles in all directions.
Vesuvius is still an active volcano — there was steam coming up from the crater and seismologists say the mountain is over due for another eruption, which are supposed to happen every 30 years or so. Knowing this was a bit scary for me; perhaps it is what makes the people of Naples and surrounding cities so vitalous. Anyhow, it was a really neat place to be. I have never stepped on earth that new. The rocks had a very unique quality to them, they were black, pumice-y and grippy. After descending and suffering another harrowing van ride we continued on to Pompeii.
As mentioned, Pompeii is massive, and they’re still excavating. We were a bit overwhelmed when we first walked in and saw the map of the site. For some reason I was expecting Pompeii to look like it was a city covered in a blanket of ash, like a fresh snowfall back home covering all the houses and trees, where you’d be able to make out the shapes of things beneath the ash. This was not at all what it was like. All the ash has long been chipped away to reveal the ancient structures beneath. It was a fully-fledged Roman city with temples, bath houses, squares and markets, there were streets and alleys in all directions, theatres and amphitheatres. And of course there are the bodies of the people that were buried alive, the haunting images that stand out in most peoples’ minds from Pompeii. They’re quite disturbing, especially because you can make out expression in some of the faces and some of the bodies are holding their arms over their faces. The bodies are not petrified or ash-covered, but are actually plaster casts made from the cavities left in the ash by the bodies. Some bones remain, embedded in the plaster.
You could easily spend a couple of days exploring the city. We spent a few hours strolling through the streets contemplating what life would have been like in those days. It’s amazing and humbling thinking that people have been living on this planet for so long. We’re just a drop in the bucket. We can’t help thinking this in a place like Pompeii.