Pompeii has been on my travel bucket list since I learned about it in elementary school, before I even had a travel bucket list. I have always been intrigued by how the evidence of its tragedy was preserved in time (and ash), able to be uncovered and explored so many years later. Part of the attraction of starting our first trip to Italy in Naples was that we could make a day trip to Pompeii while we were there.
From Naples, you can get to Pompeii on the Circumvesuviana train. We went to the Pompeii-Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station which is right near a main entrance to the site. Be aware, though, that there are “ticket offices” at the train station that are not affiliated with the Pompeii site. They will sell you tickets and tours to the site, which are probably fine, but just don’t be confused and think that they are the main ticket office. Walk a bit further to find that!
With our tickets, we got maps and an official guidebook from the park that describes the excavations. The guidebook has suggested itineraries for two, three, five, or seven hour visits. We also downloaded the Rick Steves app and his walking tour of Pompeii which we used in coordination with the site’s guides. These were all helpful to navigate the site, as it was much larger than I had anticipated.
I don’t know why I thought it would be smaller, I should have known better. It’s truly the entire footprint of a city. We saw less than half of the whole site, but we didn’t spend our whole day there because we also wanted to visit Mount Vesuvius. Looking back through the guidebook now, I see how much interesting stuff we missed, but we still saw a lot.
The site offered way more than I anticipated. I am amazed by how much survived. I am happy I got to see it in real life. As I expected, I was most moved by the casts of humans and animals who had died there.
I think this macabre nature of Pompeii is what draws so many people to it. You don’t just get to see a really old place and really old objects, you get to see it frozen in the moment of its demise. You get to see, essentially, the people who perished there and how they suffered in the end. (What you are really seeing is casts made from the spaces their bodies left behind in the volcanic ash and stone.)
For some reason, I think we humans are drawn to representations of shock and suffering and death, maybe from a place of empathy, but maybe also from a place of fear, a fear that it could happen to us. Pompeii reminds us of our vulnerability and mortality. It shows us that even with free will, there is always a possibility of our meeting an unexpected, inescapable fate, and that can happen in a very quick moment of time. Maybe we are drawn to it because we instinctively need that reminder.
We saw a few of the stray dogs that live in and wander the site. I don’t love the idea of stray dogs, but I love dogs, and I was happy to see these strays seemed to be in decent health.
These weren’t the only dogs I spotted in Pompeii that day. Canines seem to be a theme.
As I have experienced in other sites like this (Stonehenge, for example), I found it almost hard to believe once I was actually there that what I was seeing was the real thing.
Being there with lots of other tourists makes it hard to thoughtfully take it all in and reflect, but I am finding that is the case at many popular travel sites and I have to get over it.
A tip I will share for Pompeii is one I received from a friend. That is, to take a packed lunch. There is food available there, but for us, it was nice to be able to eat picnic style while we were there. We purchased our food the night before at a market near our hotel. This should go without saying, but if you do this, please be a good visitor and clean up your trash when you are finished!
An interesting aspect of the site is its unfiltered access to representations of its residents sexuality and sexual behaviors. It is well known that Roman art has many depictions of sex and sexuality, and that (at least some) Romans lived an openly sensual lifestyle. You see evidence of this in Pompeii in artwork and in the Lupanar (brothel).
We’ve accidentally wandered into red light districts in at least three cities we’ve visited. At least in Pompeii we meant to go into the Lupanar and look around!
Here are some other random highlights from our visit to Pompeii:
If you are interested in ancient civilizations, archaeology, or the story of Pompeii, it is worth visiting. You can easily spend an entire day visiting the site. The size can be overwhelming, but if given the opportunity for reflection, it can be fascinating and powerful to consider the daily lives of its inhabitants, how they met their end, and how it has survived and been discovered and preserved after almost 2,000 years.