Pompeii, Italy

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.

Pompei Scavi
Pompeii-Scavi-Villa dei Misteri train station.

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!

Pompeii Forum
The Forum in Pompeii.

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.

Pompeii
Old mosaics, tile work, and paintings were everywhere.

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.

Temple of Jupiter
The Temple of Jupiter in the north side of Pompeii’s Forum.

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.

Forum Granaries
The Forum Granaries are on the west side of the Forum and were originally used for a fruit and vegetable market. They now house thousands of artifacts from the Pompeii excavations. They are being stored here until it becomes a permanent museum. This was a particularly detailed cast of a victim.

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.

Forum Granaries
The Forum Granaries are on the west side of the Forum and were originally used for a fruit and vegetable market. They now house thousands of artifacts from the Pompeii excavations. They are being stored here until it becomes a permanent museum. This cast appears to be covering their face. Were they crying, or blocking their airways from the volcanic debris? Both?
Forum Granaries
The Forum Granaries are on the west side of the Forum and were originally used for a fruit and vegetable market. They now house thousands of artifacts from the Pompeii excavations. They are being stored here until it becomes a permanent museum. The cast of a young victim.
Forum Granaries
The Forum Granaries are on the west side of the Forum and were originally used for a fruit and vegetable market. They now house thousands of artifacts from the Pompeii excavations. They are being stored here until it becomes a permanent museum.

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.

House of the Tragic Poet
The Cave Canem mosaic (beware of the dog) in the House of the Tragic Poet. Thought to be the oldest “beware of dog” sign in the world!
Caupona of Sotericus
The painting of a guard dog in the Caupona of Sotericus, a tavern belonging to an owner named Sotericus.
Forum Granaries
The Forum Granaries are on the west side of the Forum and were originally used for a fruit and vegetable market. They now house thousands of artifacts from the Pompeii excavations. They are being stored here until it becomes a permanent museum. Casts of dogs and humans are stored here among many other objects.

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.

Pompeii
Almost every doorway we walked by had something interesting inside it.
Pompeii
A road in Pompeii.

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!

Pompeii Amphitheater
The Pompeii Amphitheater, built in 70 BC, is the oldest known in the Roman world. It was built even before the colony at Pompeii was founded.

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!

Priapus
A painting of the god Priapus is meant to ward off evil and protect the House of the Vettii. His large phallus makes him a popular photo opportunity. Unfortunately the rest of the House of the Vettii was closed off. The guidebook makes it look like it has amazing artwork.
Lupanar
The Lupanar was the brothel in Pompeii. Paintings above each room depicted the services that were offered.
Lupanar
The Lupanar was the brothel in Pompeii. Paintings above each room depicted the services that were offered.

Here are some other random highlights from our visit to Pompeii:

Pompeii fountain
A water fountain on one of the streets in Pompeii.
Forum Baths
In the Forum Baths at Pompeii.
Forum Baths
Ceiling details in the Forum Baths at Pompeii.
Forum Baths
Details in the Forum Baths at Pompeii.
Thermopolium VI 8, 8
One of 89 small taverns found in Pompeii, Thermopolium VI 8, 8. These taverns sold hot food ready to eat, the first fast food restaurant concept.
House of the Faun
In the main atrium of the House of the Faun there is a copy of a statue of the dancing satyr, Faun. The original is in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. This was one of a few places we saw active restoration work taking place.
House of the Faun
In the living room of the House of the Faun there is a copy of a mosaic depicting the battle between Alexander the Great and Persian King Darius, 2nd century BC. The original is in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
House of the Faun
In the House of the Faun, one of the larger homes in Pompeii. Its owner had great wealth and social status.
Pompeii house
Beautiful tile mosaics in a home in Pompeii.
Bakery of Popidius Priscus
The Bakery of Popidius Priscus in Pompeii.
Pompeii
Ovens or fire pits and other artifacts in a home in 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.

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