Italian road trip: Pompeii – a beginner's guide

by Jeanette.Scott

Find out how my ignorance about this ancient site was rewarded

Imperfect ruts in the stone streets; stoneware stacked against walls; paintings on the walls of destroyed villas: fragments of a former life frozen in time. And every bit of it cannot fail to move its audience.

On August 24, 2010 I was a member of that audience: a naïve spectator at the remains of a catastrophic disaster.

I must admit that my knowledge of Pompeii before my visit was limited, and I must also admit that I begrudgingly agreed to spend a day (maybe even only half a day) at the site (instead of at the beach) as part of a 15-day road trip because my fiancé likes Time Team, and other stuff like that. (Plus I think he secretly wants to be Indiana Jones.)

What I did know: I knew that Mount Vesuvius had erupted at some point in history and covered a number of places within its grim reach – these places to me, apart from Pompeii, had no names and all of them, in my mind, were of an unknown size and population. I was also aware that these places remained buried until many years later; how many, I did not know. Visitors were now allowed to take a turn about Pompeii, this much I knew, and I understood it to be quite a popular thing to do. So I hope you understand that when I said “ignorance”, I really meant it.

So it wasn’t with excitement or enthusiasm that I arrived at Pompeii alongside my excited and enthusiastic fiancé, it was more a sense of future-wifely duty. He sensed it as he attempted to pump me up at the entrance, flexing his archaeological muscles with tales of what to me sounded like “stuff” that had been dug up. I smiled and nodded, daydreaming and transporting myself back to our last few days in Rome – and the gelato consumed therein, and dreaming of the days to come in Sorrento and along the Amalfi Coast – definitely my kind of places.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer vastness of Pompeii. I wasn’t prepared for the state of the structures, well preserved as some of them were; I wasn’t prepared to be treading so obviously in the paths trodden nearly 2,000 years ago; and I wasn’t prepared to be emotionally touched by a place I had been so willing to dismiss just hours previously. If you have an opportunity in your lifetime - what will feel like a precious lifetime when in Pompeii – please visit. This is tangible history, you can feel it, both literally and emotionally, with every step you take around this huge area, with every doorway you enter, with every mosaic you gently trace with your fingertips, with every story read, with every cobbled stone tripped over. Oh yes, you have to be sure of foot in Pompeii. And well loaded with water, and sun cream, and plenty of coverage if you’re likely to burn. The sun can be intense and hot and when you get to the more ruined parts of the site opportunities to take shade are few and far between. Don’t think you’ll be out of there in an hour either; this is a full day activity and every hour, every minute, will be savoured.

A little history

August 24, 79AD. Mount Vesuvius had been gurgling and erupting in the few days before this date. The people that fled thanks to these early eruptions were spared the brute force of the eruption on the 24th that claimed an astonishing 20,000 lives and preserved the city of Pompeii under up to six metres of ash. In 1599 Pompeii was accidentally rediscovered and ever since immense efforts have been put in to excavate this extraordinary open book about Roman history.

Where to start

Ok. Let’s have a bit of truth. You could be into rocks and cobbles and mosaics and old pots and stuff. You could even be Time Team’s Tony Robinson. But you’re in Pompeii. You’re human. Humans possess morbid curiosity. You want to see the “dead bodies”.

Actually what you will see are not really dead bodies, they’re the plaster casts of victims, made possible by the ash that engulfed the bodies and preserved at least the shape and some features of the humans – and animals - that perished. The map you’ll receive at the entrance will help you navigate your way around the site, but it’s not exactly helpful when it comes to knowing which parts of the site to see. We’d taken a “wrong” turning (away from the bodies) just ten minutes into our visit, which meant we’d completed nearly a full lap of the place before finding what, I admit, we’d been looking for all day. Head for the Granai del Foro (Forum Granary) and the Tempio di Giove (Temple of Jupiter) if you want a quick morbid fix as soon as you enter the site, though there are a number of “bodies” around Pompeii.

This is where a tour guide might have helped us out. They are readily available to hire at the entrance and English-speaking tours run frequently. After toying with and dismissing the idea, we went our own way – making our own footsteps through history. This isn’t for everybody, and I suspect we’d have learned a lot more about Pompeii had we joined a tour. But after seeing hot and red tourists obediently following their leader and clambering to hear information over the gaggle of bodies in their group, I was relieved we went our own way. You could, of course, pay extra and hire your very own guide. You can negotiate with the independent guides at the entrance.

Excited friends might have indulged you in tales of Pompeii, telling you the highlights you simply must not miss: “ooh the brothel”, “the baths, do see the baths” and “you have to look in the garden of the fugitives – mesmerising!” This is all well and good until you unfold your huge map and realise that the legend relating to the numbered sites are, you guessed it, in Italian. What’s brothel in Italian I hear you cry! Here’s my quick run down of the highlights then, and their Italian names:

Brothel (Lupanare) – giggle at the lewd drawings on the walls;
The forum baths (head for Terme del Foro) – see how the supposedly “dirty” Pompeian’s got clean;
Garden of the fugitives (Orto dei fuggiaschi) – a grim reminder of the lives frozen in time; and
Amphitheatre (Anfiteatro) – imagine the games that took place here and enjoy the peace (it’s at the back of the site so many visitors do not venture this far).

Another tip: just like you should at Disneyland, if you’re arriving at opening time, get in there and get to the back, making your way back to the entrance. You’ll encounter less people and the group tours will have left the main areas by the time you get there.

A little info

Entrance costs 11 euros (worth every cent!) and the site is open almost every day of the year from 8.30am until 5pm during winter and 7.30pm in summer. You can plan your trip in advance using Google Maps’ incredible street view. I say “incredible” partly because visitors can only walk the streets – goodness knows how Google carried their hefty street view cameras inside.

A little coincidence

You might have noticed the date I was at Pompeii by the way. As if I hadn’t been touched enough by this incredible and breathtaking site I also realised that it had been 1932 years – to the day – that Mount Vesuvius erupted.

Where to stay

I’d been reliably informed that the hotels in the immediate vicinity of Pompeii weren’t up to much so we opted for a spot of luxury and a half-hour drive to the famous tourist spot instead. We were rewarded for this at the magnificent Grand Hotel La Medusa on the edge of a town called Castellammare di Stabia, a little further along the coast towards Sorrento. While the town is nothing special, the imposing hotel, sitting in the most wonderful gardens I have ever seen within a hotel complex, is formal yet comfortable. The views across to Mount Vesuvius and down to the Bay of Naples are spectacular, and the pool offers welcome respite from the searing heat. Prices at the hotel, which can be found in via Passeggiata Archeologica, start at around 100 euros for bed and breakfast; expect to pay around 50 euros extra for a sea view.

The next leg

We’d started our Italian odyssey in Rome and you can read the guide here on Simonseeks. From Pompeii we were off to Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, a family wedding in Puglia, then north to Tuscany and Pisa. Phew! We hired a reliable set of wheels with Avis at Rome’s Ciampino airport. The guide to the next leg of our journey will be available soon!

Jeanette.Scott

As a travel writer and photographer I've contributed to the LA Times, Lonely Planet, Real Travel, The Australian, The Herald Sun (Australia) and, of course, as an editor and writer on www.simonseeks.com. Following a stint in hospitality, I started my media career in 2002 in newspaper journalism, and I've written for the Guardian, Metro, Coventry Telegraph, Coventry and Warwickshire Times and Living magazine.

According to a fairly pointless Facebook application, I've visited 24% of the planet. Good to know, although there are ten minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. I'm fascinated by our planet and whenever I visit a place that's new to me - be it Barbados, Burkina Faso or a previously unvisited corner of Britain - I want to capture it. I want to keep the confluence of smell, noise and vision; the expressions on the faces of the people; the layers of history; the unfamiliar food and drink. I fasten it in my mind's eye - but when my memory fades, I've got a stack of photographs and a thousand furiously jotted notes to remind me.

Favourite places - my home town of Chester, New Zealand's south island, Malaysia, Fiji, Melbourne, Norway's fjords, Italy (mainly the restaurants), Greek Islands, London, Edinburgh, the Lake District, and home (Chester, though my true "home" will always be Warwickshire).

My Chester

Where I always grab a hot drink: A coffee with the grand (and quite surreal) decor of Oddfellows as the backdrop is a treat; but when my sweet tooth is raging the Blue Moon Café can’t be beaten for hot chocolate with lashings of whipped cream and marshmallows.

My favourite stroll: Treading the wooden slats of the Queen’s Park Bridge is pretty unique. I cross it every morning and evening to and from Simonseeks HQ. For a look at real life in Chester, cross the bridge from the city, drop down to riverside and head away from the direction of the racecourse. You’ll find grand homes and, eventually, the meadows (the scene of a very special New Year’s Eve midnight picnic for me).

Where to be seen: At the races of course! After a day at The Roodee get your hands on one of the coveted Bedouin tents to dine/drink/people watch from in the outdoor space at Oddfellows.

The most breathtaking view: Get the lift to the fifth floor of Abode and check out the view from the Champagne Bar. It’s both unique and breathtaking. If you’re not thirsty, stand on the steps of the High Cross (the pointy monument where the four main streets – Watergate, Eastgate, Northgate and Bridge – meet). Behold The Rows and let the history of the buildings and the buzz of modern life around you slip into your memories.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Grosvenor Park is perfect in winter but the first rays of sunshine draw picnicking crowds. Act like a local and cross the Queen’s Park Bridge to find your haven in the meadows.

Shopaholics beware!: Visit any of the stores (ground and first floor level) on The Rows and shop accompanied by centuries of history.

Don’t leave without...clocking some time with the Eastgate Clock. Put your shopping bags down, take a picture if you must, but make sure you climb the steps and simply stand and watch the world go by for a while.