Sunday, December 30, 2012

Faraway Adventures: Pompeii

In my last Italy post I was all hoity toity about studying classics and all, but I was so unprepared for our visit to Pompeii. I remembered a couple lectures about it in high school, maybe a mention of it in college (it isn't Rome after all), so I thought I got the jest of the story. There was a city called Pompeii, and one day a volcano erupted and basically stopped the city in its tracks. City. Volcano. Boom. The end.  

I expected a few ruins here and there, like most of Italy, and maybe we would spend an hour or so there and then catch a train back to Rome. I was wrong. When the history and tour books and history channel specials say that Pompeii is a preserved city, don't underestimate that statement. It is in fact a city.   A city in ruins, but still the entire footprint of the city remains. To be even more repetitive and clear: Pompeii is a lot bigger than you think. 
 Entering Pompeii with Mt Vesuvius there in background

There are many ways to tour Pompeii,  you can hire a guide, you can pick up a semi useful/not really useful map when you buy your entrance ticket, or you can do I what did and download a walking tour on your smart phone and wander around with Rick Steves talking in your ears.* But whatever tour option you choose, it is important to at least have a plan, for this isn't just some museum exhibit, it is a city. The buildings/ruins aren't really marked, most are numbered in a strange manner that is suppose to correspond somehow to the map, but there are like five #17s, the street signs are few and confusing, and major landmarks, say like, Mt. Vesuvivus, aren't marked on the map, so it is super easy to get turned out, and well, lost. 
 Pompeii's Forum, the political and religious centers of the town

The day we were there was overcast and drizzling, giving the city an eery glow.

Maybe I am making a big deal about orientation in Pompeii, because I, myself have no sense of direction.  None at all.  I fully admit to this area of lacking in my being. But sometimes getting lost is the best way to explore a city.
Pompeii was founded around 600 BC and by the first century AD, it was a booming port city. If you look at a modern day map you will notice that Pompeii isn't exactly on the coastline, so how was it a port city? Well, major acts of nature, like volcanic eruptions, tend to change the landscape.  Before Mt. Vesuvius blew her pretty little top, Pompeii was a sea side town.  So this fine city flourished for hundreds of years, but of all those years, only one day is really remembered, August 24, 79 AD, the day that mountain went boom.  Rumbles had been heard and felt for several days prior allowing for most of the cities population to escape. One of the mis-assumptions that I had was that the entire population perished. But in fact, only 2,000, out of the city's 20,000 population didn't make it out in time and were entombed with their city. 

And entombed is the perfect word. Vesuvius erupted for two days, the first day for 18 hours straight, covering Pompeii and nearby cities in a suffocating blanket of ash.  There was a fine and amazing combination of destruction and preservation that took place. Again, think of it as being entombed, buried, but still intact. Being buried and hidden also saved Pompeii from the plunders that used Italy as a cruel playground for many years. The buried city was once again discovered in the 1600s and the unburying process started in the mid 1700s. We have probably all seen pictures of  some the victims, people, literally stopped dead in their tracts, covered in ash and turned to stone.  There were only two of Pompeii's fine citizens on display, which just feels weird to type.  Out of respect I didn't take any pictures, but holy cow, they looked scared out of their minds. 

Wandering around this ghost city, it struck me how similar Pompeii was to a modern city. There were houses you could walk through, with rooms completely intact down to to tiles on the floor and frescoes on the walls.
 And it just wasn't the inside of the home, but the outside courtyards were still there too.


And don't forget their welcome mats:
Have, pronounced ah-vay (the h is silent) meant Hail (as in Have Caesar!) or Be Well. 

There were also the town Bath House, with a random (and live!) dog sleeping inside:
And of course, local eateries. The people of Pompeii weren't too big on eating/cooking at home so all around town were these stands, basically fast food joints, were people could go buy prepared food. The big holes in the counters were where bowls of hot food could be cooked and served.
Let's take a closer look at the fresco. Think about just how old that it is. Like a couple thousands years, old. Amazing.

I became quite obsessed with the streets of Pompeii. All the streets themselves were pretty low, with the sidewalks/entrances to buildings being a pretty big step up. There were a couple of reasons for this. One, Pompeii actually had indoor plumbing and the lead pipping would run under the sidewalks, and second the streets were cleaned/flushed with water every day.
In the middle of the streets would be these huge stones, that were crosswalks to be used when the streets were flooded. The stones also served as traffic markers.  If there was one stone, it was a one way street, two stones, a two way street, and three stones, a major intersection. The stones were the exact height and width for chariots to pass over them.  We seriously got our workout leaping across this stones and stepping up and down the street corners. Those Pompeii-ians most of had some fantastic legs!

Oh wait, the streets got even more amazing. There were barriers (those 3 white stones) that blocked chariot traffic, and marked pedestrian only areas:

And shiny stones placed in the sidewalk that would reflect off moonlight and torches providing street lighting at night. 

Getting lost granted me not only lovely wanderings of this ancient city, but also entertaining moments. As mentioned I was following a walking tour and it was going splendid until I was suppose to find the House of Vetti. This is supposedly one of the best preserved homes in Pompeii. Unfortunately for me, it was completely closed off for restoration. OK, I will just continue on with the tour. However, the next part of the tour was to follow a street that was also closed. Being smart, I figured I would just find a way to walk around and connect with the road further up. Nope. Let's try again. Nope again. I was lost, without a gas station around to go ask directions.  I figured I would just find the last stop on the tour, which was suppose to be another gem of Pompeii life, the bordello, the house of ill repute, for your more sensitive of souls.  So the first (and only) time in my life I wandered around looking for a bordello. Please, I just NEED to find the bordello. I did never find it, which I guess is OK, keeping my classy lady image intact. But I did find the whole situation and scavenger hunt amusing. I did however find my sister and my mom (at one of the fast food places). We all have different speeds when it comes to touring, so we always get separated. Sighs of relief and well as good times were had by all when we all met up again. The next day we caught a train to Florence for some more adventures! 

Other Italy Posts: Rome, The Vatican, Ancient Rome
*I am no in no way connected with Rick Steves, but he is my favorite tour book writer and I used his walking tours on many of the Italy sites. I found his free Rick Steves Audio Europe App  to be extremely helpful on this trip. Many of the historical facts on this post come his tour. 

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