Christina here and as I was lucky enough to go to Italy recently, it’s time for some more armchair travelling. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey as much as I did, albeit vicariously!
I was a little girl the first time I heard about Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This tragic event really stuck in my mind and ever since then, I’ve wanted to go there, but I never had the opportunity until two weeks ago when my dream finally came true. Sometimes, when you’ve wished for something for a very long time, it turns out to be a disappointment. Not Pompeii though, or any of the other sites we visited! I was enchanted.
BTW, this wasn’t just a pleasure jaunt, it was for research purposes. For a while now, I’ve had a timeslip/dual time story brewing in my mind set against the backdrop of Vesuvius’ eruption. I’d already done quite a bit of reading on the subject, but there is only so much you can do with facts on a page. Actually visiting a place is invaluable, and so my husband and I set out on our fascinating journey.
We headed for Naples first, as we were using that as our base for a few days, and this proved to be perfect. The city is situated on one side of the Bay of Naples (which is roughly horseshoe-shaped), with the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, as well as Mount Vesuvius, sort of in the middle and the town of Sorrento on the other side. Along the bay there is a train line, which makes it easy to get around – no car needed.
We started off with Pompeii, as that was the most crucial place for my story, and spent a day and a half walking around the ruins exploring. We began with a two-hour guided tour, just to see the most famous parts and because it’s handy to have a guide to answer questions. I immediately fell under the spell of the place – it’s quite simply awe-inspiring! First of all, it’s mind-boggling to think that you are walking in the footsteps of people who lived and died there 2000 years ago. Secondly, it really hits home how sophisticated and advanced the Romans were when you see this town. And also, it’s absolutely vast and if I hadn’t gone there, I don’t think I would have grasped quite how big it is. My feet and back were killing me after a day there so it was lucky we had the time to return for a while the following day.
What is left of Pompeii is mostly only the streets and ground floor of any buildings. Anything higher up was destroyed by the volcanic eruption, with a few exceptions. That means you have to use your imagination, but even without the second storeys, that’s not too difficult. Some taller things remain, like the small and large theatres, and the amphitheatre, and a few of the walls of ordinary buildings as well. I sat down in a theatre seat and tried to imagine watching a play there, although the guide told me I was in the wrong place – women and slaves had to sit up at the top and weren’t allowed in the good seats at the front. (Same in the amphitheatre – very unfair!).
The most important building for me to see was the so-called House of Menander (named after a Greek dramatist of that name whose portrait was found on the wall). My characters obviously have to live somewhere, and this house proved to be perfect for me to base a fictional dwelling on. All posh Roman houses had a street entrance that led into a huge room called an atrium. This was where visitors would be received and it would be sumptuously decorated with frescoes and mosaic floors to show off the family’s wealth and status. The atriums all seem to have had a large opening in the roof and below this was a small sunken pool called an impluvium where rainwater was collected. Even the houses that were almost completely gone still had traces of these pools so it was easy to see which buildings had been luxury homes.
All the inside walls were plastered, with frescoes painted straight onto them. The most common colours were deep red, ochre yellow and black, and our guide told us that if we saw any walls with green or blue in them, that would indicate the house’s owners were rich as those were more costly to make. Most of the walls were painted in panels with fake architectural details like columns, but there were also mythical scenes and still life depictions. I was amazed at how skilled the painters were – the results were incredibly life-like and beautifully done! (The one in this photo is from a different building, the so-called Villa dei Misteri).
Beyond the atrium was a peristyle garden – an open space surrounded by a colonnaded walkway with rooms leading off it. I could imagine my characters sitting there, relaxing in the shade, and enjoying the fresh breeze coming off the sea. (The sea shore came further inland at that time and there was a harbour just outside Pompeii).
The guided tour also included visits to one of the many public baths, as well as the Forum – the huge open square surrounded by temples and buildings, where a lot of commerce took place – and to numerous thermopolia (like fast food restaurants serving food over a counter like this one) and cauponae (inns or taverns that only served drinks). Last, but not least, we were taken to see the lupanare – the brothel. (The name comes from lupa = shewolf = prostitute). This is a tiny building with cubicles containing stone beds that looked extremely uncomfortable, and it’s become a tourist attraction because of the rather bawdy frescoes inside.
A highlight for me was seeing the amphitheatre, most of which is still intact. Walking through a dark tunnel, paved with worn lava stone, and into the sunlit arena really fired my imagination. I could see in my mind the gladiators lined up for their bouts, all wearing different helmets and carrying their weapons. And I could hear the roar of the crowd – all 15,000 of them, as that was apparently how many could fit there (possibly more). It must have been a real spectacle, but for the men in the spotlight it was a matter of life and death. Scary!
Despite the fact that the town was destroyed so long ago, I felt as if the ancient inhabitants were still there in the shadows. They had left a part of themselves behind in the form of their art, architecture and things like political slogans and messages written on the walls. In one place, there was graffiti in the shape of a drawing of a gladiator, clearly done by a child – so charming and unexpected. And of course, there were the plaster casts of bodies found buried in the ashes. Those were poignant and moving, and made it really sink in what a massive tragedy the eruption caused. It’s estimated that Pompeii had a population of about 25,000, and out of those 10,000 died. That is a very sobering fact.
After visiting the ruins, of course we had to go and take a closer look at the cause of all the trouble – Mount Vesuvius itself. It is possible to go up to the top, but it involves quite a bit of effort. First you have to take a bus as far up the slope as the roads go (and how the driver managed to get a huge bus up there, I have no idea as the road was narrow with blind hairpin bends!). From there, you walk up a rather steep path, which proved challenging to a couch potato like me. It took me ages, wheezing and stopping every so often, but it was definitely worth it.
The views from the top out over the Bay of Naples and the surrounding area were out of this world, and on the other side is the crater of the (supposedly “quiescent” according to the signs) volcano. I have to admit to a few tingles of fear at the thought that it could potentially erupt, but luckily we didn’t feel so much as a small earth tremor. The only sign of life was a fumarole, puffs of smoke coming out of the side of the crater. Although it was an amazing experience, I was quite glad to get off the mountain!
That’s all for now – I’ll continue the journey in my next post.
Have you been to Pompeii or some other ruin or ancient site that you felt was really moving? I’d love to hear about it!