You have to do an ominous “da da daaaaaah” after the word Pompeii because it is uber famous and big in everyone’s heads and to be fair it’s pretty big in real life. A very decent sized town that would have housed thousands of people. It’s not MASSIVE, it’s a couple of square kilometres, but walking through the criss cross grid of streets, milling about in the forum, past the amphitheatres, and wandering into the stadium opposite the gymnasium, it’s easy to get the feel of this place as a bustling centre of trade and culture. Of course it helps that Pompeii is still full of thousands of people on a daily basis – it might actually be more crowded in modern times than it was 2000 years ago.
There are lots of opinions to be heard when it comes to Pompeii. Some people are underwhelmed, some people thinks it’s amazing, and then there’s everything in between. I say if you’re in the area, make the effort to see it. To rephrase what I said before, the ruins are preserved well enough for you to get the sense of it as a living breathing community, as opposed to random piles of rubble, and it enables you to see all the important buildings central to daily life in a typical Roman city. Also, there’s nothing like witnessing the scope of devastation that mother nature can cause to put your personal hassles of not being able to get wi-fi into perspective.
When you’re standing in the middle of Pompeii, looking up at Vesuvius in the distance, the concept of the entire town being covered in tonnes of ash, happening so quickly that people couldn’t escape, seems too dramatic to grasp as a reality. You imagine it, the idea forms in your mind, and then it flits away again. If I hadn’t seen on TV the thick cloud of volcanic ash hanging over Iceland for a solid month in recent years I think I wouldn’t have truly believed that what happened to Pompeii was possible.
What most visitors to Pompeii talk about (and what most people who haven’t been there want to hear about) are the bodies that were preserved under the ash during the eruption. This is not macabre, it’s natural that we’re more drawn to the images of people in extreme stress than we are to the mosaics or the standing columns in the forum. Humans have evolved to be empathetic, it’s a skill that has been crucial to our species’ survival. So let’s talk about bodies.
Firstly, the real bodies are no longer at Pompeii. They have been removed for the sake of preservation – exposure to the air was causing them to crumble. What you see at the site today are exact replicas cast from moulds of the original deceased. The average Joe (meaning me) would never be able tell the difference….unless of course we were mauling them and one crumbled and one didn’t.
Secondly, I was under the impression that the way this works is that you would walk around the ruins and at every turn be confronted by another set of remains. “Doris look, there’s one next to the wall. Bert have you seen the couple asleep on the bed? No Aggie I missed that, but there’s a whole audience of folks in the amphitheatre.” Apparently this was some slightly naive thinking on my part. The casts are to be found in select areas around Pompeii (not willy nilly strewn about) such as the purpose built pyramid shaped museum in the colisseum. A steady stream of visitors walk into the museum and slowly view the casts from a raised walkway that permits 360 degree observation before they file out again into the sun. Each cast shows what that person(s) was doing at the moment he/she died. Most of them are protecting their faces with raised arms, one woman is huddled in a seating position – arms hugging her knees to her chest, head tucked in, making herself as small as possible. One cast that features prominently in articles about Pompeii is that of the parent and child, a parent lies on their back reaching towards the child on her (the papers say it’s a woman, I couldn’t tell) torso, who in turn is arching upwards and back in a position that I associate with a toddler howling in pain. Then there’s the couple who have their faces pushed into one another, holding on, waiting for it to end.
It is, as you would expect, a sombre mood inside the viewing area, people speak in hushed tones, and amongst all the pictures being taken, there are few smiling selfies.
I didn’t cover more than half of the excavations in Pompeii (crowds, heat, old people and small children, those are my excuses), and were I to go again it would be out of the summer season purely to see if I could go when it was less busy. If you don’t like the heat then go early in the morning and keep an eye out for the plentiful water fountains around the site. And if it’s really hot, wear a light, long sleeved, shirt that you can remove and soak under the water – it will make you happy. Hmm what else, the modern cafeteria located in the Forum is always packed, and the ice-creams are extortionate – 10 euro for 2 scoops – but there is a quiet cafe on the grounds near the exit and bookshops that does snacks and wine! Priorities.