I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Venice, saw some of the world’s best Renaissance art in Florence, pretended I was in Under the Tuscan Sun, and explored the ancient ruins of the Colosseum and Palatine, but my absolute favorite part of my trip to Italy was walking through Pompeii. Pompeii is located near the seaside city of Naples about 150 miles south of Rome. By high-speed train, it takes about 90 minutes or so depending on the train schedule to get from Rome to Pompeii. It’s the perfect day trip from Rome and in my opinion a place everyone should see once in their life because it is absolutely fascinating (or maybe I’m just a huge history dork).
The city of Pompeii is located near the famous volcano, Vesuvius. Vesuvius is far from being one of the highest or most dangerous volcanoes in the world, but it is perhaps the most famous. On August 24, AD 79, Vesuvius blew an epic cloud of smoke, dust, stone, and lava. It had been smoking and belching debris for a few days prior, but no one predicted that on that fateful day in August the basalt plug would collapse and she would be free to let off her rage on the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii was buried within an hour and its 2,000 inhabitants were killed by falling rocks and dust and asphyxiating gases. Many of the city’s 20,000 inhabitants had already left when the volcano first started smoking a few days prior (smart folks). Today, you can visit the top of Vesuvius and peer down into her crater. Rumor has it that she is long overdue for an eruption so may the odds ever be in your fate!
Pompeii began as a Greek trading post during the 6th century and later fell to the Samnites becoming a thriving Roman colony. The city was damaged by an earthquake in AD 63 and just 16 years later was obliterated by Vesuvius. The city was buried by dust, mud, and debris and was largely forgotten until about 1600 when ancient texts suggested that the city existed. Excavations of the site began in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. Pompeii has been a popular tourist attraction for over 250 years. It was one of the main attractions of the “Grand Tour” that many wealthy European young men took during the 1700 and 1800s.
Pompeii is huge so it’s important to grab a map and plan your day. Many of the houses are just foundations now so once you have seen one, you have seen just about all of them. However, the ruins are still worth the time to visit. If you enter from the western entrance, you’ll encounter the civic buildings first. The Forum is the heart of any Roman city’s civic life. Surviving buildings include the Basilica, marketplace and temples to the gods Apollo, Venus, Jupiter and Vespasian.
Nearby is the Antiquarium where you can see body casts taken from the volcanic ash. I was super excited to see these as I thought the figures contained actual human remains, but then I found out that they were just casts. Archaeologists have discovered about 1150 bodies since they began excavations of the city. Most of the human remains have decayed over the thousands of years, but the ash that fell from the sky encased their bodies hardening to form a porous shell. The hardening ash was able to capture and preserve the person’s final postures and clothing prior to death. The body casts tell the story of what it must have been like to know that you were minutes from death. They tell a human story.
The Garden of Fugitives holds the largest number of bodies found numbering 13 people who tried to hide in a fruit orchard. Another 9 people were found in the House of Mysteries where the roof collapsed and trapped them inside. One of the most famous body casts is of a small dog wearing a collar on his back.
Beyond the Forum is the city’s first bathhouses, the Terme Stabiane. You can still see the swimming pools divided by the men’s and women’s section and even the changing rooms. Alongside the bathhouse is the city’s red-light district called Vico del Lupianare.
Italy’s oldest surviving amphitheater that could seat over 20,000, the Anfiteatro, can be found nearby. Don’t miss the 5,000-seat Teatro Grande and the smaller indoor Teatro Piccolo. The best preserved house is Casa die Vetii. It was once the home of two wealthy merchants and possesses the city’s best wall paintings. Many of the home’s paintings were of the erotic taste.
Other houses to see include:
- Casa del Menandro – a patrician villa with many beautiful frescoes
- Casa del Fauno – where many of the Naples’ Museum paintings originated
- Casa di Loreio Tiburtino – a large mansion with a courtyard impluvium, a basin used to collect rainwater
- Casa del Poeta Tragico – one of the last homes to be built in Pompeii and houses the famous “Beware of Dog” sign
Speaking of dogs, you’ll see numerous stray dogs running around the ruins of Pompeii. Most of them are friendly, but beware of your surroundings and if dog is acting a little funny then maybe it’s time to move on to a new spot.
Pompeii is open 8:30a to 7:30p April through August and 8:30a to 5:30p November through March. Tickets cost about €11 for an adult and you can purchase a combination ticket to visit Herculaneum for €20. The combination ticket is valid for 3 days so feel free to take your time!