Outside the ruins of Pompeii

Pompeii was the final quest of our journey. (Well, negotiating Rome’s Fiumicino Airport by shuffling slowly through five separate lines just to make it to the shuttle to the terminal for our gate this morning was a minor quest of its own.) Did we enjoy Pompeii? Yes and no. Naples: 2000-year-old Castle of the EggIt takes about four hours of direct driving to get between Rome and Pompeii and this does not account for a couple stops including one in Naples to snap photos of the coastal city. The city of Naples was disappointing. Dan and I were expecting something charming and touristy, clean and colorful. What we found was a large city with many densely packed, tall, dilapidated apartment buildings that looked dangerous and unhealthy. Even the waterfront area was rather unappealing. There were no cute cafes or soft beaches, only large coarse rocks separated from the nicer hotels by the asphalt road. Of course we did have our cameras handy and took a few photos of what we perceived would make for a pleasing picture.

View of Naples

Our arrival in Pompeii was muted by weaving through yet another sea of tourists and being herded into a cameo factory. We never knew that “real” cameos were carved out of shells. Once again a visit to a shop showcasing the local specialty craft with a twenty percent discount for paying in cash or ten percent for credit. After the first two-inch cameo I picked up was marked for five hundred Euros, my attention quickly turned elsewhere. Dan and I bailed from the sales pitch, went back to the heat outside, and combed the Tijuana tents for our ideal souvenir magnet. With the entrance to the ruins indicated by an inviting arch, we still had to wait before entrance with our group. Lunch was included with our packaged day-trip tour and we ate in what was basically a large dining hall dressed up with sweaty waiters in dark suits scooping food out of large platters onto our plates at a rate of about two scoops every half-hour. The wait was distressing because we knew that our time visiting the actual ruins was already quite limited. Finally, we finished our meals and met up with our guide. Without overdoing the details, let’s just say that this guide (and the group of people on our tour) made us really appreciate what we had been enjoying for the past week. Since there was one couple that spoke Spanish within the twenty-six people on our tour, we had to wait for everything to be translated. The guide rarely used his microphone and hardly ever held his marker high enough to find him when three or four tour groups tangled at an intersection. However, . . .

Columns in PompeiiThe vast historical ruins at Pompeii are amazing! Unlike any other ruins we saw in Italy or those I have visited in Mexico, Dan and I really felt as though we were walking through what was once a thriving city. Of course, many of the structures have missing ceilings, walls, and interior fixtures, but there was just street after street of marketplace stalls, houses, temples, and facilities such as laundry rooms and brothels all made of stone. Many of the rooms that we saw (and even some external walls along the roads) still had partial frescos of colorful paint and detailed mosaics on floors that survived the devastation of 79 A.D. (not to mention the excavations and tourists of modern times).

Marketplace stalls Large House in Pompeii Temple in Pompeii
Laundry Facility (they would wash the clothes in urine utilizing the natural ammonia) Frescos facing the street One of several paintings on the interior walls of the brothel
Fresco in archway inside a house Large, colorful frescos that survived Mosaic Floor

 In a separate contained area within the site, there were many shelves stacked high with original pottery found in Pompeii. There too were a few of the famed body casts created by pouring plaster into the cavities left after bodies decomposed while fully immersed in ash and pumice and undiscovered until the mid-eighteenth century. The body casts show the shapes of the victims in their final moments whether lying down or curled up vainly protecting their faces.

Original pottery and sculptures found in Pompeii Body cast of Vesuvius victim Body cast of a dog

Pompeii Forum with Mt. Vesuvius in the backgroundThe open space of the forum is surrounded by partial columns that hinted at once was and is beautifully overshadowed by Vesuvius that reigns majestically, yet ominously, over the entire region. Mt. Vesuvius stands tall above the towns that spread from its base out to the sea. Its sides are smooth and its summit jagged. We hope our pictures capture its size, symmetry, and color. Mt. Vesuvius from the bus windowThe top is brown and ashy and its base green and lush while the middle of the mountain has a band of bright yellow flowers that glowed in the sunlight.

Abby pointing to Vesuvius's apparent eruptionOur tour time was ending and we saw the exit gates ahead. Dan and I were puzzled. Before we left for Europe we had visited the “Day in Pompeii” exhibit at the Natural History Museum in San Diego. From this we knew a fair amount of the history and a few key items we were certainly expecting to see. As we shuffled closer to the gates we realized that we had not seen several items on our list. One sight I was most looking forward to was the outdoor amphitheater. (Dan has learned on this trip that I have a thing for stadiums.) We asked the guide and he waved it off by saying that it is not usually on the tour, it is tiny compared the Colosseum, and with only half an hour to catch the bus we would not have enough time to see it. Dan and I were not satisfied with this answer and before we were escorted through the gate to spend the last precious thirty minutes with nothing to do but wander through the parking lot TJ, we insisted that the guide point us in the right direction and then set off. The right direction was exactly the way we had come, marching down the main road all the way to the opposite end.

Long street in Pompeii    Current excavation project

Pompeii AmphitheaterWe walked at a brisk pace, not quite a run, watching our feet over the supersized cobblestones and slipping through pockets of tourists gazing at stuff we had already seen. The heat was becoming more intense and Dan was a sweetheart carrying all our stuff while absorbing the rays in his black poker T-shirt. Back past the forum, past the temple, past the laundry and the brothel, past the current excavation project and numerous frescos protected by glass, we saw a dead end ahead of us and were going to have to make a decision due to barriers in space and time. At the end of as far as we could go there was a turn and there was the amphitheater. Certainly smaller than the Colosseum in Rome or the Arena in Verona, the theater had wonderful charm and was well preserved. We jogged around it looking at our watches and hoping for an entrance. A Outside the Amphitheatergentleman pointed us in the right direction and we ran through a tunnel only to burst out onto the grass at the bottom center of the field surrounded by seats as if we were the athletes all had come to cheer. Our accomplishment felt nothing less than triumphant. We only stayed long enough to take a few picture and savor the moment briefly. We then began the trek back to the bus determined to have enough time to use the facilities before the long ride home.
We made it!  Inside the Amphitheater

We made it to the bus in plenty of time, sweaty and a bit high on endorphins from the exercise. The long ride through Naples, back to Rome (pictured below), and eventually stopping at our hotel was the beginning of our journey back to our home sweet home in San Diego.

Rome: Crossing the Tiber River and Castel Sant'Angelo in the background

Continue to Dan's Notes & Other Trips


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July 2008