After an exhausting initial day, I was awakened this morning not by my scheduled 7 am wake-up call, but by the streaming sun at 5:45 am. Today is Pompeii day, opens at 8:30. I shower, have breakfast in the hotel (the hotel buys soy milk special for me), and head to the station for the train ride to Pompeii. Sorrento is the end of the line, so easy to guess which train. Follow the crowd. Reading signs is, well, useless. Trying to surmise the train based on schedule, even more so. Allora! Train gets crowded with Napoli-bound worker bees. At Pompeii, I fight my way through the work-aratzzi on the train and join a procession of fellow Brits, Americans, Germans, and Aussies meandering thru the station and round the corner to the entrance. I ignore the half-dozen street vendors hawking cold bottles of water just outside the entrance.
First annoyance, they tell me they can’t print 5-site tickets today. Only Pompeii tickets. Since I am planning to see the others in the coming days it, the guide books all say go for the 5-day. Allora!
From the first step to the last, Pompeii is a magical place. Tragedy and comedy fuse here, literally and figuratively. The plaster casts of the ghostly victims – men, women, children, dogs (see photo below) – are frozen in eternal emotional terror while we gaze. As for comedy, the funniest site of the day was the most famous of Pompeii’s 25 brothels. Today, like then, the whore house is the single most crowded building to be visited with multiple tour groups standing in the hot sun for a chance to gawk at 2,000-year old graffiti uttering vulgarities of the day, a few tawdry murals, and a rock-hard limestone bed, literally,upon which the ladies of the house applied their craft. (see photo)
A few ruins date back to the 6th Century BC when the Greeks controlled much of Southern Italy. Most of the houses of Pompeii, however, date originally from the 3rd-2nd Century BC. This is a time of Hellenistic (i.e. Greek) influence waning to coincide with Rome asserting itself in the Mediterranean. The city flourishes until 62 AD when a severe earthquake hits. Some people leave, vowing never to return. Many others start the slow rebuilding process. Many building have renovations in process when Vesuvius erupts in August, 79 AD.
There are splendid villas and casas too numerous to mention here. Guide books don’t do the site justice. It reminds me a little of what would it would be like it Beverly Hills was dug out of 16 feet of ash and debris 2,000 years from now. Pompeii was a commercial center and a playground for the wealthy class. The villa of the surgeon. The baker. The launderer. One cannot help feel these villas ooze their ‘keeping up with the Jonesius'-ness.
The mosaics and frescos are sublime, even if the most important have been replaced with modern reproductions in situ while the originals are in the protective custody of the Naples museum. Perhaps the best frescos are those of a recently excavated bathhouse in the southern corner of Regio VIII, is unmarked, and virtually ignored by tourists and tour guides. Bright blues dominate the fresh walls (see photo above) and gladiatorial scenes are captured in the mosaic floors.
Ironically, there is only one obvious clock at Pompeii; it is a sun dial in the Temple of Apollo. At the time of Pompeii, the Roman hour varied during the year depending on the length of sunlight. In summer, hours were longer. In winter shorter. Only on the equinox, when daylight and night were equal, were hours uniform. This made keeping time a difficult proposition. Seneca once remarked that telling time was a hopeless task. “It is easier to find two philosophers who agree than two clocks.” One would expect to find more public clocks here. Perhaps there are so few sun dials because the water clock was rapidly coming into fashion around 79 AD, and was likely the hot technology of its day. The iPhone of Pompeii.
One of the more impressive houses at Pompeii is the villa of the Launderer. White linen cloth needs strong cleaning agents in the Naples scorching sun to keep them clean and fresh smelling. A soda-based solution was sometimes used, but by far the most frequently used laundry detergent is one loaded with ammonia – human urine. In fact, the Launderer set up pots, yes, pissing pots, all around the city. Public toilets of a sort. The urine was collected and brought to the central washing vats where the finest linens from the most important officials were soaked in the generous outpourings of the Pompeiian citizenry Whoever coined the phrase ‘don’t have a pot to piss in’, was clearly not a Launderer.
Final word. There are some 70-odd major sites to see at Pompeii. Relentlessly pressing forward in the brutal sun from the 8:30 opening to 7:30 closing, one can nearly see them all. However, ignore the ‘restaurant’ designation on the plan of Pompeii. There is no food, no bottled water, no sustenance of any kind sold inside the 164-acre area of the city, except for 8 ancient Roman fountains (i.e. modern faucets) with drinkable water provided you can contort your head upside down and drink on an acute angle while water runs up your nose. When walking from the train to the entrance, buy a bottle or two of cold water from the street vendors. And stash away some fruit in your backpack (brought some cherries and peaches with me which made a great lunch snack)!
After a long day at Pompeii, dinner at Pedros, a dive of a place on Sorrento’s Corso Italia walking out of the center and just past and opposite the Post Office. Allora! Wonderful super thin, perfectly crisped pizza, local salads, house wine…and loaded with locals. The interior is small and not fancy (picnic tables is what you eat on). But ooooh so good.