There is a reason why Pompeii is such a popular tourist destination. For anyone who is interested in Roman history the exceptionally well preserved site gives lots of clues about everyday life in Roman times. You can walk along ancient streets, peer into the old buildings, and enjoy some remarkable frescoes. And it is set in an atmospheric landscape, with Mount Vesuvius gently puffing in the background.
I arrived early in the morning to avoid the worst of the sun and the crowds and walked up a steep path with cart ruts cut deep into the stone. I had just been reading Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii, which describes the days leading up to the volcanic eruption that destroyed the town. Walking around the site brought the story vividly to life.
The remains of houses and shops were clearly visible, making it easy to imagine the street lined with villas and tavernas, crowded with people going about their everyday business and horses trudging up the hill.
All of daily life is here. I passed villas large and small, shops with partially intact marble counters, the public baths with their separate bathing areas for men and women, and the vast forum where crowds would gather to shop, listen to speeches and chat with their friends. But often it is the tiny details that connect the past to the present, like the mosaic embedded into the wall of a house that warns would-be intruders to beware of the dog.
Many dwellings, however humble, have the remains of colourful frescoes upon their walls. They seem to have been the Roman equivalent of wallpaper, decorating houses according to the owners’ tastes. Sometimes they drop tantalising hints about their owners and the activities that took place behind closed doors. An example is the picture of the initiation of a young woman into the cult of Dionysus in the palatial Villa dei Misteri, which is situated just outside the city walls.
For many visitors, it is the frescoes in the official city brothel that are a major attraction. The narrow alleyway leading to the cramped building was packed with eager tourists, cameras at the ready. Above each of the rooms I could see a picture showing the speciality of its occupant in graphic detail. But, the exotic pictures notwithstanding, the miniscule cells with their hard stone benches were a harsh reminder of the reality of a prostitute’s life.
Beneath The Shadow Of Vesuvius
A walk around the old city walls provided a pleasant contrast to the bustling town below. Now, as then, the surroundings are agricultural. I passed a field where onions had been spread out to dry in the sun, and enjoyed the peace. The only sounds here were a faint tinkling of goat bells and the chimes of a church clock in the distance.
Wherever I walked, the landscape was dominated by Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE. It is still active, its fumes visible to anyone who makes the trek up to the crater. However it has not erupted seriously since 1944.
Rich And Poor In Roman Times
Every so often, you get a reminder of the distinction between rich and poor. Most of the houses are small, giving little space for families and their servants. The crowds of visitors clustering on the narrow streets today give an idea of how the town would have looked when it was full of Roman citizens jostling past one another on their way to the shops, or the Forum, or the amphitheatre at the far end of the town.
But it must have seemed very different to the rich. The walk to the Villa dei Misteri takes you down the Via dei Sepulchri, a wide and peaceful avenue lined by memorials to the rich and famous. Then there is the Villa of the Faun, in the middle of the city, with its spacious garden and courtyard, allowing its owner to step out of the busy town into an oasis of calm.
For me there was no such respite. It was getting hot and crowded, and it was time to go in search of lunch before exploring the nearby site of Herculaneum, another city that lived and died under the shadow of Vesuvius.
How To Visit Pompeii
- Pompeii can be reached by train on the Circumvesuviana line which runs between Sorrento and Naples. If you use the train, watch out for pickpockets.
- LivItaly do a range of tours to Pompeii from different destinations, including skip the line tours. (Don’t forget to use discount code BEWITCHEDBYITALY for your 10% discount).
- If you don’t take a guided tour, it is advisable to have a map and guidebook that explains the significance of each building.
- You can buy snacks and drinks at on the site and near the station.
- If you are also visiting the site of Herculaneum, you may find it cheaper to buy a joint ticket which is valid for 3 days.
- The site can get very crowded. You may prefer to visit out of season, or at the beginning or end of the day.
Alternatives To Pompeii
There is no doubt that Pompeii is an excellent place to discover Roman history. However this also means that it is very popular, and you will have to share the site with lots of other visitors. But there are other – slightly quieter – Roman towns in Italy that you can visit. Herculaneum, just 15 km from Pompeii and on the same railway line, is a smaller site, but equally well preserved. Here you can get an insight into how wealthier Romans lived. Read more about Visiting The Roman Ruins of Herculaneum.
Further afield is Ostia Antica, an ancient seaport close to Rome. Read more about Exploring Roman History At Ostia Antica, Rome’s Ancient Sea Port