Sunday: Pompeii

On the afternoon of August 24, 79 AD, the residents of Pompeii watched as the mountain five miles from their city went up in a cloud of smoke and ash. Before this eruption, Vesuvius had been quiet for nearly 2000 years, so none of the residents of Pompeii knew its power. There were warnings: there had been an earthquake about 15 years before the eruption. The water around the city had poisoned some sheep, an event that according to Jose was covered up by city officials. The springs and wells dried up in the spring before the volcano erupted. Clues without context were not enough: the residents of Pompeii were caught completely by surprise when Vesuvius blew its top. The cloud of smoke and ash was carried by the winds and rained down on the city like missiles, killing people where they stood in the street. The bustling city contained over 20,000 people. Many of them fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were the smart ones. Over 3000 people who stayed behind died and were entombed in the city. Ash blanketed the city to depths of several feet, collapsing the roofs and suffocating people as they huddled in their homes. Finally the pyroclastic flow of hot lava, ash and fragments rolled down the mountainside at speeds of over 100 miles per hour and buried the city, incinerating everything in its path. The eruption lasted over 18 hours.

Pompeii is about a 3 hour road trip by car from Rome, so we started our day early. Jose and Lino showed up promptly on our doorstep at 7:00 AM and we were off. More adventurous travelers can take a train to Naples, but since we have Genene, we have opted for comfort by using Lino to do all the driving. He is very interesting. He comes from southern Italy. He told us that his great-grandfather had 9 children with one wife and 14 with another! Before Lino opens his mouth, you would almost think he is from Ireland. His skin is fair, and he is strawberry blonde. He explained that he is descended from the Norse people who settled (invaded) in southern Italy. He also related the story that one of his great-uncles was taken by the Russians during World War II and was never seen again. Another great-uncle was captured by Americans and sent to a prison camp.

As we left the city, the car filled with an odd smell. No one said anything, but I was sitting there silently being annoyed at Greg, as I thought that he had passed gas in the car. Genene leaned over and whispered, asking me if I had done it, and I shook my head “no.” We just drove along in silence, and I was so embarrassed. After a few minutes, Lino said something to Jose in Italian, and Jose translated, “Lino says that you may be smelling an odd smell as we leave the city. There are thermal waters nearby, and the smell is sulfur. Lino doesn't understand how people could live here.” I laughed in relief and then told Jose what Genene had asked me. He started chuckling and translated to Lino. I thought Lino was going to wreck the car laughing. Thank God it wasn't Greg.

We got to Pompeii before 10 AM, before the tour buses started unloaded. There was virtually no line to purchase tickets. The local tour guides are very aggressive, and had we been going it alone, we would have been pounced upon. Instead, we just lined up with Jose, and he got some really dirty looks from the local guides. I guess they think that everyone who comes to Pompeii is “theirs.” Jose said simply that they lack professional courtesy.

Vesuvius looms large over the city, even today. Jose said that 2/3 of the volcano came off with the Pompeii eruption. Rick Steves says that to imagine how big Vesuvius once was, you should draw lines from the bottom of what are now two peaks and make one huge mountain.


Pompeii was a bustling port city, a pleasure town. It is now several kilometers from the coast, because the lava flows cooled and formed new earth.

The streets were dotted with white stones, cats' eyes, to help people walk on the street after dark.


The streets were washed down daily to remove debris. Stepping stones were laid in the middle of ths steets so that people could cross without getting wet. Cart sizes were standardized and the wheels could pass between the stones.

Below is a good shot of the Forum of Pompeii in the shadow of Vesuvius.

The remains of the Temple of Jupiter also align with Vesuvius. The altar is in front of the temple.
Jose explained that much of the construction of Pompeii is what we would describe as faux. Real marble was too expensive, so the illusion of marble columns was created by carving into the stone. Likewise, the illusion of bricks was created by carving the grooves into the fascade.
Two views of the basilica in Pompeii, which was used a law court.


Genene finds a bit of shade in one of the columns.


A view of the city street. Shops faced the front of the street, while people lived in the spaces behind the shop.


This place would be interesting to view from a helicopter, but I didn't have one of those. This photo gives some idea of the excavated city. After being buried by ash and lava, Pompeii was not rediscovered until the 1600s. The modern discipline of archaeology begins here. Can you imagine how thrilling it would have been to dig this city out of its time capsule?


Genene and her dad enjoy a moment.


The baths were important places in Roman life. They were places to meet, and the baths were thought to keep people vital. Women and men bathed at different times of the day. A hot bath was taken first, then a tepid one. Finally the cold bath was used to close the pores. I told Jose that we had a modern-day equivalent in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Entrance to the baths.

The mosaic on the roof of the bath house.

One of the rooms in the bath house.


We came across our first “body” in the bath house. When archaeologists were excavating, they found hollowed out places. They realized that these hollows were where bodies had been. Plaster was pushed down into the holes, making a perfect cast of those people frozen in time.


The Temple of Isis served the Egyptian community in Pompeii. As Jose explained, it is not accurate to describe Pompeii as a perfectly preserved, frozen-in-time ROMAN city, as it is so frequently characterized. Pompeii was a port city, a melting pot of sorts, and there were many different peoples living here. Certainly the construction of the roads, forum and basilica bear testimony to Rome's influence as conqueror, but others were here too.

These next four frescoes are for “more mature audiences.” As I mentioned, Pompeii was a pleasure city and a port city. Brothels were a popular destination. The frescoes were high on the wall, and Genene really could not make out what was going on in them, although we did give her a brief age-appropriate explanation of what would have gone on here. The frescoes may have been a “menu” of what service was offered inside. As Jose described it to Genene (perfectly, I thought), “This is a place where women were paid for their caresses.” What impressed Genene most is that the beds were made of stone. The rooms were very tiny, like closets. I cannot imagine how people got it on in there, but I guess if I were a man that had been out to sea for months, I might feel differently. The brothel is called a “lupanare”. “Lupe” is the Italian word for she-wolf, so the brothel is named for the howling sounds the women made to attract their customers. One theory is that Romulus and Remus were not adopted by a real she-wolf but by one of these ladies of the night.


Okay, you can uncover the kids' eyes now.

Jose explains how the city and the volcano to Genene.


Jose lamented the state of the excavations in Pompeii. Over 2.5 million people visit this UNESCO site each year, yet so many of its relics are simply stacked up in sheds. Jose expressed the opinion that the young, unemployed people could be trained to handle the artifacts and at least clean some of them up for display. In this next photo, you can see one of the plaster bodies sitting in a shed with all kinds of other artifacts just stacked up.


One positive about having the plaster casts sitting out in the shed is that I could get good photographs of them, unobstructed by glass.


We entered and exited the city as the sailors would have done, through the port gate.

We were hot, exhausted and hungry. Naples is a short drive away and is famous for its pizza. Jose had a place in mind for us to eat. He said it was President Clinton's favorite joint when he visited. Before Bubba went all vegan on us, the boy knew how to eat so I was game to try. We arrived to find it closed, as was much of Naples. I was struck at how scruffy this city was. Graffiti was everywhere in the heart of the city, and we drove past some kind of international bazar, something akin to Harwin in Houston, only much more base. I saw people selling nothing but piles of used running shoes. Others sold what looked like dirty clothes, just piled up on the ground. Trash was everywhere. I had no desire to get out for a closer look, but it would have made for some great photos, in a sad kind of way. We kept driving and found a spot close to the shore. Jose lamented that it was a tourist area and he really did not know where to go for pizza, so we just picked a spot. It turned out to be a really good pizza, and after lunch Genene jumped in the water with the locals. Lino couldn't believe it. He thought the water was “too dirty” for her. I shurgged my shoulders and told Jose that kids eat dirt, so who cares? It was Genene's favorite part of the day, I think.

I know Jose wanted to show us the frescoes in the museum in Naples, many of which were removed from Pompeii. Alas, there was no time for that. Sometimes, you just have to let a kid be a kid. Genene enjoyed getting dirty and gritty in the waters at Naples.

The view from our restaurant.


Lino, Genene and Greg enjoy the afterglow of a good pizza.

Genene took a swim in the shadow of Naples and Vesuvius.

A family portrait.


We drove back to Rome, exhausted from the day. We passed right by the reconstructed abbey at Monte Cassino, site of the famous World War II battle. I wish we had time to stop and look, but the drive up to the abbey would have taken another hour, and we were ragged out. All I got was a photo. We will have to come back another time!


I know I have gone on too long today, but Pompeii fascinates me. I could have spent days there.

We got home at 7:00 PM, 12 hours after leaving. We were exhausted! We took showers and walked downstairs for dinner.

It's now Monday at 12:30 and we haven't even gotten dressed yet. Ah, the life….


2 thoughts on “Sunday: Pompeii

  1. This sounds like a fascinating and enjoyable excursion. And besides the obvious interest of seeing Pompeii, I bet it was nice to see a bit of the countryside. Beautiful pictures!

  2. Wow Pompeii is one of my bucket list of places to see!
    Really a fantastic article and I love your pictures!
    I want to go back someday you Genevieve and Greg as the guides!

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