Eh Eh Oh, Eh Oh
Eh Eh Oh, Eh Oh
The walls kept tumbling down
in the city that we lo-o-o-o-ve.
Great clouds roll over the hills
bringing darkness from above….
Have you heard that song, “Pompeii,” by Bastille? Besides the fact that it’s been playing in nearly every store I’ve been in, we’ve been singing it incessantly since our visit to Pompeii. The ruins of the ancient city, utterly obliterated by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, are located about an hour and a half south of Rome. We took a train from Lucca to Naples, then changed to the dirty and disgusting Trans-Vesuvian train line to reach this incredible destination.
We arrived mid-Afternoon, which didn’t allow sufficient time to see the remains of the city, but was just enough time to reach the summit of the active volcano Vesuvius.
Imagine bumping along in an army-green bus up twisting and winding roads that make the BVI’s road system look like a dream. The vehicle seats about 20 people, but close to 40 are aboard. Each time the bus approaches a curve the driver revs the engine to power through the turn, and you widen your stance as you stand on the sweat-smelling, noisy bus. This was the first half of the ride up Mount Vesuvius. I didn’t believe Tony when he said we’d stop part way, but as usual, he was right. (Don’t tell him I said that!)
We came to the end of the paved road (Yikes!) and loaded into smaller buses – thankfully with seats for everyone. In these tank-style contraptions we rumbled up the 3800 or so feet of the volcano, holding on at each curve to avoid landing in our neighbors’ laps. On one bump Tony actually hit his head on the roof! All the while our driver yelled into his phone to be heard over the roaring engine.
From the bus park we had an excellent view of modern Pompei below, which looked much nicer from a distance, and of the sea beyond.
A steep hike up the next 800 feet or so had some more worrisome views as well. That “bridge” looked less than solid!
At the summit we looked down into the smoking crater of an active volcano. Tony was giddy! Can you see the smoke? It’s right in the center of the frame.
Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland and is responsible for the complete destruction of Roman towns Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79AD. The last time Vesuvius erupted was a small one in 1944, at the height of WWII, but it’s been smoking ominously ever since. It is actually deemed the most dangerous volcano on the planet due to its proximity to densely populated Naples and modern Pompei, a sprawling metropolis of 3.5 million just an hour south, by high speed train, of Rome. According to Wikipedia, it’s the most densely populated volcanic area in the world. This view is from neighboring Sorrento, across the Bay of Naples.
The only bad thing about going to the top of Mt. Vesuvius, in my opinion, was having to go back down. Tony and I had very different assessments of the ordeal. He found it exhilerating, while I’d describe our descent as terrifying!
Our plans to visit to the ruins of Pompeii the next day were shifted when an employee brought a typed piece of paper out 15 minutes after they were supposed to open saying they were closed until 12:30 that day for staff meetings. Staff meetings? Really? Anyway, it gave us an opportunity to visit Sorrento, a lovely little town 1/2 an hour down the train line.
Our guide book described Sorrento as a charming cliff town of 20,000 that doubles in size during the tourist season. It said that “the Sorrentines have gone out of their way to create a completely safe and relaxed place for tourists to spend money.” Their efforts were evident, and we enjoyed the opportunity to stroll down the streets, examine old churches and book stores, and pick up some fresh fruit and food for dinner that night. One church we wandered into had a dining room table-sized display of the birth of Jesus, but set in Italy, complete with a spaghetti dinner!
Luckily, when we returned to the Pompeii archeological site that afternoon, they were in fact open. (We weren’t so sure they would be!) Even the first view upon entering the area was stunning!
The Pompeii ruins are spectacular because they are so well preserved. Unlike Rome, and many other places that have Roman ruins, Pompeii was never plundered for its building materials. Rather, it was buried under 20 feet of ash and volcanic debris for nearly 1500 years, until someone went to dig a new aqueduct in the area. This old bakery is in especially good condition. The big stone grinders would have had wooden handles attached that could be turned by animals or slaves.
Vesuvius’ 79 AD eruption was quite unusual. Plinius the Younger, who watched the event from a nearby island, wrote an account that experts at the time deemed so unusual they declared him a liar! Rather than your typical lava flow, the mountain exploded with super-heated ash that fell to the earth first as pumice stones. Then layers of poisonous gasses and ash rained down on the city. About 2,000 of the 16,000 inhabitants stayed in the city and were trapped in their homes as the roofs caved in from the weight. The next morning a wave of debris and hot gas, called a pyroclastic flow, hit the city with such force it killed all the remaining inhabitants instantly. When archeologists began uncovering the site in the 1700s, they came across many seemingly empty spaces in the Earth with bones at the bottom. They began filling the spaces with plaster and ended up with incredible molds of people in their final moments. Most of the plaster casts have been moved to the museum in Naples, which we didn’t go to, but there were a few on display.
Another area of particular interest were the Bath Houses, since we’d recently experienced The Baths in Budapest. The little pools looked a lot like what we sat in, and it was amazing that the even the ceiling decoration was so well preserved!
My favorite spot was the theatre which they’ve been restoring by replacing some of the stones that were missing. The stones that are brighter white have all been recently replaced.
In fact, some workmen were actually building a wooden stage in top of the original stone forms while we were there!
Tony preferred the amphitheater. Just like him to pick the rough and tumble sports arena over the arts!
Pompeii was an interesting trip… we loved the ruins and the volcano, which were the things we went to see. The area, however, was less than impressive. At night I think it would be down-right frigthening. (We chose not to venture out after dark.) It’s a bummer too, because we thought we were safe staying away from Naples and Pompeii City, but staying right by the ruins was just as bad. If we had it to do again, I think we’d probably go to Sorrento and just day trip it to the ruins and volcano. However, it did made for an interesting experience, like when the only thing we could find for dinner was a whole rotisserie chicken and a bag of chips that we took back to our hotel room!
I’ll leave you with a few more photos. Above is a typical Roman street. That’s a major thoroughfare, which you can tell by the number of stones placed in the middle, meant to protect the feet of walking civilians. When the streets were cleaned each day citizens could step on those stones without getting their sandled feet wet, and chariot wheels were a standard width to fit perfectly through the space between the stones. Below you see the remains of the Temple of Isis.
Here’s Tony standing in front of the forum, a large open area for commerce, which was the center of Roman life.
Look at how amazing some of this detail work was!
And how well the murals have been preserved over time!