When Mount Vesuvius erupted on a searing hot summer day back in August of AD 79, it rained fiery death down upon a series of towns and coastal resorts that clung to the hills around the Bay of Naples. And, while Herculaneum has since been heavily excavated, none of the others have the fame or notoriety of Pompeii.
For sure, Pompeii worked very well as a commercial and industrial centre. But it’s main raison d’etre was primarily as a pleasure resort. It was essentially the equivalent of a first century Las Vegas; it attracted the high rollers from nearby Rome, looking for a seasonal fix of decadence and unbridled debauchery.
Pompeii did not disappoint it’s lecherous ranks of gold trimmed toga wearing gawkers and sightseers. It was a city awash with brothels, as well as arenas for gladiator fights. It had shopping streets that made it very much the Fifth Avenue of it’s day; traders from all parts of the known world were drawn irresistibly to the city on the bay, and the smouldering, giant Mount Vesuvius that watched over the entire region.
Visiting senators, generals and psychopaths could buy everything from lions to leopards, fur skins to bonded slaves. Pompeii was a city almost awash in the locally brewed wine; a feverish, roistering flesh pot living on borrowed time. Wrapped in a cocoon fashioned from it’s own sense of deluded invincibility, what followed took it totally by surprise.
The force of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that day was cataclysmic. It literally blew the top off the huge, brooding molten sarcophagus, and rained a tidal wave of ash, pumice and noxious gases down on the towns clustered around its slopes. Stunned and disbelieving, many people sought shelter in the cellars of their homes, where they were literally asphyxiated in their thousands.
Many looked to the sea for escape, only to find themselves confronted with a slow, inexorable tsunami that turned that entire Bay of Naples into a no go area. Helpless and horrified, thousands watched in stunned, fearful, disbelief as the funeral pyre of molten death from Vesuvius rolled like a tidal wave towards them. The horror must have defied any kind of adequate description.
The city of Pompeii was literally immolated under a slowly settling layer of ash and mud, some seven metres thick. There it lay, in all it’s gory, grisly anonymity, until excavation work began in the mid seventeenth century. Gradually, the mud and muck was hacked away, and something monumental emerged back into the sunlight after sixteen and a half centuries entombed underground.
Today the cobble stone roads are still pitted with the track marks left by Roman chariots all those centuries ago. The remains of the lower levels of all those shops, bars. brothels and restaurants jut like strings of jagged, broken molars along street after street. Clumps of sparse, dirty grass and weeds have taken hold along window ledges once adorned with priceless Etruscan vases. Staircases end abruptly, their stone washed expanses still echoing with the desperate, doom laden footsteps of the city’s terrified denizens.
Pompeii is a city that literally died screaming, and some essence of those desperate last hours still hangs in the air like poisonous ash. Even in daylight, this ruined, sixty six hectare corpse of a city is a spooky, deeply upsetting experience. A population of more than twenty thousand souls breathed its last in these buildings, and out on those same cobbled streets.
The ash that was their death shroud served to preserve their corpses. Or, more accurately, it formed a mould around each victim and captured their essences for posterity, even as they expired in agonised contortions. Today, plaster casts can be seen of some of these poor souls. It is definitely not an experience for the squeamish.
Elsewhere, the scale and ruined splendour of the city is evident in the scores of serried, sometimes truncated doric columns that still point at the sky like so many accusing fingers. There are shattered portals, row upon row of excavated, incredibly well preserved vases and urns, and once ornate porticos, still inscribed with the names of the original donors. There are the open spaces once occupied by spectacular pagan temples and, on the walls of many buildings, the ghostly remnants of the once vibrant, brightly coloured frescoes that adorned the most opulent and commodious of Pompeiian villas.
The amphitheatre is more or less completely intact; a stark, semi circular expanse of serried stone seating that once staged the most elaborate and bloody of entertainments. By a supreme irony, brutal death was meted out here to those who decreed the same fate for numerous gladiators over the lifetime of this original Sin City.
Today, ragged ranks of pine and cypress trees soften the seared, stony stance of old Pompeii. Birds sing in the air once again. And, not so very far away, Mount Vesuvius still looms over the Bay of Naples like some ominous gargoyle, ever present and, more to the point, still possibly not yet sated or satisfied by the harm she wrought all those centuries ago.
Pompeii is worth a few hours of anybody’s time. It is very hard work in the searing heat of summer, and the crowds can be phenomenal. And some of the legion of shops that line the approaches are so monumentally tacky and appalling that you almost find yourself praying for a second eruption.
Those things noted, Pompeii remains a perennial standout on the European travel circuit; a petrified, partially preserved monument to human folly and stupidity on the most epic of scales. Highly recommended.
Most visitors for Pompeii will arrive either by sea, or by air into Naples Airport itself. Exploring Pompeii and/or Herculaneum would make an excellent, two centre option with Sorrento, the island of Capri, or other resorts along the Neapolitan coast, such as Amalfi or Positano.
The best times for sightseeing here are usually April and September.