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Italy

Pompeii: World Renown Ancient Town Gets A Thumbs Down

The ground rumbled, the sky grew dark and a cloud of white-hot ash flowed vertically out of the majestic mountain before collapsing down the slopes scorching everything in sight. Houses were engulfed. Anyone who escaped the heat was gradually suffocated by the fine ash. In just 18 hours almost 3 metres of ash covered the entire city. This is August 24th, 79AD in Pompeii.

After leaving our stunning home in Praiano, our next planned stop was Pompeii. I had read about this ancient city as a young child and it captured my imagination. I found anything related to volcanoes fascinating, so you can imagine how excited I was to see Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius.

Perhaps I set my expectations too high, but I’m sad to say it turned out to be a disappointing experience. In hindsight there are undoubtedly some things I could have done differently, so learn from my mistakes and when you visit hopefully you will have a much better time.

The first tricky part was actually finding the place. Since we didn’t have a local SIM card in our phones for mobile Internet access we were relying on our Citroen's in-car GPS to get around. Unfortunately it guided us to the modern sprawling town of Pompeii. We expected that it should be fairly easy to see signage to the archeological site, but were wrong. In actual fact, there was some signage in Italian to 2 different sites with very similar names, which added to the confusion. Using our walkie talkies, with limited range, we drove around until we finally picked up a signal from Erin’s parents who had driven in with their own car. Using a little trial and error we eventually found our way to a parking lot on the main road near ancient Pompeii, several hundred metres from the main park entrance. Parking was 5 Euros for the day – a better option than the tourist trap immediately opposite the entrance, which was 2 Euros per hour.

Walking past numerous stalls at the entrance to the archeological park, we waited in line for over 15 minutes to purchase tickets - €11 per adult with the kids being free.

Without knowing much about the actual park we opted to take the pram for the kids. Even though it saved them a lot of walking, that was our first mistake. Most of the streets were not particular pram-friendly - dirt tracks, cobble-stone roads and steps. Using a baby carrier for Caius probably would have been a smarter move. The previous few days had been very tiring for the kids, so Caius was already worn out by the time we started, resulting in more-than-usual crying and screaming, wearing our patience thin.

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We also declined the offers for audio guides and professional tour guides, which were available at the entrance. Having been to many other ruins and ancient sites we figured we could just read the signage and get a good idea of what was what. That was our next mistake. There was almost non-existent signage around the grounds. In fact, there was more signage about recycle bins rather than explaining what each building was. This was incredibly frustrating as it was a clear money-grab, forcing visitors to hire an audio guide (€6 each) or a paid tour guide. In fact we didn’t even receive a paper guide/map when we entered which is virtually unheard of anywhere in the world. So not only did we have no idea what we were seeing but we just stumbled around aimlessly – not ideal, especially with a place as big as this. I found out later that there actually were maps for sale before the entrance at the stalls we saw. So pickup a map there, or print out a map from Google Maps (which is surprisingly detailed) in advance.

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We brought a couple bottles of water in the pram, but being a very hot day we drank through those fairly quickly. Unfortunately there were no food/drink stalls anywhere in the park (that we could find). Randomly scattered around the park were a couple open taps flowing with smelly water that I wasn’t game to try. But apparently it’s supposed to be potable. So stock up with lots of water before you head in.

Ok, enough moaning for now. The buildings and ruins themselves were quite fascinating, having been carefully unearthed in the last few decades after almost 2000 years being underground. This makes the site one of the best-preserved Roman-era cities in the world, providing valuable insight into how people lived 2 millennia ago. We overheard several tour group leaders as we walked around to pick up bits and pieces of information. Such fascinating stories about so much detail can be deduced, from political turmoil to family problems. It looks like mankind hasn’t changed much in a few thousand years.

Here’s some snaps of the beautiful buildings:

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As we walked around we bumped into a lovely couple we had met several days before on the Amalfi Coast. They were kind enough to share some tips they picked up from their tour group leader and also gave us one of their maps so we could work out where to go. This was a lifesaver otherwise we may have been trapped in there all day.

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They pointed us in the direction of the iconic “mummified” bodies – these images have been seen all over the world, printed in National Geographic, beamed on countless TV documentaries about Pompeii and essentially represent the entire city of Pompeii. Erin’s parents kept an eye on the kids while Erin and I raced over to the small hall containing these 2 bodies surrounded by clear Perspex. We found out by overhearing a tour guide something that completely shocked us. It turns out these 2 bodies are actually plaster casts. In fact, these molds were made based on just skeletons that were found during archeological digs. That means they were pretty much faked, or imagined, depending on how you look at it. It was just another disappointment along the trail of broken dreams on the streets of Pompeii.

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Once we had a map in our hands we could see that the whole city was much larger than we anticipated. Being long past lunchtime without a food stall in sight, we started heading towards the exit. Along the way we saw a massive, partially-restored amphitheater. Cauis felt this was the perfect opportunity for a toilet break and spontaneously dropped his pants - a lighthearted way to finish our visit.

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Opposite the main exit, across the road was located a restaurant which fed our family for €50. The food was, in line with some of our Italian experience, fairly average. Nothing to write home about.

Our day in Pompeii was over and we were a little wiser for the experience. We made the mistake of not doing enough (or any) research in advance about what to expect. Most of the trials we faced could have been avoided if we did a little reading first. The next destination on our road trip, also a mystery to us, would be leaving us with a completely different impression – a pleasant unexpected surprise.

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Here's what you have to say...

"I respond to every comment by private email. So please leave me comments, I love chatting to you" -
Posted by Janice on
Couldn't have said it better myself.
The heat was dreadful the day we were there and yes...drinks only out the front! Ruined our experience.
Posted by Katie on
Oh what a shame you guys didn't enjoy it! I visited back in 2000 and we had a tour guide show us around for a few hours and I have great memories of the place. I didn't have children back then so only had to worry about myself. Doesn't sound like it would be so easy for us to visit there now with young kids in tow.
Posted by jennifer on
When I went to Pompeii, it was very hot outside. The sun nearly killed me. I walked around inside forever and I left with my skin turning black. I never found the plaster bodies, which I most wanted to see.

I drank a TON of water from the open taps. I must have literally drank about fifteen bottles full from them. I was fine, so I had that on my side.

Pompeii is one of those places I am glad I got to see, but I would not go back. I do have a bunch of pictures I am in love with, and I loved seeing yours as well. But the overall experience was more physically uncomfortable than enlightening.
Posted by Cacinda Maloney on
Because we were passing through from Rome to our final destination down the Amalfi Coast to Positano, we were given some good advice from my brother in law: Since we didn't have that much time to spend there, better to just go to Herclanlem Ercolano, which is in the middle of the city of Naples and the advice turned out to be great for us, as it was a quick stop, maybe 2-3 hours, had pizza in Naples and then we were back on the road headed to Postiano. My brother in law lived in Naples for a few years and he thought it would be a great alternative than spending the entire day at Pompeii.
Posted by Jennifer on
I've got to say that I'm surprised that you and another commentor thought there would be food and drinks inside "the park". This is an active archeological site. There aren't food and drinks inside the Colosseum or Roman Forum...or any other historical site I've ever been to. It's too bad you didn't have the best experience, but this is why it's important to do a little research in advance.
Posted by Michele {Malaysian Meanders} on
I also remember being captivated by the idea of visiting Pompeii when I first read about it as a child. We had a tour guide (suave, older Italian gentleman in a white suit) who showed us around the town revealing the story behind each building as well leading us to some murals which would NOT have been suitable for children's eyes. Luckily, we were still childless at that point. According to him, the "mummified bodies" were created by pouring plaster into air pockets archeologists found inside the hardened ash. The victims had been covered by the falling ash, and then their bodies eventually decayed leaving an empty void. I do think that if someone only has a limited amount of time to visit, Herculaneum (destroyed by the same volcanic explosion) is much more manageable than Pompeii.
Posted by Globalmouse on
That's such a shame you didn't enjoy it - we travelled with our children and loved it. We did have a guide which I think makes all the difference - Pompeii is unbelievably big isn't it? So hard to do on your own. Ours took us to some really interesting houses and public services which was an amazing insight. Hope you get to visit again one day and enjoy it! :)
Posted by Lemures on
The streets are not especially pram-friendly because they are...Roman streets. In a Roman town around 2000 years old. There is minimal signage because the remains there are also that old and it is still a town rather than a museum which explains everything or something that has a lot of interpretation and modern interference. And finally, as you found out, it's a grave after a cataclysmic, fairly unimaginable natural disaster where people lay where they died (yes, covered in plaster, but people all the same). Great place to drop your pants in the open then?!
Posted by Otto Au on
My dream is to visit Italy and NOT encounter ONE person from USA as they are loud and complain about everything

GO HOME YANK!
Posted by Ceribus on
So you're complaining about other people complaining? Brilliant. Thanks for once again proving that unintentional irony is the best kind. Yes, it's too bad that everyone else in the world isn't as open-minded and accepting of differences as you seem to be.
Posted by Sam on
The first time I visited Pompeii was in 1999 and it was a wonderful experience. I was part of a guided group tour and it was extremely informative and interesting, we were only in the ruins for a couple of hours and saw some of the major sites. I returned with my husband in May 2011 and we purchased audio guides which came with a map. The guides and the map would have been more useful had all of the sites mentioned been open to the public, as a result of bad weather and poor maintenance there were many areas and buildings closed to the public while they were being repaired. The map was very helpful and worth paying for if you cannot find a free version. It was hot among the ruins, there is not alot of shade and the sun reflects off all the concrete and stone. We took in water and snacks but my husband still ended up with heat stroke so I recommend taking an umbrella if you're there in the middle of the day. It was still a great place to visit, I had grown up watching documentaries about Pompeii and studying ancient history at school so to see it all in person was a wonderful experience.
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