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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.