Traveling in the fall has many perks, among which is the ability to see some incredible sights without the crowds. Fresh from a great first night’s sleep in Sorrento, we took an early thirty minute Circumvesuviana train ride to Pompeii arriving there just as the ruins opened for the day. With literally no one else around we stood looking out across the forum with Mount Vesuvius looming about 8km away in the background. Standing here, it was hard not to imagine the power of the eruption of the volcano that buried Pompeii.
Like much of our touring here in Italy, we went the “self serve” route and used a Rick Steves podcast and some other reference materials to guide our visit at the ruins. At one point we were trailing a group of five people whose private guide was recounting the podcast we were listening to word for word.
We started our tour right at the forum, and just off the southwest corner of it was the remains of the basilica which was used as a court of law. It is the oldest known basilica in the Roman world and dates to the end of the second century B.C. You can see the unfinished columns from the time of the eruption. Interestingly, the ones with bricks were a “new technology” and were to be coated with stucco to simulate marble columns once they were completed.
Opposite the basilica is one of the main roads at Pompeii, the via dell’Abbondanza, that cuts across the site from west to east. This was a pedestrian only street and the three large stones at the end were there to keep chariots out of the street.
I think we were still pinching ourselves at this point to be here on such a perfect and quiet morning with the ruins just about all to ourselves. From the other end of the forum, this was the view looking back south with the Temple of Jupiter on the right:
The fish and produce market is located just off the north east edge of the forum. There, as a reminder of the suddenness and violence of the eruption that buried Pompeii, is a plaster cast of one of the victims of the tragedy. This body was covered in ash and volcanic debris and over time it decomposed, leaving a hollow space that archeologists later found and filled with plaster. There are casts like this elsewhere at Pompeii as well as in the archeological museum back in Naples. It’s a haunting reminder of the last moments of this victim’s life in 79 AD:
We next made our way to the main baths at Pompeii. The inside of these baths are fairly well preserved. There were areas for steam baths, warm baths or a cold plunge as well as dressing rooms.
After a short walk we entered one of the sites I was most interested in visiting – the House of the Faun. This is one of the largest private residences in Pompeii and certainly the most beautiful one we visited. Here’s the front entry including a replica of the Dancing Faun:
This residence had lush inner gardens with a view out over Mount Vesuvius in the distance. In addition to the natural beauty, the House of the Faun was home to some impressive pieces of art (many of which are on display at the archeological museum in Naples) that ended up being preserved after the eruption as they were buried in volcanic ash and not exposed to the elements.
One of the real treats in visiting Pompeii is just wandering in and out of residences off of the streets. One that was an unexpected pleasure was the Casa della Caccia Antica. There were a number of well preserved mosaics and larger murals in this first century BC house:
The streets in Pompeii gave an interesting glimpse back in time. They were used for drainage so they have raised stones that let people cross without getting their feet wet. If you look closely at the bottom of the photo below you can see the impressions left by the heavy chariots and how the stone crosswalks were designed to align with the wheel dimensions of the chariots in the town:
One of the more popular places for people to visit in Pompeii (today, and my guess would be back in its heyday as well) was the brothel. Called “Lupanere” in reference to the sex workers of the day having the nickname of “she wolf” (likely due to the sound they made in an attempt to attract their clients), this was a place that had me thinking back to seeing its art in the museum in Naples. This is one of the small rooms in the brothel – not sure the stone bed and pillow would have made for the most comfortable of activities.
One of the more architecturally impressive areas at Pompeii is the large theatre. This accommodated up to 5,000 people for performances. You’ll see some marble seating in the lower area – those were the “expensive seats”. From where I was standing when I took this photo, this was the least expensive third tier of seating for the commoners and possibly the single worst seat in the entire place:
Our last stop in our tour of Pompeii was the gladiator barracks. This is where the gladiators lived and trained, and offered a beautiful view of the large theatre.
Those were the highlights from a couple of hours touring around the ruins at Pompeii. With the midday sun hitting its peak, we sought a bit of shelter and some cold drinks to fortify us for our next stop on this day – traveling to Mount Vesuvius and to hike to its summit. More on that next…