On this, our fourth trip to Italy, we started our planning with a mission: to finally make it to the city of Pompeii. The city was famously destroyed in the aftermath of an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It was lost, buried under massive amounts of dust and debris, until explorers rediscovered the site in 1748.
So it was high time we paid it a visit.
As we started planning our trip, we found a tour with Walks of Italy (our favorite guides in Italy) that would take us from Rome to Pompeii and Positano and back — all in just one day. We knew it’d be a long day, but it would help us check two must-see areas off of our list (and get us to our favorite place — Florence — for the majority of the trip).
So that’s how we ended up flying into Rome, passing out for a long jet-lag-inspired nap that nearly ran right into the next morning, and then meeting our tour bus for the big trip south. It was a lengthy drive, complete with a visit to an Italian rest stop, but it delivered us as close to the entrance of Pompeii as you could get in a vehicle.
We walked right in and found the city’s famous death casts waiting for us on display. When explorers and archaeologists found empty pockets in the volcanic debris, they’d pour plaster of Paris into the openings to create casts of the organic matter that once filled the space. These famous casts show the final moments of many of the 2,000 people who remained in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The detail is stunning; you can easily see the drape of clothing and straps of sandals.
Next our guide — who was once an archaeologist working on the site — took us into the ancient city. Our first stop was Pompeii’s amphitheater, basically a small version of Rome’s Colosseum. The seating was separated into tiers to keep the wealthy and less fortunate residents from mingling. The upper tier was accessed using a staircase on the outside of the structure.
We walked down the street, noting the ruts left by heavy cart traffic and stepping across stone crosswalks placed so pedestrians wouldn’t have to step down into the filth just off the curb. We saw homes laid out with shallow pools in their entryways and beautiful gardens painted on their back walls to create the illusion of more open space. We also saw Pompeii’s fast food restaurants, which served food out of large jars built right into their marble-tiled counters. And, yes, we saw one of its infamous brothels complete with paintings that apparently served as point-to-order menus.
After winding our way down the city’s main thoroughfare, we found ourselves in the city’s forum. The wide open space has a view all the way to the volcano that buried and preserved it. Temples and municipal buildings define its edges.
We could have spent at least a full day in Pompeii — probably several — and been left wanting more. Two hours was an introduction, and a good one, but there’s only so much you can do in the span of a couple of hours. Amanda had done her homework, reading Mary Beard’s “The Fires of Vesuvius” before the trip began. It helped fill in more detail and satisfy our curiosity about the city we had waited so long to see.