Salerno was the port city of call. But today, we had an excursion to Pompeii. This was a real treat for us, as we had always planned to go to Pompeii at some stage, not realising that we would be able to as part of our cruise. So we booked in for the excursion. It cost us about $135 Euros for the 3 of us. It’s always tricky booking excursions from cruise ships, because often you know you are paying too much, and sometimes you get very little for it. In this instance, we decided to go ahead. The main reason is that it would save us from making a separate trip to Pompeii. In addition, this trip included a guided walking tour and transport to and from Pompeii.
Our alternative excursion would have been a trip to the Amalfi Coast. The reasons of “really beautiful” and “people like Brad Pitt go to the Amalfi Coast for their holidays” just didn’t cut it with a ten-year old.
To be honest, I think our choice of excursion was one of the best tours the cruise ship had on offer. Our guide, who provided talks in French and English, was very knowledgeable, and ran a running commentary the minute the coach started moving. He pointed out interesting sights of interest, including the start of the Amalfi Coast, churches and the ceramic factory that is well known in the region.
Pompeii has had a long history in antiquity, before its destruction in AD79. It was built on top on an ancient lava flow, which indicates that Mt Vesuvius had been active a long time before the city of Pompeii existed. Phoenicians, Greek, Etruscans, and Romans all had a role to play in its history. To find out more, follow this link to the Wikipedia site.
Pompeii was always a bit of a myth to me. I’d always heard about how well preserved the structures were, but never having seen any pictures of Roman ruins before, it was hard to imagine how it could look. Having travelled to the Roman Forum in Rome last year, I have to say Pompeii is well preserved. Whilst the upper stories of many buildings did not survive, you can still see many of the walls at street level, and the street itself. It is not hard to imagine a bustling towns, with people moving about the place.
As we walked from the main entrance, we walked around the fortification wall. You see arches in the walls that formed foundations to other building structures. It reminded me so much of the Roman Forum. Our guide took us through a large porticoed quandrangle, past a couple of theatres. Theatres were only for the men. And they also had special theatres for drama/tragedy, which were only for the educated. This was because in those days, drama/tragedy used a lot of imagery relating to the gods etc, that only the educated would understand.
We stepped away from the drama theatre into a main street. You can tell it is a main street because it was much wider. You can see the street up and down the hill, many side streets, remnants of doorways to shop houses and pavement. One shop even had a large “brick box” with holes in the middle. It was a stove. The street itself is quite a step down from the pavement. The reason for this is quite simple. The Romans used to wash the street. From the top of the hill, they would throw water down the hill to wash the rubbish down the street. So the street was a river of water. So that pedestrians could cross the road, they put these rectangular shaped stones across the street, as stepping stones. Your first pedestrian crossing! In the road itself, you can see grooves cut into the stone from the wheels of carts being pulled up and down the street.
The stones for the roads were made of granite, quarried from around Mt Vesuvius. Experts now believe that Mt Vesuvius was always an active volcano, and the destruction of Pompeii was not its first. In fact, there had been a major earthquake about 12 years earlier that had destroyed major buildings. Many were in the process of being completed when the destruction of Pompeii occurred. Contrary to some beliefs, Pompeii was not overcome by lava flow. If it had been, the town would have simply been destroyed. Pompeii was covered in a deep layer of ash, and this is what preserved many of its features. The weight of the ash caused many roofs to collapse, hence these are missing, but other than that, the town is well-preserved. The tallest building in Pompeii was about 5 storeys.
Buildings tended to have a front gate to a courtyard which opened to a villa at the back, with shops on either side of the gate. Shops had wooden sliding doors guided by the grooves in the stonework. It’s quite interesting standing in the doorway, and transporting yourself back 2000 years. Imagine colours, smells and people, rather than the brown sandy stonework currently left.
Buildings also had plaques to denote the nature of the building and the services it provided. These plaques told visitors whether they were houses of disrepute, or not. Given that Pompeii was a port town, sailors coming back from sea would be rather preoccupied with one thing. And so was our guide. We visited the local brothel. It wasn’t very large, or about 5 rooms, with a toilet. But it had erotic paintings on the wall to … I suppose, inspire. Each room was ready-made, with a stone bed and stone pillow. I suppose all they needed to do was just wash it down, no need for sheets. Very practical, I must say. Not only were there markings on the wall of the building, but there were also markings on the street, to guide the new visitor to the local brothel. You can find this on the streets denoted by a phallic symbol. Outside the brothel were several restaurants/shops, so people could get some food after their activities.
I read that Pompeii had many erotic paintings, some of which were apparently re-buried after it’s discovery due to its lurid nature. Apparently, some of these are under lock and key, and visitors under 18 years old need written consent from their guardians to view the material.
One building that did not collapse was the bath house. The reason for this was the curved structure of the roof, built to retain the heat of the water to the bath house, it also preserved it. It still amazes me how the Romans conquered water. Able to heat it, or cool it for the various hot pools and cold pools. The bath house was relatively large and extremely decorated. But this was for the men. The bath house for women was down the road, tiny of about one room and looked like a toilet. It was very stuffy due to the large numbers of visitors queuing to get in or out.
We then made our way to the Forum, a large area which temples and administrative buildings which formed the heart of Pompeii. You can just imagine what a beautiful site this must have been. All buildings would have been covered with marble, and the streets paved with marble also. I’m sure it would have gleamed white against the aqua blue sky, with Mt Vesuvius in the background. It is an impressive sight.
Plaster casts of some of the victims of Pompeii are also on display. It’s very sobering to see them now, some 2000 years later, curled up in agony, terror etched on their faces. To me, I think this is the reality of Pompeii. These are the details that tell you this was a real city. Not the temples or amphitheatres or the colosseums. Rather it is the plaster casts, the streets, the shop houses, the stoves, the bath houses and the brothels. The reality of the everyday.