Ever since my third grade teacher, a proud descendant of Italian immigrants, told me the story of Pompeii and its destruction by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, I always wanted to see the ruins myself. Before taking this recent trip to Southern Italy, I had been to Italy twice, but always wished I had made it further south than Rome to see this legendary place. Finally, I had my chance!
Having arrived in Naples the night before, Del and I planned what turned out to be an overly ambitious day. We had hoped to climb Mount Vesuvius, tour the ruins of Pompeii and make it back to Naples to see the National Archealogy Museum of Naples with its Secret Chamber; however, there was only enough time for the first two. Nevertheless, each experience was worthwhile.
We took a taxi from our hotel, the Royal Continental Hotel of Naples, to the Circumvesuviana train station. Word of advice, always check with your hotel or Airbnb host what the average cab fare should be. Naples taxi drivers seemed especially adept at ripping tourists off and taking them for wild rides. Don’t accept the initial quoted fare. It’s probably much lower.
The Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii is full of tourists but it is also the local commuter train and unfortunately stops in every suburb within the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It’s a cheap option, but if you have the means, you might want to hire a car from Naples instead.
The Pompeii ruins are located at the Pompeii/Scavi (ruins) stop. Once we arrived at the station, we decided whether to start with the trip up to Mount Vesuvius or tour the ruins. We decided to ascend the volcano first. Outside the train station the EAV Bus takes tourists on a 45 minute ride up a long winding road to the Vesuvius National Park entrance near the summit. From there, you purchase an entrance ticket and walk up the edge of the mountain to the crater.
The views from the summit are breathtaking. You can see Naples and its environs to the west, the other towns along the Bay of Naples, including Pompeii and Herculaneum below and Sorrento off to the east.
Clear skies allowed us to see far off into the distance. I thought it was going to be chilly at the top of the volcano, but the temperature did not drop too much. The mildly strenuous climb up to the crater also helped keep us warm.
It was somewhat eerie looking down into the volcano, which, other than evidence of igneous rocks, gave no indication of the violent eruption that took place there nearly two millennia ago. The last time Vesuvius erupted was 1944. Intrepid locals have built homes all along the slopes of the legendary volcano, weighing the risk of another eruption against the splendid views from there.
The only surviving eyewitness account of the famous 79 C.E. eruption was that of Pliny the Younger who recounted the events, including the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, in his letter to Tacitus. You can read a translation of the letter here . Vesuvius buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash. Archeologists have created plaster body casts of the volcano’s victims, capturing them at this terrifying moment.
After arriving back in Pompeii, we stopped at a sandwich stand for a late lunch. It was already late afternoon by the time we entered the Archeological Park of Pompeii. This seemed to be an ideal time to visit because the temperature was not too hot and there were fewer crowds of tourists (much fewer tour groups). Unfortunately, some of the structures were only open during the morning. However, the park is massive and it took us nearly three hours to cover the major points of interest.
The visit to the ruins of Pompeii met my expectations. Having been to Rome before and toured its ancient ruins, I was struck by how even better preserved the Pompeii was, the amphitheaters, the streets, the temples, the baths, the houses.
The walls of the ancient residences still displayed their red and gold paint and some even bear frescoes, still intact after all this time. Some of the frescoes are of prurient interest. In one of the largest houses of the city, a depiction of Priapus greets visitors at the door.
Another house, the Casa Del Poetica Tragico, greets visitors with tile work including what is probably the earliest known “Beware of Dog” signs.
Pompeii was very advanced for its times and even developed underground plumbing (although the pipes they decided to use were lead.
It was springtime and there were plenty of beautiful flowers throughout the ruins. What struck me was the serene beauty of this place combined with the horror that people must have experienced on that day in 79 CE. Even shortly after our visit, researchers discovered a horse that had been saddled up, likely in an attempt to escape the pyroclastic flows from the volcano as well as a man who had managed to escape the city but had his head crushed by a boulder cast from the mountain.
Unfortunately because it was so late, we did not have time to see the Archeology Museum in Naples and the next day we had to move on to Capri. Doing Pompeii and Vesuvius definitely occupies the better part of a day.
Visiting Pompeii and Vesuvius inspired to learn more about the advanced civilization of the Roman Empire, what life was like for people who lived back then, as well as the fearsome power of volcanoes. Pompeii and Vesuvius teaches us much about human civilization as well as the power of nature.