In its day (600 BC to 79 AD), Pompeii was a thriving port town with a population of about 20,000. Many of us remember learning in school about its sudden and tragic end caused by the unexpected eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It's one of those subjects that sticks in your mind forever.
We started our visit in the grid of central streets, which were filled with what would have been restaurants, shops and fast food places. The latter were especially plentiful to provide quick meals for both travelers and locals, who didn't have space to cook in their small homes. Our Pompeii guide explained that the most common fast food was a stew of fish innards that the locals loved. Hmmmm.
Over at the forum ringed with temples, the biggest structure was dedicated to Jupiter. It was so eerie to see Mount Vesuvius looming in the background.
In rooms that were once part of a fish and produce market, we saw three plaster casts of residents who perished in the eruption. The casts were made by injecting plaster into the hollow spaces below the surface of the ash that formed as the victims' bodies decayed. There was a man, a small child and a dog, each frozen in position as they tried to take cover. They were suffocated almost instantly by ash and toxic gases. This was the most emotional part of the site, giving a sense of how quickly and tragically the disaster overtook its victims.
At the time the city was established, locals had no idea the mountain next door was actually a simmering volcano. There was some earthquake activity in the weeks leading up to the eruption, but nobody knew what was to come.
Although it was a bit eerie to contemplate climbing Vesuvius after seeing the destruction it left, we had already committed to the tour. At the base of the still-active volcano, we boarded a huge specialized Mercedes all-terrain bus/jeep. It was a bouncy 20 minute ride up switchbacks along slopes covered with coniferous shrubs bearing bright yellow flowers.
At the end-of-the road parking area, we got out for the short but steep hike up the dark gravel-ash slopes to the top. Along the way, and of course at the top, were dramatic views all around the valley, across the Bay of Naples and down into the crater.
A park interpreter explained that the mountainside we were standing on was much higher before the eruption; the force of the explosions blew the cliff face away. Lava plugged up most of the volcano's vents, so the next eruption will be even more explosive.
The interpreter pointed out billow of stream coming from a spot in far wall of the crater, which was a bit foreboding. Geophysicists are monitoring seismic activity carefully and claim they'll be able to give 15 day' notice of any future eruptions. Let's hope that's true!
Getting to Pompeii
We visited both Pompeii and Vesuvius on a day trip from Sorrento, organized through our hotel. You can do the same from Naples, or travel to the sites independently via the Circumvesuviana railway. The stop for Pompei Scavi is about halfway between Naples and Sorrento.
The Circumvesuviana was an experience of its own. The line is run by an independent company separate from Trenitalia, the national rail operator of Italy. The cars were old, rickety and definitely not air-conditioned. It was a sticky, sweaty ride in summer.
There was no luggage space, so we had to crowd our suitcases around us in a train packed with a mix of tourists and local commuters. It was a true milk run, stopping every few minutes over the hour-long journey from Naples to Sorrento. Some stops seemed practically deserted, with only a small platform and graffiti-littered signs.
Views along the way included ramshackle homes built close to the tracks, tropical-feeling countryside with more and more palm trees as we continued south and Mount Vesuvius in the distance. We were entertained by a group of busker musicians who performed in the space adjoining 2 cars while the train lurched and swayed. Like I said, it was an experience.
Two books to consider packing for your trip:
Pompeii by Robert Harris is an action-packed historical fiction work. It tells the dramatic story of some of Pompeis citizens in the days leading up to the fateful eruption.
Since you'll likely be riding the train, you'll surely relate to the highly entertaining anecdotes relayed by Tim parks in Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo. As a transplanted Brit, Parks has a unique perspective on how Italian train travel reflects the character of his adopted homeland.