Nearly everyone has heard of Pompeii, the Roman city that was buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and subsequently preserved. It is an astounding archaeological windfall; a city of 20,000 people, uniformly preserved on the same day, and left undisturbed until the modern era. When I discovered that we were anchoring off of Sorrento, a thirty five minute train ride from Pompeii (and within sight of mighty Vesuvius) I had to go see the city.
Sorrento is located near the end of a peninsula to the south of Napoli and Vesuvius. Like most cities in this part of the world, it was originally settled by the Phoenicians. The city sits on a sheer cliff above the water that is broken only by a narrow ravine coming down from the mountains. A road winds up through several switchbacks to the main plaza of the city, which stretches from one side of the ravine to the other. Underneath it has been filled with buildings, a mishmash of masonry from different centuries that results in a number of clubs below street level that are accessible on by narrow iron staircases clinging to the side of the cliff.
The city itself is an upscale collection of plastered buildings in various pastel shades. Sorrento has the appearance of a refuge for those who enjoy a bit of peace and quiet (and have to money to go find it). We had some of the best food of my life later that evening . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The easiest way to get around in this region is a narrow gauge railway called the Circumvesuviana. A variety of lines operate out of Napoli, and Sorrento is one of the three final stops. It was pouring rain when I left the ship, and by the time I found the station I was soaked through to the skin – never before have I missed my camino gear quite so much (it isn’t that my street shoes leak so much as they suck the water in and distribute it amongst my toes as equally as possible). But I didn’t know when I’d have another chance to see Pompeii, and figuring that I couldn’t really get much wetter anyway I decided to push on.
The Circumvesuviana is an Italian railroad in the three most important senses of the term – it’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s covered in graffiti. A luxury travel experience it was not, but two euros and ten cents bought me a plastic bucket seat to Pompeii that got there a lot faster than any bus would have. The tunnels and bridges seemed to be competing with one another to see who could occupy the greatest amount of trackage. The terrain was so rough that one station was located literally in midair, on an arched bridge high over a valley floor, while another was located midway through a tunnel like a subway. We sped through it all – groves of orange trees with their black tarpaulins dripping in the rain, old castles built of red brick, and churches of pale stucco with laundry hanging to dry under corrugated awnings.
The station for the Pompeii ruins (Pompeii Scavi, the modern city is spelled with only one “i”) left me practically on the doorstep of the archaeological site. The modern city surrounds the ruins, but as nearly the entire Roman city is still intact the ruins are so large as to make one forget that there are real buildings with real people living in them only a short distance away. After renting an audioguide (free admission due to national culture week!) I made my way past the suburban bathing complex (incomplete at the time of the eruption) and through the city walls into Pompeii.
Pompeii requires one to readjust their concept of visiting an archaeological site. In most cases, such a site may be a building or two, or a city block, where three or four layers of masonry are all that’s left of the various buildings (which have then been built over time and time again in the two thousand years since). Usually I’m left squinting at the displays, looking back and forth between the ruins and the sketches trying to figure out just exactly which part of the fishery I’m standing in. Barcelona has a site much like this near the old cathedral – underground, a block of the old roman city has been unearthed, but as the different centuries are all muddled together the foundation of a church may also be the corner of a bakery, built from the reused materials of the first city wall. It can be a bit like seeing in four dimensions at once.
Pompeii is not at all like that. When I stepped through the gate, I found myself on a street, lined on either side with buildings, stretching out towards the forum. There was a sidewalk on both sides, and places where pedestrians could cross without going all the way down into the street by way of huge stepping stones (the gaps between them allowed chariots to pass through). The tops of most of the buildings were missing, of course, as the pyroclastic flow had swept them away, but in some of the lower parts of the city the buildings had intact second stories as well.
And there is no prescribed path that visitors must follow – the whole city is there, just waiting to be explored. I found myself free to wander as I wanted, and that’s what I did – down side streets, through the back entrances of homes, and around interior gardens (the city was so well preserved that plaster casts were taken of the petrified plant roots to determine what types of trees and shrubs had been used, and in many cases Pompeii has been replanted with the modern equivalents). Most buildings were brick or stone, covered in plaster that was then decorated. Bits and pieces of paintings have survived – a line of red trim, a plaster cornice. One villa, the home of a wine merchant, was filled with huge clay jars used to store his product (the vineyard behind it has been replanted and produces a wine known today as Villa del Misterioso).
The baths were particularly notable. Arranged around a central park, there were separate facilities for men and women on either side of a set of furnaces. The changing rooms had high barrel vaults, covered in plaster and decorated with the images of weapons, gods, and nature, all in relief set into octagonal panels (and still legible after two thousand years!). The Roman baths consisted of three different rooms – a frigidarium, with cold water; a tepidarium, with lukewarm water and a caledarium, with the hottest water. The latter two received heat from the furnaces via a series of under floor channels, made visible now in the ruins. Hot gasses from the fires passed through these channels under the floor, warming the water and the air above it. It’s a clever arrangement, really, much like the in-floor heating that is becoming popular in modern architecture.
The baths also had mostly intact roofing, meaning that the more delicate internal features had remained intact (particularly on the women’s side). The floors of the baths were covered in diamond patterned mosaics, laid in grout over the larger flat stones that made up the false floor. One marble basin in particular looked like it was brand new – the partially intact plaster ceiling still had a pattern of the stars painted on it.
The Roman equivalents of fast food restaurants were visible along the street, too. These were storefronts, usually on the corner, with a counter of garish stones and a series of small hollows where food was cooked. Fountains were usually nearby, as well, some of them repaired (with modern, non-leaded pipes) for tourists to drink from.
The amphitheater and sports grounds were interesting as well for the usual collection of two thousand year old graffiti (that I was first introduced to at the Colosseum in Rome). Pictures of ships, puzzle games scratched into the rock, curses directed to the politicians of the day . . . some things really do not change very much from one generation to the next.
In summary, Pompeii is stunning not just because of its size, but because of the uniformity of the time period that it captures. It is incredibly rare that we get more than the smallest snapshot of a day in the life of a human being from two thousand years ago, while Pompeii may be a snapshot of a very BAD day, it remains one of the most compelling examples of an abstract history made concrete that I have ever visited.