79 AD, a huge volcano erupts in Roman Campania, Italy. This cataclysmic event buries two medium-sized cities, ending more than a thousand lives and destroying thousands more, leaving them with nothing. Since then, the volcano has not ceased its activity, perpetually threatening the lives of the people who live in its shadow. This volcano is called Mount Vesuvius, and the most famous city it destroyed was called Pompeii.
The remaining population fled the area after the catastrophe, and the ancient Pompeii was promptly forgotten, buried as it was under several feet of ashes and pumice. The historic archeological site of the city was rediscovered, by chance, in 1748 only. That is almost 1 670 years after the eruption, and ten years after the rediscovery of the nearest town, Herculaneum (which contains ruins just as beautiful, if not more so…).
People kept digging, kept exploring and discovering ever since. In fact, they still do. Pompeii, along with being one of the most popular destinations for tourists all around the world, remains an effervescent center of archeology and research. Ever-passionate, experts there work all year long to help understand more of the Roman way of life, and it is a fascinating process to witness : visiting one year and not understanding something, then returning three or four years later and having the pleasure to realise it has been explained in the meantime…
The city never ceases to astonish, in more than one way. A vivid remnant of a time long past, Pompeii has the potential to make the tourist feel as if they had stumbled on a film set by mistake. Through the silhouettes of the numerous pine-trees nearby, you will suddenly set foot in an ancient monument too big for the eye to see it as a whole.
Take the time to wander around the streets : do not rush to the most famous of sights and disregard the rest. Pompeii holds some treasures for sure, but the main attraction should remain the wonderful atmosphere of the city. It is almost too easy to imagine suddenly seeing Romans calmly walking down the Via della Fortuna.
During this unique experience, do not miss the occasion to enter the now-quiet amphitheatre. You will find no gladiators fighting to the death there, and the rows of seats, once made of stone, have now almost entirely disappeared to display instead a gentle slope of thick grass. But the setting remains, as well as many passageways that will lead you directly to the arena ; the architecture of the whole place is still the same, and the outer-walls look nothing like ruins.
Take a stroll through the smaller streets and discover the thermae in all their magnificence. Drink in the carefully sculpted decorations, carvings and bas-reliefs. Make sure you know of the hypocaust system and try and make out the differences between the hot, tepid and cold baths.
On a more mystic note, make plans to visit the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries). Keep it for the very end of your stay, as a treat ; it must be the most beautifully decorated building you can find in Pompeii. The house sits a bit outside the city, North-West of the main streets, and you must cross the Necropolis to get there. The Villa is maybe the most famous part of Pompeii, with good reason : the frescoes that cover its walls are incredibly well preserved, as well as the whole structure of it all. A true masterpiece, and one that still retains numerous secrets that archeologists can only attempt to explain.
If you can, conclude your visit of Pompeii at twilight : from the Villa dei Misteri which you can exit via a slightly elevated hill, you will then be able to see an orange, blazing sun setting down on the modern Pompei. After such a visit to Ancient Times, it will be a sight to behold, for sure.
-Viviane Jénoc (Guest)