A visit to Pompeii is a popular shore excursion for any cruise line that stops in Naples, Italy as it is not far distant from the port.* For background, Pompeii was a Roman city that was decimated in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It was completely buried and largely preserved in volcanic ash, “discovered” in 1594, and archaeological digs began in 1748 and continue to this day. A large part of Region V is yet to be uncovered.
Pompeii was a “resort” city containing approximately fifteen thousand residents. Many of the residents and rich Roman vacationers had fled the city fifteen years prior due to a massive earthquake. More left prior to the eruption as volcanic rumbles gave troubling signs a day before. People did not realise the mountain was a dangerous volcano, but memory of the earlier earthquake was still fresh in their minds so they feared another. Hence the number of body impressions found so far are in the hundreds rather than thousands.
Whether a history buff or not, any visitor to the site will still be impressed. A few things should be kept in mind however.
Cobbled alley way: all the streets are cobbled
Tourists in the Forum
Example of the “relatively new” street names
What To Expect
First, if you can, and this is not always possible if you are in the area only for less than a day, avoid any national holidays when the admission might be free. There are crowds every day which are not so overwhelming due to the size of the site but when the doors are open to all, the narrow streets and accessible buildings are too crowded to be enjoyable. This happened to the author. Crowds were 4 or 5 rows of spectators deep at the original granaries on the Forum (main square) where artifacts and some famous plaster casts of victims are on display (behind bars) so it was difficult to see anything! It can be very disappointing if this is your only visit of a lifetime.
Second, take a selfie stick. If you are stuck in the back of a crowd the added height can aid in taking photos above heads. Plus it can be a great aid to video memories as you walk about the site.
The city is in ruins so do not expect complete grand structures. There are a few restored buildings but mostly it is half walls and no roofs. Some gardens and buildings you can enter but many are behind metal bars or ropes.
A knowledgeable guide is invaluable. The site is huge, 170 acres, and full of streets and alleys which could very much begin to look all the same. Originally the streets were not named. To keep the site manageable for archeologists, the city was divided into nine Regions, and these sub-divided into Insulates so each structure could be individually identified. Streets were also named at that time as well. There is so much you can miss by not either knowing what you are seeing, missing interesting points, or not knowing the relevant background history.
You should wear comfortable walking shoes (plus weather appropriate clothing, hat, sunglasses, etc). The streets are cobble-stoned and have raised stones at intersections to keep the original citizens’ feet dry when crossing from sidewalk to sidewalk during rain floods.
If possible, you should opt for longer visit or excursion times. One can barely skim the surface in four hours. There is no sense going there with less time than that except to say you’ve been. A six-to-eight-hour visit would be more ideal.
Cast of a Pompeii citizen who died in the eruption
One of many public fountains. Only the rich had private water access.
Adding a new meaning to the words “street sign”.
Do not miss the following in your visit:
The Forum (or central square). It is surrounded on three sides with remains (columns) of the covered walkways used to protect citizens from the elements. Off one side of this massive square are the granaries, original public lavatories, and the Macellum (shops, markets) which give glimpses of the many artefacts (urns, dishware, etc) and some plaster casts of bodies uncovered. No “bodies” were found but exact impressions or hollows were discovered in the sediment of the person who died there and which, when filled with plaster of paris, gives a relatively exact statue. There are also the ruins of various official buildings off the square such as the Basilica containing the law courts, and the Eumachia which was a massive priestess-sponsored building.
The Via dell’ Abbondanza, the main street with shops and public fountains. Watch for the “cafes” which have what appear to be stone counters with bowled depressions on top for the food. Throughout the city you will also find the ruins of bakeries, laundries, and dye shops besides private houses, villas, shops and administrative offices.
The brothel. This is the official one as there were many unofficial ones. This building has been restored and you can enter to view the risqué frescos, and the “beds” which are like small stone benches and appear extremely uncomfortable for any purpose. Watch out also out and about on the streets for phallic symbols on walls and in the actual streets themselves that once pointed the way to a local brothel.
Frescos are still brightly colored after all this time
This structure indicates a cafe was here.
The baths (there are three) with various rooms: the men’s change room (apodyterium); the vaulted and decorated cold bath (frigidarium); the sauna (tepidarium) which had only mild heat; and the main hot room (caldarium). It had hollow walls and was heated by a furnace under the floor.
The mosaics. See the “guard dog” at the House of the Tragic Poet. There are other inaccessible houses so peer in the passing doorways and you will often see a mosaic floor in the vestibule. See also the floor in the House of the Faun (open to the public) celebrating a victory of Alexander the Great. This villa has a beautiful garden as well.
The frescos. They are everywhere but at the House of Vitti (restored after WWII), they are exceptionally lovely.
The amphitheatre, one of the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatres. Climb to the top for a great view.
The casts of victims’ bodies. You can see a few as mentioned in the Forum but many more are on display (behind bars) at the House of M.Fabius Rufus.
Street scene of a house or shop in ruins
Amphitheatre (Image: Bigstock)
Booking Your Visit
There is so much to see that everyone will come away with their own favorite memory. It would be more satisfying to visit this historic site on a custom tour of Italy as you can linger longer or, even with the time restrictions, be sure to book this shore excursion if dropping by Naples on a cruise. Your travel expert can help you plan and book your visit to this oldest archaeological site in the world.
*Another popular excursion is to the island of Capri.