It’s perhaps one of the most famous historical sights in the world. Right up there with the Colosseum in Rome or the Acropolis in Athens but what exactly draws visitors in their millions annually to Pompeii, a ghost town of Vesuvius once it erupted in 79AD?
Everyone has heard variations of what happened that fatal night on 24th August (although the accuracy of this date is in doubt after contradictory facts and evidence on site point to November 23rd as the actual date). Pompeii has been immortalised in several movies and mini series keeping the allure alive for new generations to talk about.
Stepping off the Circumvesuviana train at the Pompei Scavi stop (note that the new town only has 1 ‘i’ at the end differentiating it from the 1st century site that everyone associates as Pompeii), fears of not being able to find the main entrance were unfounded. You just need to follow the hoards of other people but if you’re desperate you can grab a taxi for the short 10 minute stroll to the main entrance plaza.
Pompeii is most popular in the early morning. The site is huge so it gives visitors the time to see everything without rushing and the low level sun in the early morning is the most photogenic time to get the best shots. If you want to make the most of the day here bring lunch and plenty of water with you because facilities onsite are limited to one over priced cafe.
Because of the lack of facilities don’t be shocked if you see people laying out in the once neatly kept gardens of houses that now lie in ruin. You will also come to notice, once the mid day sun is beating down on the back of your neck, that there is precious little shade around so, if you’re prone to burning, wear a polo shirt to cover the neck and bring a hat and some strong sun cream.
Stepping through the ticket booth into a shady area surrounded by towering walls, all foot traffic is funnelled up Via Marina that empties into the gigantic Forum, the main plaza of Pompeii. The site opens up around you and you are almost instantly transported back to the 1st century. The Forum is one of the iconic shots of Pompeii with Vesuvius as a backdrop and if pictures tell a thousand words any shot of The Forum perfectly sums up the site.
You can visit the occasional building that has been opened to the public but, sadly, only 30% of the buildings that were once open in the 1960’s are still accessible today. Pompeii has been open to tourists for over 250 years but now its popularity is the very thing that the site superintendent warns as its biggest threat. A lot of the buildings are closed because they are too fragile to handle the influx of daily visitors.
There are so many streets to wander and explore the whole site can be a little overwhelming, even with a map (which may not be available if you arrive later in the day). Ahead of your visit do a little online searching to find out what you would like to see and plan your day around those main sites. You can easily spend a day or more wandering but most visitors usually spend around the 3 hour mark, sometimes a little more.
Group led tours run throughout the day in various languages so if you want a little peace and quiet on your visit make sure you avoid following these very large groups (probably up to 30 people per tour) who will take over a given site once they arrive. Although, discreetly following a tour group will also take you around the main sights without any pre planning or much map staring.
Furthest from the main entrance is the enormous colosseum like Anfiteatro. The streets surrounding this and the Necropoli (cemetery) are probably some of the shadiest in the whole site so it’s a popular area to shelter from the mid afternoon sun.
If you want to totally avoid the crowds you can also use the quieter second gate into the archeological ruins at Piazza Anfiteatro. Using this entrance first thing in the morning practically guarantees you the best and most uninterrupted views of the Regio II area until others can make their way down from the main entrance. The main entrance is a 10-15 minute stroll from the station, Piazza Anfiteatro is roughly 20-25 minutes in the opposite direction.
As the day draws on though, you find that the anticipation you initially felt cannot be met because so much of Pompeii is closed off to the public and this is its biggest disappointment. Go without a little research and you could be forgiven for thinking you will be seeing numerous houses, courtyards, theatres and villas. The reality is much of it is off limits except the most popular places that are highlighted on every tour map. What there is open to see is no doubt impressive, it can’t fail to be, but bear in mind the choice is more limited than you may first realise.
The site is also not friendly to those with mobility issues. The pathways are mostly not that level and, as the streets formed the open air sewer system, the curbs are very high to allow the passing of all the effluent without it getting on ones toes.
The more compact layout of Herculaneum would be more beneficial if you can’t walk for long periods without sitting or can’t stay out in the sun for too long. Aside from the main entrance plaza and the tree lined routes around the Anfiteatro even finding shaded ground for a picnic around the usual lunch hours can prove problematic.
<h2>Pompeii’s Top Sights</h2>
Click on the pins for more information on the top sights you should visit.
Our fascination with Pompeii lies with the people, or rather the bleak and painful way they exited this mortal plain. Walking around this site you first get a view of how they lived while all around there is a familiarity of death. Over 1100 remains have been discovered so far in the city and roughly 100 have been preserved as casts. The hardened ash preserving the shape of their bodies while the soft tissue decayed naturally.
The people of Hercualneum didn’t stand a chance when the pyroclastic surge incinerated everything in its path. Their deaths were almost instantaneous while the fate of the people of Pompeii however was not nearly as kind. Fine ash and pumice fell and as the inhabitants breathed it in, turning it to cement around their internal organs, killing them slowly as they tried to flee.
The ash has also preserved, with remarkable detail, the clothing some victims were wearing, even folds in the skin. This level of detail, although detached in the form of a cast is instantly more recognisable to us as a human being than a skeleton thus instantly more relatable. We feel like we could have been here walking in their steps then as we are now.
Pompeii does have its faults; lack of infrastructure for a site of its popularity being the main reason for peoples complaints but thats exactly what makes it special. It looks today much the same as it would have nearly 2000 years ago and this is exactly how it should stay.
Should you visit Pompeii? Absolutely! Visiting history like this, living it, experiencing it, breathing it is far more valuable than learning it from a textbook. Pompeii isn’t the beginning or the end of the Vesuvius eruption, it is a very large part of it but there are other sites you can and should see. Sites just as worthy of your time and money and with more stories to tell. While much of Pompeii is off limits, the fact you can pretty much stroll the streets at your leisure is a breath of fresh air for museums these days. Doorways offer tantalising glimpses into the past and ongoing preservation efforts are opening up more of the site but only when it is ready to cope with the influx and thats a good thing because it means Pompeii will be here for many more centuries to come.