Pompeii Epiphany

Plaster cast of a Pompeii man overtaken by the lava.
Plaster cast of a Pompeii man overtaken by the lava.

Visiting Pompeii changed my life.

Truly. I was standing outside the remains of a once-gracious Roman villa, surrounded by the frayed trappings of the city famously frozen in time, when it hit me.

“We have got to redo the bathrooms.”

Because, friends, that 2,000-year-old house, the one that had been rocked by earthquake around AD62 and then buried by the effluvium of Mt. Vesuvius in AD79, had a better-looking floor (intricately set black-and-white marble tiles) than our crappy, faux-wood and warped vinyl specimens back home in Berkeley.

Two months later, after parting with the shell and albumen of our nest egg, putting up with a good deal of noise and dust, politely negotiating the ensuing leak in the living room ceiling followed by a bit of Patch-n-Paint action by yours truly, our new bathroom floors are a vision of black-and-white ceramic.

Will Pompeii have the same electrifying effect on you, dear traveler? Who knows. But here are some tips on how to get there, how to get around and what not to miss. And if you want a bit more historical information, here’s a travel story I wrote about my visit with bonus oblique reference to my being floored by the floors.

YOU MUST TAKE THE C TRAIN … Pompeii is midway between Sorrento and Naples, the two most likely spots you’ll be staying. You hop on the Circumvesuviana train and a ride of 30 minutes or so will get you to the Pompei Scavi stop which is next to a main entrance. (Ancient Pompeii has two “i’s”; modern Pompei has one, in case you’re wondering.) Admission is 11 euros; for 20 euros you can get a three-day pass to Pompeii and four other excavation sites, the best known being the nearby seaside town of Herculaneum. Hours are 8:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.from April through October. Closed Christmas, New Year’s and — you may not be expecting this — May 1.

GUIDE GUIDE: Listen, if you absolutely loathe the idea of traipsing around behind a guide holding up a bandanna on a stick, I understand. But be aware that Pompeii is not very well-signed and is quite large, 163 acres, so you may find yourself wandering in circles or staring at a semi-ruined building for ages trying to figure out if this is THE brothel or just a place where friendly folks may have occasionally done the no-pants dance. If you’re going the guide route, you can book before you go; here’s a link to some options. You can pick up a tour at the gate, but ask how many are in the group and if it’s strictly in English or bilingual before you join. An OK compromise is to go with a really good guide book and/or rent one of the audio tour setups at the gate, they’re around 5 euros. Beware unauthorized guides floating around the site. You can tell the real deal by their prominently displayed license from the Region Campania.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR: Heels, flip flops, shoes that are in any way uncomfortable. Just break down and pull out your ugly hikers. You’ll thank yourself after you walk up the umpteenth cobblestone alley. Think layers, including a shower-proof one in winter. In summer, light, white, long-sleeved tops and a big hat. I’m telling you, you don’t go to Pompeii to look stylish. Good news is with that many tourists in one spot you have to work pretty hard at being worst-dressed.

SUSTENANCE: In ancient times, Pompeii had a tavern on just about every corner. Modern Pompeii, not so much. There’s one Autogrill cafeteria near the Forum. Panini are OK and they sell alcohol, blessed, blessed alcohol. I asked for my Italian sightseeing fuel-of-choice, Aperol spritz. They didn’t have that but the barman, seeing I was clearly one of the needy, gave me some other type bitters-soda drink and it was AWESOME. So, practice your needy face.

DON’T MISS: To be honest, the amphitheatre and arena didn’t do that much for me. But here are some of my top spots in no particular order.

The Forum – majestic, pillar-lined area where most business was conducted

Villa of Mysteries – famous for its frisky frescoes including a guy right out of a Viagra-gone-wrong scenario

Lupanare (brothel) – more racy pix, this time serving as a kind of menu advertising what was once on offer

Stabian Baths: Quite well preserved with interesting wall carvings and a place to imagine the daily lives of 2,000 years past.

Bakery: Wood-burning oven, stones to grind wheat, get this place licensed and it could beat the pants off the Autogrill.

THE LITTLE THINGS: Along with the floors, I liked the marks in the roadway left by the steel wheels of chariots and the big crossing stones at corners to keep Romans from getting their sandals wet. Actually, it turns out the Romans were as keen as I am on plumbing, although a bit more industrious about it and had a pretty nifty water system. Here’s some more from the official site on that.

BUT WHAT ABOUT DEAD PEOPLE? WILL I SEE DEAD PEOPLE?: I have a confession to make here. Growing up and reading dramatic accounts of how Pompeii was preserved in ash at the moment of its extinction I somehow had the idea that the corpses were strewn all over town doing whatever they were doing in the final moments. In fact, most of the artifacts and remains have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which is worth a visit. There are a few corpses — actually plaster casts made from the hollows in the ash left by the decomposed bodies — left on the site and most of them can be found in a glass case in the Garden of the Fugitives. All these years later they are a powerful and sobering sight.

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