Pompeii has always been on my bucket list, and though I have visited Ostia Antica and was impressed and entertained, those ruins just didn’t have the same cachet as the world’s most famous volcano victim; I wasn’t going to miss Pompeii on this trip to Italy.
So I did my due diligence before I left, went online to buy tickets for my day-trip from Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale, thoroughly researched the mechanics of getting myself from Naples to Pompeii on the romantically named Circumvesuviana (the privately owned and run local rail service for the Naples region that goes “around Vesuvius”) and studied to try and maximize the day that I allotted to Pompeii.
I was at Termini station in plenty of time to scarf down a quick coffee and cornetto before boarding the 7:30AM Frecciarossa, the train that slices through Lazio and Campania at speeds of around one hundred seventy-five miles per hour and provides a little more than an hour’s worth of hills crowned with medieval villages and strung with high stone walls, coy, blue glimpses of the Mediterranean and the bay, and the looming peak of Vesuvius as you race toward Naples. If you didn’t already know, the view from either side of the train makes it clear that Italy is God’s favorite child, blessed with more than its share of beauty.
That little reverie was interrupted on arrival at Napoli Centrale, loud and crowded at 8:45AM on Sunday morning, where I was literally swept down the escalator to the station’s lower level to the Circumvesuviana, my fantasy of a quaint, wood-paneled train redolent of the Grand Tour destroyed as I was forced to elbow my way into the middle of a crowded, graffiti-covered carriage and stand with both arms over my head for the nearly forty-minute ride during which I didn’t get pinched, groped or pick-pocketed. It is so hard being middle-aged.
About twelve stops and forty minutes later, I – along with most of the other travelers on the train – disembarked at Pompeii Scavi, and I found that Fortuna was with me, as the first Sunday of each month is known as DomenicalMuseo, which means that entrance to all museums and State-run monuments is free for everyone. It also meant that the crowds were truly enormous, which was not going to interfere with my excitement at finally experiencing something that I had been anticipating for so long, and I walked up through the Porta Marina and into Pompeii.
I wish I had more words, or better words. So many people have been to Pompeii that I won’t labor over the history or the layout of the city or the excavations. I gave myself a day to experience it. I could have taken several days with no lack of things to learn and see.
The city was larger than I had imagined; the two-thirds that have been excavated stretch over what they say is 163 acres. Vesuvius constantly looms, in the mind and in the distance, though likely quite reduced in size from the mountain that the ancients would have known, since a large part of it buried the city up to twenty feet deep.
Pompeii is a wonderfully tactile spot to visit; being able to run my hand along rough brick walls or flatten my palm against what oddly cool marble I could find helped to cement the place more firmly in my memory. Water is still piped through some of the ancient city’s original fountains and out of decorative brass taps to succor sweaty tourists like me. The water, by the way, is very cool and tastes very good.
I walked a great deal and took a lot of pictures. I sat in the shade and ate a hot, paper-wrapped mozzarella di buffala sandwich for lunch – it was very good, even the food from the cafeteria in Italy somehow tastes better than ours – before leaning back against the ancient stone wall to rest, sated and a little sleepy in the heat.
The temperature hovered around ninety degrees; the sky was very blue and there were very few clouds. I couldn’t help wondering whether this day in June was very much like the August day nearly two thousand years ago when everything suddenly ended for the city.
I spent the entire day at Pompeii, contentedly wandering through the narrow streets, stopping to splash my face from one of the fountains or enter courtyards and houses, lured in by the glimpse through a broken wall or ragged doorway of a mural or a cool, shady spot, only dragging my weary, satisfied carcass toward the train station and back to Naples for dinner and the trip home to Rome when rain threatened in the very late afternoon.
Although I had initially thought to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum that Sunday, I am glad that I didn’t. I knew that I needed to save something for the next time, since I know that I will go back. The experience was worth the time and effort, worth the heat and the crowds; while there may be better, more well-preserved sites, there is still only one Pompeii.