Visiting Ancient Pompeii
The sun was beating down on the hoards of people waiting to get through the gates, but luckily our small group had found some shade under a tree. As we waited out the unexpected delayed opening, our Walks of Italy tour guide told us the history behind Pompeii. I realized as she was talking that I knew very little about the site, only that it was a city buried in ash and preserved for centuries. But there’s a lot more to it than just that, which we learned on our Best of Pompeii tour.
Note: Walks of Italy is now called Take Walks and offers tours in a variety of countries.
The eruption that covered Pompeii
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius occurred in the year 79AD. I always imagined it happened very quickly since people were buried as a result, but it turns out it was a slow 19 hour eruption followed by days of ash polluting the air. Plenty of people had time to escape, but those who stayed suffocated from the fumes or were killed when roofs collapsed. 300 bodies were found on a nearby beach, people who had been waiting for ships to come and save them, but they were killed quickly by the heat. Some survivors returned to Pompeii but eventually abandoned their city.
Imagining Pompeii as it was
I tried to imagine what the city must have been like nearly 2000 years ago. While some of it is in ruins, because of the volcanic ash that covered it for so long, it’s one of the most well-preserved sets of ruins I’ve ever seen. I could really picture the shops selling goods as our guide pointed them out to us. I could (unfortunately) imagine stepping on the raised stones in the middle of the road in order to cross without walking through shit.
The home of a wealthy Pompeii citizen
We also got a chance to walk through a home, which had obviously belonged to someone wealthy, due to its size. There was a hole in the ceiling, like a skylight, for collecting water. The center was an open courtyard area, and the windowless rooms were built around the sides facing the center. The people of Pompeii had frescoes painted on their walls, many of which have at least partially survived for thousands of years.
Ancient Pompeii bath house
A little later in the tour, we walked through a building that was a bath house and a gym. People would come here nearly every day to exercise, sit in the sauna, and bathe. Since these were naked activities, there were little holes for people’s belongings, sort of like lockers. The men would work out in the grass, and the sauna and bathing areas had separate sections for men and women. Even the slaves were allowed to bathe after hours.
The bath house was also where a few plaster molds of bodies were on display, which was interesting but a bit creepy.
A final look at Pompeii
As we were getting ready to head back to Naples, Andy and I noticed lots of people stopping on the stairs that were going towards Pompeii’s exit to take pictures.
It turns out it was a pretty nice view of the outer edges of the Pompeii site. I liked seeing a broader view like this after spending a few hours looking at all the smaller details of the ancient city.
Recommendations for visiting Pompeii
Pompeii is huge. HUGE. We spent about two hours wandering through at a fairly fast pace with our guide and still barely scratched the surface. We could’ve stayed longer to explore more on our own, but in the hot midday June sun, we decided to call it quits. I’d highly recommend scheduling your visit in the spring or fall if possible to avoid the heat. Either way, bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat.
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While I was happy visiting the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey on our own, I’m so glad we went to Pompeii with a guide. Ephesus is much smaller and there’s basically one major road going through the ruins, so it’s easy to navigate. Because Pompeii is so big and so many of its streets have been preserved or restored, you could easily get lost in there. Plus there aren’t any signs explaining things, and apparently they run out of maps early in the tourist season as we were not able to get any.
To get to Pompeii, take the Circumvesuviana train from Naples or Sorrento. Tickets were 5.80 euros per person round trip when we were there in June, and the journey from Naples takes about 30 minutes.
Thanks to Walks of Italy who provided us with a complimentary tour. As always all opinions are my own.
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August 8, 2013 @ 9:21 AM
I’m curious to know whether this was the first time that you hired a guide and how much it cost. Was it worth the money you spent for the experience that you had?
As for Pompeii itself, it kind of has an Angkor Wat feel to it for me in the sense that it is an ancient wonder frozen in time. I think both sites have lessons they can teach us about how impermanent life is and how it can end without warning – Pompeii in a literal sense, Angkor Wat in a metaphorical sense due to the Buddhist teachings that were the spiritual base behind the architecture there.
August 8, 2013 @ 3:34 PM
It wasn’t the first time we took a guided tour, but it was the first time we did one with Walks of Italy. We were able to get a complimentary tour with them, but the cost is 49 euros per person, which includes your entrance ticket. I think it was definitely worth that price, and we would’ve paid for it if we hadn’t been able to get the tour for free. I think we would’ve been lost in there without someone explaining things and helping us figure out where to go. With no maps and no signs in such a huge place, I think we would’ve been frustrated on our own. They’re small groups too, 12 max I think, and that was good.
I’ve never thought to compare Pompeii to Angkor Wat but I can see the similarities with them both being forgotten and hidden away for so long. Thanks Matthew!
August 8, 2013 @ 2:26 PM
I really love the first and last pictures 🙂
This definitely sounds like a place you need hours to take in, but you don’t really expect that til you arrive! Hopefully you’ll be able to return one day and explore more.
August 8, 2013 @ 3:36 PM
Thanks Heather! Yes, it’s soooo big! It makes sense because it’s the entire city, but we didn’t really think about it until we got there. If I do go back, I’ll try to plan it outside of the hot summer though!
August 8, 2013 @ 5:09 PM
Thank you Ali for your pictures and comments on Pompeii! I was always fascinated by that place. You brought it to reality because of the way you described the place, I like that and enjoyed your article. I also like the picture of you and your partner!
August 8, 2013 @ 5:44 PM
Thanks Peggy, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Pompeii was really interesting to visit, great to finally see it in person.
August 8, 2013 @ 7:45 PM
Pompeii has always fascinated me. I had no idea either that the eruption lasted 19 hours! Terrifying.
I’m glad to see you enjoyed your tour. Since there are so many to choose from, trying to find the right one has been overwhelming (I’m visiting in the spring). Love this post!
August 9, 2013 @ 2:33 PM
Spring should be a good time to visit, not too hot. I really like that Walks of Italy has small groups, so you don’t feel like you’re being herded around like cattle. The tour was 2-2.5 hours, which gave us plenty of info and plenty of time to see the site, while not being so long that you get tired. And as I mentioned, we could’ve stayed longer on our own after the tour was over, we were just being a bit lazy and needed out of the sun. I really hope you enjoy your trip, let me know if you have any questions!
August 8, 2013 @ 10:53 PM
I remember learning about Pompeii when I was in elementary school. My teacher said that people were frozen in a cast – like statue made from the lava. Is that true?
August 9, 2013 @ 2:49 PM
The way I remember our guide explaining it was that the ash covered people’s bodies and solidified. Over time, the bodies decomposed, so centuries later when excavations began, they drilled a tiny hole in the solid ash and filled the cavity with plaster to get the shape of the body that was once there. So sort of what you remember your teacher saying, but with ash not lava. I think the town of Pompeii was actually too far from the volcano for the lava to reach.
August 9, 2013 @ 10:55 PM
These are some of the best photos I’ve seen from Pompeii and love the little details you slipped into the text. Thanks!
August 10, 2013 @ 2:37 PM
Thanks Maria, I appreciate that!
Mary @ Green Global Travel
August 10, 2013 @ 3:06 AM
Beautiful images! It’s such an amazing story and so beautifully preserved! The image of the home and those of the bath house are wonderful – though the raised stones are definitely unexpected. Interesting point.
August 10, 2013 @ 2:37 PM
Thanks Mary! I wasn’t expecting the detail about the raised stones either, but it was entertaining!
August 10, 2013 @ 11:04 AM
Have to agree with the guide – we hired a guide for our tour, and it made all the difference in terms of understanding what it was all about!
August 10, 2013 @ 2:39 PM
Thanks Laurence! Yeah, I think some places are fine without a guide, but Pompeii felt like it would be overwhelming without someone explaining the history and what we were looking at.
August 10, 2013 @ 6:51 PM
I have been to Pompeii this spring and I recommend water, sunglasses and hat again. To make the photos of some frescoes we had to climb over the locked gates, and I have written about it in my blog. Ha-ha.
August 11, 2013 @ 2:37 PM
Ha! I don’t think we could’ve gotten away with that when we were there, way too many people around!
August 11, 2013 @ 9:38 AM
I remember being fascinated by Pompeii, too, when I visited ages ago. So many interesting things to learn there – and how creepy are the petrified bodies??
August 11, 2013 @ 3:00 PM
Yeah, they really are creepy! It does make the whole thing seem more real and makes the history come alive a bit more, but yes, creepy!
August 12, 2013 @ 5:07 PM
It is much bigger than I expected. We visited in April last year on a cool spring day and it was still exhausting! I love the red frescoes in that house. We also visited the arena, which is impressive, but on the far end of the site.
August 13, 2013 @ 11:59 AM
We saw an arena, but maybe there are 2 because the one we saw was somewhat near the entrance. And of course there was the obligatory woman singing in the middle so everyone could hear the acoustics.