POMPEII, Italy — Sooner or later every traveler to Pompeii feels ready to keel over like the plaster casts of one of Mount Vesuvius’s victims, buried with their resort city deep in volcanic ash and molten debris in the summer of 79 AD.
Many centuries later, the one-and-only magnificent Pompeii is a surprisingly tricky visit.
The best way to see the most complete ancient Roman city in the world is to hire a private guide like Gaetano Manfredi, a third-generation Pompeian, or specialists in antique culture such as Andante Travels USA. You’ll have an expert to shepherd you through in three hours.
If you choose to go it alone, read this. I hope it keeps you from collapsing on the corpses. Tourists need help to enjoy Pompeii’s treasures — and it isn’t available onsite or from guidebooks.
I arrived on a warm May afternoon just as the last tour was leaving. I didn’t know enough about what lay ahead to mind. My sightseeing priorities were the major components, the water system which drew from the aqueduct Agrippa built outside Naples in 20 BC; the port whose trade was facilitated by Roman sovereignty over the Mediterranean in the first century AD; and more intimate glimpses into daily life, such as the gorgeous garden fresco in the House of the Golden Bracelet and the graffiti left by one Secondus to Prima, begging her “to love me.”
So I set out. Pompeii is vast — 163 acres — and there are no funiculars or golf carts. To cross it on foot lengthwise takes several hours on old Roman roads . . . with uneven lava pavers . . . through thousands upon thousands of ruins . . . only a few of which bear any signs at all . . . and they’re in Italian or Roman and Arabic numerals.
Soon I was lost. I was hardly the only one. Tourists wandered everywhere, confused by how their maps and GPS in their phones corresponded to Pompeii’s maze of streets.
It’s possible to be in the middle of Pompeii — and literally have not a clue where you are. There are no guards to point you in the right direction. It’s you, the elements, and the fragile bones of Pompeii.
You can waste hours this way.
So here’s what not to miss as you wander: the forum, of course; the city center, framed by a triumphal arch and a blue and moody Vesuvius which sometimes smokes just to scare everybody; the Temple of Apollo and basilica or courts; the nearby brothel; the Garden of the Fugitives, with many plaster casts of victims of the volcano; Thermopolium of the Lararium, a fast-food bar; the public baths by the forum; and as many of the private homes as you can possibly get into. There are 90 but typically 80 are closed on any given day, for restoration or because of safety concerns. So much for the House of the Golden Bracelet.
On Via dell’Abbondanza, the main commercial drag, Stefano’s Fullonica is a laundry where slaves tromped clothes clean in vats of water and urine. By the amphitheater is the House of Julia Felix. Pompeii accorded women of means high status. Independently wealthy Julia occupied one of Pompeii’s largest and most beautiful homes in 67 AD, though she couldn’t vote or hold office.
Shoppers, donkey carts, tradesmen, and the elite carried on litters made Abbondonza a busy thoroughfare. You’ll see altars to gods and carvings of penises on walls. Pompeii was pious and the penises may have been for good luck. With its sophisticated underground water system, streets were flushed daily of sewage and trash. Be sure to notice the cat’s eyes, white marble chips that reflected moon- and lamplight in the paving stones to guide travelers home.
You’ll also notice that most buildings are empty. That’s because the everyday objects that survived Vesuvius’s fury — and an amazing amount did — are no longer in Pompeii. They are in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Guidebooks don’t explain that in Pompeii, you see mostly the shell of the great city, its walls, fountains, bars, temples. To see its interiors, artwork and such everyday objects as lamps, cutlery, and erotica, go to Naples.
Rick Steves, for example, has only one sentence in his guide about this: “As you tour Pompeii,” he writes, “remember that its best art is in the Archaeological Museum in Naples.”
However, there’s cool stuff in the House of the Faun, the House of the Vettii (if you can get inside), and the House of the Mysteries, which contains what is generally thought of as the greatest ancient fresco in Italy.
Goethe dismissed Pompeii’s homes as “dolls’ houses.” They are anything but. The House of the Faun had 40 rooms. The House of the Vettii is world-famous for sophisticated brightly colored frescoes.
Unfortunately, it was closed when I strolled by. But wind blew aside the construction tarp over the entrance, exposing an icon of Pompeii: a fellow weighing his enormous penis on a scale with a bag of money. Hillary Clinton’s security detail would not let her be photographed here, a new book contends, in case this fellow photobombed her.
A lot of Pompeii’s erotic art was jokey, and this villa belonged to two bachelors, freed slaves who had become rich merchants. They splashed out on the finest craftsmen to decorate the interior with mythological landscapes, scenes of gods making love, and tiny putti and infant psyches hammering gold and capering about. Maddeningly, I couldn’t see inside.
Instead, I walked to a suburban villa, 45 minutes away on the old road to Herculaneum. The House of the Mysteries was one of a hundred vacation homes built in the area in the second century BC for the wealthy from Rome offering views of the sea and sophisticated Hellenistic interior decorations. Its extraordinary fresco, discovered in 1909, is redder than fire and wraps around four sides of a dining room. Scholars think it depicts an initiation into the cult of Dionysus. You’ll never forget it.
I didn’t find the graffiti or the aqueduct system, but in Naples I gasped at Pompeii’s gold jewelry, alabaster pots for makeup, colored onyx lamps, an extremely handsome silver service embossed with olives and leaves, mosaics and trompe l’oeil architectural frescoes, and delicately drawn paintings of figs and food, little hymns to pleasure.
By mindmelding these with the ruins, finally I “saw” Pompeii. The city and its slaves, fish sauce millionaires, politicians, noblemen, bar women, bankers, artisans, traders, wives and children, farmers, vintners, freedmen and gladiators, emerged humming with life and ambition, chasing money, beauty, love, and power.
They plan to open a museum eventually in Pompeii. For masterpieces culled from the site so tourists have it all in one spot? Of course not. It will be for the lesser artifacts.