Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Get lost in a lost city: Pompeii


I stood atop the hill at the far end of Via del Vesuvio, overlooking the ruined city of Pompeii, Italy.

Crumbling brick walls sprawled in every direction forming a red-gray rock labyrinth that seemed to run from the foot of the infamous volcano all the way into the sea. Row after row of ancient buildings crisscrossed the landscape, with sunken roads marked by deep cart grooves and lined by an unending array of historic artifacts – some well known, and some unknown.

As I watched the tourists crawl along the timeworn walkways, I began to think about how easy it was to get lost here.

From my vantage point, underneath a large tree with weeping branches nearby the old city walls, my eyes traced the main avenue, trying to use the site as a living map to plan my next route through this massive, ongoing archaeological dig. But my imagination kept getting in the way, as I thought of the city in its prime, buzzing with people from every social stratum going about daily, ancient life unaware of their weighty place in history – not unlike the tourists walking around the grounds at that very moment.

I was getting lost – lost in the mystique of Pompeii, which just so happens to be the best way to experience this ancient city.

A visit to Pompeii can be grueling. At peak season, tourists abound, scampering after their guides like chicks after the mother hen. Uneven stone streets, heat and the sheer size of the site make for a labor-intensive visit. Then add in the historical weight, which hits you the moment you see a body frozen in time, twisted as it gasps a final breath.

Hiring a guide to show you around Pompeii is one way to alleviate at least a portion of the burden. Guides are easily accessible and can provide a deeper knowledge of the individual highlights, such as the mansions, bath houses and statues unearthed and preserved from the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption.

But with a map and guidebook, provided at the ticket office, I explored the city without trouble, finding the big attractions and stumbling upon some spots not highlighted in the visitor’s booklet. Every once in a while I would linger at the back of a large group to grab a little extra (free) information from their guide, but for the majority of my day in Pompeii, I wandered the streets. I got lost and my experience was richer for it.

Without someone narrating, my imagination had to work a little harder and in doing so, I got an appreciation for the seemingly mundane things. Everyday items awed me.

Right along one of the main thoroughfares I came upon a large group examining an open-air plot, clearly marked by the guidebook as a bakery. The House of the Baker contained ovens and mills, easily identifiable among the stones and collapsed walls.

Walking past it, I took a few more rights and lefts and separated myself from the crowd. I came across another open-air building with similar structures inside. There were the familiar vat-like ovens and large stones for milling. This one wasn’t on the map or in the guidebook, but it was clearly another bakery. The larger bakery had prime real estate, probably meaning it drew a large crowd back in its heyday, as well as in modern day. But this smaller bakery, off-the-beaten-path, was just as well preserved and just as impressive. I began to wonder who made the better bread and who the Pompeii locals back in 79 AD preferred.

It was a similar experience when I came across what appeared to be a storefront. There was a stone counter with deep holes bored into it – it was a bar. The guidebook described how shopkeepers would fill the holes with beverages or foodstuffs. Hungry people strolling by would stop in for a snack or a drink, leaning at the counters to chat with their neighbors. I wandered past one of the heavily attended bars and zigzagged my way down side avenues. I began to notice more and more of these bars – the familiar counters easily recognized by their holes.

By getting lost in Pompeii, the city became more than just a tourist attraction with great photo ops; it was more than a few dozen highlights in a guidebook. Pompeii became a real city, full of real people living every type of life.

In one ruined mansion, a shattered mirror was embedded and melted into the rock wall. Climbing through the rooms of another destroyed home, I found a stone staircase leading nowhere, but at the top was a 360-degree view of the city.

Of course the better-known attractions at Pompeii are also well worth your time, and even a full day will not be enough to see everything. The Forum Baths are well preserved and house a variety of interesting sights. The Forum itself, the center of life in ancient Roman cities, extends for hundreds of yards, lined by columns, statues and broken buildings. At one end of the Forum the ever-present volcano Vesuvius heaves in the background – just a little too close for comfort.

The Ampitheatre and Gymnasium located in the corner of the site near the Sarno Gate give insight into the ancient city’s devotion to entertainment, as do the famous brothel houses such as the Lupanar with its erotic frescoes. You’ll know the Casa del Fauna by the easily recognizable statue of a dancing faun and beautiful grounds.

It is all part of a city that, at its heart, embraced balance. Mansions sat next to hovels and temples, government buildings were not too far from the brothels. It lived and died with the workers nearby the vacationers.

I wandered, stumbling upon top spots and hidden gems alike. My route ultimately took me to the top of the hill at the far end of Via del Vesuvio, where I spent a few minutes soaking in the extraordinary view and letting my mind do some wandering.

I say get lost in this lost city. You will be amazed at what you find.

 This article appeared in the October issue of Destinations Travel Magazine

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