A question for longtime readers: do you prefer this layout, with pictures peppered amongst the text? Or do you prefer the slideshow up top and uninterrupted text, like I did during much of my Germany trip?  (See an example of that layout here.)  I’m on the fence about it, so give me feedback, please.  Thanks!

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Today I visited probably the most famous site in southern Italy: Pompeii.  Bustling city of 20,000, reduced to a barren, lifeless pile of flaming ash on August 24, 79 A.D.  Rediscovered in the 1500′s, excavation started in the 1700′s and still goes on today.  Those are the facts…and I’m not sure where to begin on the rest of my experience there.

The city itself is overwhelming, and seems to go on for miles even though it’s only 163 acres, about a quarter of a square mile, in size.  (For Sacramentans, compare with the downtown railyards area, which is 240 acres.)  I wandered happily through the streets for six nonstop hours, guidebooks and map in hand, the total tourist.  Not my usual M.O., as I generally prefer to “be a traveler, not a tourist” but there’s just so much to learn in and about Pompeii, I wanted to wring the day dry and get as much juice as possible.  As a result, there’s far too much to share here, but I’ll see what I can do.

For starters, let’s say that this picture represents at least 50% of what I saw today:

Roofless ruins of small rooms stacked behind one another, shards of pots or columns or table legs here and there.  And ancient green plastic garbage bags…wait, how’d that get there?  Dang it…oh well, that’s my best picture of a general Pompeiian view, so I’m sticking with it.

March was a great time to visit the site; despite the clouds and wind it was a very comfortable day in the mid-60′s, and there were relatively few visitors.  I arrived at 10am and walked right through the turnstiles at the Porto Marina entrance.  Once again Rick Steves’ self-guided tour oriented me immediately.  Some of the most famous sites in Pompeii were closed for restoration, including the Casa Dei Vetti (the most well-preserved private dwelling) and the Brothel with its famous erotic artwork.  What??  Le sigh.  Here, therefore, are some highlights of my PG-rated trip to Pompeii.

The Temple of Jupiter sits at one end of the Forum, a huge central square with a paved marble floor (you can see remnants of it here).  Mt. Vesuvius looms behind the temple, but today clouds shrouded it all day.

A public fountain, one of many found at main intersections in the city.  I overheard a tour guide point out the worn-away edges on either side of the tap, where drinkers’ hands would rest while they leaned in to get a sip.  I don’t know exactly why, but this is exactly the kind of sign of life that thrills us all, for some reason.  Well, me and the tour guide’s flock, anyway.

Now, this is fascinating.  At some point, archeologists decided to pour plaster into holes in the debris as they were excavating.  This was the result: plaster casts of the victims of Mt. Vesuvius’s wrath.  I learned today about the timeline of the destruction: first, the eruption and within an hour, Pompeii was blanketed in 9 feet of volcanic ash.  The next day, a pryoclastic flow (molten, flaming ash) sped down the mountain at an estimated speed of 80-100 mph, covering the 9 feet of ash and creating a sea of lava on top, which cooled and basically turned to cement.  Were the bodies burned away by the pyroclastic flow?  I don’t know.  But to whoever thought to pour plaster into those cavities…wow.  Amazing.

 The casts lay around in this excavation vault along with pots, sculptures, and architectural features – an eerie and sobering reminder of how suddenly life left this place.

The Temple of Isis, worship house for the Egyptian community that lived here.  The idea of immigrants surprised me, although I’m not sure why, and it never occurred to me that there would be a diversity of religious affiliation.  One of my guidebooks said that there would have been a synagogue in Pompeii as well, though one hasn’t been excavated yet.

An artist’s rendering of the Temple of Isis in use.

One of the many well-preserved frescoes, this one found in The House of Venus in the Shell.  The houses are sometimes named for the artworks found within.

The remains of the enormous amphitheatre, which sits about 10 minutes’ walking distance from the town center, in a more agricultural area.

What struck me most about Pompeii (and I’d guess that it strikes a lot of people) is how immediate the sense of life is here.  Because it’s a city that was frozen in time, the daily life of its inhabitants is viscerally present – and really, so very similar to life today.  There are houses and shops, sidewalks and sewers, fast food on the corner, a diverse offering of places for worship, taverns and theatres and gathering places galore.  Of all these, of course my (slightly obsessive) interests drew my eye to anything relating to theatre, food, knitting, and language.

The mill and bakery housed these grain grinders, as well as a wood-burning oven that looks pretty much like any respectable pizza oven you’d see these days.  The grinders were operated by donkeys that drove the top part around; the flour made its way out the bottom somehow.

These fast-food joints are found on many of the street corners.  The recessed pots once held all different kinds of tasty Roman morsels – maybe even Egyptian and Greek morsels, too – available for those on the go.  Imagine!  Somehow I have the feeling that Pompeii’s fast food was a lot slower and healthier than what we have today…but you never know.

Near the amphitheatre, this vineyard was painstakingly recreated and is now cultivated according to the technology and practices of ancient Pompeii.  How was it recreated?  The same way many of the gardens were recreated, and I find this totally fascinating.  Again, archeologists poured plaster into the space where plant roots had been before they were incinerated in 79 AD.  From the plaster casts, they were able to ascertain what plants had been growing at the time of the eruption.  Isn’t that amazing?  I’ll be looking out for the wine produced here, sold under the label Villa dei Misteri.

The little theatre…

…and the main theatre.  I actually felt a little giddy thrill of pride when I stepped into these spaces!  Yay for the performing arts!  Including the amphitheatre, the three main playing spaces in town seated 1000, 5000 and 20,000 respectively.  I chewed on this quite a bit, wondering if the theatre producers back then had just as much trouble getting butts in seats as we often do today.  But then again (more Sacramento reference), I suppose it’s akin to the seating at Music Circus, the Community Center, and the Arco Arena.  After all, the amphitheatre seated 20,000 but its main attraction wasn’t music and dance; it was bloodsport, gladiator-style.

What, no pictures of the fuller’s shop?  Aw, no knitting visuals, then.  I was just excited to learn a bit about the production of wool and cloth back then, because I’m geeky like that.  Tidbit: they used urine to de-grease the wool as part of the cleaning process.  For real!  Citizens weren’t charged for the privilege to pee, but fullers were charged for the privilege to collect pee and pour it on their wool.  I guess I’m glad for some modern advancements…

Ah, language.  A mosaic at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet depicts a vicious, chained dog with a fashionable red collar.  The letters below spell out “cave canem” – “beware of dog”!

And…graffiti.  Probably not graffiti, really, probably a merchant’s signage or something.  But if there’s writing on a wall, you know I’m going to take a Hipstamatic or four of it.  Speaking of Hipstamatic, here’s a random shot of new life springing up amongst the ruins.  The smell of the clover was so heady and lovely!

For the remainder of this tour, I’m going to leave it to video.  I filmed two of my favorite sites for you: the Forum Baths, recently re-opened after several years of restoration, and the Casa del Menandro, a private dwelling that might not rival Casa dei Vetti for best-preserved (I really don’t know since I couldn’t see the Vetti house) but wins my prize for loveliest mystery.  I could only find a couple of paragraphs to describe all that I saw there. Enjoy! Next: Herculaneum and Mt. Vesuvius.

The Forum Baths: Parts 1 and 2

Casa Del Menandro: Parts 1 and 2