Everyone knows the history of the ancient Roman city Pompeii, buried by ash in 79AD and now a fascinating archaeological site. If it wasn’t for this horrific event we wouldn’t have this huge open air museum, frozen in time. One of the first things I learnt exploring Pompeii off season was that the residents of the ancient city had no idea Mt. Vesuvius was a volcano. As people still live on it’s base today, it never occurred to me.
A great place to stay for a day trip to the site is Naples. You can catch regular trains (about every 30 minutes) from the main station, Napoli Garibaldi. At present there is no return ticket available or one for both the Pompeii and Herculaneum sites, despite what information you may find online. The best way to get there is to turn up with about fifteen minutes spare at the station and go to an attendant to buy, simply stating the destination “Pompeii Scavi”. The train journey itself is about 40 minutes.
When I researched online the trains had a bad reputation, namely for overheating and being overcrowded. Off season however they were busy but not uncomfortably so and the heat wasn’t a problem either as it was relatively mild for February. The main issue I had was the public are permitted to smoke on station platforms, which is quite an adjustment from the UK if you’re not a fan of cigarette and cigar fumes. The trains themselves are heavily graffitied and loud but you get great views from the windows.
From the Pompeii Scavi train stop you’re only a four minute walk from the site, just turn right as you exit. The ticket and audio guide offices overlook the outskirts of the city and it’s worth listening to the introduction on the guide before heading through the turnstiles. After a fairly steep ascent you find yourself on an intact Roman street with palaces to your left, a courthouse to your right and the main forum and Temple of Apollo straight ahead.
Apart from a few other couples and perhaps three tour groups, we were largely undisturbed as we explored the ruins. This allowed us to get a full appreciation of Pompeii’s scale and to quietly reflect on the civilisation it once was and in particular, to imagine the experience of those residents whose daily routine was cut short by the volcanic eruption.
From the centre of Pompeii you can see all the city limits, rolling hills and of course, Mt. Vesuvius looming in the near distance. It’s a fairly tranquil place with exhibitions scattered throughout and ongoing archaeological work taking place. Leave about four hours minimum for a visit; you don’t want to rush on cobbles and you’ll want to take in all of the history on offer. We also teamed the day with a trip to Herculaneum and managed 31,000 steps!
Exploring Pompeii highlights
Many of the buildings are so well preserved that you can see gladiator graffiti, shop signs, stunning artwork and beautifully coloured walls and mosaics. In several palaces it really is easy to imagine it in all it’s glory. What stood out to me especially were the Roman streets with large stones at certain intervals; the streets would regularly have water flowing through them so the Romans made stepping stones for street crossings.
Within the forum you’re spoilt with pillars, archways and an exhibition area where you can see a huge range of pots and items from the market that would have operated here and rather touchingly, the plaster casts of residents killed on that fateful day.
As you venture further south-east off the main streets from the forum there’s the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre; be careful walking into the area as I managed to trip. Capable of seating 20,000 it’s alarmingly intact and I say alarmingly because it makes Pompeii feel very close to you, rather than somewhere that was essentially destroyed 2,000 years ago. Take the time to peek between the Palaestra gates in front of the amphitheatre. It’s closed to the public but was featured on a BBC series with Mary Beard.
Another amazing feature of the site further north is a typical high-class Roman residential street. If you get the audio guide you can hear a reading of the advert to rent out the property. When this is combined with the Gladiator’s graffiti about his female conquests, it comes to life in a different way. The House of Faun is an impressive feature, with a particularly large and intact mosaic. To the west of here you’ll also find the famous hallway with the mosaic of a faithful dog.
Large Theatre and Gladiator Barracks
The Large Theatre and Gladiator Barracks are one of the must-see areas. After walking through the barracks and admiring the greenery you climb a large staircase to the theatre which offers incredible views. To your side is the Triangular Forum and Doric Temple. It’s the perfect spot to take stock and have a seated break for water and a snack.
The theatre dates to around 2,000BC and would have been where comedies and tragedies were performed. Seating 5,000 spectators the panoramic views of the mountains and countryside would have been a stunning backdrop to any play.
Pompeii, Italy comes under my must visit, don’t miss out destinations and is actually the first on this list. It’s such a privilege to visit and explore and an historical treasure we’re lucky to have. If time allows it could easily take up 8 hours and the on site restaurant and facilities are able to cater to this commitment. It’s worth noting there is very little shade so going off season is ideal. We didn’t break out a sweat and were able to walk all day and see everything we planned. Whilst sunny at times and warm, it wasn’t 40C as you may find in June, July and August.
The audio guide costs extra but if you don’t want to invest I’d recommend downloading a free audio guide online as you really need some context to what you’re seeing to get the most out of it. I wouldn’t go in a tour group as one of the best bits is wandering by yourself and at your own pace, however this option may work for you.