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Fodor's Italy 2014
The site of Pompeii, petrified memorial to Vesuvius's eruption on August 24, AD 79, is the largest, most accessible, and probably most famous excavation anywhere. A busy commercial center with a population of 12,000–15,000, ancient Pompeii covered about 160 acres on the seaward end of the fertile Sarno Plain. Today it's choked with both the dust of 25 centuries and more than 2 million visitors every year. Only by escaping the hordes and lingering along its silent streets can you truly fall under the site's spell. Come in the late afternoon, when it's nearly deserted, and you'll understand that the true pleasure of Pompeii is not in the seeing but in the feeling.
As you enter the ruins at Porta Marina, the first buildings to the left after you've gone through the ticket turnstiles are the Terme Suburbane (Suburban Baths), which, like several other portions of the site, are closed for long-term restoration. Fret not, though, there's still plenty to see here.
Continue up the hill to the Foro (Forum), which served as Pompeii's cultural, political, commercial, and religious hub. You can still see some of the two stories of colonnades that used to line two sides of the square. Like the ancient Greek agora in Athens, the Forum was a busy shopping area, complete with public officials to apply proper standards of weights and measures. Fronted by an elegant portico on the eastern side of the forum is the Macellum, a covered meat and fish market dating to Augustan times. It was also in the Forum that elections were held, politicians let rhetoric fly, official announcements were made, and worshippers crowded the Tempio di Giove (Temple of Jupiter), at the northern end of the forum. The nearby Terme del Foro (Forum Baths) offered a relaxing respite. It had underground furnaces, the heat from which circulated beneath the floor, rose through flues in the walls, and escaped through chimneys: water temperature could be set for cold, lukewarm, or hot. On the southwestern corner is the Basilica, the city's law court and the economic center. These oblong halls were the model for early Christian churches, which had a nave (central aisle) and two side aisles separated by rows of columns.
Several homes were captured in various states by the eruption of Vesuvius, each representing a different slice of Pompeiian life. The Casa del Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet) is a typical middle-class residence. On the floor is a mosaic of a chained dog and the inscription cave canem ("Beware of the dog"). The Casa dei Vettii (House of the Vettii) is the best example of a wealthy merchant's home.
There's no more magnificently memorable evidence of Pompeii's devotion to the pleasures of the flesh than the frescoes on view at the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries), a palatial abode built at the far northwestern fringe of Pompeii. Unearthed in 1909 this villa had many rooms, all adorned with frescoes—the finest of which are in the triclinium. Painted in the most glowing Pompeiian red, the panels relate the saga of a young bride and her initiation into the mysteries of the cult of Dionysus, who was a god imported to Italy from Greece and then given the Latin name of Bacchus.
Two blocks beyond the Stabian Baths (entrance on Via dell'Abbondanza, closed for restoration at time of writing) you'll notice on the left the current digs at the Casa dei Casti Amanti (House of the Chaste Lovers). A team of plasterers and painters were at work here when Vesuvius erupted, redecorating one of the rooms and patching up cracks caused by earth tremors a matter of days before. More paintings and mosaics were executed at Casa del Menandro (House of Menander), a patrician's villa named for a fresco of the Greek playwright.
Pompeii's other major edifice is the Anfiteatro (Amphitheater), once the ultimate entertainment venue for locals. It provided a range of experiences, though these essentially involved gladiators rather than wild animals. Built in about 70 BC, the oval structure was divided into three seating areas. There were two main entrances—at the north and south ends—and a narrow passage on the west called the Porta Libitinensis, through which the dead were most probably dragged out. During a show in AD 59 the supporters of rival gladiators became involved in a cruel brawl causing the closing of the amphitheater for years.
To get the most out of Pompeii, rent an audio guide (€6.50 for one, €10 for two; you'll need to leave an ID card) and opt for one of the three itineraries (2 hours, 4 hours, or 6 hours). If hiring a guide, make sure the guide is registered for an English tour and standing inside the gate; agree beforehand on the length of the tour and the price; and prepare yourself for soundbites of English mixed with dollops of hearsay. You can prebook an excellent guide at www.vesuviusvspompeii.com or www.contexttravel.com.
A few words about closures: Which excavations are open or closed when you arrive might seem a caprice of the gods adorning many of the buidlings' walls, but the actual determining factors include availability of staff, geological uncertainty, and a greater emphasis on restoration following a recent UNESCO report that criticized the preservation policies at Pompeii. Casa di Meleagro, Casa di Apollo and Casa di Poeta Tragico may or may not be open on the day you visit. Casa di Giulio Publio, Casa di Trebio Valente, Casa di Ifegenia, and Casa del Moralista on the north side of the Via dell'Abbondanza are all closed long term for restoration, as are Casa di Octavio Quarto and Casa di Venere in Conchiglia (Venus in a Shell) on the other side of the road. As mentioned, Terme Suburbane remains closed, and the Palestra Grande can only be seen from outside. The Villa dei Misteri is always open, however, as is the central core of the city, a visit requiring two or more hours itself. If you're lodging in the town of Pompeii, be aware that a convenient entrance to the ruins can be found near the amphitheater off Piazza Santa Immacolata. Look for the statue of the Virgin in the square.
- Address: Pompeii | Map It
- Phone: 081/8575347
- Cost: €11, tickets are valid for one full day, €20 for 3 days including entrance to Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabia, and one other site
- Hours: Apr.–Oct., daily 8:30–7:30 (last admission at 6), and Nov.–Mar., daily 8:30–5 (last admission at 3:30)
- Website: www.pompeiisites.org
- Metro Pompei–Villa dei Misteri.
- Location: Pompeii
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