The one where I get stuck in a ruined city

On August 24, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano in the vicinity of modern Naples in Italy, erupted and buried the surrounding settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum under a mile of rock and ash, killing up to 25,000 people.

Pompeii and Vesuvius, by me

Pompeii remained buried until the 16th Century, Herculaneum until the 18th. In 1804, the first real excavations of Pompeii began to uncover the city. Large scale excavations of the ruined city continue to this day making Pompeii one of the largest and most famous archaeological sites in the world.

The plan was to get to Pompeii from Rome and back again in one day. Pompeii is closest to Naples, about 2.5 hours from Rome. We arrived at Termini, the central Roman train station, at about 9am on Monday. We struggled through buying our tickets, and spent about 20 minutes with a dictionary trying to read the Italian tickets and figure out where were supposed to be waiting for the train and where we would sit once it arrived.

We boarded the train and found our seats, only to be almost immediately yelled at in Italian that we were in the wrong seats. We tried to show the two ladies our tickets and prove that we were in the right place, but they just kept saying “No, no!” And so, assuming we must be wrong, we left the seats and went up the carriage to ask an employee and another man who spoke English. Both pointed us back to where we had come from. Finally, we squeezed our way through small, crowded hallways to the seats we had started with. The ladies were gone and our seats were now vacant. We sat down and I watched the Italian countryside through the rain on my window for most of the journey (punctuated by naps, of course, because it was quite early still.)

With the train and a transfer to the Metro in Naples, we got to Pompeii at about 1pm. The site is open until 5pm, so we had enough time to see most of it (not all, though, because it really is an entire ancient city.)

It was pouring rain by the time we arrived, and though it was frustrating to have to hold up my umbrella and my camera at the same time, it also made the site a lot more interesting to me. Pompeii is a major tourist location, and I’ve heard that in the summer it’s packed beyond belief. Since it was the off season, and since it was raining, Pompeii really did look like an abandoned, ruined city. A city of the dead. You could walk several streets before running into another person. It gave a very surreal, ghostly aspect to the site.

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The streets of Pompeii are still paved with cobblestones and still have the stones in place for the pedestrians to cross without stepping in puddles or debris. In the rain, they were more rivers than streets and we were glad for the raised sidewalks on either side. We wandered the streets of Pompeii, walking around a city that was frozen in time in 79AD. It was amazing to see the way a town looked in the Roman Empire. With wall paintings, mosaics and graffiti still in tact, it was easy to imagine yourself a Pompeian in the houses and courtyards.

A room with wall paintings, by me

When they excavated Pompeii, they didn’t find dead bodies. They were incinerated in the heat. But the way the ash and rock had fallen created pockets of air in the shape of where the bodies had been. Therefore, archaeologists were able to make plaster casts of the people who had died in Pompeii. In the summer I understand that many of these are left in situ, among the buildings of the city so that you can see where they died. In the off season, however, the casts are kept in an open storage area.

Praying, by me

As someone studying archaeology, Pompeii was a wonder to see. I have been reading in textbooks for years of all the things we’ve found out from Pompeii. Because it was frozen in time, it alloys us to see how a Roman city would have looked in the 1st Century AD. Graffiti, wall paintings, amphorae and shops can tells us countless things about the Roman way of life.

Needless to say, we spent as much time as possible at Pompeii.

At around 4:25 we made our way back to the main gate to buy the guidebook. The last admission was at 4:30, so we ran out quickly to get the book and then nipped back in. An employee told us not to go too far, since they were closing in half an hour. We told him that we were going to go see the Villa of the Mysteries and exit that way.

And so, we walked across the city to the Villa. We got there at about 4:50, just in time to see the Villa and exit on time. But when we were done looking around the Villa, we realized that we couldn’t find the way out the book had described. There was a fence that kept us from going any further past the Villa.

We decided to go back up the hill to see if we had missed the exit on our way in. A man told us that we had to go back towards the main entrance. We were confused, but we continued up the hill anyway.

After walking for a while, we realized that the path we were on wasn’t going to lead us to an exit. By now it was 5:20 and dark, and there was no one else in Pompeii. Everyone had left for the day. We still had no idea how to get out.

We had two options, either to go back down into the city and keep walking to the main entrance and hope we could still get out that way, or go back to the Villa of the Mysteries and continue to search for that exit. Standing on top of the hill, we could see Vesuvius, the city of Naples and the intense dark of the dead city below. The only house nearby had dogs that were barking loudly and, in my anxious mind, angrily. I was worried we would have to stay in Pompeii all night.

Stuck in Pompeii at night, by me

We decided to go back to the Villa and try our chances there.

When we got back to the Villa it was about 5:40. We jumped two fences to get past it, trying to follow the signs that said “Uscita” (Italian for exit.) Finally, walking around with only the flashlight on my keychain for light, we found the exit. A woman in the building at the exit saw our flashlight and opened her window. She started yelling in a mix of Italian and English that they were closed, we had to leave. I yelled back “I know! We’re trying! Uscita! Uscita!”

Finally, we got out of Pompeii and didn’t have to spend the night with only two toblerones and a package of Fruit Joys, possibly ending up food for the famous Pompeii stray dogs.

Of course, on the way down the hill in the dark I tripped and went over on my ankle and I ended up having to buy a Tensor (/Ace) bandage to keep me walking all over Rome for the week.

8 Comments

  • By Shaun McAlister, January 28, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    I was there! Hehe Don’t forget the dog you adopted at the Metro station :-)

  • By Court, January 28, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    Aaah, crazy! That would make a seriously good teen fiction though, a great way to introduce Pompeii- except of course your characters would have to actually get stuck there, only to find that the ancient city comes to life in the magic of the night. Ooh! Now you need to write that book so I can read it!

  • By Christine Sweeton *The Chris*, January 28, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    I’m so glad that I got to “hear” this story personally. (Loved the letter! Crazy story, way better then getting or not getting into a class.)

  • By Eleni, January 29, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    Pompeii is fascinating. It must be pretty eerie to see the casts in place, to see what people looked like and where they stood as they died 2000 years ago. Then again, without the crowds, you got to see the ruined city actually (mostly) abandoned, which adds to the experience. It’s a trade-off, I guess.

    What did the ancient Pompeians write in graffiti? Has graffiti changed over the millennia?

    Glad you were able to get out. Would have been pretty creepy to spend the night in an ancient ruined city.

  • By Sebastian, January 30, 2010 @ 2:57 am

    Hahaha, you tried to do Pompeii in one day.

    I think every guide I looked at, and every Roman I talked to, said you should never try it in one day.

    I did Ostia Antica instead (as you know). Glad you made it out of Pompeii alive tho’!

  • By Hezabelle, February 1, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    We did fine doing Pompeii in one day! Everyone said we couldn’t, but the only real drawback was that we didn’t get to see the Archaeological Museum in Naples.

    We did Ostia, too. :)

  • By Shaun, February 5, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    I think we must be the only two people that have ever done Pomepii in a day but then again we are better than most people…

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  1. Hezabelle » Korinthos — June 2, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

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