The weather for the next couple of days is forecast to be good, there is still the washing to do, but we are not yet in extremis, so set out for Pompeii. We visited two years ago on with Lara and Katie on Lara’s birthday in September and were amazed by the scale of it. That and the heat proved very difficult for John because of the pain from his knee. Heroically he managed to cover much of the site, but was not fully able to enjoy the experience, so we have been meaning to go back and the cooler spring weather was an opportunity to do so. We walked into town and at the station discovered that the cable car was operating again. The washing may have to wait another day too!
The train journey to Pompeii is relatively short, some of it backtracking the distance we walked from the Marina to Castellemarra. The train station at Pompeii is just across the road from the entrance, where the queue for tickets was already on its’ third loop. We threaded our way round, bought our tickets and then headed into a nearby room to collect our free map and guide. Armed with these we joined the throng going through the turnstiles and clambering up the boulders-like cobbles threading up through the ancient town walls. The site was much less dusty in spring, the grass lush and littered with yellow wildflowers and washes of poppies.
It was easy to picture the piazza of the forum in its heyday, the public buildings giving way to a gallery of small shops, the people milling about as tourists do now and one side dominated by the towering presence of the volcano. It is less easy to imagine the houses in the streets moving away from the forum. The guidebook speaks of some houses occupying a whole block, but which spaces were interiors and which courtyards and how to distinguish the many rooms of these vast houses from those of smaller dwellings side by side along the street? The guide book is organised into districts and the houses very comprehensively labelled, which is just as well as we often thought we were in one district only to find we were either in a completely different area or on the cusp between two. We ran into difficulties when the number and title of a house in the book was not to be found at all and were lucky to identify some places from photographs. The courtyard of the House of the Faun, named for a statue found inside turned out to be the house of a small boy wrestling a very large fish, prototype for many a fountain. The Faun turned up later when we were not expecting him and there were figures of a world war two soldier and a Pokemon we had not anticipated at all. Perhaps they move around of an evening. The guidebook gave no indication why the owner of the House of the Tragic Poet was any more tragic than his neighbours, the butcher, baker or publican. Certainly his Beware of the Dog mosaic doormat suggested an individual with a reasonable sense of humour. Before heading further into the site we stopped for a toasted wrap sitting on the steps of the café.
After lunch we set out along one of the long streets bridged by stepping-stones, set high so that Roman pedestrians could cross the road above the filth running along the streets. On the main thoroughfares mesh infills fitted between the stones allowed for wheelchair access, an innovation since our previous visit. There were other changes marking progress. Some of the villas we had been able to go into last time were closed by locked metal gates, but other areas that had been barricaded by rusting metal girders had been made safe and opened up. The afternoon was hot, the dodging the crowds by climbing up and down the high pavement edges beginning to take their toll. The road we were following was blocked by metal fence panels, so we backtracked and were caught by the allure of trees and a green space down a side street. A garden had been planted in one of the courtyards, a box parterre containing oleander trees and roses; probably not strictly Roman, but it gave a sense of a home. The green space was welcome after the parade of streets and walls. This was an area we had missed on our last visit. We continued down hill and turned into a small amphitheatre, where a choir of French schoolchildren were being coaxed into a performance of The Lion Sleeps Tonight by a rather glamorous music teacher. She stood at the front conducting and singing along in the manner of all music teachers, while her colleague filmed them on a mobile phone. The rest of the class sat on the terraces trying to look unconnected with it all. After a faltering start, held together by the determined voice of the teacher, they began to enjoy the acoustics and ended a strong second chorus with a deep thrum of Wimberways, before the teacher, bringing her forefingers and thumbs together, drew a line in the air that brought them to a resonant silence, to be broken by applause from the bystanders. After this welcome pause we carried on through the theatre complex to a cloistered area and then on to the large amphitheatre, where we had a seat in the stalls and consulted our book. According to our guide this was one of the first areas to be excavated. Amphitheatres are probably very satisfying structures to unearth, I can well remember the excitement of exposing the buried steps on Cleethorpe’s sea front as a child. It struck me that huge as the city of Pompeii seems, because it is the most complete Roman complex to which we now have access, it must have been a small town compared to some of the sites of really huge amphitheatres, such as the one we explored at Cartagena. We climbed up the steps and were rewarded by views across to the sea from the top, but there was no way out, so we retraced our steps down and headed for the exit.
We had not managed to find our way to the abandoned section with the exit we used last time, with the vast dogs, but I could not face the glass rooms in which where lay the cocoon-like plaster casts, capturing the last moments of poor souls entombed in the ash. Having reached saturation point we headed back to the main entrance, bypassing the museum and gift shop and headed for our train back. It was a long weary walk back from the station, but much less stressful than the dubious taxi journey of our previous visit.