TO BE IMMERSED IN A PLACE that 2,000 years ago was halted forever in time is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring travel experiences. Such are the ruins of Pompeii in Italy, south of Naples. Within the five square miles of this former vibrant port town, the fascinating story of how ancient Romans lived, thrived and suddenly died during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 has captivated travelers for centuries.
Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness survivor of the explosion, described in letters a shocking scene on that long-ago August day, when a plume in the shape of an umbrella pine tree emerged from the mountain, a dark cloud poured across the land, screaming residents struggled to flee and, finally, when the mayhem stopped: “The sight that met our terrified eyes was a changed world, buried in ash like snow.”
Pompeii remained buried under 30 feet of ash until the mid-18th century, when farmers digging for water accidentally came upon the ruins of Herculaneum, a smaller nearby town also destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption.
With much curiosity, Pompeii excavations began in 1748, and over the centuries archaeologists uncovered splendid treasures amid its densely packed buildings: sumptuously frescoed villas with intricate mosaic floors and sculptures along with bars, bakeries, laundries and shops. The town had a great social scene — there are three theaters (one for music, another for plays, a large amphitheater for gladiator games) and a brothel with entertaining frescos that illustrate services offered. In classic Roman style, there is an impressive forum — their version of a public square — with marketplaces and temples to honor the gods, as well as bathing establishments with the remains of intricate heating systems.
What draws visitors in emotionally to Pompeii are the skeletons that have been preserved as plaster casts. They are figures caught in terrifying moments before their death: a man crouched with hands overhead, a woman in the midst of a horrific scream, a twisted dog. “Though it may at first appear morbid, these figures tell us personal stories and bring a deeper element of humanity to someone’s experience of Pompeii,” says Fiorella Squillante, a guide for the Vesuvius vs Pompeii tour company.
About 2.5 million travelers visit Pompeii annually. As its paths are labyrinthine and highlights spread over its 163 acres, having a good guide is necessary for a fulfilling experience. Vesuvius vs Pompeii is an excellent, full-service choice.
“Now is the best time to visit Pompeii in decades,” says Squillante. Thanks to the recent Great Pompeii Project that put millions of euros toward restoration, buildings that had been closed for a long time finally reopened — such as the luxurious House of the Vettii and House of Venus, which features a gorgeous garden fresco of the goddess lounging on a clam shell. Also freshly restored are the extensive laundry establishment, Fullonica of Stephanus, and House of the Bear, a former wealthy man’s residence featuring fabulous mosaics.
Vesuvius vs Pompeii guides are native Neapolitans, passionate about sharing their homeland with travelers. “All our tours are customized according to the client, and we love to work with families, so adults and children have an experience in Pompeii they will never forget,” says Squillante. “We give drawing classes to the little ones and can provide for the disabled. Most importantly, our tours tell stories. As we move along, you’ll see details of ancient graffiti that many travelers miss, we’ll let you in on the spicy stories of Pompeii residents, tell you about the social life, how slaves and women fit into the fabric of 79 A.D. society here.”
The company also offers tours of the Naples Archaeological Museum, which displays treasured frescos, mosaics and artifacts from Pompeii. And guides love to share with you the culinary pleasures of the region, from the best pizza in Naples to delicious pastas and pastries.
Thanks to fertile volcanic soil on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, wineries have flourished here since the days of the Roman Empire. Following that great tradition, just 10 minutes from Pompeii you’ll discover Sorrentino Winery, family-run for three generations. It produces award-winning wines that range from the classic red Lacryma Christi to white Falanghina, as well as innovative sparkling wines. The warm and welcoming staff provides transportation to and from the Pompeii site, so you can visit for a delicious lunch with wine tasting.
Then you are free to stroll through the vineyards, taking in the stunning view of Mount Vesuvius, the powerful force of Mother Nature that both destroyed and abundantly nurtured this beautiful land.
Pompeii Info to Go
Domestic and international flights arrive at Naples International Airport, about 18 miles north of Pompeii. Bus service to Pompeii costs about $13, taxis about $52. There is also the Circumvesuviana train from Naples city center or the newer Campania Express. Purchase the Campania>ArteCard online for entrance to museums and archaeological sites in the region.
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