It was the story of a city in ancient times that was wiped out so suddenly and so completely by a volcano that many of its citizens were frozen in their final agonising moments and then re-discovered centuries later; the story of horror on a biblical scale and of the ghosts that haunt it. Much has been learned about Roman civilisation from findings at Pompeii, yet the discovery of the city raised so many other questions too.
How come they couldn’t get away in time? Will the volcano erupt again?
These questions and more ran through my mind in a classroom in the early 1970s and they were the driving force that brought my family and I to visit the ancient preserved city of Pompeii on a hot July day. We had driven down from just south of Rome and arrived as early as we could (roughly 10am), to avoid the worst of the heat.
After you’ve bought your entrance ticket, the cost of the guide is a small extra that’s worth paying for and there is absolutely no shortage of English-speaking Pompeii experts touting for your business at the open-air ticket plaza.
We opted for a man who wore an official badge, who appeared to have a good grasp of English and who seemed to be charming and upstanding all at once.
He was about 55 with a fine and neatly slicked back hair.
In his loose pink short-sleeved shirt and shorts, he looked uncannily like Dean Martin.
Pompeii is big, akin to a large modern-day town — a modern-day with most of its buildings bombed and ruined to an average height of three-quarters of a storey.
We smiled and followed Dean Martin as he took us under arches, down wide boulevards, into surviving bath-houses and villa gardens. He pointed out a lot of things that we didn’t know about Pompeii — that it was a Greek settlement long before it was Roman, for example.
“Here we have Greek column,” he pointed out, indicating ruins around the central forum area of the city. “And over here is Roman. Why? Because Romans invented concrete. So… arches! See?”
Dean also pointed out to us how the streets in Pompeii weren’t drained in the manner that you might expect the clever Romans to have figured out.
Across many of the wider cobbled streets, therefore, you have stepping stones set into the street at a height that would allow citizens to cross the street without getting their feet wet or soiled.
We also learned that the Romans used to wash all their clothes in urine because they didn’t have the benefit of Unilever products back then and they knew that urine was naturally antiseptic. Presumably, they all grew accustomed to the smell.
As we got deeper into the city and visited many of the better preserved buildings that were complete with storeys and stairs, our guide’s explanations seem to run out of vocabulary. We visited one building after another, where Dean gave introductions in an increasingly unintelligible brand of ‘Eeenglish’, leaving most of our group looking at one another quizzically.
We decided to join another group that had been following the same route.
The new guide — a short, bearded man with an impressive line in Oxford-accented English — happily accepted us. But when he went to explain our decision to his competition, there were noisy exchanges between the rival guides involving multiple hand gestures as our new guide did his best to explain to Dean that his English was not up to scratch when it came to describing the finer points of interest.
In any case, much of it went over the heads of our younger crew, who were only interested in the drama of finding the eerily accurate casts of the people who were caught up in the final hot pyroclastic flow on the second day of the eruption in 79AD. These are preserved under cover and inside glass cabinets.
It made for a moving testament to see the shapes of the unfortunate people as they were in their final moments; the ones that were too poor or perhaps too stubborn to have left the city earlier, some lying down as if asleep, others with their hands out in front of their faces in a vain effort to protect themselves.
By the time we had reached the impressive amphitheatre, it was approaching midday and the temperature had soared to an uncomfortable 42 degrees.
We were all beginning to wilt to the extent that we couldn’t continue.
We had seen most of what Pompeii has to offer and we needed respite from the heat and a bite to eat.
Outside the old city walls, modern-day Pompeii sprawls haphazardly.
The main street that runs along the southern edge of old Pompeii — Via Plinio — buzzes with regular and tourist traffic mingling urgently.
We sat down to observe the scene in the first pizzeria that came our way.
The greater Naples area is the home of the pizza.
Down here, the traditional recipe is simple and many places will offer only two varieties (Marinara and Margherita), both of which don’t necessarily involve cheese and which don’t have any meat toppings.
We refuelled on sugary cola and munched over-priced pizzas with dough that tasted distinctly of cheap cardboard.
But we didn’t dare complain to the management.
The owner was a large man dressed in a shiny grey suit who eyed his seated customers out of the corner of his eye with disdain, while he challenged passers-by to come and eat in his restaurant.
But it was all worth it.
I had seen Pompeii and it’s something that will stay in my memory for the rest of my days.
I asked the youngest of our three boys what he thought once he had been suitably refuelled on dough and fizzy cola.
“It was just brilliant!” he said, and all the others nodded in agreement.
Aer Lingus (0818 365000; aerlingus.com) operates direct flights from Dublin to Naples five times per week during summer months and twice weekly off-season. Fares start at around €97 each way, including taxes and charges.
Sorrento. There’s a handy regular train connection with the Circumvesuviana line that takes you around the base of Vesuvius and right to the entrance of ancient Pompeii (Schiavi di Pompei).
The Grandhotel Excelsior Vittoria (exvitt.it) is set atop a cliff within its own lemon grove. It’s the ultimate in relaxation after a long day under the sun if you really want to push the boat out. Rooms from €335.
Mami Camilla (mamicamilla.com) is a cookery school and B&B all in one; fun and friendly, with standard double room rate starting at €58.
The Archaeological Museum in Naples, where the best of Pompeii’s treasures are kept, including astounding mosaics and artwork from the villas of the wealthy. The other buried city of Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii and better preserved.
This is original pizza country. Head into Naples and seek out one of the Fratelli La Bufala chains or else Da Michele’s (featured in the US film “Eat Pray Love”) for delicious simple pizzas, cheap and fresh. If staying in Sorrento, it’s hard to beat family-run Il Giardinello on Via Accedemia.
In and around the main entrance to Pompeii, for souvenirs. Naples is the place to go for some more serious purchasing, then relax with Limoncello, a local speciality drink.