On a visit to Pompeii, K. Pradeep discovers how ancient Romans lived and lists a few must-visit sites

Pompeii was unusually quiet. It was afternoon when the Trafalgar coach rolled into this historic city. A couple of tourist buses were parked in the shade, there were groups making their way to entrance of the ancient Roman city, small crowds gathered around the street vendors selling souvenirs, while a few hung around the roadside pizzeria for the great wood-fire pizzas.

Sitting under one of the pizzeria umbrellas overlooking the street, munching at the crisp, scrumptiously hot tomato-cheese pizza, life seemed so relaxed and uneventful except for the animated conversations of the tourists and that of two dogs that somehow chose this time to engage in an enthusiastic ‘speed race’.

Across the street, beyond iron railings, stood the excavated ruins of Pompeii. Mount Vesuvius, a cloud hovering at its top, loomed at a distance — the Destroyer and Preserver of an ancient civilisation.

“Let’s go,” Trafalgar’s guide Enrico cut into the thoughts. “We need to walk fast, we’ve a lot to see,” he added as we moved behind him towards the entrance. There were a few other groups waiting to get in but as Trafalgar guests we got that ‘priority’ preference.

The walk begins with few surprises — trees, catacombs, pillars. But slowly the city reveals itself and leaves you stunned.

A city frozen in time, Pompeii had just survived an earthquake and reconstruction was going on when Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 AD. The eruption submerged the city and much of the surrounding countryside under a hurricane of ash, cinder and eruptive material, while rivers of lava mixed with mud flowed down its sides. The city was going about its business one afternoon when this disaster struck.

“The warnings were there. Vesuvius was rumbling for days but no one took this seriously. Then it happened. I don’t believe that Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii. I would like to believe that it preserved it for future generations,” says Enrico.

Rambling on, little tokens of human life; signposts of a city immortalised by those moments just before the eruption, catch your eye. There are the distinct carriage marks on the cobbled streets, marks of vessels on the stone counter of the once wine shop, millstones of a bakery and dead bodies, ghoulish, their face expressing the horror of the moment, preserved by using plaster of Paris into the cavities left in the lava of the skeletons. Even one of a pet dog, wrangled, twisted in pain.

What makes Pompeii fascinating is that it is perhaps the only place on the planet where you can comprehend how the ancient Romans lived. From the many typical Pompeian houses in well laid out residential areas, temples, to the brothels, dining rooms, the elaborate public baths the city is unforgettable.

The sights keep leaping at you at every turn and you may tend to skip some of them. But there are seven not-to-miss sights here.

1. The Pompeii Theatre

Built during in 3rd - 2nd century BC in the Greek fashion the seating area is set into the natural slope of a ridge. The theatre connects to a large area in which spectators could stroll during the intervals between shows. The seating capacity was 5,000 and an awning was stretched to protect the spectators from the sun and rain. Though modifications have been made the basic design remains the same.

2. The House of the Tragic Poet

One of the best preserved houses in Pompeii it is famous for its ‘Beware of the Dog’ mosaic at its entrance. Noted for its mosaics there is one that depicts a theatrical theme which probably gave the house its name. The colourful wall frescoes have withstood the onslaught of time.

3. The Stabian Baths

The Romans loved their gyms, spas and baths. The Stabian Baths is located along Pompeii’s main street. It had a bowling alley and a swimming pool. The bath had two distinct sections, one for men and one for women. They contained everything necessary for the full bathing ritual: dressing rooms, hot, tepid and cold rooms, exercise field, and toilets.

4. The Brothel

Not surprising this is perhaps the most-visited site in Pompeii. The city boasted of 25 brothels and the one centrally located has five small rooms or cubicles and the same number on the top floor with a prominent stone bed in each one of them. There are some explicit erotic paintings on the walls and graffiti from the clients who frequented the place perhaps.

5. The Forum

What we see of the Forum today is a large, rectangular plaza. In the beginning this was a small market in the centre of the city. Later, it played a significant role in the political, religious, and economic life of Pompeii. Temples, arches, columns, municipal buildings, the Basilica, the grain market and warehouse, the food market, the temple of Vespasian are some of the constituents that make up the Forum.

6. The Basilica

The most imposing of Pompeii’s public buildings it is particularly important architecturally as a model for this type of building given its antiquity. It is supposed to have been built around 120 BC. It was also a popular meeting place frequented by large numbers of people as proved by the graffiti on the walls.

7. The Temples of Apollo and Jupiter

This is an integral part of the Forum area these structures will not miss your eye. The Temple of Apollo that juts out of the Forum, has Italic and Greek architectural influences and is surrounded by columns. There are two bronze statues depicting Apollo shooting arrows and Diana. They are copies of the originals that are housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Built in honour of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the Temple of Jupiter was the main centre of religious life in Pompeii. Located on one end of the Forum it towers above a wide staircase with two large arches on either side which remain intact. The temple dates back to the 2nd century BC.

Side-stepping into one of the side streets Enrico’s commentary faded out. There were groups of tourists giggling, talking, clicking photographs; Pompeii seemed alive again. I let the crowd walk ahead, stopping beside one of the ruined houses. The wide street stretched across, Vesuvius looming menacingly in the background.

In a vacant mood, alone beside one of the houses on the main street I thought I could still hear the giggles of girls as they ran to the public tap for water, the animated conversation often interrupted by peals of laughter emanate from inside one of the houses, the horse cart rumbling across the cobbled street, while the crowd at the bakery waited for the bread hot from the oven. Then there was the explosion, black ash, cinder and a mad rush of people on that fateful noon…. Pompeii is still amazingly alive!

The writer was invited on a FAM trip organised by Trafalgar (www.trafalgar.com) to Italy.

Tips on exploring Pompeii

- Wear comfortable shoes as the bumpy roads and pavements are hard on the ankles.

- Carry a water bottle you can refill at the many street fountains.

- Get hold of a good guide. Trafalgar has some of the best. Without a guide you may tend to miss out on a lot.

- Don’t get too interested too early. Visitors tend to spend a lot of time trying to work out what every building was. Don't do that for there are more impressive things ahead.

- It is a good to read up on Pompeii before visiting the ruins as there are no signs or placards to provide information.

Where to stay

There are a couple of hotels in modern Pompeii but finding a place in Naples or Sorrento is more advisable.

How to reach

There are frequent Circumvesuviana trains to Pompeii – Scavi –Villa dei Misteri station from Naples and Sorrento. Otherwise, SITA operates half-hourly buses to/from Naples and CSTP bus 50 runs to/from Salerno. For Rome, Marozzi has two daily buses. By car, take the A3 from Naples. Use the Pompeii exit and follow signs to Pompeii Scavi.