What was on your holiday bucket list as a child? While my classmates were dreaming about Disneyland, I was yearning to walk the cobbled streets of Pompeii.
I finally got there last month and it was wonderful. I was dazzled by the ancient city’s size and magnificence. You could literally spend days exploring its endless shops and mansions and amphitheatres and markets.
I can’t even imagine how beautiful it was before Mt Vesuvius blew and covered it with lava and ash 2000 years ago.
While much of Pompeii has been reduced to rubble, there are pockets that are incredibly well preserved, filled with the beautiful frescoes, mosaic floors and courtyard gardens. There are even bits of original marble pathway and terracotta plumbing that doesn’t look
much different to what we use today.
Pompeii and Naples are full of beautiful mosaics and sculptures
The food shops fascinated me too, with their marble-topped snack bars: pottery urns beneath holes in the countertop that were filled with Italian delicacies and fed to hungry passersby.
My only disappointment was not finding the “people ruins” in Pompeii. Archaeologists have uncovered around 1150 bodies in the city – a shell of pumice formed over the victims, preserving their final postures at the moment of death.
It sounds ghoulish, but they look eerily awesome. Unfortunately, the maps provided (in Italian only) at the front desk are very elusive on the subject and exhaustion got the better of me on my visit.
Pompeii is around 45 minutes from Naples by train or bus. I’d recommend the train, as it drops at the entrance to the ruins and you avoid Naples’ nightmare traffic. Treat yourself to the tourist train – the Campania Express – rather than the suburban one for a more relaxed trip.
Why not explore the fascinating city of Naples on a scooter?
Wear comfortable shoes and a hat and expect it to be relentlessly hot unless you are visiting in winter. If you’re an ancient history buff, I’d recommend giving yourself two days to explore Pompeii so you can take things easy and see it all. I would estimate I only saw about a third of the site on my visit.
I based myself in Naples for my Pompeii adventure, something that caused widespread consternation in my social circle. One friend told me it was a horrible place, while my mother begged me not to go out after dark because she’d heard it was the Mafia capital of Italy (she’s also convinced Mt Vesuvius is about to blow).
But I found myself unexpectedly charmed by the city. It has an energetic vibe that I found lacking in Italy’s more popular tourist centres of Rome and Florence.
I stayed in the Quartier Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter) at the budget-friendly Il Convento – a former convent that’s been turned into a hotel and offers rooms from about $150 a night.
The Quartier has an outdated reputation for being dangerous, but I never felt the slightest bit uneasy. It’s a great location, right near the bustling Via Toledo.
Via Toledo is full of boutiques and buskers and market stalls and thousands of boisterous, strolling locals.
Beautiful pottery on display at a souvenir store in Naples
Just off Via Toledo is a gorgeous building called Galleria Umberto. As I sat eating divine gelato in one of its cafes, a group of older men had an impromptu singing competition with each other, strumming guitars and singing Italian songs in the most amazing tenor voices. I almost had to pinch myself it was so lovely.
After dark the Quartieri Spagnoli gets a bit crazy – noisy, chaotic and full of life, with scooters shooting in all directions, horns blaring, locals shouting, delicious smells wafting from the endless restaurants …
It’s a little confronting, but also exhilarating. I loved it.
My time in Naples was limited, so I chose two adventures: a morning wandering around the historic district and an afternoon at the Muzeo Nationale looking at the treasures removed from Pompeii.
I was a little sad about all the mosaics being dug out of Pompeii and put in the museum, but it was still fascinating to see them.
I was particularly transfixed by all the pottery and vases and cookware on display in dusty glass cabinets – there were even patty cake baking tins! And all the complex medical and dental equipment had my eyes boggling (and watering).
One of Pompeii's antique 'take-away' stores: a thermopolium
I had to leave my 10-year-old daughter on a chair outside one part of the Pompeii display – the erotic wing. After initially hesitating – then deciding I was being a prude – I took her in. However, when I saw the frescoes offering brothel patrons ideas on sexual positions they could choose, I hustled her straight back out again!
Make sure you check what parts of the museum are open before your visit. Staff shortages mean some wings are closed at certain times.
There is plenty to see and do in the historical city
Oh, and don’t leave Naples without trying the pizza. The city created the iconic staple and serves some of the best in the world. One of the most historic is L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Waaaaay back in 1870, a man called Salvatore Condurro received his license to make pizza and, in 1906, his son Michele opened the family’s first pizzeria. The restaurant is still family owned and only makes two classic pizzas, the Marinara and the Margherita (visit damichele.net). Delicious and memorable!
Have you travelled to Italy?