Updated: Sep 18
Have you ever wanted to walk back through time and visit an ancient city, reliving what life was like way back when? Walking the cobblestone streets of ancient Pompeii is a surreal experience, where through the vast number of ruins, one can not only imagine how its people tragically died, but how they lived.
After my short visit to the archeological site of Pompeii on a group tour 20 years ago, I found myself immediately enamored with the ancient city. So, when planning our visit, we knew we wanted to spend as much time as possible walking among the ruins. We spent two full days and nights in the Naples city center, at the charming Bourbon House B&B, then hired a car to pick us up and drive us to Pompei, stopping along the way to hike up the crater of Mount Vesuvius and lunch (and wine tasting) at Cantina del Vesuvio winery.
What's the difference between Pompeii and Pompei? Pompeii (with double "i") refers to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and ruins of the ancient Roman city, but Pompei (with single "i") refers to the modern Italian city, within the metropolitan city of Naples, Italy).
We arrived in Pompei city (not to be confused with Pompeii the archeological site) in the early evening and checked into Hotel del Sole, conveniently located directly across the street from the entrance to the ruins. The view from our balcony overlooking the ruins was simply spectacular. Exhausted from the hike (and a little tipsy from the wine tasting), it would have been smart to simply rest for the remainder of the day in our luxurious suite, but we had other plans.
After a quick unpack and freshen up in our Villa dei Misteri Suite, we headed to the Porta Anfiteatro entrance of the Pompeii archeological site, a mere two-minute walk from the hotel, hoping to take advantage of the late hour and fewer people visiting to capture beautiful photos in the light of the setting sun. We, thankfully, managed to make it to the ticket office before the cut off time, and walked casually along the path towards the beautiful Anfiteatro di Pompeii (Amphitheatre of Pompeii). With the tall stone pine trees lining the Palestra Grande on the left, the Amphitheatre on the right and the silhouette of Mount Vesuvius in the background, we were immediately transported.
TIP: There are three (3) entrances to Pompeii: Porta Marina (via Villa dei Misteri), Piazza Esedra (piazza Porta Marina Inferiore) and Piazza Anfiteatro (piazza Immacolata). During the Spring/Summer months, the main archeological site of Pompeii is opened 9a-7p, with the last entry at 530p. Be sure to check the official site before you go for any last minute changes to the schedule.
We walked through the arched tunnels into the center of the Amphitheatre and marvelled at its size and structure. Directly across, within the Palestra Grande, an exhibition entitled Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii, was on display and free to enter with the price of admission. (Closed on September 3, 2023) This was our first taste of the magnificent sculptures and painted walls we would find in some of the excavated homes. The exhibit also included food and paints found among the rubble that was fascinating.
It was interesting to focus specifically on the sensuality displayed in art found in Pompeii after we had visited the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room) exhibit at the National Archeological Museum of Naples while staying in the city center. That exhibit features hundreds of sexually charged and obscene artifacts, taken mostly from excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, that were often separated from other exhibits in the past due to their explicit sexual nature.
Using the MyPompeii app as a guide, we followed the main stone path, walking along the smooth sidewalks, entering the homes that were open to the public, marveling at their ruined beauty and imagining what it could have been before the tragedy. The stone roadway is sunken to allow for flooding and refuge, while large stepping stones allowed residents to cross without getting wet/dirty. There are regular water fountains (some still in use) along the path, and in some sections, marble chips were embedded into the stone to reflect the moonlight for visibility at night.
Each excavated home is affixed with a large metal door, often with space to see into the entranceway even when closed, and if necessary, a small ramp for accessibility. Depending on the state of the home, sometimes it is only visible from the outside, sometimes there is a designated walkway, some rooms or paths may be inaccessible, and sometimes there is a Pompeii representative monitoring the number of people and their whereabouts.
TIP: The MyPompeii App was a very useful resource. It is a live map of the ruins, with information about the homes, including names, hours of operation and days they are open for public view. It was a good way to orient oneself, as it is quite easy to get lost or turned around among the many side streets. The one element it lacked for us, was the ability to mark off which sites we had visited to keep track of where to go next. The Pompeii site also has a new downloadable map that would also be very handy.
Even with limited knowledge of what exactly happened to the city of Pompeii on the day that Mount Vesuvius erupted, one can imagine the total devastation that was bestowed upon the ancient city and its residents. Walking through the ruins of Pompeii, it is a constant wonder how these homes were not completely destroyed and how beautiful pieces of artwork, delicate frescoes and lavish mosaics with intricate details, managed to survive. The colours are sometimes so bright and vivid, it is hard to imagine that they were once covered in layers of ash and rock.
We saw what we could on that first visit, entering the magnificent homes of Praedia of Giulia Felice, the House of Octavius Quartio and the House of Venus in the Shell, knowing we would return early the next morning and spend the majority of the day exploring.
It is hard to pull yourself away from the unbelievable paintings or mosaics and squash the desire to explore the open areas, especially the lush gardens.
Between the excavated homes with metal doors, there are a variety of open building ruins, some with small barriers preventing you from entering, but most are open. Few visitors, we found, we aware that they could simply walk through these spaces, stepping into the ruined rooms, touching the marble and stone.
We had purchased the new Community MyPompeii Card, which is an annual pass that allowed us to exit and return the next day without having to pay a separate entrance fee.
The pass can only be purchased online prior to the first visit and costs $35 Euro. A one time ticket to Pompeii is $19 Euro, so if you plan on visiting more than once, or want the freedom to leave and re-enter during the day, the MyPompeii Card is the better option.
After a hearty breakfast, we entered the same way and bypassed the homes we had already visited, moving further along the main path. Even early in the morning, the sun was bright and hot and there were definitely more tourists. We visited the beautiful gardens of the House of the Cornelli, entered the Stabian Baths and waded through the large crowd to enter the Lupanare, the famous "red-light district" where erotic painted images above the rooms informed guests what activities took place there. Pompeii was indeed a bustling city with amenities and entertainment for all who visited.
We stumbled through the streets, walking in the shade as much as possible, able to imagine more easily what day to day could have been like with many more people to navigate through. We entered the Bakery of Popidio Prisco (among others) and passed the Temple of Fortuna Augusta on the way to the massive Forum.
TIP: In the summer months, the sun in very intense and it is important to dress appropriately and bring provisions. Carry a water bottle or collapsible cup with you to take advantage of the many fountains.
Do research in advance to see if anything you'd like to see is closer to a different entrance, as the site is very big.
NB (July 2023): Italy is experiencing an unprecedented heatwave, with temperatures reaching 40C / 104F, and as a result, most cities are on red alert. Dress for the heat in breathable cottons/linens, bring a hat, wear sunscreen and stay hydrated.
Having spent the morning exploring, the heat of the day had gotten to us, and we decided to leave for lunch via the Porta Marina exit, passing the impressive bronze statue in the Sanctuary of Venus along the way. Food is available for purchase within Pompeii, but it is limited and lines are generally long. We headed to a nearby restaurant called Capuona, designed as an authentic Pompeii eatery. Again, the MyPompeii passes allowed us to exit and return to the site without having to repay.
After a full lunch, we returned to the archeological site and re-entered through the same Porta Marina, this time stopping to visit the gift shop. In addition to goods for sale, inside we found casts on display, some of small children and one of a horse. The casts are the bodies of victims frozen in the same position as when the volcanic flow reached them. Having been covered by layers of ash, the shape of their bodies remained preserved even after decomposition. Many in defensive positions, their teeth and bones sometimes visible, the casts are eerie reminders of the tragic end many encountered in Pompeii.
We spent the entire afternoon exploring the areas furthest away, picking and choosing what we wanted to see, including the opulent House of the Vettii, House of the Dioscuri, House of the Fawn, the gorgeous House of the Large Fountain and the newly excavated House of Leda and the Swan.
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As the day was drawing to a close, our feet had swollen from all the walking in the heat and no amount of water was going to reenergize us, so we headed towards the Porta Anfiteatro exit, stopping to see the impressive large and small theatres along the way.
In our time at Pompeii, we explored just over half of the vast archeological site. We knew we would not have the opportunity to see everything, nor would we be able to spend the time we wanted in each space. The archeological excavations are ongoing at Pompeii and new discoveries are made daily, like the "Pizza" Fresco discovered earlier this year (June 2023).
We are already planning our next trip to Italy and visit to Pompeii, this time with at least an extra day added to explore. Imagine the discoveries that will be made in the meantime, and the insights we will learn about how the residents of Pompeii lived (and died).