A young couple strolling hand in hand, a group of students pretending to listen to their teacher, an elderly gentleman resting his legs watching the world go by. Welcome to the Roman city of Pompeiani.
Pompeiani 79 AD just before Vesuvius erased it from history for 2,000 years, or a sunny October morning in 2016? Take your pick. The clothes and the languages may be different, but mankind isn’t and Pompeii is still thriving – more so than ever. 20,000 people called it home when it ‘died’ and 2.5million now visit it every year.
I joined their number last week. There and nearby Herculaneum had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember and I was a little worried they wouldn’t live up to my expectations.
Silly me. Inspiring, heart stopping, wondrous; I won’t bore you with descriptive platitudes because they don’t do them justice. Both sites are preserved completely differently because of the way Vesuvius destroyed them. And I won’t bore you with the details how. Just Google it.
Pompeii is vast. It covers about 170 acres. You appreciate the majesty and grandeur of the place as you meander its streets, hopping across the pedestrian crossing stone steps, peering into shops and villas, and exploring their columned gardens. Although the upper floors are mostly gone, you get tantalising glimpses of bright ornate frescoes. Squint (as a good friend told me to) and you can imagine the buildings as they were. No such action needed with the amphitheatre, brothel and theatre. They’re beautifully intact – so much so Pink Floyd famously performed in the amphitheatre in 1971 because of its unsurpassed acoustics even today.
It’s a fallacy that everyone died in Pompeii when Vesuvio rained down her fury. When archaeologists dug out the buildings they found much of the furniture gone. People had evacuated. Not only did they have the time to get out, they could escape over land. Only those too ill to travel, and looters stayed.
Not so for the nearby and much smaller town of Herculaneum. With the sea one side and the volcano the other, people were trapped and the hundreds of skeletons of women and children huddled together in terror in the tunnels down by the former waterside atone to that. It is a heart wrenching sight – many are cuddling and looking at each other – so much so it felt inappropriate and disingenuous to take their photos. (Their menfolk, by the way, had stood guard outside meaning their remains were obliterated. Ever wondered where ‘women and children first’ comes from? Now you know.)
In Herculaneum you can touch the humanity of its people. It’s more personal. Around every corner you gasp at the entirety of the place. It’s like a film set 70 per cent built. Here many of the upper storeys (some have three) survive along with wooden balconies, while the frescoes scream at you with their vibrancy and detail. From the outside the way the wood and brick is woven together reminded me of Tudor design. But in the UK we were still living in wattle and daub huts, and shitting in holes.
My favourite goose bumps moment was leaning in a doorway of a baker’s (with the oven behind me) sheltering from a welcome shower, glancing up and down the street, as people scurried by. I was connected to those lost in time who’d stood in that exact spot doing exactly the same thing, seeing through their eyes. We were one.
Exploring both sites, you see signs of archaeologists at work trying to preserve the buildings. But with every earthquake – Vesuvio is but resting – a little bit more crumbles and crashes to the ground. This is the sad irony. Pompeiani and Herculaneum are not saved. They and the 3.5million people now living in the Bay of Naples are still ruled by the giant sleeping goddess dominating the skyline. It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ she blows again. Vesuvio is well overdue a major eruption and this one will be as devastating as in 79 AD.
Call it what you like: Deja vu, history repeating itself, whatever. The ancient Romans would say, “Historia est vitae magistra” – quite simply ‘history is the teacher of life.’ So please ‘Carpe Diem’ Pompeiani and Herculaneum while you can.