Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sticking it to Vesuvius

Riding the momentum of our tour day in Capri, we decided to spend the following day at Pompei. Our Aussie friends from camp had recommended we pay extra for a guided tour so when we eventually got there via walking, bussing, missing the stop, walking back, catching the train and then walking again, we looked for a tour guide straight away. We didn’t have to look far because the tour guides well trained eye for suckers zoned in on us immediately. We bought our entrance tickets and chatted to the tour guide, who said we had time for lunch before his tour started.

Over the road from the entrance to the ruins, we had sandwiches and drinks and returned on time to find the tour guide had left without us. Another one was now milling around, but he had a very thick Italian accent we couldn’t always understand and we weren’t too keen on going with him. We debated the pros and cons of audio guides and milled around reading posters to pass the time in the hopes another guide would show up. No one did, and as the Italian’s numbers started to reach capacity we resigned ourselves to joining in.

The entrance to the ruins is at the city gate which used to lead to the wharf, back when the sea was much further inland than it is now. Huge boulder-sized cobblestones lead a slippery path up to the two gates, a small one for pedestrians and a larger one for carts. The tour guide, whose real born and bred name was Fabio, took us first to the Temple of Apollo. We knew the ruins were well preserved but this was a wow moment that prepared us for what was to come later. Bronze statues of Apollo and Diana stand in the places they have held for thousands of years, in the same condition you would expect any bronze statue of that age and showing no indication of the volcanic burial ground they were immersed in for much of that time.

Following the wide port road, we headed towards the main town square. Fabio was open to few questions, giving the impression he knew only what he had to and had memorized his route in a particular order. Several times different people asked him why the roads had raised stones in the middle of them in places, and every time he would tell them to wait until later. The stones were so the citizens of Pompeii could cross the road without getting their feet wet, the roads running with fountain water from the constantly-running drinking taps that kept the streets free of horse poo. Fabio didn’t want to explain this though until much later in the tour when he could show us the fountain in the right order of his carefully memorized route.

The town square had another temple, the barely surviving remains of a basilica, and the ruins of shops and outlets used by the 20,000 citizens that lived there. An ornately carved marble arch decorated the entrance to the local Laundromat and beyond the protective glass Fabio was able to point out peacocks, wildboar, snails and all sorts of other animals still as easily recognizable as the day they were carved. He also pointed out the public toilet next door, where deposits were collected for their ammonia content and used on tough stains at the Laundromat.

It was impossible to ignore the looming figure of Mt Vesuvius sitting smugly above the town. Now boasting a misshapen tip, the mountain was once perfectly round and it’s easy to connect the dots and see the invisible crest that hit the town like a cork before showering it with lava champagne and toxic gases. Not far from the town square, in a corner of the old food market, glass cases naively protected the remains of people who died well before the ash and lava hit, unable to be protected by far more solid items than glass, suffocating on gases and contorting in pain with their last breathes. When lava and ash did eventually arrive, it hardened quickly around the still corpses and as they decomposed, remained as a perfect plaster-cast of their terror. When Pompei was eventually discovered, a smart thinking archaeologist filled the air pockets with plaster, preserving the last moments of these mostly lower class people for millions of tourists to gawk at in years to come. Not wanting to destroy any part of the air pockets, they were filled through small holes, with the skeletons still inside. The bodies we now see in cases are therefore plaster surrounding real bone, with the far less sturdy plaster now starting to crumble to reveal teeth, skulls and finger bones.

These sad, painful creatures are displayed in a most unfitting of places. Around them, the brightly coloured frescoes that brought good luck to the market and also advertised the goods it sold, still adorn the walls. Although faded, you can easily make out loaves of bread, chickens, and fish showing the wares that were available, above pictures of gods and battles. The market itself had shops around all sides, and you can still see the foundations of the pool where people could catch their own fresh seafood in the middle of it all.

More breathtaking than the frescoes in the market where the frescoes, relief and statues in the Roman Baths. As much a meeting point for socializing as an place for getting clean, the baths were a labyrinth of rooms of various means, all still intact and boasting mosaic floors. Trees again grow in the courtyard garden within the walls, breathing a small amount of life back into the structure as you first enter the changing rooms, then see the lonely, empty tepid baths, the warm baths and the steam rooms. Once the most lively place in the whole town, now stray dogs make the most of the shade, oblivious to the tourists that step around them.

In another area of town, a wealthy shopkeeper lived between his two shops. One was a takeaway food store and the counters are still intact, complete with holes that once held vases full of food and wine for the choosing. When you were finished your meal, you could head upstairs to the brothel if you liked, before heading home to your wife. His house greeted it’s visitors with an intricate mosaic of a dog on the floor, an ancient Beware of the Dog sign.

We entered his house through the slaves entrance so as not to wear down the mosaic, and were able to see the layout of a typical Pompei home. Beyond the front door in a large entrance room, a square pool in the floor collected water from a hole in the ceiling, reflecting light into the rooms that surrounded it. The shopkeepers office was immediately beyond, a place where he would hold court with his visitors and arrange plots and dealings. Surrounding the courtyard garden behind the office were bedrooms, a kitchen with the woodfire oven still waiting for another meal, and a brightly decorated dining room, used only in the winter when it was too cool to eat outside.

Passing a bakery, still housing it’s grinder and mixers, we wound down a narrower road that was crowded with tourists. We discovered why when Fabio pointed out a phallus protruding proudly from a wall – an ancient neon sign that may as well have read ‘Red Light District’. The tourist crowd were mostly Cruise Liner tour groups, all jostling to get into the entrance of the most well preserved brothel. By far the highlight of the visit for Courtney, the bedrooms of the brothel all still contained their built-in stone beds complete with built-in stone pillows. The uncomfortable nature of the bed apparently ensured a good time not a long time, allowing the next patron in quickly. More intriguing than the beds were the frescoes. Prostitutes were slaves and therefore often didn’t speak the language, having been stolen from their home countries and sold to their present masters. To combat the issue of trying to communicate what you like to a person who doesn’t understand you, patrons of the brothel could point to one of the various frescoes – a visual menu. There’s nothing quite like seeing an ancient depiction of doggy style or a girl on top with a spanking paddle.

Abruptly post-brothel, the tour ended, with Fabio saying goodbye in a matter of seconds and wandering off into the crowds. We wandered off on our own, in the direction of a hastily pointed out theatre district. Why the tour didn’t go there I don’t know, because it was by far the best thing I saw there. An entire Roman theatre, still intact, rows upon rows of tiered seating gazing down on the stage. From the top, you could look out and see more of the 163 square kilometers of city than you would ever be able to touch on in a day. You could also see an 18th century house perched high above the ruins, the only building still remaining from the period between eruption and excavation and showing just how deeply the ruins had once been buried.

Courtney was in his element but it was hot and the cobblestones were doing unfriendly things to my knee, weak from an injury a couple of years ago. We meandered along the Villa of Mysteries, stopping for gelato at an Autogrill in the middle of the ruins before finding the train home. Although Fabio was less than inspiring, the 10 Euro each we spent on joining him was well parted with. An audio guide means hunting for discreet numbers adorning various structures and without one or other you would have no idea that those big concrete urn-looking things were the ancient machines of a bakery, or notice the phallus-shaped road stone discreetly pointing the way to the Red Light District.

The town was the 4th-largest in Italy when it was buried, and was mid-reconstruction following a massive earthquake several years earlier. Because of reconstruction efforts, some of the ruins were ruins back when they were covered. Others, like the Temple of Apollo, were already 600 years old. Seeing the toppled columns of the Basilica or the overgrown crumbling walls of an old home is cool, but it’s not until you see the shops lining the market or the take away stores in the residential areas that you can blur your vision and see carts coming down the road, sliding between the pedestrian crossing stones, or old ladies coming out of the Laundromat with their freshly pee-cleaned washing.

Courtney loved the shopkeepers house because the layout and his day-to-day activities were exactly like the TV show Spartacus. It was cool knowing how accurate Spartacus is and using the show as a way of seeing the house come to life. Of the 20,000 people that lived there, most got out ok, and most of those that didn’t were slaves, not even Pompeian to begin with. When the town was covered, no one actually knew where it was until the discovery of Herculaneum gave some indication as to where nearby Pompei might be. And now, we wander the streets again, wearing down the cobblestones, drinking from the same fountains, staring down at the same stage from the same seats. It’s surreal, and haunting, and hot, a so worth it.