Jan. 24, 2016: Pompeii
This morning, having recovered from our bumpy-bed, goosebump temperature night, we proceed to the station and hop on a train to Pompei, a modern city that’s a short walk away from the ruined ancient city with the confusingly similar name: Pompeii.
En route, we pass the first campground we’ve seen in Europe. Like many other businesses here, it seems to cater to an English-speaking clientele.
Pompeii was once a bustling urban center of about 11,000 souls, a respectable number at that time. And its time was from its founding around 700 BCE until August 24 of 79 CE, when it was quite unexpectedly buried by a Hollywood blockbuster eruption from Mt. Vesuvius.
Ironically, on the previous day the Pompeiians had just celebrated a festival dedicated to Vulcan, the god of fire. Don’t tell me deities don’t have a sense of humor.
Modern excavations on the site began in 1748, and it has been a popular attraction for at least two and a half centuries.
The streets are paved with huge stones. Nowadays the huge stones are paved with hordes of tourists.
Naturally it’s a good place to work in some yoga.
The kind of detail that has been unearthed and preserved is phenomenal.
In some respects, life in ancient Pompeii had a rather modern feel to it. There was an establishment that we initially mistake for a spa, since there are large tubs for water. It turns out to be the “laundromat”.
Another building features the equivalent of a diner, with a counter that has several circular holes in it. No, it’s not the diner’s toilet.
Into these holes would be inserted clay jars of food with pointed bottoms; fire under the counter would heat the food.
Elsewhere, there are large hourglass-shaped stone implements for grinding grain. At first we don’t quite get how they operated. Then we realize that they must have been turned by poles inserted into slots.
Some of the floors are decked with highly impressive mosaics.
Among them is a picture of a dog along with a phrase that is still in use today: cave canem (“beware of dog”).
In those days, however, the warning was more for protecting dogs than passersby; canines tended to be petite, and an unwary pedestrian might step on one.
The walls of residences had portraits or other paintings on them, but they were painted onto the walls themselves rather than on canvas — which is fortunate for us, because canvas would not have survived.
They more or less took the place of wallpaper. In some cases, the painting was actually a wallpaper-like pattern.
Similar designs can be found on ceilings.
Some of the artwork actually appears to be cartoonish, sometimes of a rather lewd nature. One of them even reminds me of a modern joke, and I wonder if it had its roots way back when.
There is even a bit of Pompeiian graffiti, much of which is rather modern sounding (and quite bawdy and scatalogical) when translated.
Many of these last few photos were taken in the “new” section of the city, which has been opened to tourists only recently. This part of town has some of the most interesting artwork; and to think it was never viewed by anyone but researchers for a long time.
Also in this part of town in a little courtyard is what appears to be a puppet stage. We ask one of the attendants (she’s apparently the equivalent of a park ranger) and she says it actually was a sort of shrine for effigies of the gods. Gods, puppets, what’s the diff?
Lunchtime arrives, and we find ourselves with limited prospects. This morning as we were packing for the day, we (meaning probably I) somehow neglected to include the granola that we’ve been having, along with yogurt, for breakfast on our forays. So we ended up having much of our lunch for breakfast. And now, having little left for lunch, we find it necessary to splurge at an on-site cafe.
As on-site cafes go, it’s not bad at all. There’s a tasty vegetarian pizza that’s not too costly. And I have yet another excellent cup of Italian decaf. It’s served in a real cup rather than paper, and when I’m finished I take it back to the counter looking for a place to bus it. The server extends his hand and says, “Signor, prego.” Which translates as “Give it to me, you silly goose, that’s my job.”
Back in the streets, we arrive at the theatre. It’s actually the largest of two theatres, though we’re very hard-pressed to find the smaller one, as there’s not much left of it, and the directions to it might as well have been written in Latin.
The major theatre, however, is conspicuous on the cityscape, and it’s still in excellent shape. In fact, it’s still used for special presentations.
So as a purely hypothetical question, what do you suppose would happen if a couple of hammy American entertainers happened along?
We decide to enact a scene from our current production of Red Riding Hood, with one of us portraying Red and one of us portraying the Wolf, and capture it on video. The video doesn’t turn out very well, but our impromptu performance delights a handful of tourists resting their feet in the bleachers.
Then we pass the storage/ work facility where artifacts are restored, studied, catalogued (and, it seems, replicated.) We wonder if at some point in the near future these will be returned to their original habitat for the world to view.
Among the objects here are casts of the bodies of a couple of Pompeiians who perished in the disaster.
After much searching and asking of directions, we later find the display of the other casts of bodies of the cast. Most of them seem to have died quickly, with little or no time to react. A couple of them are semi-reclining, as if they had some fleeting vague notion that something was amiss. But how much of it really registered?
There are also actual bones on display.
Unfortunately, the last point of interest on our itinerary – the arena where sporting events were held — has already closed for the day, even though it’s still about half an hour before the park itself closes. So alas, we don’t get to see the inside of it.
So we start making our way back through the streets.
Finishing our tour of history, we stroll back into Twenty-First Century Pompei, where people are exiting a church after some sort of festival has ended, and the streets are littered with confetti. As well as a few young (obviously) American guys playing frisbee.
Back at home, there is no sign of our constabulary roomie, who seems to be avoiding us. Nor of Carlo, who seems to have gone underground. It has become clear to us that he pulled a bait-and-switch, renting one apartment to us and then moving us to another. And it has become clear to us that, for this and other reasons, he is going to receive a less than stellar review from us on Airbnb. [Our only one of the entire trip.]
Meanwhile, we hunker down for another night of tossing and turning and shivering on the Procrustean bed. Where is a good warm lava flow when you need one?