Pompeii, the ancient city dedicated to Venus, dates back to 7th century BC. Two thousand years ago, people living at the base of Mount Vesuvius didn’t even realize this giant towering over them was a volcano.  That changed in February AD 62 when a big tremor shook the area and caused severe damage.

Seventeen years later the volcano, which was 3 times higher then it is today, erupted on 24 August AD 79. Pliny the Younger who witnessed it from across the Bay of Naples wrote “On Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points…an ominous black thick smoke, spreading over the earth like a flood, enveloping the earth in night…earth shocks so violent it seemed the world was being turned upside down.” Lasting 3 hours the eruption destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and all the cities on the mountain with lava and mud. Only to be discovered 1,500 years later.

Pompeii was a sprawling 66 hectares and today its an active archaeological site with 45 hectares excavated. Located close to Naples in southern Italy’s Campania region, it is one of the country’s most popular tourist sites hosting over 2.5 million visitors per year. I was in awe of the day we spent at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis.  The scale and detail was so much more than I expected. Our guide Salvatore took us on a 2 hour highlight tour including (see photos in the gallery):

  • Walking the streets: My favorite part! Via dell’Abbondanza is full of residences, businesses and thermopolium (public establishments that served hot food and drinks as it was customary to lunch out). You can almost picture the bustling city as you stand atop a stone in the street looking at the Roman carriage tracks worn into the path in front of you. Fountains lined the streets for public water, each with a different gargoyle head. You can even see ‘political advertisements’ on many buildings… one of a candidates running for counselor promising lots of ‘games and fights.’
  • Amphitheatre: Seating 20,000 spectators, it was built 140 years before Rome’s Colosseum. It was home to the entertainment of the time… games and fights that would last for weeks.
  • Stable: Salvatore took us to see a current excavation site where 6 mules have been discovered… you can see their skeleton in a bracing position as they were covered in the lava.
  • Forum: The city’s main square surrounded by religious temples, political and business buildings.
  • Stabian Baths: The most ancient structure excavated today dates back to 2nd century BC.
  • Red Light District: There were over 25 brothels in Pompeii!
  • Bakery: In 1862 archeologists discovered burnt loaves of bread in the ovens.
  • Forum Granary: The Produce Market is now used as storage for archeological finds including plaster casts of people and a dog destroyed by the lava.

Also worth the visit is Herculaneum! The resort town was discovered first and is better preserved because of the volcanic mud that covered it (about 15 minutes from Pompeii).  You get an even better look into residences and more complete buildings with floors, ceiling and elaborately frescoed walls. The City Baths built in 10 AD are in incredible shape.  You can even see what was once the ‘coast line’ as you enter the town where a full wooden boat was recently discovered in the excavation… now on display in the entry museum.  We also visited Oplontis‘s (Pompeii suburbs) Villa of Poppea, wife of Emporer Nero. Only discovered in 1964, its a classic example of an aristocratic Roman villa built near the coast…amazing frescoes, mosaics, guest rooms, party rooms and a huge pool.

Pompeii is open 8:30am to 7:30pm (until 5pm Nov-Mar). Tickets are €11 or €20 for all 5 sites (includes everything above and two villas in Stabia, a nearby town). For Pompeii I would highly recommend a tour guide who can really paint the picture for you… ours was arranged by the hotel and cost €100 but it was worth the price!  All the guidebooks provided at entry are very good too if you want to self guide and there are audio tours at Pompeii.

Pompeii is easily reached from Naples or a day trip from the Amalfi Coast.  We decided to stay near Pompeii on our way from Positano to Rome and booked La Medusa Grand Hotel.  The cities around Pompeii are extremely poor and run down but this hotel is a true oasis!  Amazing grounds, pool, incredible restaurant and amazing staff headed by Francesco. See photos in the gallery.

Pompeii is definitely a highlight from our recent trip!