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A Pompeian Odyssey

By the following Saturday, I was just about going stir crazy. It was still raining, but I was determined to get out and do something. The islands were pointless on days this gloomy, and I knew that any churches or museums worth seeing would be closed. That left Pompeii. Pompeii was quite a way out of the city, but what the hell? It wasn’t as if I had anything more pressing to do with the time I would waste getting there. And so I squeezed onto a bus heading down to Piazza Garibaldi. The rain seemed to make the Neapolitans bad-tempered. Those crammed on the bus found constant fault with each others’ behaviour. They accused each other, loudly, of occupying too much space, of being obstructive, of causing bodily injuries with their bags and other accessories, and of generally being tiresome, annoying, and of having no manners. Those outside in their cars were driving even more aggressively than usual, honking more often and for longer, occasionally winding down their windows to scream oaths and obscenities at each other. Back in September, I had found this type of thing amusing, but in the middle of a miserable January, it just got on my nerves. The rain made the streets difficult to negotiate and the bus took an eternity making its way onto the by-pass, which was just as grid-locked as the back streets had been. The Neapolitans were still bickering:  “If you had a gram of common decency …” “I’m not going to take lessons in decency from the likes of you!” I wished they would shut up. 

After what seemed like a lifetime, we pulled into Piazza Garibaldi and I headed off to buy a ticket for the train to Pompeii. Hmmm. That was strange. The blinds were pulled down at the ticket counters and there were strips of paper taped to the glass, with the word “sciopero” written on them. What in hell’s name did that mean?“Excuse me?” I stopped a passer-by. “Why are these counters closed? I want to go to Pompeii.” “Not eez possible,” he replied. “They do the sciopero.” I was none the wiser. Then I remembered that I had an Italian-English dictionary in my bag. I flicked through it. Sciopero, sciopero, scioperoOh, shit! It meant strike. “When do they stop striking?” I asked a man in a uniform. “Tomorrow,” he said, without condescending to look at me. 

I tramped morosely back up to Piazza Garibaldi, where the bus I had just come down on was still standing, the driver waiting for it to fill up, so that he could take it back up to Vomero. I jumped on, sat down, and fantasised about killing all the other passengers. I got up early the next morning, determined to see Pompeii. It wasn’t raining, but it was an overcast, miserable day, the type of which Neapolitans denied the existence in their city. Again I took the bus back down to Garibaldi and, this time, oh joy of joys, one of the counters was open and an apathetic-looking man took my money, tossed ticket and change at me, and went back to reading his newspaper. On the train, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least today wasn’t going to be wasted. At Pompeii station, I got off, went under a most disgusting subway that was covered in graffiti and stank of urine, and emerged to be greeted by a gaggle of youths selling guide books and tacky souvenirs, supposedly made from lava. “Guide book to Pompeii? Eez very cheap. Look meester!” I bought a guide book from one of the boys and headed off down the hill to the site entrance. It looked suspiciously closed and, as I drew near to the gate, I saw that someone had tied a bedsheet to it. Upon the sheet was spraypainted a word that I hadn’t even known until the day before, but which was now guaranteed to send me into a blind fury: Sciopero. 

Well, I am ashamed to report that I lost total control. I took vicious, flying kicks at the gate. I hurled my guide book at the wall and then kicked it as far as it would go, when it bounced off. I screamed and shouted and swore and then, as my rage began to subside, I noticed a man with an alarming moustache, sitting reading a newspaper by the entrance. He seemed to be smirking at me from under his moustache. “Why are they striking?” I demanded to know. “Solidarity,” he replied. “Solidarity with who?” “With the workers.” “What workers?” He shrugged. “And how am I supposed to see the ruins?”“You’re not. At least, not today,” he said, and sniggered. 

“Well fuck Pompeii, fuck the workers and fuck you!” I shouted, switching into English and wishing I knew how to say it in Italian. Whether he understood or not, I have no idea, but he seemed to smirk all the more as he watched me pick up my abused guide book and stomp off back to the train. “Why did you sell me the guide book if the ruins are closed?” I asked the gormless youth standing outside the station. He gave a bored shrug. “Boh!” he said, as he raised his shoulders and looked off in the opposite direction. For the second time in the matter of a few minutes, I wished that I had the ability to be profane in Italian. I would have to rectify that with Jeremy’s help. I toyed with the idea of taking a train to Sorrento, but it was now starting to rain again, so there didn’t seem much point. I was also coming to realize that, once a day started to go pear-shaped in this part of Italy, there was no means of salvaging it. It was best to wait for tomorrow to come and hope that things would run more smoothly. As the train pulled away and chugged off towards Naples, I wondered whether the people of Pompeii A.D. 79 had been as obnoxious as those I had met this morning. If they had been, then it was little wonder that God had seen fit to destroy them!

Obnoxious or not, the people of Pompeii certainly knew how to live. When I finally got to see the ruins, one week later, they proved to have been well worth the wait. It was one of the few sunny days that Jeremy had conceded might occasionally occur throughout the gloom of winter and spring, and I ambled cheerfully around the characteristic streets of Pompeii, that had been paved with blocks of lava from the volcano that was later to destroy it. Pompeii was, it was true, in a greater state of ruin than Herculaneum had been, but, my goodness, it was huge; a real city that gave a far more vivid idea of Vesuvius’ awesome destructive powers. I had imagined visiting Pompeii in the morning and perhaps spending my afternoon doing something else, but I soon realized that, if I wanted to see everything that Pompeii had to offer, then this was not a feasible proposition. This was going to take me the entire day. And to think that only about 80% of the ruins had been excavated!

Pompeii had a population of about 10 000 people, of whom a good 40% had been slaves who had come from the east and were extremely well-educated, often much better educated than their owners. Some of them were even doctors and teachers. And, walking around the devastated city, I really was left with impression that here was a place in which the general IQ had been very high. It must have been a pleasant place to live before Mount Vesuvius unexpectedly blew its stack on 24thAugust A.D. 79, and I marvelled at its advanced state of civilisation. Here was the forum, the economic, political and religious centre of Pompeii. There were temples, courts of law, administrative buildings and a covered market that even had a gutter for the fish stalls. The water system was, indeed, the aspect of Pompeii that I found most fascinating and I found myself glumly wishing that the plumbing back at Mrs Napoletano’s flat had been half as sophisticated. Pompeii had originally received its water supply from the River Sarno, now Europe’s most polluted river and an utterly grim spectacle, and from wells. But, as the city got bigger, and its needs became more complex, an aqueduct was built. Lead pipes were lain under the pavements and water was conveyed into the homes of those who could afford it, to the public fountains, where those who were less well-off obtained their water, and to the public baths, such as the Forum Baths, which had a communal central heating plant and were divided, rather prudishly, considering what else the townsfolk got up to, into two sections for men and women. There were actually three types of bath: the frigidarium, for cold baths, the tepidarium, for warm baths, and the calidarium, for steam baths that were heated using a double wall system that carried heat from a furnace. 

In terms of fascination, Pompeii’s brothel ranks close behind her plumbing. The brothel was an establishment with five ground-floor rooms, each with a bed, and a wooden stairway leading to five more rooms upstairs. What makes it particularly compelling are the scenes of the salacious fun that could be enjoyed, painted on the walls of the ten bedrooms to get punters in the mood for love. I won’t go into lurid details here, suffice it to say that the people of Pompeii had rather a penchant for graphic depictions of male genitalia. Even the oven in the perfectly innocent Bakery of Modesto, with its slabs of lava closed with an iron door, had a sheet of travertine on which there was a phallus in relief, complete with the inscription hic habitat felicitas– “it is here that happiness lives”. A fair point. The motif is repeated in the House of the Vettii, which is covered in luxurious wall decorations portraying mythical and heroic scenes, including one in which Priapus is shown weighing his oversized plonker on a pair of scales – a representation intended to ward off the “evil eye” of those who were jealous of the wealth of the inhabitants. 

Even modern Neapolitans seem to have an unhealthy obsession with things phallic, and willies are scrawled over bus shelters, monuments, churches and other fine buildings for miles around, often by young men of an age at which, in most other countries, they would perhaps be more concerned with seeking work, or putting down roots and starting a family. But if prize-winning pricks are not your cup of tea, then there is much else to be seen in Pompeii, not least the House of the Faun, with its mosaic art, some of which is now, unfortunately, housed in the National Museum of Naples, various other mosaics of geometric designs, birds and other animals, frescoes galore, and even raised gardens with African-style landscapes. 

The amphitheatre, built in 80 B.C., and the oldest known amphitheatre, was somewhat disappointing after the one I had seen in Pozzuoli, perhaps because there were no underground passages, but it was here that a massacre occurred in 59 A.D. during a fight between the Pompeians and Nocerians, which led Nero, in the uncharacteristic role of spoilsport, to ban all spectacles for ten years, and so I tried to feel as awestruck as I possible could. Perhaps Pompeii’s most famous sight is the Garden of Fugitives. Here, behind sheets of plate glass to protect them from thieves and vandals, lies a series of plaster casts that had been made using a system invented by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1860, by which liquid plaster was poured into cavities left by the decayed bodies of those caught in the pyroclastic flow that destroyed Pompeii, thus preserving their agony. Writing, contorted bodies, including one of a mother attempting to protect her young child, are set out in a line on the grass, and have the power to bring a lump to the throat almost 2000 years later. 

I was starting to feel peckish and wished that I had brought a packed lunch. Once I was inside Pompeii itself, there was nowhere to enjoy refreshments. Outside, of course, the territory was cluttered with the sort of mediocre establishments found in tourist traps all over the world, with their inflated prices, unpalatable food and invasive staff, but today there was nothing open inside the site at all. Nowhere even to buy a drink. Time and time again in the 90s, I came up against this type of problem on my travels in the region, and it was emblematic of what was wrong with the Neapolitans’ concept of tourism. To a Neapolitan of that time, development of tourism meant finding ways of attracting tourists to the city in large numbers. Once they landed in Capodichino, however, they were left to their own devices. “Find your own way” was the message they received again and again. “Find out for yourselves where to buy tickets and what buses or trains to take; find out for yourselves when the museums are likely to be open; don’t bother us with your questions. By all means visit the area, but do so on our terms. And if you happen to come on a Saint’s Day, or any other public holiday, when everything is shut and there is nowhere to eat or drink, well, … that’s tough. And if you don’t like it, you can piss off.” The problem is that people did piss off. And they told their friends and, later on, the rest of the world by means of the internet, not to bother. Fortunately, things have changed greatly since then, making it all the sadder that the Covid crisis has set things back so catastrophically.

I resigned myself to having to go hungry and went off to hunt for the “Villa dei Misteri” – Villa of Mysteries. The villa was lovely, a luxurious suburban house, facing the sea, with a farm attached, and decorated throughout with trompe-l’oeil and frescoes dedicated to Dionysiac ceremonies. Other paintings depicted women taking part in a sacrificial ceremony, and Silenus singing and playing while a young woman offered her breast to a fawn. 

How these people must have enjoyed life! I was very glad that I had finally got to see these delights, but more than a little perplexed as to why the Neapolitans should conspire to make it so difficult to do so. I was lucky. I had almost unlimited time on my hands in which to discover Campania’s treasures. But I could well imagine the frustration of those who had come here for just a week or two, and who had constantly come up against needless impediments, and I simply couldn’t see who had to gain from such deliberately obstructive behaviour.             


4 pensieri riguardo “A Pompeian Odyssey

  1. You gave more history on Pompeii than I could ever found on the internet … and then there was of course the entertaining part (for me, not for you), how you’ve tried three times to get there 😁.
    Great photo’s – I think we would like to see this … whenever, if ever …

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