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Pompeii and circumstance

rain

When I was in Year 3 of primary school my class studied Pompeii. I was spellbound by the descriptions of the Mount Vesuvius volcano raining fire and ash on a city, burying the entire town and its unfortunate inhabitants beneath tens of metres of cinders, only to be unearthed perfectly preserved eighteen centuries later.

Learning about Pompeii at school awoke within me a lifelong fascination with volcanoes. I guess I have always been interested in things that I can’t see in Australia and Australia, occupying the most geologically stable continent on earth in the middle of a tectonic plate, doesn’t have active volcanoes.

I was determined to visit Pompeii one day. Thirty-three years later, I made it. Better late than never.

First, I had to get there. Pompeii is two hundred and forty kilometres southeast of Rome. In Australia, with its poor roads and slow, infrequent trains, this distance would most likely be outside day-tripping radius. Thankfully Italy is much better endowed with transport infrastructure.

Thus on the morning of Tuesday 12 November 2019 I emerged from the Empire Suites in the grim, damp dawn twilight, took the Line A metro to Roma Termini railway station and grabbed coffee and a pastry for breakfast at a station café near the platform entrance. Italian coffee culture is unusual from an Australian perspective. The coffee is excellent – Australians have learned well from their Italian maestros – but typically a customer will buy a coffee from the café, stand at the counter, wolf the coffee down in one gulp then go on their merry way. Judging by what I saw in Rome, coffee doesn’t seem to be quite the social thing as it is in Australia where the lingering mid-morning “coffee run” with colleagues and chatting up the cute barista have been elevated to a treasured ritual.

I showed my €36.50 Trenitalia ticket on my phone to the Trenitalia employee who let me through the gate and waited a short while for the sleek, long, red Frecciarossa high-speed train to arrive from Florence. Frecciarossa is Italian for “Red Arrow” and is the fastest of the three types of high-speed train operated by the government-owned Trenitalia.

Frecciarossa high-speed train at Napoli Centrale station

Frecciarossa high-speed train at Napoli Centrale station

After enduring another very Italian scrum of people trying to get on forcing their way against people trying to get off (God damn it, Italy!), I settled into my very comfortable window seat in a Standard class carriage and the train departed on time at 07:55. After a few kilometres of negotiating its way through the congested tracks around Roma Termini the Frecciarossa then found itself on the dedicated high-speed line southeast towards Naples.

The train rocketed across the fertile plains of Lazio and Campania at three hundred kilometres an hour, farms and villages little more than a blur. I experienced quite a bit of cognitive dissonance – how on earth does a nation as disorganised, corrupt and fractious as Italy manage to have such awesome railways? I asked my Italian colleague when I returned home, he told me that the Italian railways are secretly run by the Germans. I don’t think he was lying. It is the only explanation that could make any possible sense.

After about an hour the train entered Naples’ suburbs. My heart sank. I wasn’t in the First World any more. This was Dhaka or Lagos or Caracas or Manila. The dreary landscape was studded with grotty high-rise apartment buildings of the most appalling decrepitude. Every conceivable surface that could possibly be reached by human hands, and even many surfaces that couldn’t, was covered in the most vile graffiti. Some of the graffiti was in places that made me think the only way the vandals could get there was by helicopter. The slummy houses looked as if they were ready to collapse. The filthy narrow streets were congested with the most disorderly traffic. I thanked my lucky stars that my stay in Naples would only be brief.

The train arrived at Napoli Centrale station on time after its 220-kilometre journey from Rome that took only seventy minutes. I navigated through the buzzing station concourse trying to find the Circumvesuviana platforms, but of course all the signage was contradictory with a sign telling me to go one way right next to another sign telling me to go the other way. (God damn it, Italy!)

Graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train in Naples

Graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train in Naples

I found the Circumvesuviana platforms confusingly called Napoli Garibaldi station even though it is part of the Napoli Centrale station complex. I bought my magnetic-stripe ticket to Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station and walked down the stairs to the platforms. I had entered the very portal of hell itself. The station had all the charm of an underground car park, smelled like a public toilet and the trains, each and every one of them, were entirely covered in graffiti. A nasty old man who objected to me photographing the trains gave me the finger. Charming.

My Circumvesuviana train arrived after a twenty-minute wait and I boarded the noisy, rattly old thing. Circumvesuviana is a system of suburban rail lines serving the Naples metropolitan area running on a network of narrow-gauge tracks that are separate to the Trenitalia railway network; most lines run at thirty-minute intervals. As the name suggests, the lines form a ring around Mount Vesuvius.

The crowded train with cramped, uncomfortable plastic seats slowly emptied as it stopped at every station through Naples’ southeastern suburbs on the plains at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Thankfully the train soon arrived at Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri and it was with considerable gratitude that I disembarked.

The entrance to the ruins of ancient Pompeii is right next to the station. I bought my entrance ticket, hired an audio guide and entered through the Porta Marina, the old city gate on the road to the old harbour which was nearby.

The next six hours saw me stumbling around one of the most magnificent places I have ever visited, my jaw scraping the two-thousand-year-old cobblestones as it dropped in amazement. I found myself involuntarily squealing with delight as I found yet another pristine mosaic or crisp mural or antique snack bar counter that looked like it was installed yesterday.

Mount Veusvius towering over the Pompeii Forum

Mount Veusvius towering over the Pompeii Forum

Pompeii is laid out like many Ancient Roman cities. There is a broad main street running roughly east-west, another prominent street running roughly north-south, and the two intersect at the Forum, a major square that was the commercial and governmental heart of the town. Running off the two main streets is a dense grid of narrower streets meeting at crisp right angles; the regularity of Pompeii’s grid meant I never got lost.

On the Forum with its pillared Basilica and temple to Jupiter is an open-sided shed with a display of artifacts unearthed by archaeologists. Among these finds are plaster casts. The bodies of humans and animals were buried by the ash and rock. The volcanic debris solidified around the corpses. The bodies slowly decomposed leaving a void in the compressed cinders in the shape of the body. Archaeologists pour plaster into these cavities as they find them and carefully chip away the volcanic matter to reveal a perfect impression of the dead person or animal. The most famous of these casts is the “Mule Driver”, crouched in agony, his hands feebly covering his face. Even more haunting is the cast of a child rigidly lying flat on its side with their arms clutched around their chest. There is also a dog lying on its back, its wide collar plainly visible, its four legs contorted as if trying to push the falling cinders away.

Just north of the old town outside the city walls is the Villa of Mysteries. This sprawling residence belonging to a patrician family has more courtyards, gardens, mosaics, saucy murals and servants’ quarters than I could care to count. It is much better preserved than most of the houses in town – the roof seems to have been spared collapse – and seems just as inhabitable now as it was back then.

Ancient Roman zebra crossing at Pompeii

Ancient Roman zebra crossing at Pompeii

I ambled around the streets in awe for far longer than I had anticipated. At regular intervals on the main streets were zebra crossings. Yes, the Roman Empire had zebra crossings. Ancient Roman kerbs were quite high – I would guess at least thirty centimetres if not higher – which made crossing the street quite dangerous. Never mind – the municipal authorities two thousand years ago installed stones shaped like zebra crossings, the tops of the stones flush with the height of the kerb; the gaps between the stones allowed carts to pass through the crossing unhindered. Genius.

Thermopolium (hot food snack bar) at Pompeii

Thermopolium (hot food snack bar) at Pompeii

There were houses for the rich with their mosaics and gardens and fountains, houses for the poor with their narrow frontages and small closet-like bedrooms. There was a brothel, its interior walls above the doors to the working rooms daubed with murals showing all the different positions customers could point at and order from the girls, rather like a McDonald’s menu. There were the thermopolia, snack bars with counters facing the street where hot food was served from pots recessed in the tiled counters. I could just imagine it – lentil stew, olives in red wine sauce, barley soup – drool! The Pompeii park authorities could do no better job than to bring these thermopolia back into service; the “restaurant” at Pompeii is expensive and disgusting. You would think I would learn by now to bring my own food when visiting tourist sites like this.

Millstone and oven at Pompeii bakery

Millstone and oven at Pompeii bakery

There was a bakery with its millstones and kneading benches and ovens, there were the public baths with its changing rooms and elaborate water heating systems, there was the macellum meat market with its stallholder booths facing onto the quadrangle. There was the amphitheatre where gladiators fought and Pink Floyd once performed, there was the theatre where Pompeiians were entertained, there was the palestra where athletes trained and competed, there were temples to this ancient god or that, there was a vineyard where a heirloom variety of grape is grown to make wine using the same methods as two millennia ago.

There is also so much yet to be discovered – only about two-thirds of the town has been excavated. The rest is still buried and will most likely remain so. Park authorities are fighting a never-ending battle against decay. The bits of Pompeii that have been unearthed are now exposed to the elements and are falling apart; many sites are closed to the public due to conservation works.

My plan for the day was to spend a couple of hours at Pompeii then somehow find my way to the top of Mount Vesuvius by bus or taxi, walk around the crater, then return to Naples in time for the train back to Rome. However, Pompeii was so interesting, so stimulating, so indescribably enthralling that I couldn’t leave. On every cobbled alley there was some sight that contrived to keep me lingering in Pompeii just a little bit longer.

The park closed around sunset at five o’clock. I left Pompeii grateful that I had been given the opportunity to see one of the greatest historic sites in the world, a snapshot of life as it was in a provincial town of one of the planet’s greatest empires of all time twenty centuries ago. My memories of Pompeii will be a source of delight the rest of my life.

I went back to Naples on yet another crummy, slightly nauseating Circumvesuviana train. I got to Napoli Centrale station at about six o’clock with ninety minutes to spare until my train back to Rome. I didn’t really feel like hanging around a railway station for ninety minutes so I got out my Lonely Planet, turned to the page with a map of the Naples city centre and started walking across the giant, windswept Piazza Garibaldi into the old town.

The route I chose was a rough triangle through the neighbourhood west of the station as far as the cathedral and back. I was slightly nervous – I had read too many horror stories about Naples, the thieves on Vespas who cut backpacks away from tourists with machetes at high speed, the giant piles of uncollected garbage, the rough quarters ruled by the Camorra organised crime families with an iron fist. I needn’t have worried too much.

Yes, I found myself in some of the filthiest, most disgusting neighbourhoods I have ever seen in the developed world. The grimy narrow streets were almost impassable due to the logjam of cars and motorbikes and scooters and delivery vans, the merchants whose wares encroached metres out the front of their shops, the disorderly crowds and the rancid bulging bags of rubbish.

But the diamonds I found in the Neapolitan rough! Laundry hung on lines strung between windows across the streets – just like in every movie I’ve ever seen set in Italy. It’s not just a stereotype! Six-year-old boys were kicking a football in the street completely unsupervised, their talents leaving me in no doubt that they will win the World Cup for the Azzurri in 2042. How many places are there in the Western world where kids can still kick ball in the street without anxious parents watching their every move? You can’t throw a brick without hitting a pizzeria in this city which is the birthplace of pizza. Everything you have heard about Neapolitan pizza being the greatest is true – and only two euros the slice, a rather large slice too. Carts sold freshly baked pastries of the most delectable sweetness for one euro each. A raven-haired lass of about twenty years and the most stunning beauty pulled up beside me on her Vespa. She shouted into the shop next to where I was walking. “Angela! Angela! Zia Angela!” Her black-smocked aunt came rushing out of the shop and they embraced as if they hadn’t seen each other in a decade.

Naples is dismal, decaying, disorderly. But what life! What zest! The streets are abuzz with community, with family, with belonging, with passion. Who can truly say they have been alive if they have not yet been to Naples?

Naples at night

Naples at night

I wished that I had allotted myself more time to explore Naples – it seemed far more lively and authentically Italian than Rome and the energy of the place was nothing short of contagious. Unfortunately, time was fleeing and I needed to go and catch my train.

Frecciarossa train at Roma Termini

Frecciarossa train at Roma Termini

My Frecciarossa trip back to Roma Termini was just as efficient and uneventful as my morning southbound journey. Soon after getting off the train I had to go to the toilet. It was that dreaded time once again – I had to go to battle with that most repulsive of species, Bitchius maxmius, the common lesser spotted European toilet attendant.

I found the poorly-signed public toilet in some remote corner of the gargantuan station. Bitchius maximus was not at her little counter with the coin tray; she was just a couple of metres inside the entrance talking to some other customer. By this time I was rather desperate. “Buona sera? Hello? Umm … spiacente? Ho bisogno to go to the toilet … like, now? As in, right now? Hello? Ciao? Can you hear me?”

Bitchius maximus didn’t even respond. I waited as long as I could and called louder but she didn’t even blink. I needed to go. Desperate times call for desperate measures – I decided to go into the toilet and pay after I did my business. So I walked into the male toilet cubicle and locked the door.

World War III broke out. Bitchius maximus suddenly deigned to notice my presence. Fancy that! There was banging and kicking against the door and shouting and all sorts of cursing in rapid-fire Italian. I had no idea that such a small, demented old woman was capable of such furious strength.

I don’t understand European toilets. Every single one of them is staffed full-time by some hideous crone to whom you pay good money for the right to use yet every single one of them is disgraceful. The seat was missing. There was no soap. The hand dryer didn’t work. The toilet hadn’t been cleaned since Mussolini was Italy’s leader. I don’t know about you but if my full-time job were to oversee a public toilet the place would be so clean you’d be able to eat dinner off the floor. It’s not like the duties would be that complicated – collect cash from customers, clean and tidy up when things are quiet. Hardly the most taxing of jobs.

I took my sweet time just to make Bitchius maximus even more riled up then I finally emerged and with a smile on my face placed a one-euro coin in her stupid little tray. “I did try to get your attention, you stupid old cow, but you ignored me! I was going to pay, you mad f#$%ing bitch, no need to get your knickers in a knot. Go to hell, you miserable old w#$%e!” I shouted at her in English. I walked away and the lunatic was still shouting at me. I’m being honest – nothing makes me more proud to be Australian than our toilets. They are free, they are usually clean, they don’t have some psychopathic hag hanging around them making your life a misery. Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi oi oi!

The Mule Driver

The Mule Driver


Vineyard at Pompeii

Vineyard at Pompeii

Floor mosaic in the house of a wealthy Pompeii family

Floor mosaic in the house of a wealthy Pompeii family

Theatre at Pompeii

Theatre at Pompeii

Amphitheatre at Pompeii

Amphitheatre at Pompeii

Gladiator fight advertising in Latin in Pompeii

Gladiator fight advertising in Latin in Pompeii

Pompeii Forum, the town's main square

Pompeii Forum, the town's main square

Street in Pompeii

Street in Pompeii

Animal mural in Pompeii house

Animal mural in Pompeii house

Changing room at the Stabian Baths in Pompeii

Changing room at the Stabian Baths in Pompeii

Plaster cast of dog killed by eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Pompeii

Plaster cast of dog killed by eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Pompeii

Posted by urbanreverie 05:16 Archived in Italy Tagged trains italy naples pompeii archaeology railways toilets ancient_rome Comments (0)

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