I can vividly remember a period in my childhood when I was convinced that I was going to be an archaeologist.  It was probably when I was around eight or nine years old and got to study the wonders of Ancient Rome at school.  Everything about the era fascinated me; the way of life, the opulence, the structures of the society…I was determined that I would study history or archaeology at university and go on to spend my days  rooting around in excavations and dusting ancient artifacts.

Of course, at some point this dream fell by the wayside and the whole writing malarkey got in the way.  Such is life.

Still, I got to live my dreams a little in May 2018 when the opportunity arose to spend a little time exploring the ancient city of Pompeii, just south of Naples.  It was an improbable task really, as we had a very tight window of time free to visit the site, and every single blooming guidebooks had offered the same advice; “Allow yourself a full day”.  Sadly I didn’t have a full day. I had half a day, but as I was travelling from Sorrento to Naples anyway, it seemed utter madness not to cram a wee visit in.  The three or four hours we had passed by all too fast, and yet it was enough time to get a little flavour for the place.  Whether you’re short on time or not, Pompeii is incredible and and absolute must-do when you’re in Italy.  It is, however, vast and it helps to go in with a little direction.  Here’s some pointers I picked up along the way:

A little bit about the site…

Pompeii is an ancient Roman city about 25km from Naples which was devastated by a mass eruption from nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  At the time of its destruction, it was thought to have a population of approximately 11,000.  When populating the area at the base of Vesuvius, the community would not have known that this was a volcanic hill.  When the eruption did go off, the town was covered in 20ft of volcanic ash.  Because oxygen cannot permeate ash, what remained beneath was preserved in almost pristine condition.

Pompeii was not officially discovered until the mid 18th century.  Rumour has it that a local farmer was digging in his garden and came upon some ancient pottery!  The excavation of the site has been ongoing for the last 250 years, and while the site is visited by 2.5 million visitors a year, much is still to be uncovered, which is pretty crazy when you think about it!

How to get there 

Bus tours

There are countless tour companies which can organize guided excursions to Pompeii, and it’s a nice option if you want have the luxury of knowing you’ll be taken from A to B with no fuss.  Every major hotel or tourism office across Rome, Naples or even as far afield as the Amalfi Coast should be able to help you if want to arrange a day trip as part of a guided door-to-door excursion.  Well-known websites such as Viator or Getyourguide offer a range of packages, many of which include a visit to nearby Herculaneum or a drop-off point on Mount Vesuvius, if you fancy the walk up to the top.  Prices vary depending on the tour, but you’re probably looking at a range between 40 and 100 euros for the day.

We also passed several newsagents in Naples selling tickets for the ‘Hop on, Hop off’ busses.  It was a tempting idea, but I couldn’t vouch for their credibility.  When we spoke to official tourism guides in Sorrento, they had no knowledge of such service operating between Pompeii and Naples.  While I’m sure these busses are legit, the fact that they’re not well-known might mean that they’re not terribly reliable, and also not very frequent.

Private transfers

Lovely though the idea may be, not everyone can afford to be chauffer-driven across the country.  We looked into the idea from Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast, as we were so short on time, but at 90 euros one way, it seemed a little steep.  Obviously this would cost less from say Naples, but still, it’s not the most practical option if you’re watching the pennies.

Train

This was certainly the cheapest option, and probably the most practical if you’re happy to take a DIY approach to the day.  The Circumvesuviana train runs from Naples to Sorrento, so you can get on at either end and reach Pompeii in about 30 minutes, for less than 5 euros.  The station you’re looking for is Scavi, which is about halfway between the cities.  The walk from the station to the entrance of the site must only be about 400m, and takes a matter of minutes.

A head’s up: don’t go expecting comfort on the Circumvesuviana.  It’s a bit like taking an overground metro, and you may find yourself standing for the full half hour.  It can get particularly crowded at times (particularly if you go Scavi-Naples after 5pm, as this is the most popular time for folk to return to the city), and is notorious for pickpockets.  We were lucky not to fall victim to this, despite having a lot of luggage with us, but we did feel a bit vulnerable.  My best advice would be to pack light for the day, take only essentials, and keep your hand on your bag at all times.

The circumvesuviana.

What to bring

Comfortable walking shoes

For two reasons: 1, there’s a lot of ground to cover.  2) The terrain is often uneven, and it’s easy to go over your ankle, as I learned, many times…

Water

There’s only really one restaurant within the site of Pompeii, and no shops, so make sure you keep those hydration levels topped up!

Suncream and a hat

The site is very exposed and offers little shade.  We visited during May when the heat was bearable, but if you’re going during the summer months do make sure to protect yourself from the sun!

Your camera

I’d advise against taking too much to carry once you’re within the site as you’ll be constantly on your feet, but definitely make sure to take a decent camera if you can!

Remember to take your camera so you can get plenty of snaps, like this…

…and this!

When you arrive

The entrance to the site can be a bit overwhelming at first, as you have to pass through a sort of carnivalesque display of stalls, lemonade stalls and pizzerias before you get anywhere near the ticket desk.  Don’t let that put you off; the site itself is huge, and so once you get past the intial scrums, it’s easy enough to find some open space and peaceful corners to explore to yourself.

The ticket office itself isn’t big and must experience significant queues during peak season, so I’d always aim to arrive early and, if you can, purchase a fast-track ticket in advance.  If you’re going to be exploring the site as part of a tour group, your guide will probably meet you at the Scavi train station and then walk you through the ticketing process, usually with some sort of priority entry.

A tip if you’ve got luggage with you: Don’t be conned into paying to leave it at Scavi station!  It’s a waste of 5 euros and your belongings probably won’t be looked after.  Ignore what everyone tells you (trust me on this!) and take your bags all the way to the entrance, where you’ll find a staffed baggage hall that you can leave your items in free of charge.

Should I book on to a tour?

Yes.  Pompeii is huge and full of hidden treasures and fascinating stories, and you could quite easily miss it all if you attempt to guide yourself around.  If you buy a standard ticket, you’ll be given little more than a map, and with no signposting throughout the site, it won’t be long before you find yourself questioning where you are and what you’re looking at.  Of course there are audioguides, but I’ve often found them to be less engaging than having a human being in front you, and if you’re travelling with others, it can feel a little antisocial to stick the headphones in and zone them out.  Unless you want to zone them out of course, in which case, fire away.

We booked onto a 2 hour guided tour as we wanted to make the most out of our time in Pompeii.  It only cost an extra 12 euros, and it was worth every cent.  Our guide was fun, friendly and informative and injected real life into the tour.  He was able to show us all the wee nooks and crannies we might have missed if we’d navigated the place ourselves, and was full of fascinating stories and anecdotes about life in Pompeii.  It was great to be able to ask questions, and I’d strongly recommend it as a starting point to your day.  Once the tour’s over you’ll be left with lots of ideas for which parts of the site you want to explore on your own.

A word of warning:  There are plenty of touts looking to sell you tickets for ‘private tours’ near the entrance of Pompeii.  Personally, I wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole.  We booked our tickets at the official tourist office in Sorrento, and I’d recommend going through an accredited company prior to getting to the site.

Navigating the site

Pompeii is huge (170 acres) and though you’ll be handed a map, even the fittest of athletes might struggle to get around the whole site in a day.  It helps to pick out the sites you’re most interested in first and plot a wee path for yourselves.  If you’re going with a tour guide, get their advice on the most interesting places to visit once your tour is over.  If you’re looking to find the quieter spots, you might want to work your way from the outside in, as often the larger tour groups tend to stick to the sites closest to the entrance.

If you’re short on time, here’s a few sights you won’t want to miss:

The Forum

This would have been the main hub of activity for Pompeii.  The town centre, as it were.  Much of the original structures still stand, including an impressive centaur statue.  The backdrop is pretty spectacular too!

The Brothel

Those ancient Italians were amorous folks, and no metropolis would be complete without a brothel or two!  Whether you feel the need to marvel, chuckle or titter at the pornographic frescos, it’s incredible to see how well they’ve been preserved.

The Forum Baths

If there’s one thing we know about the Romans, it’s that they loved a relaxing dip!  Pompeii houses some excellent ancient baths, and it’s worth checking out the ones at the Forum.  This one even came complete with a skylight and underfloor heating (note the raised collums!).

House of the Small Fountain

This was my favourite house that we visited, full of beautiful moisac work and frescos.  Much of the bright red colours that you see came from the volcanic soil found around Vesuvius, which has a tragic pathos to it when you think about it.

The Garden of the Fugitives of Pompeii

One of the more tragic sites in Pompeii is the Garden of the Fugitives of Pompeii where you can see what remains of some of Pompeii’s residents, unable to flee the volcanic ash.  Contrary to popular belief, these are not mummified remains, but casts taken from the space left behind in the ashes.  It’s harrowing stuff, but remarkable to come so close to this ancient civilisation and to understand a little of what their last moments must have been like.

The Ampitheatre

It takes a good while to walk to the ampitheatre, but it’s worth it to stand on the grounds and marvel at the arena where ancient gladiator games and charriot races would have taken place.  There’s also a smaller theatre closer to the entrance, which is where comedy and drama routines would have been performed.  It’s a far cry from the church hall my local Am-Dram used to rehearse in…

So there you have it.  My lowdown on Pompeii.  As mentioned before, we visited on a bit of a wing and a prayer, and only managed half a day at the site.  If I had the chance to go back again, I’d definitely allow a full day – there’s just too much to see! For further information and opening times, head to Pompeii’s official website here.

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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