Saturday, 25th October 2014
It’s a man, stretched out on the ground. His hands are to his mouth, fighting for breath. He’s been in this pose for nearly 2,000 years, since the day in 79AD when the sky fell in.
The sight leaves us with mixed feelings. We’re fascinated by the antiquity, and by the drama of the story of life suddenly cut short for thousands of people as a result of this most famous of natural disasters, but at the same time we feel like interlopers, voyeurs on the moment when a whole town was obliterated in minutes. Pompeii is a grand mausoleum, a monument to its residents who died that day. It’s a huge site and amazingly preserved, but it’s sterile and curiously silent, with grey walls and fragments of Roman tiles where there were once people, smells and noise.
Our experience of Pompeii stands in contrast to our journey to find it. We weave through the vibrant streets of Sorrento, dodging people, cars and the ubiquitous scooters thronging the roads like noisy insects. We negotiate the hordes to buy our tickets and catch the train, arriving early to a half empty carriage that gradually fills with young people as the departure time nears. We guess they are just out of school – it’s early afternoon – and like most young teenagers they are boisterous. The volume rises as the babble grows.
We set off towards Naples past busy apartment blocks, washing lines full to overflowing. One false move with a clothes peg means certain loss of lingerie as it plummets to earth several floors below. The impression is of life being lived, in all it’s daily grime and glory.
The train speeds us on its way, making numerous stops at which teenagers leave and enter, along with men in suits, men in overalls, women with designer bags and designer children, and old people with walking sticks, all off to who knows where. By the time we reach Pompeii it’s standing room only. It reminds me of London Underground, especially when we go through the numerous tunnels that line the route.
The entrance to Pompeii is a short walk from the ‘Stazione’, and the approach road is lined with alfresco restaurants. “Come in to our garden,” pleads the swarthy sentry outside one of them, “bring your…. money!” He grins widely and we accept, admiring his honesty. The garden is indeed pleasant, with a lovely herb garden at the rear making for a delightful feature on this pleasant late October afternoon.
So the contrast once we enter the impressive walled city is stark. We’ve been told that Pompeii is huge, but we didn’t begin to appreciate it’s scale until we experienced it for ourselves. The streets go on for what seems like miles, the buildings are overwhelming in their number as well as their state of preservation, and there are high points including the amazing amphitheatre and the two-millennia-old frescoes. We’re glad we came.
But comparing notes afterwards, we both had a real sense of being intruders, as though we shouldn’t really be disturbing these ancient stones. We realise that we needed to visit to understand it, and reading about it later we appreciate the huge wealth of knowledge that this place has revealed about daily life in an important Roman town at the time of Christ. But neither of us feels especially drawn to return.
In the evening we find a family restaurant in a side street of Sorrento where the host again pulls us in with his enthusiasm. As we enjoy our meal whilst he entertains his guests with his version of ‘My Way’ accompanied by his friend on the guitar, we reflect that life is for the living. And perhaps Pompeii should be left to the historians.