Pompeii: Dead city lives in ruins, in imagination

Although death is Pompeii's calling card, it's the glimpses of everyday life from long ago that truly fascinate.

About one-third of Pompeii is believed to be still buried, but a moratorium has been declared on new excavations as a conservation measure. Photo / Thinkstock
About one-third of Pompeii is believed to be still buried, but a moratorium has been declared on new excavations as a conservation measure. Photo / Thinkstock

Pompeii is the city of the long goodbye.

In 62 AD, a major earthquake toppled buildings, causing severe damage, harbinger of what was to come. Seventeen years later, in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying Pompeii in a swift and terrible destruction.

Today, Pompeii is under threat of a new extinction brought on partly by exposure to the elements and the burden of foot traffic - 2.5 million pairs of feet per year to be exact.

But although death is Pompeii's calling card, it's the glimpses of everyday life from long ago - including ancient frescoes from a brothel - that truly fascinate.

You can wander down streets and stride across the stepping stones that kept the ancient residents' feet dry during floods (no need to soak those Roman sandals). You can see first-century mosaic floors that put modern kitchen vinyl to shame, or peer at faded frescos on a living room wall and imagine the house filled with the sound of a lively dinner party.

It's even possible to come face to face with the horror of long ago via the famous body casts of volcanic victims. After the disaster, bodies were encased in volcanic ash which hardened. Meanwhile, the corpses decayed, leaving voids. In the mid-19th century Italian archaeologist Giuseppi Fiorelli, a key figure in the excavation and preservation of Pompeii, saw the voids and figured out how to pour plaster inside. The shell was cracked open and the dead revealed.

Many of Pompeii's artefacts, including several body casts, can be found in the Naples National Archaeological Historical Museum. Also in the museum is the infamous "Secret Cabinet," a collection of erotic art, mostly from Pompeii, which was censored for decades. Some erotica can still be found at the ruins, including the wall paintings of the House of the Mysteries.

A poignant exhibit is the Garden of the Fugitives, where body casts of victims who were overcome as they fled are displayed behind glass.

Other highlights of the ruins include Lupanar, a brothel - wall frescoes here depict what was on offer back then - and the House of the Small Fountain, which features a gracious design.

The amphitheatre is generally a less-crowded spot if you're looking for a break.

What lies ahead for Pompeii is uncertain. The European Union has earmarked millions to protect and repair the site as part of the "Great Pompeii" rehabilitation project, but progress has been slow.

About one-third of the city is believed to be still buried, but a moratorium has been declared on new excavations as a conservation measure. Earlier this year, about $2.7 million was approved for routine maintenance after heavy rains caused a wall to collapse and some stones to fall at the Temple of Venus.

IF YOU GO

Pompeii is on the Circumvesuviana train line, about 30 minutes from Naples, and the Pompei Scavi stop will take you to an entrance. Admission is 11 euros; for 20 euros you can get a three-day pass to Pompeii and four other excavation sites, the best known being the nearby seaside town of Herculaneum.

Pompeii covers 163 acres, so a guidebook, map and comfortable shoes are good ideas. Guided tours are available at the entrance for an additional fee (guides should display a license from the Region Campania), but be aware tours vary in quality. Audio guides are also available for rent.

Two millennia ago, taverns were liberally represented in Pompeii. Today, there's just one place: Autogrill cafeteria near the Forum. Not exactly Lucullan feasting, but they do sell passable panini.

Further information: See pompeiisites.org.

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