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2003-07-29 Pompeji

At the foot of Mount Vesuvius spreads the sprawling city of Naples - an area only partly rich in the comforts of modern living, but abundantly rich in music, history and breath-taking beauty.

 

The home of Enrico Caruso, overlooking the Bay of Naples, Sorrento and the idyllic isle of Capri, resonates with Neapolitan melodies and sparkles in Mediterranean sunshine. Almost 2000 years ago (pre-Killaspugbrone, yet very post-Carrowmore), on August 24th 79AD, the residents of the nearby cities of Pompei and Herculaneum had thought the end of the world was nigh, as Vesuvius erupted and their cities were engulfed by an oozing pyroclastic flow spewing from high above. The sun was unable to break through the thick clouds and the darkness must have been disconcerting.

A local writer named Maiuri soon afterwards described the great cloud of ashes and debris which blotted out the sun and rained down all around with the devestating fury of the cataclysms that shook the earth in its infancy.Many died attempting to flee the bubbling mudslide, and rather ironically, their remains were well-preserved due to the ingredients of the vomited volcanic ash.

Purely by chance these cities, whose names and stories had long since passed into oblivion, were re-awakened in the mid-eighteenth century. Excavations began in 1748 and now tourists have the unique privilege of being able to stroll the streets of a fairly complete 2000 year-old city, or at least its surviving skeleton.

Despite being the day of a gig, taking our larynxes into our own hands, we irresponsibly caught the train from Naples to Pompei Scavi, crossed the road and paid our 10 Euro entry fee. The first thing to hit me was the vastness of Pompei  bigger than Sligo and a lot sunnier, and the second thing to hit me was that there is big business in lost cities!

A rich history dating back to the Bronze Age and before is now also coming to light thanks to the excavations, but the buildings there now are by and large from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.

Several tremours preceded the main eruption, and a huge earthquake in 62AD also caused extensive damage. One of the first places the tourist sees is the Forum, a sort of main square at the junction of two main streets, which is surrounded by the citys main buildings. Pompei was very ahead of its time with baths, temples and villas, many decorated with stunning frescoes, as in the Villa dei Misteri. Pompei was an ally of Rome and in the hundred years or so leading up to its tragic demise, it had begun to assimilate Roman culture.

Political milestones bequeathed obvious trademarks to the city in styles, modernisation and the construction of aquaducts, amphitheatres, tombs and the like. Pompeis free-standing objects, such as furniture, utensils and sculptures were sensibly rehoused in a Naples Museum but that doesnt make the experience any less mindblowing.

The Basilica, from the 2nd century BC, is the oldest of its kind, and it dates from a time when a Basilica was not a church, but more of an assembly place in particular for trials. The amphitheatre, from 70BC, is also the oldest of its kind.Aside from this, hours passed as we strolled down the Via dellabbondanza and its side- streets, snooping around 2000 year-old homes, baths and temples, stopping off in the shade to re-apply the sunblock and down the litres of water.

The Forum baths had frigidariums, tepidariums and caldariums, much like my own actually. For a lot of people, the highlight is the Garden of the Fugitives where one can view close-up the plastercasted and preserved remains of bodies (including a dog) as they fled the wrath of Vesuvius.For 5 Euro extra, we were offered a recorded guide to listen to as we walked around.

A very BBC voice narrated Pompeis unique story in ample detail. Just make sure you press the correct buttons, or like me, you will be listening to a very colourful description of a temple when the penny finally drops, and you realise you are actually standing in a brothel. The employees were well-past their sell-by date in any case  a little over the hill!Pompei is one of those experiences which will remain forever engraved on the memory.