Feeling like a confused cow in Pompeii

There were people absolutely everywhere, moving in herds and blindly following the umbrella of their respective tour guide.


The ancient city of Pompeii is just a short train ride from Napoli and somewhere I was very excited to visit. We bought our tickets for the train, which was called the Circumvesuvio, and found a place on the platform among a throng of tourists and locals jostling for a position at the front. After waiting a good while, the train finally rolled in, also packed full of people. I waited patiently at the side of the door, expecting to let a few people off before getting in. Being used to queues and order back home, I wasn’t prepared for the way Italians enter a train.

As soon as the doors opened there was a surge on the platform as every single person pushed to get in as quickly as possible, forcing the poor people who were exiting the train to burrow out, crouched low with their arms over their heads and a determined look on their faces. Old women got knocked aside and a small boy nearly had his arm ripped out of its socket as his mother yanked him behind her.

Richard and I managed to squeeze into a carriage, where it was a body to body crush, everyone swaying together in the hot, trapped air as the old train clattered towards its destination.

Joining the herd

The train ride was just the beginning. Visiting Pompeii allowed to me to fully empathise with how cows must feel. There were people absolutely everywhere, moving in herds and blindly following the umbrella of their respective tour guide. Because of the rocky, uneven ground everyone had to watch their feet, so we traipsed through this magnificent city, heads down, getting shoved from every angle and trying not to get swept into another herd.

Despite feeling like a confused cow, I very much enjoyed Pompeii. Our guide, who introduced every fact by saying, “remember…”, as though we might be tested at the end, was excellent. She showed us the grooves in the street that had been left by carts, the shop counters with deep holes in them for keeping food hot, the bath houses with bathing areas of a variety of temperatures and a huge mansion, where the richest of families lived in luxury.

A bakery.

I couldn’t believe the scale of it. I mean, I had heard that Pompeii was a preserved city, but I was still shocked that it was really like walking through an entire city, with wide main streets featuring pavements and crossing areas, a large main square with a fountain and aqueduct and hundreds of house-lined streets to get lost in.

Ducking into the different rooms of people’s houses and peering into the ovens of the many bakeries, even visiting the brothel with its many rooms, each furnished with a stone bed, really did bring the history to life. Rather than looking at some old vases and pots in a museum, you can walk the streets, stand in rooms and sit in theatres where people walked and stood and sat more than 2000 years ago. It was just so… real.

A shop counter with holes in which to keep hot food.

Too much thinking

All this made me think that maybe 2,000 years really isn’t as long ago as it seems. Sure, a lot has changed since then, but the essence of life is still the same. Work, eat, find entertainment, raise a family, grow old. If you think about it in terms of people’s lifetimes, with the average age of a human from then to now being 50 years, then 2,000 years is only about 40 lifetimes ago. If you thought about 40 individual people, and the changes each would have seen during their life, it gives you a real sense of the speed at which the world has progressed.

I pondered this as I walked around the city. Pondering is always dangerous, and soon I was thinking about the changes I had already seen in my lifetime, and those I will never get to see. One of the biggest issues I have with being a part of human existence (yes, I know I have issues) is that it’s like reading a book but never getting to find out how it ends. Will aliens take over? Will a virus wipe us all out? Will Kim Jong-un launch a nuclear attack on the rest of the world? I really feel like I’m missing out by not knowing (actually, if Kim Jong-un blows us up I probably will know about it – just not for very long). One frustrating question led to another, and soon I was wondering about what is outside our universe, something I try not to dwell on too often, as it makes my mind hurt. I just can’t cope with not knowing things.

So I was walking through the streets of Pompeii, questioning everything I know and don’t know about life, the universe and everything, when the tour ended and I realised I was starving.

The inner garden of a mansion.

A piece of pizza at the Pompeii Cafe and Richard and I were ready for more. We walked until our feet were sore, and then we kept walking, always finding another street to venture down. One of the most evocative images of the day was seeing the plaster casts that had been taken of the voids left by dead bodies in the hardened ash. One man lay on his front, his hands covering his face as he suffocated in a cloud of thick volcanic ash. Another cast showed a baby, its hands held up longingly, probably for its mother, who would never come. We saw the skeletons of a group of slaves who were kept in a cell and their desperate attempts to claw a hole through the wall.

I left Pompeii feeling exhausted and sore-footed, but also extremely grateful that I had been given a real window into the lives of these ancient people. I comforted myself that even though I might never find out what happens at the end of the book, at least I have access to the first part of the story.

Pompeii man
The cast of a man who died in a cloud of ash. (Photo credit: Richard Eaves)


Pacing the pavements of Napoli

As we walked down a dirty, graffitied street, I began to question what I knew about Napoli and why we had decided to come here. So far it seemed busy, dirty and dodgy.

From Bari, we got a bus to Napoli. I’ve never been motion sick in my life, but I spent the entire three-hour journey feeling like I was going to be sick. I stared straight ahead, concentrating on making it to Napoli without having to run to the tiny, foul-smelling cubicle at the back of the bus. I was vaguely aware that there were gorgeous green rolling hills outside my window, but I couldn’t enjoy them at all.

We arrived and, walking shakily along a very busy road, searched for a taxi to take us to our accommodation. A man in an unmarked white car saw an opportunity to exploit a couple of clueless tourists.

“You need a taxi?” he shouted, as we shook our heads and walked on, searching for something more official. This didn’t deter him; he drove after us, pulling up right in front of where we were walking. Getting out of his car and chasing us down the street, he explained, “you need a taxi, I am a taxi,” as if we were a bit simple and hadn’t understood him.

Since I was still feeling wobbly and we couldn’t find any proper taxis, we relented and let him put our bags in the car. As soon as we had started driving we passed the official taxi rank, full of legit taxis waiting for passengers.

He got us to our accommodation and tried to charge €20 for the 10 minute ride. Luckily our AirBnb host had told us that a taxi should cost €8, so Richard stood firm and bargained him down to €10 while I waited weakly.

As we walked down a dirty, graffitied street, I began to question what I knew about Napoli and why we had decided to come here. So far it seemed busy, dirty and dodgy.

After turning a few more corners however, the narrow street opened into a wide square, with a statue in the centre that stretched high into the sky. This was more like it! After a bit of rest in our Airbnb apartment I was feeling better and ready to explore. We wandered through the UNESCO-listed old town, and discovered gorgeously old buildings and a different enthralling basilica or cathedral (I don’t know the difference, to be honest) on every corner.

Getting cultural

We spent the next day in Napoli rushing from site to site. First was the Catacombes of San Gennaro, where our enthusiastic and knowledgeable young guide led us through the eerie, glowing passageways, pointing out hundreds of spaces cut into the rock where people had been laid to rest; the richer bodies with colourful frescoes painted above them and the poorer bodies stacked up, one on top of the other.

The catacombs, with hundreds of burial spaces cut into the walls.

Of course, the bodies had been removed from the Catacombs long ago, so, not wanting to miss out on anything, we marched off to the Cimitero delle Fontanelle to see the bodies themselves. Sounds strange? Yes, it was.

The walls of the underground cemetery were lined with rows and rows of skulls staring vacantly at the tourists who snapped their photos. Thousands of long and short bones were piled high, gathering dust. I thought how strange it was that these bones had once belonged to living, breathing people – people who could never have known that they would one day be part of a macabre tourist attraction.

Weird to think these were once people…

More marble sculptures

From there, we journeyed on foot to the Museo di Nazionale, getting caught in an epic downpour on the way, so that we arrived with dripping hair and squelching shoes. The museum was full of marble sculptures, mosaics and more marble sculptures, and did nothing to improve my opinion of museums. I’m impressed by marble sculptures as much as anyone, but there are only so many you can look at before you start wishing you could go and watch cat videos on YouTube for a while instead. The most interesting part of the museum was the phallus room, which showed (quite clearly) the ancient man’s obsession with sex and the penis. Some things don’t change, I guess.

They are impressive, but there are only so many you can take.

After stopping for a lunchtime pizza (when in Napoli…) our next visit was to the Castel Sant’Elmo, a castle on top of a hill where we were treated to glorious views of the city. With an expanse of warmly colourful buildings – ochre, terracotta and scarlet – it looked like a storybook city, too perfect to be real.

By the time we made it to the waterfront promenade we were spent. My trusty Fitbit showed that we had walked 26,000+ steps and 20+ kilometres. We figured the best way to reward ourselves for our big day and to replenish our energy for the next day was to eat a large bowl of pasta for dinner, and follow it up with a decadent chocolate and strawberry cannolo each for dessert. Perfetto!

The gorgeous view from Castel Sant’Elmo.