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)