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The city of Pompeii was a bad place to be on August 24 in the year 79 AD. Things started out pleasantly enough, with the citizens of this
Roman city of 20,000 going about their business as usual. Establishments such as bakeries and restaurants were serving their customers, and
carts wheeled up and down the paved streets, making their deliveries. Other businesses, such as public baths and brothels, were also
supplying their popular services. Around the city, repairs were still ongoing from a devastating earthquake which had struck the area
seventeen years earlier. But there was light at the end of the tunnel, and many of the industrious residents had even found the time to
decorate their homes with colorful paintings and mosaics. But then the mountain blew up.
Mt. Vesuvius, located a short distance to the northwest of Pompeii, is now known to be a volcano of frightening potential. It is considered
to be the only active volcano on the European continent (two other active European volcanoes, Etna and Stromboli, are on islands). All three
volcanoes were formed hundreds of thousands of years ago as a result of the subduction of the African tectonic plate beneath the Eurasian
tectonic plate. Vesuvius has been erupting off and on for several thousand years, but it had been quiet for hundreds of years before 79 AD,
apparently pausing to build up pressure. But because of this prolonged period of inactivity, Vesuvius was not generally considered to be
anything other than a garden-variety 6500-foot mountain, though it did have some remarkably fertile soil on its slopes.
So one can easily imagine profound surprise among the Pompeiians in the early afternoon of August 24 when a humongous blast was followed by
the appearance of a thick column of ash, pumice and other volcanic debris rising several miles into the sky. Unfortunately for Pompeii, the
prevailing winds in the area blow toward the southeast, and August 24 was not atypical in this respect. So when gravity took over and the
material blown skyward began to fall earthward, it did not land on Naples, which was about the same distance from the mountain but to its
northwest, but instead started falling onto communities to the southeast. Like mainly Pompeii. To the unfortunate people in this afflicted
town, this meant the blotting out of the sun and the beginning of a continuous snowstorm of choking dust. The dust was really pumice, and
unlike snow, it was not going to melt and go away, in warm weather or at any other time – it just accumulated, and quickly. Roofs began to
collapse under the weight, and Pompeii was being buried. This layer of pumice would eventually exceed ten feet in thickness. Most Pompeiians
took the hint, scraped together some belongings and began to leave the city. But for reasons of their own, there were some who did not leave.
A pyroclastic flow can occur when the pressure of an eruption abates somewhat, and the superheated, poisonous gases coming from the
volcano can no longer be blown very far upward. This leads to great clouds of volcanic material travelling rapidly down the sides of the
volcano instead of up into the sky. These flows can move very fast (up to hundreds of kilometers per hour, depending on the slope) and can
travel for several miles, and are instantly fatal to anything that breathes. Early on August 25, after about 18 hours of dustfall, pyroclastic
flows started making their way toward Pompeii. The early flows struck the north wall of the city and were pretty well stopped. But as they
spent their energy, they dropped the debris they were carrying at the base of the wall. This had the effect of contributing material to a
“ramp” which was eventually high enough to lift a flow over the wall and into the city. The first such flow was enough to ensure that anyone
still in the city would not be leaving. But there were more. And other volcanic deposits continued for a considerable period.
After all the commotion was over, the now-lifeless city of Pompeii found itself buried under 30 feet of volcanic deposits and mudflows. Evidence
has been found of nearly 2000 people who lost their lives in the city. Many more undoubtedly perished outside the city, trying to escape, but
this number is unknown, and estimates vary widely. The shoreline which had bordered the city was now a considerable distance away, thanks to all
the deposits. Mt. Vesuvius had lost about 2000 feet of its elevation, probably because of the collapse of the peak into the now-empty magma
chamber beneath it. The Romans showed no interest in unearthing or rebuilding the city. Centuries passed, and knowledge of and interest in the
city faded to almost nothing. Until much later, in the 18th Century, when accidental discoveries led to a painstaking excavation that extended
well into the 19th Century.
Early in the 21st Century, we were walking around the central train station in Naples, trying to find how to get to Pompeii and into the
excavated area for the fewest Euros. And we found it when we located the booth that sells the Campania ArteCard. There are different flavors
of this wonderful discount card, and we settled on the “Tutta la Regione” version, which is somewhat expensive at 27 Euros, but includes three
days of all public transportation throughout the area (as far south as Pompeii), admission to any two points of interest on a long list
(including both Pompeii and Herculaneum, normally more than ten Euros each), and 50% off on admission to anything else on the list. We bought
four, but unfortunately they didn’t take credit cards. We paid cash, which instantly wiped out most of the cash we’d just withdrawn from the
elusive ATM near our hotel, and we were immediately on the lookout for another ATM. Again, we didn’t find one at the train station, but we
found our train by following signs to the Circumvesuviana (this is the name of the train that follows the shoreline of the Bay of Naples to the
southeast, toward Pompeii). We boarded the train headed toward Sorrento (the end of the line toward the south).
Pompeii is more than 20 miles from Naples, and a traveler must pay attention to the stops so as not to miss the one for Pompeii. This
stop is called “Pompei Scavi” (the Italian spelling for Pompeii only uses one “i”; scavi is Italian for “diggings” or “excavation”,
and can also be found on signs at road construction sites). On exiting the train station, one turns right to go toward the entrance to the
ruins. On the way are a number of places selling food and souvenirs, and across the street from these is the Porta Marina entrance (and,
thankfully, an ATM). Despite having ArteCards, we still had to stand in the short line for the ticket office, where we showed the ArteCards
and were given Pompeii admission tickets. A short way downhill from the ticket office we found turnstiles, where we used our tickets to
enter the city.
Strictly speaking, we weren’t quite in the city just yet, as we were still outside the Porta Marina (or Sea Gate) to Pompeii. 2000 years
earlier we’d have been standing in the Bay of Naples, but in 2009, a mile away from the bay, we were looking at a walkway heading uphill
toward a well-preserved tunnel through a well-preserved city wall. We took some touristy pictures and entered the city.
When visiting the city of Pompeii, it is best to have a plan of what there is to see and which of those things you’re most interested in
seeing. It’s a very large place (a city of 20,000, after all), and though there are a number of places that are roped off or behind fences,
for the most part you can go where you please. This being the case, it’s very easy to use up your time and energy wandering aimlessly and
missing major points of interest. We started out with the intention of following this advice – we’d downloaded a walking tour from the Rick
Steves web site, and began by following it carefully. But we lacked a couple of things which we found to be important: one was a map, as
we’d forgotten to pick one up on the way in, and the other was the self-discipline to stick with the plan for more than ten minutes. Nella
eventually went back and found a map, but we never were able to locate the self-discipline. Unfortunately, in Pompeii you’re constantly
surrounded by interesting things, and the urge to explore them can be irresistible, especially if you’re young and adventurous, like Philip
and Connie (or at least they were until the jet lag asserted itself). So we ended up missing some of the major sights (the House of the
Faun, the Amphitheater, the Gladiator School, the brothels, etc.). But that being said, we did see a lot of cool stuff, as shown in the
following pictures. Please note that figures appearing to be sculptures of eruption victims are not sculptures – they were formed by
pouring plaster into the cavities in the earth left after the bodies of eruption victims decomposed over the centuries; they can be both
fascinating and disturbing.
After using up nearly all of our energy, we exited and crossed the street to get lunch at one of the arrayed eating establishments. Most of
us had pasta, but Philip introduced himself to a proper pizza margherita, consisting of a thin crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, and
nothing else. Pizza margherita is one of the specialties of the Naples area and is considered patriotic, as it features all three colors of
the Italian flag. The Campania region produces the best mozzarella in the world, and Philip was well pleased. While eating, we were also
trying to figure out what was wrong with Philip’s camera, which had chosen the beginning of the trip as the time to go squirrelly. All of the
pictures were coming out sort of pink, with a weird purple bar across the top. We never did figure it out; the pictures were improved
somewhat after the trip with Photoshop Elements, but not to the quality they had before the problem surfaced. So if you see some pictures
that look sort of pink, this is the reason.
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