Just a few years ago, the Italian government declared a “state of emergency” at Pompeii. The House of Gladiators collapsed, and the rest of the neglected ruins were also in danger.
In 2016, however, the situation couldn’t be more different. This fascinating city has been rescued and undergone a €105 million transformation. After the Colosseum, the ruins of Pompeii are the most visited attraction in Italy, which is not surprising given the sheer size of the site, and the variety of things to see. With restored artwork to marvel at and new buildings to explore, there’s never been a better time to visit Pompeii.
1. Six new buildings are open to the public
It’s always a momentous occasion when something new opens at a site as famous as Pompeii. After the restoration, six new buildings became accessible to the public – a cause for celebration among tourists and archaeologists alike.
The Fullonica di Stephanus, an ancient laundrette, is one of the most interesting new buildings. You can see the baths and basins they used for rinsing tunics and dyeing fabrics, and you’ll discover that the citizens of the ancient city had some unusual ideas about cleanliness. Urine was collected from public toilets and used for removing stains, and the urine-soaked sheets would then be trampled on by laundry workers.
Several grand houses have also been opened, including the Domus of the Cryptoporticus. Its beautiful frescoes survived the eruption of Vesuvius and the bombing during the Second World War, and can finally be admired by the public.
2. Pompeii has some of the most beautiful and mysterious ancient art…
Many sculptures and paintings have been removed from Pompeii in order to preserve them, but there’s still plenty of beautiful artwork to be found among the ruins. The Villa of the Mysteries, a remarkably well-preserved villa located on the outskirts of the ancient city, has some of the most enigmatic frescos. Scholars have been arguing about their symbolism for centuries, but the paintings are now believed to depict some kind of religious initiation ceremony – perhaps a young woman being initiated into the cult of Dionysus before marriage.
Head to the House of the Tragic Poet for exquisite mythological frescoes and mosaics, or the richly decorated House of the Vettii for more murals. The people of Pompeii were much more open about sex than we are today, as you’ll see from the image of Priapus by the entrance. But if you want to see the most erotic artwork from Pompeii and Herculaneum, you’ll have to visit nearby Naples. While Pompeii is a great place for children to explore, the “Gabinetto Segreto” in the Archaeological Museum in Naples is strictly for adults.
To make sure you don’t miss Pompeii’s most beautiful art, hire an expert guide and explore the city on a private walking tour.
3. …and the oldest Roman amphitheatre
The amphitheatre in Pompeii is the oldest Roman amphitheatre still standing. It’s pretty impressive, when you consider that it was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius. When it was built in 80 BC, its design was groundbreaking, as all previous amphitheatres had been made of wood instead of long-lasting stone.
Even today, the amphitheatre continues to impress. Modern crowd control experts think that we could learn a lot from the excellent design of the amphitheatre, with its spacious layout. Pompeii often surprises visitors, offering an unexpected insight into the minds and lives of the people who lived there. The amphitheatre is an example of how Pompeii’s citizens enjoyed a good show, just like us, but it also shows how they understood human behaviour and the importance of crowd control.
4. You can still see the human side of the city
Visiting Pompeii is a moving experience. The most poignant symbol of the city is the plaster cast, covering the bodies of those who were buried in the eruption of Vesuvius. Among the remains that have been discovered are a dog, a young child and an embracing couple. Some people died carrying treasured possessions, such as good luck charms or statuettes of Mercury, the god who guided the dead to the underworld.
Although it’s not surprising that these plaster casts have moved and inspired generations of visitors, it’s important to remember that there are other, less morbid signs of the human side of Pompeii. Explore the bakeries, bars, baths and brothels of the city, and you’ll find it easy to imagine the locals going about their daily business. You can even see some Roman toilets, the contents of which flowed through open gutters.
5. The walls are covered with ancient graffiti (the good, the bad and the shocking)
You’ll see writing scrawled on the walls all over the city, but unless your Latin is up to scratch, you won’t understand it. If you want a translation of the graffiti, go on a walking tour of Pompeii, so your guide can help you to understand these intriguing messages.
Reading the graffiti of Pompeii is a unique opportunity to hear the voices of its citizens. Some are simple and mundane (“Romula hung out here with Staphylus”), some are romantic (“If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend)”. Insults range from statements like “The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian” to eyebrow-raising accusations. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of sexual boasts too, adorning the walls of brothels and bars. They make modern graffiti look tame by comparison.
6. Luxury private tours take you from Rome and back
To make the most of your trip to Pompeii, consider booking a private tour. The town is huge, and although wandering around aimlessly can be fun, you’ll get a better sense of Pompeii and its history if you go with a guide. Book a private tour of Pompeii and explore the ruins with an expert, who will take you to all the most famous sites, as well as showing you some more unusual places, off the beaten path.
You can even do Pompeii as a day trip from Rome, either taking the train or, for a more luxurious experience, a private car. Your driver will pick you up at your hotel in Rome and then take you to Pompeii, for a day in the ancient city with an expert guide.
7. Exciting Naples or serene Sorrento are the perfect bases
If you want to stay near Pompeii, you’re spoilt for choice. Naples is one of the most exciting cities in Italy – a bit too chaotic at times, but beautiful and fascinating nonetheless. The Archaeological Museum is unmissable, and the atmospheric streets of Spaccanapoli and the Spanish Quarter are always fun to explore. Stay in a luxury hotel like the Grand Hotel Vesuvio for a spectacular view of the bay.
Alternatively, if you want to escape the noise of the city, take your pick from the pretty towns along the Amalfi Coast. Sorrento is particularly popular, and ideally located for visiting Pompeii, as the ruins are just a short train journey away. Then there’s picturesque Positano, and countless luxury resorts to choose from along the Amalfi Coast. After a day of sightseeing, there’s nothing better than heading back to the hotel pool, or sipping a spritz on the terrace, with a perfect view of the sea.
Rosario Gorgone is Co-Founder of Through Eternity Tours.