POMPEII, Italy -- Few things fuel the imagination like the story of a long-lost and forgotten city that somehow gets found. And as archaeological tales go, there's probably no better one than that of this ancient town in the Campania region of southern Italy. Just ask anyone who's ever made it through elementary school.
When Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupted in A.D. 79, it spewed a mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke, ash and molten lava some 20 miles into the sky, plunging Pompeii -- a thriving commercial center with about 20,000 residents -- into darkness. As prevailing winds caused the volcanic matter to rain down on the city and cover it in a thick layer of pumice and ash, fast-moving avalanches of boiling gas and dust poured down the side of the mountain. Floors and roofs collapsed, and the people of Pompeii, along with the temples, baths, brothels and countless other buildings they had built in the Roman tradition, were buried under up to 25 feet of debris.
After the eruption, Pompeians returned to dig through the ash and see what they could salvage; Emperor Titus even offered financial assistance for cleanup and recovery. But the wasteland could not be saved. Abandoned and eventually forgotten, Pompeii lay lost to history for the next 1,500 years until workers digging a canal in the 16th century accidentally stumbled upon its relics. It would take another 200 years before Pompeii, under the King of Naples, Charles III of Bourbon, was recognized for what it was and truly explored in 1748. Scientific excavations started at the end of the 19th century and have continued systematically ever since.
Today, the archaeological site near Naples is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy, drawing more than 2.5 million visitors each year.
Many who make the trek, me included, are eager for a firsthand look at the famous plaster casts made of some of the victims. (More on that later.) But Pompeii is not so much about worshipping the dead as it is getting a firsthand glimpse of how these ancient people lived.
It sounds trite, but Ancient Rome can't help but come alive when you wander the same raised stone streets -- many still bearing ancient cart-wheel tracks -- that carried Pompeians about their daily business: to the Temple of Apollo, the town's most important religious building, across the street to the rectangular Basilica, where justice was administered, and on to the grandiose, colonnade-lined Forum, a busy shopping area where elections were held and official announcements made.
For instance, who knew that people in the first century enjoyed snack bars along with public baths and bought their daily bread from bakeries instead of making it at home? Or that social life revolved around the peristyle, an interior garden surrounded by a colonnade of porticos? Or that Pompeians had such an affinity for color, not to mention love of the pleasures of the flesh?
But there it is, right in front of you for the touching, seeing and imagining: The thermopolia, with their terra-cotta containers sunk into masonry counters, where people would have bought hot food and drinks (it was customary to eat lunch outside the home). The House of the Baker, with its machinery for grinding wheat and giant, vaulted oven. The richly decorated walls in the atrium of the House of the Small Fountain. The colorful, oh-so-erotic murals depicting the various services offered in the 10-room Lupanare, the best organized of Pompeii's many brothels. (Not surprisingly, the line to get inside this building was 40 people deep.)
The sheer scale of Pompeii is staggering. The archaeological area covers more than 163 acres, of which about 111 have been excavated. Even with a schematic map, it's easy to get lost amid the ruins, because building numbers on the audio tour (a must) didn't seem to match up with the numbers posted on the buildings. It wasn't until we found ourselves in front of the Forum that we managed to get our bearings.
Yet even with a good map or the services of one of the local guides who offer narrated tours of the hot spots, it's impossible to see it all in one day; it's that big. Thank goodness many buildings are often closed -- at least that's one less thing you feel you have to explore. Unless, of course, it's something extraordinary, like the Villa of the Mysteries, a spectacular villa outside the city walls with Pompeii's best-preserved frescoes. Wouldn't you know it, it was off limits to the public the day we visited.
Happily, we were able to see both the Forum and Stabian baths, where Pompeians would have bathed in early afternoon; the Fullonica of Stephanus, where raw wool was processed and washed in a mixture of water and urine; and the sumptuous "fourth style" frescoes in the House of the Ancient Hunt. We also made it to the stone amphitheater, large enough for 20,000 spectators and one of the oldest (circa 80 B.C.) and best-preserved amphitheaters in existence. Was this the type of structure Maximus, the Roman gladiator played by Russell Crowe in the 2000 flick "Gladiator," would have battled in? More to the point, what caused the violent riot that broke out between fans in A.D. 59 and forced closure of the field for 10 years?
Many of Pompeii's most spectacular finds -- say, the colorful floor mosaic depicting the Battle of Issus that was unearthed in the House of the Faun, along with sculptures, gems, glass, silver and a collection of Roman erotica -- are safely ensconced in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. But there's still plenty to see, even if you have to sometimes squint to make out the details. (One of the pop-up "before/after" books sold at the gate can help fill in the blanks.) And things you wish you didn't see, such as the modern-day graffiti marring a delightful fresco of a dancing woman in the House of the Lararium of Achilles. Then again, ancient Pompeians themselves were fond of scratching risque jokes, caricatures of famous people and "appreciative" remarks about beautiful women onto the walls. So who's to judge?
To me, the most haunting site was our last stop of the day: the Garden of the Fugitives, a former farm in the shadow of Vesuvius that's been cultivated as a vineyard. It's on these grounds that 13 doomed Pompeians were overtaken by a toxic cloud of blistering sulfurous gas as they tried to escape, covered in ash and left in situ. In 1860, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli devised a method of producing casts of the victims by pouring liquid plaster into the cavities left in the hardened ash by the decomposed bodies. Today, the three families are encased in glass, children still close to their parents.
We'd hoped to round out the day with a visit to the ancient ruins of Herculaneum, just 9 miles northwest. Smaller and wealthier than Pompeii, this seaside resort was buried under a river of semi-liquid volcanic mud when Vesuvius blew its top nearly 2,000 years ago. According to our guidebook, it's actually better preserved than its more famous cousin, with some of its original wooden staircases and furniture on display. But we were too hot, too tired and emotionally spent.
Next time with the kids, we promised each other. And while we're at it, we'll probably squeeze in a climb to the summit of Vesuvius, which when the weather is clear offers a stupendous view of the Bay of Naples. Sure, it's still an active volcano (it's erupted three times since 1906). But it's only from that perch some 4,200 feet above the sea that you can fully appreciate the magnitude of its power, and the devastation it rained down on so many people so long ago.