“Una grande acqua freddo, per favore.”
I have no idea how correct that is but I do know that confusingly, in Italian, caldo, which you would expect to mean “cold,” actually means “hot.” I also think that I might be confusing my little Spanish with my little Italian. But it seems to be good enough because the vendor rattles off the price in Italian and I haven’t a clue how much it is. So much for trying to embrace the culture.
I hand over a fistful of coins and he gives some of them back to me. This could be the dearest water in Italy.
Meanwhile, Iona has bought a book which shows Pompeii then and now. It’s a great idea. There is a colour photo of a ruin as it is now and on the facing page, a colour transparency which you slip over the scene and, hey presto! An artist’s impression of what it looked like before the eruption. Brilliant! She shows it to some of our fellow tourists who like it so much they buy one for themselves.
(Pity she wasn’t on commission).
We hang about in the broiling heat waiting for our guide. At last he arrives. His name is Marco and he expresses his apologies in a lilting sort of voice, placing the stress at the end of each sentence. I suppose that’s the Italian way. It seems the site employees have been staging half-day strikes and he had been told one was scheduled for this morning rather than this afternoon. He is carrying a hat rolled up like a scroll and when he uncurls it and plonks it on his head, I can’t help thinking that it looks like a lampshade with pleats.
We set off towards the Scavi but before we get there, he stops and gives us a talk about the eruption and how Pompeii’s fate differed from that of Herculaneum. Whilst Pompeii was buried under a ceaseless downpour of ash and cinders, Herculaneum was engulfed by a pyroclastic surge, a mixture of mud and gases as hot as 500° C. It boiled the victims’ blood and split their skulls wide open when their brains expanded. No doubt about it, had I been given the choice in 79 AD, I’d rather have been a resident of Pompeii. On that fateful day, 24th August, restoration was still not complete from an earthquake in 62 AD. That’s what it’s like living in the shadow of an active volcano though they didn’t think it was before then.
Standing under the shade of some pines, if we look to our right along the grove of oleander, we can see Vesuvius sleeping peacefully now. It has been having a nap since 1944 but one of these days it is going to rouse itself again. What no-one knows is when that day will come, but come it must. Probably the first sign will be an earthquake.
I hope it will not be when we are here. We were in Sicily a few years back and to our immense disappointment, left just a couple of days before Mt Etna erupted after puffing merrily away all week. From the roof of our hotel in Giardini Naxos, we would have had a grandstand view of the pyrotechnics and been perfectly safe at that distance even if the lave flow did come in our direction as it moves slower than we could (and would) have run. And we should also have been well out of range of any lava bombs, though there is nothing like being hit on the head by a red-hot hard object fired from a volcano to make you think again. But I don’t think that would have been necessary. Since they began keeping records on Etna more than two millennia ago, only 77 deaths have been attributed to it. Not like Vesuvius. Vesuvius is a different kettle of fish. At a conservative estimate, 2000 people died that day in Pompeii alone, including some gladiators who were chained up and unable to flee.
Can you imagine the panic there would be today, if alerted by the early warning system, the 3 million and more residents of the metropolitan area of Naples tried to put as much distance as they could between them and the volcano—the roads choked with traffic, the harbour clogged with ships. As hopeless a flight for their lives as that fight for their lives those poor gladiators never got the chance to make.
Before we get to the ticket booths, Marco picks up a book just like the one Iona had bought but does not pay for it and tells us this is the last chance to buy water. There are only 18 of us. It’s a good number because we can all gather round Marco without him having to project his voice as if he were addressing a public meeting, as Queen Victoria complained about Gladstone.
It is a bit disappointing to enter the city along a wooden ramp instead of treading where Roman sandals trod nearly two millennia ago but I needn’t have worried. Once through an arch, actually the Porta Marina, we are on the actual cobblestones, though to call them “cobblestones” calls to mind our puny little ones and which doesn’t do these monsters justice. I’d like to see rioters digging these up and throwing them at the police! They are enormous and irregular with gaps between them which must have made riding in a wagon or cart such a bone-shaking experience that it’s a wonder that everyone didn’t get out and walk.
Marco enters a side street and ushers his flock into the shade, though I am able to find a spot in the sun within hearing range. He points out some ruts where the carts have worn grooves in the stone. Further along the street are massive blocks of stone which would seem to obstruct vehicular passage but actually are stepping stones so that people carrying heavy loads, suspended from poles over their shoulders, don’t have to step off the high pavements and climb up again and break their necks in the process. And here’s the cunning part, the height of the stones is sufficiently low to allow clearance for the axles of the carts to pass through. And the reason that the pavements are so high is because the streets doubled as a drainage and sewage system. Yes, well, maybe that’s not such a nice idea.
It is easy to project oneself back two thousand years and imagine ordinary life, the hustle and the bustle there must have been on this street for it is bustling now and still sandal-trod. But what would the citizens make of those, like some in our group, who are wearing shorts with sandals and socks? Some strange new cult? And what would the punishment be for such sartorial impropriety? Exile or death? Anyway, shockingly socked-and-sandaled or not, as the case may be, we set off to follow in the footsteps of the last inhabitants of Pompeii and explore their town.
The first stop is the Basilica. This, of course, was long before Christianity became the major world religion it is now, so it has nothing do with churches, though the architects pinched the idea for the great cathedrals. This is a secular building, a meeting place, but principally, the law courts. An immense structure, intimidating in itself, but with the podium where the magistrates sat so high up it must have made any defendant standing beneath it feel like an insignificant little worm upon whom the full weight of the law was just about to descend: You are charged with wearing socks and sandals and making yourself look a right pleb. Sentenced to 200 hours community service for offending public decency. Take him down!
The place is pretty-much ruined now, one of the places they didn’t quite get round to restoring completely after the earthquake of 62, never mind the catastrophic events seventeen years later, so Iona’s book with the transparency comes in pretty useful as I can see just how awe-inspiring it was in its heyday.
But apart from the huge scale of the building, the thing that captures my interest particularly is because of its ruinous state, you can see the construction of a Roman pillar. Made of cheap brick, the whole thing is then covered in plaster and then given a coating of marble dust and—transformation! You have what looks like a column of marble! Put a lot of these together and you create a place of elegance and apparent affluence, perhaps even opulence.
Now imagine all those northern industrial streets with the back-to-back red brick houses being given a veneer of powdered marble! Now that really would be something, wouldn’t it!