As we walked away from the car towards the entrance, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I realised we’d just gone against everything we’d read. Twenty minutes previously, after casually winding down the window and asking where the best place to park was, we’d found ourselves directed into a parking space and then ushered into a restaurant. My mind had gone into overdrive and the irrational side of my brain kicked in. I had visions of us not getting our hire car back, being robbed of everything we own and every other possible scenario sandwiched in between. But after drinking our black coffee that was so bitter I nearly gagged, all Fat Tony did was try and sell us a guide to the ruins: ‘It’s informal and a souvenir’ he said. After turning it down multiple times with a few firm no thank you’s, we finally managed to leave and get on our way. But as we exited the restaurant towards the renowned archaeological site of Pompeii, I found myself desperately trying to erase the notion that we might not see our hire car again.
Thunderstorm No. 1
It had only just turned 9am and already the day was looking like a bit of a shitter. The thunderstorm they’d been predicting for days had finally hit the night before and it lasted for hours. Then, at 6am part way through drying my hair, we had a power cut. If you’re familiar with the episode of Friends where Monica’s hair is inexcusable due the Barbados humidity, you’ll probably have a pretty good mental image of what I was dealing with. It was at this point I also discovered what an angry Italian looks like first thing in the morning. With no power, which also meant no lighting, we were trying to decide what an acceptable time would be to wake our hosts in the neighbouring house. Finally, at 6.30am I couldn’t wait any longer and plucked up the courage to knock on the door. Stood in a t-shirt and underpants on the other side of the door, a confused and very disgruntled face stared back at me. Realising I didn’t have my phone with me for Google Translate, I did what any normal English person would do, I shouted my problem a little louder than usual to ensure he understood what I was saying. After carrying out various tests, it became apparent the whole town had lost power. There was nothing else to do, except attempt to tie my big hair up into pigtails and head out on our merry little way.
Having found recent enjoyment in driving our mini-bus on the wrong side of the road, I climbed into the driver’s seat ready to begin our journey. With Ian navigating the way, we zig-zagged along the winding roads, only slightly concerned with the ominous looking clouds ahead of us. As we neared Pompeii, I managed to stall the car 3 times in a row, on a busy round-a-bout no less. For the second time that day I was met with disgruntled faces, and this time, beeping horns as well (very common in Italy). I couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the day was starting to look. Then, of course, we were met with Fat Tony, his shady looking mates and their (very) selective knowledge of the English language. When we finally made our way into Pompeii, we (half) joked how our car was probably parked 7 deep by now. Oh Italy, how I loved you.
(Try to) Avoid the crowds
We’d been advised to start at the rear of the ruins, as everyone usually heads straight for the main entrance, which means it fills up fast. Exploring it this way round meant we would get at least an hour, maybe longer, to have a look around without the crowds. But as we slowly started to make our way through the ruins, we found ourselves going fighting against the flow of people. It was like trying to get out of a football match or a concert.
Join a tour group
On the way in we’d been offered the option of taking a tour, but we didn’t. I’m not a fan of being dragged around in a group, having to do things in a certain order and being told when I can stop for lunch etc. But the further into the ruins we got, we realised that perhaps it would have been a good idea. Every street looked the same. The buildings were pretty much identical and we had no way of knowing which buildings were significant and why. Yes, there was the occasional plaque with information on, but fighting my way through a crowd of 8 deep to read it, wasn’t really something I had the patience for. I’d been looking forward to visiting Pompeii before we’d even booked our flights, but instead of soaking up the history and being in awe at what had survived, I found it overwhelming and tedious. In hindsight, we should have booked a tour or found a guide, and that’s my one piece of advice to anyone who plans to visit: join a tour group, you’ll find it invaluable.
Even though there aren’t any preserved bodies at the ruins, (which left many visitors disappointed), you will find some plaster casts.
Thunderstorm No. 2
The ominous clouds from our journey over had finally caught up with us. The blue sky was now completely grey and thunderstorm number two was about to hit. As the clouds rolled in, the wind picked up speed and rattled through the streets. We tried to shelter while we dug out our waterproofs from the bottom of the rucksack – items we almost hadn’t packed. As the rain flowed freely from clouds above us, we managed to find cover under a tunnel next to one of the theatres and we stood stranded for over an hour with many others, waiting for the storm to pass.
The highlight of this was the tour groups were still coming through. One after the other they carried on, sheltering under umbrellas while continuing with their history lesson. And with each one that passed through, we picked up bits of information we wouldn’t have otherwise known. We watched as the rain came down hard, pounding the floor, making pathways flooded and impassable. Then, as fast as it had started, it stopped. The clouds began to part and blue sky gradually started twinkling through, enticing us back out into the streets. Planks of wood were laid down, and one by one, people walked along them, continuing with their day.
We stopped for our lunch, and for the second time that day, a caffeine hit of thick, bitter black coffee, before making our way to the cemetery and Villa De Misteri. By this time, we were both bored. We had no guide and still no idea what anything was. We were also becoming increasingly aware of just how big the ruins were and how crowded they had become. It would have taken multiple days to explore them in full and it turned out we weren’t the only ones lacking enthusiasm.
As we headed through flooded paths into Villa De Misteri, we stood looking at a painting on the wall. A man to the left of me whispered to his wife: ‘We walked all this way for that? It’s shit’. I sniggered and glanced at him. At first, he looked a bit sheepish, but then with a knowing look, he gave a wry grin. It was definitely time to leave. Throughout the day, the one thing that struck me was how Mount Vesuvius, shrouded by clouds, sat in the background quietly watching over the devastation it had caused. Nature is an eerie thing, something we have no control over, and knowing there was a possibility it could erupt at any time felt quite chilling.
We fought our way through the crowds and headed back to the car, which luckily, we found was only two deep, not 7. After purchasing a pizza between us and the vilest, most bitter tasting lemonade we had ever tried, it was finally time to head back to Tramonti. This time, I managed not to stall the car, and when we finally returned to our home away from home, the power had also been restored.
Tips and Advice:
To avoid overwhelm, I would suggest signing up to a tour – I think you can even hire private guides. Much as I’m not too keen on being dragged around in a group, I’m sure we’d have found it more enjoyable just visiting the key sites and learning a little more about the history. From what we picked up by eavesdropping on the tour groups, it all sounded really interesting.
If you don’t take a tour, arrive early and start at the rear entrance. You’ll find yourself going against the flow of people later on, but I think it’s worth it. You’ll have a couple of peaceful hours without the crowds.
As for parking, we paid 5 euros. Even though we were a little concerned, our car was still there when we returned and other visitors were also parked up. It turns out it’s not that uncommon to park with nearby traders – although, there is official parking available.
Take your own food! We took sandwiches and just grabbed a coffee in the cafeteria. But be warned, the cafeteria is nowhere near big enough to accommodate the amount of visitors that pass through.
There are a lot of cobbles and uneven ground, I would recommend decent footwear. We saw people in flip flops and they were really struggling.
If you’re like me and love animals, you’ll be heartbroken by the number of stray dogs wandering around. Just a word of warning – I found it really difficult.
I’ve heard that the archaeological site of Herculaneum is also worth visiting and possibly even better than Pompeii.