If your main reason for going to Naples is to visit Pompeii but you’re on a budget, then buy yourself a Campania Artecard on arrival at Napoli airport. There are several different types of Artecards with various itineraries to get confused over. Depending on the length of your stay I would suggest buying the “Tutta la Regione” card: for €27 (September 2012) this card, valid for three days, will give you free travel on all public transport not just within the city of Naples (including the ALIBUS – the main bus linking the airport with central Naples) but also across the Campanian region as far afield as Sorrento. It will also give you free entry to the first two participating areas of interest (including the main museums in Naples which are definitely worth a visit), with half price entry into everything else after that. As entry into the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum cost around €11 each and the train journey is approximately €3, if you visit these sites before anything else you will cover the cost of your Artecard almost straight away.
Much as I appreciated having this card during my visit to Naples back in September, I did experience a rather irritating problem with it; after I had validated it a few times on the metro (and it must be validated every time you use it), the yellow ticket-validating machines couldn’t read the damn thing anymore and so wouldn’t validate it. This was not a major problem on the buses as I just flashed the card at the driver for his approval. But trying to locate an attendant at a metro station to cast his eye over the card was rather more difficult as they do seem to be an elusive race in the city. Persevere. Technically, the card has to be stamped on every use so make sure someone in authority has seen you at least try to do so.
Getting to Pompeii and Herculaneum from Naples is easy enough: catch the Sorrento-bound train from Naples’ main train station Garibaldi. They are fairly frequent, about two or three trains an hour. Finding the platform to which the train leaves from however, can be the problem. When you arrive at Garibaldi station follow the signs for “Circumvesuviana”, the name of the train company operating the route. Be warned though as the signs for it at street level may confuse. I saw two such signs side-by-side pointing in two completely different directions. Ignore them and simply take the nearest set of stairs down to the lower level where the signs are much clearer and will lead you to the four platforms where the Sorrento-bound trains depart from. Don’t be worried if the train appears late. Nothing seems to run on time in Naples. You shouldn’t have to wait more than ten minutes longer than timetabled, unless something really has gone wrong with the service. Also, don’t be surprised if you see passengers smoking on the platform. From the plethora of cigarette-ends carpeting the tracks, it would appear it is still legal to smoke on overground platforms in Italy.
The stunning views of Vesuvius out of the train window will take your mind off the not so stunning decor and conditions inside the carriage. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit Herculaneum during this particular trip, but the stop to alight from to visit the site is called ‘Ercolano-Scavi’, which the train passes through approximately 20 minutes after leaving Garibaldi. I’d advise looking at the train-line map and counting the stations along the way from Naples to Ercolano-Scavi because like most things in Naples (sadly), station signs are often heavily obscured by graffiti and there are no announcements by the train-driver to confirm which stop the train has arrived in, so it’s easy to miss the stop.
There is little mistaking the stop for Pompeii however. It’s a 40 minute journey ride from Garibaldi and seems a little too far for Naples’ street artists to travel with their spray cans, so the platform signs clearly read ‘Pompei-Scavi’. Once you’ve fought your way through the tourists along the platform, you will then have to fight through the scouts bombarding you with tour-guide leaflets. If like me you decide to go it alone, then unlike me obtain a detailed map of the site from the booth inside the little station or by the ticket office (come out of the station and turn right – you can’t miss it). It’s well worth the few Euros because there are very few signs within the site to guide you to the main points of interest, and as one ruined building can look much like another in there, it is extremely easy to get lost (as I did several times).
When you enter the site you may spot the odd pet dog walking about or lying around. However tempting it may be, I’d advise not to touch them. They are not local pets but apparently wild, abandoned dogs, unpredictable and possibly carrying disease. They seem placid enough but it’s best to keep out of their way none the less.
Even if you have an Artecard you will still need to queue up to get a ticket, but once you’re through the turnstile the wonder of Pompeii instantly greets you and the photo opportunities begin:
The Forum was the main piazza to the city, flanked by shops, market-stalls, keys political buildings, important temples, and this:
Even though this eatery was not in keeping with its surroundings, I was more perturbed by the food it had on offer. I expected the choices to mirror dishes typically eaten by ancient Pompeiians. Where was the spit-roasted wild boar? Fig-stuffed peacock? Succulent grapes fed to me from a dangling vine by a giggling Vestal virgin? … and at €12.90 I would have expected her to be thrown in for free. Very disappointing.
Sexual appetites however, seemed far better catered for in Pompeii. There is an exhibition just outside the site near the Porta Marina gate where the most salacious mosaics so far excavated can be viewed, but this apparently needs to be booked online at least 24 hours in advance if you can find the website. I’m still trying to find it! There are however some equally titillating examples within the site itself. Unfortunately the Casa dei Vettii was closed to the public whilst I was there. This houses the blush-inducing mosaic of Priapus weighing his rather large … erm … well, I’ll leave you to search that one out for yourself through Google Images. Clearly size didn’t matter even then, but unlike now it would seem that it was how much it weighed that counted.
Thankfully, Lupanare – Pompeii’s only dedicated brothel in its day – was open at the time of my visit, for curiosity purposes only of course. When I eventually found it (it’s rather difficult to find, especially without a map!), there was a small tourist party just ahead of me with a Guide who was detailing the history of the small dwelling with great enthusiasm to his group. He explained that the ladies who ‘worked’ here were probably from either Greece, Africa or Asia and unlikely to have been able to speak Latin. To get around the language barrier with their clients, the Guide revealed how mosaics depicting the various services the ladies could offer were painted on the walls so that potential clients could point to what they wanted. “A bit like choosing which Happy Meal you want from the menus above the tills in McDonalds!” the Guide chuckled. Quite.
South of the site are the spectacular remains of the Teatro Grande, the city’s main theatre cut into the rock with a 5000-seat capacity, and the perfect place to sit down and have a spot of packed lunch.
As I sat along the top row chomping my way through a ham sandwich, I watched a group of lethargic tourists being lead into the stage area below by a rather good looking, French-speaking Guide. He directed his group to stand behind him as he journeyed alone to the front of the stage. He turned to face his group with theatrical flare and addressed them with some words of French before clapping purposely at them four times. This seemed a little odd and unexceptional both to myself and evidently to his unamused gathering. But then he took two large steps towards them landing in a worn out spot right in the middle of the stage, addressed his group with some further explanation and then clapped again – four times at the same tempo as before – only this time the sound created was very, very different.
The claps echoed around the open air theatre sounding like the buzz from a dying electrical wasp, and the French Guide’s audience were suddenly and completed transfixed. To prove this hadn’t been a fluke, and to relish in the attention, the Guide took a step back, clapped, then stepped onto the designated spot again and clapped once more. The former clap was barely audible, the latter buzzed magically through the air. The Guide bowed proudly at his party as they clapped their approval (without acoustic magic). But before any of the group could step forward onto the magical spot and recreate the sound for themselves, the Guide hurried the group out of the theatre. Either the Guide was on a tight schedule or maybe he wanted to capitalise on the group’s rejuvenated enthusiasm for his tour.
I too was intrigued by this demonstration and I was yearning to try the clapping trick out for myself. However, as this meant literally performing on a stage in front of a fair number of strangers, I had to build myself up to the part. I waited to see whether I could catch a moment when hardly anybody was in the theatre, but being such a popular site it was obvious that this was not going to happen anytime soon.
I took a deep breathe and tentatively made my way down to the magical spot. Thankfully nobody seemed to take any notice of me standing there, so I counted to three and made a lame, half-hearted attempt at a clap. The noise it created was so loud and distinct I am sure the whole of Naples heard it. Everyone in the theatre was suddenly staring at me but I was so absorbed by the effect of my clap that I didn’t notice and clapped again, this time with much more conviction. The result was amazing. I was so pleased with myself that I clapped again and again, grinning and giggling to myself with such contentment. That was until I caught sight of a group of excited Japanese tourists pointing and frantically taking photographs of me from the wings, headed by a European woman with an official guide’s badge on her lapel. From her less than appreciative glare towards me and her firmly crossed arms, I guess I had spoilt her planned surprise for her tour party.
Below are some more photographs I took (that lend themselves well to a quip or two) from this most fascinating site. I spent most of the day there and still didn’t get to see everything. Luckily for me it was slightly overcast on the day I visited so I wasn’t roasted by the sun. There is little shade available to take cover under at the site when the sun does beat down and it can be stifling as a result. When I returned to Naples that day, a waiter told me how he hated Pompeii because it was always so hot. “Even at Christmas it can be snowing in Napoli but it will still be baking hot in Pompeii. Phew!” he groaned to me (in perfect English). So, if you do decide to go to Pompeii bring a hat, sun cream and plenty of water with you.
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