How NOT to visit Pompeii

On Friday, I went with a group of Apolline Project participants to Pompeii. I have to admit, I’m rather disappointed in myself as an archaeologist for how I failed to manage approaching the site. We were unprepared in a number of ways and quickly became overwhelmed by arguably one of the largest and most popular archaeological sites accessible to the public.

That being said, there were certainly some positives to our visit: we were able to see a sample of Pompeii’s striking opulence, including ornate, marble lined baths, glowing frescoes, and massive public and private structures.

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The entrance to the archaeological park via the Porta Marina, the ancient gate nearest the modern train station accessing the site.

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The view of Vesuvius from Pompeii's forum. In the middle ground, modern bronze sculpture inspired by the life and culture of Pompeii and the 79AD eruption is featured.
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A view from inside Pompeii's theater.

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A Corinthian capital atop one of Pompeii's many grand columns, once part of monumental porticoes to both public and private buildings and walkways.

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Vibrant fresco painting across one of the benches in a Thermopolium, where food was cooked, sold, and served.

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A replica of "The Fawn" for which the villa is named standing in the middle of a pool in the villa's courtyard.
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One of the familial crypts just outside of the city. The ancient Romans believed in a physical separation of space between the living and the dead, for hygienic, ritual, and civil-planning purposes.
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More colorful fresco from inside another domus.
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Some participants from the Apolline Project making the famous Abbey Road pose over Pompeii's roads.
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And finally, more columns, one adorned by the remains of a Corinthian capital. Continue following my blog and you'll learn my affinity for the ornate Acanthus-bearing capitals.

So, with my lesson in mind, I’d like to present a series of tips for how to best visit Pompeii (and other heritage sites and museums around the world):

1. Do your homework: there’s a lot of literature, movies, documentaries that have been generated about historical and heritage sites. Taking the time to read through these will help you understand the significance of what you’re going to see.
For Pompeii, I would suggest Mary Beard’s Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town.

2. Be your own tour guide: I know a lot of major museums and sites, Pompeii especially included, will have vendors outside the entrance trying to offer you a myriad of products including guided tours, discounted tickets, or a means of skipping the long entrance lines. These are attractive offers, and are likely too good to be true. These “guides” are often not commissioned by the site or local antiquities authority, meaning there’s no guarantee they’re giving you accurate information. Further, sites and museums have highly qualified and experienced restorators and curators that worked tirelessly to give visitors a balanced presentation of scholarly knowledge, sensible interpretation, and thought provoking display. Don’t let someone else try to regurgitate that to you. It’s like going to a 5 star restaurant and having a competitive speed-eater tell you what the chef’s food tasted like. Instead, grab a site map from the ticketing office, buy a guide book from the site or museum shop, download the official app published by the site/museum, or carry a credible 3rd party travel guide like Rick Steves.

3. Plan your trip: look up the website for the site/museum you intend to visit. Make sure your visit fits within the hours they are open. Do they have a free admission day each month? How long does it take to see everything their site has exhibited? Are there any special exhibitions showing? Make sure you have extra batteries for your camera and a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated. And definitely don’t forget the weather.

4. Keep an open, unclouded mind: visiting a major world heritage site like Pompeii can be overwhelming to the senses both positively and negatively. Whether it’s the putrid smelling tourist walking in a herd of other putrid tourists, or the chromatic orgasm you’ll experience gazing into well preserved frescoes, you’re going to need periodic moments to decompress. You’re doing a lot of walking, taking pictures, and seeing a lot of amazing things. Don’t be afraid to stop, sit down, write in a journal or talk to your travel companion. This is what makes the visit memorable. Don’t be afraid to spend all day at a site so you have time to process.

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3 thoughts on “How NOT to visit Pompeii

  1. I lived in Avellino for four years and visited Pompeii more than 10 times. I was young and did not plan so everytime I went I saw something new and beautiful! While that had its own benefit, I recommend you plan your visit. Pretend you are a citizen. Put yourself in their shoes as you look at Vesuvius in the distance. Imagine the terror. It is an opportunity few people have. It is sad and like a beautiful poem, remains in your heart forever. Italia e sempre il mio cuore.

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