Dormant since 1949, Vesuvius is still an enormous presence that looms over Naples. Villages flourish along its base, and the inhabitants know exactly which route they are to take in case of an eruption and where to go for safety. “But,” says Paolo, our guide, “they probably won’t leave till ash starts falling on them.”
Our first stop is Sorrento. A tunnel cuts through the mountains and takes us to this fabled city by the sea. Today that sea is not the sparkling blue of legend for rains have washed silt into the waters. Rain threatens today, too, and we don raingear before we explore the city itself, pausing at a shop that specializes in inlaid wood and chatting with one of the owners, a Brooklyn transplant who married a Neapolitan and loves this city.
After an excellent lunch (ah, Sorrento knows how to cook pasta!), we travel to our main destination— Pompeii, which slumbered undisturbed after the fatal eruption for 1700 years before being re-discovered. We have heard so much about this ancient, doomed city, but what we find exceeds expectations. Pompeii is a very large city. We walk for nearly two hours but only see a small portion for, Paolo tells us, archeologists are busy in the other areas.
We peer into a gymnasium where gladiators trained for combat, and at bakeries where charred remains of bread were discovered long ago. There is a rich man’s villa, complete with the recessed area that collected rainwater for household use, and traces of once-rich frescos on the walls. Floors still preserve designs created thousands of years ago, and on the walls of a brothel there are detailed pictures of the pleasures to be found in that establishment. Throughout, we walk on a stone-studded road that is 2,000 years old—a road grooved with ruts that long-agi chariots made.
In a small amphitheatre we are encouraged to sing and test the acoustics, and a few steps away there is a chamber where two mummified forms are displayed. These, Paolo explains, were plaster casts made from figures preserved by hardened ash. He tells us that by the time these mummified figures were found, only bones remained within the hollow shell. Plaster was pumped into this shell, and when the plaster hardened, the ash was carefully removed. We stand by these figures for some time, noting the detailed features of a man’s face, the sandals still on his feet. There is something remote about these remains, a sense of a tragedy that occurred so long ago that even the ghosts must be silent, now.
Finally, we come to the great, open forum of Pompeii. Far in the distance above the marble columns looms Vesuvius—now swathed in cloud. The forum stretches all around us, and while the rest of us explore the temples of Apollo and Diana, I walk a little way apart. I rest my hands against a cold, marble column wondering about the ancient people who lived here. What did they think? Did they—rich or poor, free or enslaved—feel threatened by the rumbling volcano? In those last days did they still laugh, dance, love, and have great hopes for their children? Who were you? I ask the silent marble, but only the raindrops answer me. Rain has now begun to fall in earnest and it is time to leave Pompeii.
But I wonder… what would it be like, this ruined place that was once so prosperous and beautiful, in the silence of the evening when no tourists crowded the streets and all was still except for the wail of wind? I will never know, of course—Pompeii has secrets that it will never reveal.
Once they thronged these streets
Bought bread, listened to music…
Now, all is silence.
Tomorrow we sail for Rome… and then fly homeward. Our travels—this time—will be over.