Learn how the Romans lived when you visit the ancient city of Pompeii, a fascinating family destination outside the southern Italian city of Naples.
The stone streets are gouged by the tracks of chariot wheels. Mosaics depict ferocious canines, warning household visitors to beware of the dogs that once barked within. Shop counters with built-in urns line the streets, conjuring up the fragrances that once beckoned Roman customers. These were the sights we saw recently on a day visit to Pompeii, the ancient city buried almost 2000 years ago under 12-feet of volcanic ash and today one of the world’s archaeological treasures.
We visited in the hope that walking through the town where 25,000 lived before Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., might give our children a sense of how exciting, if haunting, history can be.
We were in Rome for a brief stay and could devote only one day to ancient Pompeii, a sprawling excavation site within the modern town of Pompeii, a suburb of Naples. We didn’t have a car and we eschew tour buses, so we opted for rail, deciding a train ride would add another dash of adventure for Sam, 8, and Sara, 6.
All Roads Lead To… Pompeii
Trains leave from Rome’s central rail station, Stazione Termini, to Naples, one to three times an hour during the day, and the ride can last from one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours depending on the train. From Naples, it is an additional half-hour or so to Pompeii by a second train.
You have your choice of continuing on the state rail line, whose trains stop at a station near the center of modern Pompeii, or the Circumvesuviana, a local line with a stop conveniently across the street from the main entrance to the excavation site at the Porta Marina. (At www.eurail.com you’ll find schedules from Italy and European countries. And keep in mind that Italian trains are notorious for delays.)
We opted for the state train, and learned we could walk through the town center to the “scavi” — the excavations — in about 15 minutes. The route took us past a McDonald’s restaurant. Confession: we stopped. We also passed a number of tchotchke stands and pizza shops with signs translated into several languages.
But the stay in tourista-ville was mercifully brief.
Entering what we learned was one of several secondary entrances to Pompeii, we plunked down our euros — entry cost about $25 for the family; about $9 per person — and soon were walking along a quiet path lined by umbrella pines to Pompeii’s graceful amphitheater. There were mountains in the distance, and even though it was late November, the weather was balmy. There were few other visitors.
Ancient Times Come To Life
The children ran around the large stone oval, with its underground passageways and tiered stone steps. The stadium is much smaller than Rome’s Coliseum, but better preserved — a fact remarked upon by our children. We saw an iron gate where we imagined gladiators standing, waiting for their turn in the arena.
A long walk up a hill brought us to the Via Abbondanza and the heart of the town. Pompeii was a carefully-planned city of low-slung houses, shops, temples and amenities including public baths, laundries and a brothel. Sidewalks rise about a foot-and-a-half above the streets, and we were charmed to see that at intersections the practical-minded Romans had planted large stones so that one could cross from one side to another without stepping into the muddy street.
Sam and Sara liked marching across the stones. They were also interested to observe the gaps between the stones, spaced just widely enough to allow chariot wheels to pass.
Our Michelin Italy guide gave us a good idea of what to check out in the time we had, and the three hours we spent in Pompeii was plenty for two under-10s. We especially enjoyed wandering through the remains of the huge public bath house, where visitors once had a choice of hot, warm or cold baths, as well as a swimming pool.
Sam was especially impressed by the casts, displayed in one of the bathhouse rooms, of bodies of two victims of Vesuvius’ fury.
Elsewhere, as we grown-ups spent time examining frescoes and Latin electoral graffiti, the children darted in and out of houses, playing impromptu games of hide-and-seek. They were also intrigued by the large number of stray, but friendly, dogs that seem to be to Pompeii what cats are to Rome’s Coliseum.
Other things made an impression on the children, too. Sam was interested that the wealthier homes often had entryways with a hole in the ceiling and a well-placed fountain directly beneath; Sara was intrigued by the “beware of the dog” mosaics.
They also got a kick out of the many stone drinking fountains lining the Pompeiian streets. One had a carved image of an ox on it, and we wondered if it had been reserved for animals of the town.
At the 3:30 closing time — hours vary during the year — we left by the main entrance and bought a few postcards. We walked back to town for the train, but it was a long trek and if we had to do it over again, would just have hitched a ride on the Circumvesuviana across the street.
It was three hours back to Rome. We grabbed a particularly good pizza slice at the train station and slept on the train.
Recently, I asked Sara what she remembered of Pompeii. I was gratified by the answer. “It was very interesting to see old places,” she said.
As succinct an appreciation of history as any.
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