Peer into the past at Naples and Pompeii


The ruins of the Temple of Jupiter in Pompeii are shown, with Mount Vesuvius seen in the background.

Story and photos by

Michelle Stosich

Special to the Herald Union

When heading to Italy not many people consider staying in Naples. Admittedly, it is off the beaten track and lacks the glamour and exposure of Rome, Venice and Florence, yet there are treasures to be found everywhere, and Naples is no exception. It is also a perfect home base for day excursions to Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius and the Island of Capri.

Naples is messy with a lot of less than impressively maintained commercial areas, but staying downtown is both affordable and convenient and one can walk wherever they need to go without the need for public transport. Refreshments are always available as the city is the birthplace of modern pizza and on almost every corner you can get an overflowing- your-plate traditional margherita pizza with its basic ingredients of basil, tomato, olive oil and mozzarella, which will cost you only four to six euros.

There are underground archeological walking tours and intriguing relics from the past, such as the 40-hour machine found at the Basilica San Domenico Maggiore. The machine is actually a complex altar used for 40 continuous hours of prayer before Easter Sunday. The year-round Christmas Alley with shop after shop provides uniquely different items and foods than the German Christmas Markets. The Museum of Archeology is an integral part of the Pompeii experience as thousands of recovered items were removed from Pompeii and preserved in the Naples museum.

The 15-mile journey to Pompeii is easy via guided tour, and with the off-season bonus of no crowds and time to meander, my visit was fascinating. Around 75 percent of the site has been excavated, opening vistas into a once-vibrant Roman city that was smothered by volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.

The nearby island of Capri, and its marina shown here, can be seen from Mount Vesuvius and is easily visited from Naples.

The nearby island of Capri, and its marina shown here, can be seen from Mount Vesuvius and is easily visited from Naples.

The original Pompeii amphitheater is intact and is now used for social events. The bathhouse has magnificent frescos on the ceilings and walls and still has the cold, steam and hot rooms, separated for men and women. One of the brothels is impressively intact, but explicit frescos make it not suitable for the young. The coliseum has graffiti etched into the outside walls by long-ago residents. There are many villas, most with courtyards and gardens that were devoted to perfumery.

Pompeii had 42 wells, each with a unique sculpture that identified the street it was on, essentially mapping the city. At regular intervals wells were plugged to flood the streets to wash all the effluvia away, not such a fine solution for those at the bottom of the city but great for those at the top.

In Pompeii it is important to also look down while sightseeing to see the rings drilled into curbs for tethering horses and donkeys, the ruts ground into the cobblestones from the continual traffic of chariots and carts, and to jump across the stepping stones that were strategically placed in the streets to keep people’s feet dry when the cleansing floods took place. The Roman Empire had a multitude of languages, so to bridge communication gaps pictorial signage such as grapes for a wine shop were carved into the sidewalks, pointing in the direction of the desired service.

The vast open forum where the markets were held has little left of the Temple of Jupiter which once dominated the city. Behind it looms 4,000 foot-high Mount Vesuvius, which looked innocuous in the sun but really isn’t as it remains an active volcano.

When going to Mount Vesuvius, it’s important to know the road doesn’t go all the way to the top and that getting there requires a 30 minute walk on slippery lava gravel. At the top, the wind does blow quite strongly, so consider taking a scarf and jacket. Once you reach the top, you can walk half way around the crater and not only see the steam vents and gaping hole in the mountain, but you can also see Pompeii below and beyond it the Island of Capri.

This traveler says head to Naples if you have a chance. It is a great base for these excursions and there is always a margherita pizza in the oven.