I couldn't have imagined it in my wildest dreams... the history, the preservation, the enormity of Pompeii. It's completely fascinating, yet chilling to imagine that day so long ago in 79AD.
We toured the entire city of Pompeii in one day. Most of what we read in the guidebooks beforehand suggested allowing two hours to tour the grounds. We got there at 10:00am and left at 4:30pm, and could have stayed longer. I'm not exactly a serious Roman Empire buff, but I am a photographer who enjoys history and archeology, so I had more than a casual, quick-tour interest.
Pompeii brings new meaning to the saying "if these walls could talk", so if that's up your alley, you'll love exploring the ancient ruins. There is just so much to see, it can be overwhelming. And though our feet were killing us by the end of the day (and we were starving having not eaten all day) we still wanted to duck in every last house and dwelling where there was something to see.
We caught the earliest Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Pompeii, which is roughly halfway between Sorrento and Naples. The early weekday train to Pompeii was uncrowded, though returning to Sorrento late in the afternoon was packed with tourists and commuters heading home from work in Naples - something to keep in mind if you have late dinner plans back in Sorrento. Most of the commuters seemed to exit at several stops before Sorrento.
We decided to tour Pompeii on our own, foregoing joining a large tour group. In retrospect however, I wish we would have arranged for a personal guide ahead of time. That way, a more complete interpretation is not left to chance.
There are experienced guides you can hire at the park entrance, or arrange for one well before your visit (I found several good recommendations on Fodors.com forums). There is an audio tour and a free English map available at the Visitor Info office. We also used Rick Steves' walking tour of Pompeii - another highly recommended resource.
Most everything about Pompeii was impressive - walking on preserved mosaic floors, seeing original structures still standing for the most part, and the preserved frescoed paintings. We walked through gardens and homes of the wealthy, small homes and markets, Roman baths, their Colosseum, and brothels. The city streets were narrow with three or four large elevated stepping stones still in place that prevented pedestrians crossing the street from getting their sandals wet from flooding or dirty from sewage.
Homes in Pompeii show an interesting daily interaction amongst all classes, but very distinct lifestyles between the aristocracy, merchants, and the working class. Throughout the ruins, you'll see what remains of sprawling, luxury villas, in close proximity to public baths, lower class homes, and brothels.
One villa we toured contained an interesting three-legged carved marble table with lion paw legs. Historical documents determined the table once belonged to the Roman Senator Casas Longus, who was the first to strike Caesar in 44BC on the Senate floor when they assassinated him on the Ides of March. It's presumed that after he was exiled to Macedonia with Brutus and his other co-conspirators, his belongings were sold to the public and the wealthy owner of this villa bought the table.
In the mid-late 18th century, the earliest "excavation" of Pompeii occurred, though at the time, it was mostly looting of arts and other priceless artifacts. Thankfully, much of the spoils remain in the Naples Archeological Museum, which is well worth a visit while you're there.
It wasn't until the late 19th century and early 20th century that a more academic approach to excavation was used, including the use of plaster casts.
When archeologists began excavation, hollow pockets were found throughout the pumice and ash where people fell from the pyroclastic blast and were instantly buried. As bodies decomposed, empty hollow spaces remained which were later filled with plaster to recreate the forms. I found it fascinating but extremely haunting. Many of the forms reveal the sudden and grueling nature of their deaths, contorted in ways that suggest they had very little time to act before the blast was at their door. Suffocation from volcanic gas and burial beneath debris and ash followed. In some figures, small bones and teeth remain as part of the casts.
What wasn't so impressive about Pompeii are some of the methods of preservation, at least up to this point. Closets full of relic bins, intact terra cotta pots and urns and bones, are covered with dust, and completely exposed to the sun and elements, not to mention tens of thousands of tourists in a day, in the off season!
There must have been 25,000 tourists the day we visited - I can't imagine what it's like in their busy season of summer. Tour groups were literally running to keep up with their guide, leaving trash and graffiti behind. We were nearly run over a few times.
There also didn't appear to be much regulation or interpretation for visitors, though I understand this is improving due to the Pompeiviva rebranding effort. Also, tour guides seem to vary greatly in terms of site knowledge, as we could hear passing by. Some guides are not licensed by PompeIi at all, so check for recommendations and background. Clearly, the site is a huge cash cow for the region and I hope government finances and historical grants in the future allow for greater resources for preservation and interpretation.
Overall, touring Pompeii was a highlight of our travels in southern Italy, and definitely hard to beat. It should rightfully be on any itinerary, along with Herculaneum, not too far from Pompeii. The experience was awe-inspiring and amazing to imagine life, and death, as it was back in August of 79 AD.