Pity the poor folk picking through the rubble of the Forum in Rome. To make the most of the ruins there you have to use your imagination. In the ancient Roman resort town of Pompeii, however, it’s a little easier. Pompeii was famously buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD, and the result is perhaps the best-preserved Roman town anywhere, with a street plan that is easy to discern – not to mention wander – and a number of palatial villas that are still largely intact. It’s crowded, not surprisingly, but is a large site, and it’s quite possible to escape the hordes and experience the strangely still quality of Pompeii, sitting around ancient swimming pools, peering at frescoes and mosaics still standing behind the counters of ancient shops.
Finish up your visit at the incredible Villa of Mysteries, a suburban dwelling just outside the ancient city. Its layout is much the same as the other villas of the city, but its walls are decorated with a cycle of frescoes that give a unique insight into the ancient world – and most importantly they are viewable in situ, unlike most of the rest of Pompeii’s mosaics and frescoes, which have found their way to Naples’ archeological museum. No one can be sure what these pictures represent, but it’s thought that they show the initiation rites of a young woman preparing for marriage. Set against deep ruby-red backgrounds, and full of marvellously preserved detail, they are dramatic and universal works, showing the initiate’s progress from naïve young girl to eligible young woman. But above all they tell a story – one that speaks to us loud and clear from 79 AD.
Pompeii can be reached easily by train from Naples. See www.pompeiisites.org for more information.