Dusty, hot, desolate and otherworldly. These are the words floating through my mind as I walked up to Pompeii in southern Italy. Pompeii was once a glorious city state of vast wealth, beauty and culture. In a relative blink of an eye the city of Pompeii was turned into a ghost town when Mount Vesuvius erupted in a violent explosion. When Vesuvius trembled, it took out the neighboring city of Herculaneum as well. Citizens were encased in super heated ash, left frozen in time and are still visible to modern tourists. Italy has been excavating Pompeii for over 300 years and the Italians continue discovering more about this ancient city. Perhaps the most surprising part of this monolithic historical site is that it shows us just how modern these ancient Romans were.
We visited Pompeii at the tail end of our 2010 Italy trip just a day before starting our journey back to the states. With nearly two weeks of travel and the unforgiving Italian summer sun, we went in to Pompeii expecting to last only an hour or two. As it turns out, we stayed for nearly five.
When planning a trip to Italy, I have to admit I wasn't very interested in seeing ancient ruins or old churches. My desire was to see the modern Italy. An Italy full of high end design, fashion, food and culture. While in Rome, we certainly visited ancient sites and while impressive, they were about equal to me in terms of the ancient places I've seen before elsewhere in Europe and throughout Japan. Pompeii was different. Perhaps its the visitor's ability to walk amongst the ancient ruins and touch the walls of a formerly bustling city that really puts Pompeii into perspective.
By 79AD Pompeii had already been in existence for almost 1000 years. By the time Mount Vesuvius erupted, the Roman citizens and slaves had created a city as modern and sophisticated as any city on earth today. Theaters, colosseums, and temples are familiar ruins at historic sites but it was the little things that really made an impact on me. The Pompeiians had a system of roads that made sense, sidewalks, drainage systems, plumbing and neighborhoods that were as familiar as our own. One street was described as the rich person area and you could tell by how wide the street was. All carriages in Rome had a universal width axel which meant roads developed deep tracks where carts would travel through. Large stones that fit perfectly between the wheels when passed over indicated one way and two way streets.
Every site I've visited from the 1000 Places To See Before You Die has evolved my perspective of the world. Most often, its about the world we live in but Pompeii changed the way I thought about the world that is long since gone. We like to think of ourselves are a modern more advanced society than the previous generations and cultures. I'm not sure how far we've advanced compared to where Pompeii was at over 2000 years ago. Aside from electricity and the gadgets that come with it, the Roman citizens of Pompeii had nearly everything we do today. Bread shops, doctors offices, restaurants, bars, gyms. These were all already in existence in Pompeii.
Its a running theme of our 1000 Places adventures. A place exists in our book and we visit it just to check it off the list. We end up leaving feeling enriched and surprised by how much these places have affected us. Someday, I hope we learn from our miscalculations and walk in to each place knowing we're about to see something amazing.