Story by Ailin Darling
Photos by Gabriella Narvaez and Ailin Darling
It’s cold inside the faded stone walls of the villa. The sun waits at the windows, forbidden to enter the empty square rooms where each step, tap, and sneeze grows into a chorus of booms. Similar bangs come from above: the repetitive thundering of workers’ hammers and power tools. “Am I really allowed in here?” I think to myself. I turn to look around, making a complete circle on the spot. The parade of tourists who I had entered the ruins with are nowhere in sight. I could hear the softer cacophonies of my friends, each enjoying her little discovery inside this house of mysteries.
I enter the next room where smears of color only suggest the vibrant fresco that had once adorned its walls. The rest is gray and smooth, like concrete. Even after centuries of excavation, the ancient city of Pompeii is still partially buried under the rock and ash of a volcanic eruption. Thousands of people have already walked through these rooms and wondered about its original inhabitants. But on this February morning, the villa seems to reveal its secrets only to me.
I take out a thick wine-colored pamphlet, my guide to the history and layout of this crumbling wonderland. In the quiet of my gray shelter I read a quick summary of the day that gives this minor Roman colony its timeless fame. In August 79 C.E., Pompeii was under reconstruction after an earthquake had shaken the Vesuvian area several years before. The eruption was sudden and unexpected. Plaster casts of fossils on display in the ruins depict fleeing Pompeians in desperate poses: running, hiding, covering their eyes. The condemned city was rediscovered in the 16th century, and its excavation began in 1748.
From the window of a train arriving at Pompeii Scavi station, the ancient ruins are a massive gray labyrinth nesting in the soft green haze of clustered trees. As if placed to highlight the city’s notoriously dire history, the snow-capped Mt. Vesuvius looms over it, threatening to explode once again. To the left, on the other side of the train, is the bay of Naples, a sheet of deep blue glass cut by a slice of land covered by urban buildings and billboards advertising cell phones. The city’s proximity to the volcano is unnerving; could the living, bustling city of Naples be the next Pompeii?
Leaving the train station, we pass a row of food stands primed for a long day of feeding hungry tourists; there is no Ristorante Pompeii. The entrance to the ruins is a round unimpressive ticket counter flanked by a cramped rectangular gift shop. Along with my ticket, I receive a pocket-sized guidebook filled with information on particularly distinguished gray buildings with thrilling, beautiful names such as House of the Tragic Poet and Porta Nocera.
The entrance is as crowded as Disneyland. We enter at an ant’s pace, turning our heads in every direction, taking in our first views of this skeleton of a civilization. View of the first suburban villa and the temple of Apollo is obscured by families squeezing together for photographs and school groups beginning their guided tours. But after these landmarks, the city sprawls out in every direction.
The narrow streets lead us to row after row of stony ruins, each with a past and a purpose: businesses, tombs, private residences. The guides give us a brief lesson identifying gray lumps and piles of all shapes and sizes, remnants of a “mixed” society.
Artifacts from architecture to tools of industry bore the influence of several different cultures: Etruscan, Greek, and a few native tribes. Certain structures can still be identified as the homes of the rich and powerful by their grand size, large number of frescoed rooms, or a particularly magnificent view.
The site is a playground for my imagination. The striking aristocratic villas and impressive semi-circle of the theater give the ancient city a dream-like faraway splendor. With my mind’s eye, I fill the gaps in each chipped and broken arch, sweep the floor to a polished shine, and envision leather sandals and long skirts moving across it. I fill the cobbled streets with noisy, colorfully dressed buyers and sellers, calling from their stands like the present-day vendors we had passed outside. Relics of normal everyday life found in the ruins of a bakery and several snack bars give me another kind of thrill: a connection to a city and its people from another time. Examining a catillus for grinding grain or a decaying bench in the shade of a garden offers me a real glimpse into a culture with needs and wants not so very different from my own.
As a tourist attraction, Pompeii seems designed for adventure and exploration. We become explorers, feeling for the faint pulse of a place that should have died centuries ago. Dark crumbling rooms left unattended, challenge the audacious visitor to enter. Tufa stone walls surround impressive colonnades and statue gardens, save for a few holes large enough to poke a head in for a closer look.
All around me people stand on arches, climb into wells, descend into pits, and duck under gates—snapping pictures all the while. The clanging of workers, the stretches of orange caution tape, and the occasional cascade of falling rocks give the site an exciting atmosphere. It’s a work in progress, bringing life to a long lifeless city. The possibility of discovering something totally new from something so ancient seems just around every grainy stone corner.
After leaving the Villa of Mysteries, we follow an unmarked trail up into the foothills of Mt. Vesuvius. Suddenly, I am surrounded by lush greenery and a truly stunning panorama; my excited, curious state quickly changes to one of lazy repose.
Cool blue and dark gray ruins become the backdrop for vibrant fields of herbs and vines. Their blooming fragrance covers the scent of rock and dirt. Beyond the fields, the afternoon sun floats idly over the bay. People work in fields just above the ruins, trimming leaves and watering rows of flowering plants. They wave when they see us watching. I wave back.
Above them, as they resume their work in its shadow, the living volcano stands like a bully still gloating over its victory after almost two thousand years. I throw off a shiver and turn back to the view.