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The ruins of Pompeii
The ruins of Pompeii
Mt Vesuvius
Pompeii today


Thursday, July 8, 2004
David visits Italy’s most popular tourist attraction and the most important historical site in the world. This is Pompeii.

Pompeii is in Italy's Campania region and is divided into two — old and modern Pompeii. The 44ha area of the excavated city is one of Italy's most popular tourist destinations, with up to two million visitors marvelling at the site each year.

The tragedy that hit the city in 79AD took the lives of its 20,000 residents, but left an almost perfectly preserved city for people to be in awe of more than 1900 years later. And it is yielding more secrets from its past each year.

In 62AD, an earthquake devastated Pompeii, but survivors chose to rebuild. While in the process of completing its temples, Mount Vesuvius (thought to be derived from the Greek besubious, meaning fire) angrily rumbled for 18 hours before spewing out an immense black cloud 15km into the air, blocking out the midday sun. For the next three days, 100 million tonnes of volcanic matter, pumice, ash and rock, lapilli and red-hot scoriae rained over the new city, settling into a blanket up to seven metres deep. Some people may have escaped but would have been killed by the belching poisonous gas — everything else was mummified in the ash as it cooled. Buildings, works of art, corpses with anguished expressions and even loaves of bread in an oven were undisturbed until 1748.

The weight of pumice caused roofs and balconies to collapse and its build-up trapped people inside buildings. Pyroclastic surges, five times hotter than boiling water, destroyed everything in their path.

When the disaster stuck, Pompeii was just like any other busy and prosperous city — people selling and buying, chatting, sleeping, eating and raising their families.

Its streets were paved during Roman times with large polygonal blocks of stone, bordered by curbs and pedestrian walkways. Most streets had raised stones at regular intervals for pedestrian use when flooding occurred.

Traffic was controlled by zoning and allowance was made for pedestrians at busy places such as the forum and amphitheatre. Near the city gates and the forum were inns, stables and a hospital. The main streets had taverns, cafes, public baths and 27 brothels. Deep grooves in the cobblestones were made by small wagons used to transport goods around the community. The city's nine sections each had its own festivals and characteristics.

Homes were entered through a narrow passageway to an inner courtyard which was used to welcome guests and for children's entertainment. There was usually a pool which collected rainwater and on either side of the atrium were bedrooms, storage rooms and maybe a library of scrolls. If the home had a second storey, that mostly had rooms overlooking the atrium.

Homes of the wealthy were heated by a furnace and network of channels with hot air flowing under the house. Water was obtained from street troughs, though some did have piped water. Most homes had a garden with plantings, statues and fountains, while architectural motifs decorated walls.

There are works of metal, such as bronze statues. One of the main reasons Greeks came here was the availability of metal. They used it to create many artistic and utility items for daily use, as well as military purposes. There are some fine pieces of glasswork and painted pottery. Furniture survives, some very beautiful, with finely-shaped metal as part of the structure.

The basilica was the city's oldest and most important building. It was a covered market and meeting place. During the AD62 earthquake, its roof collapsed. It then became an open-air market and finally the seat of the judicial system.

Much of what is known about Pompeii at that time is thanks to the writings of Pliny the Younger. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, was commander of the Roman navy, based across the Bay of Naples at Misenum. His attempts to send ships in were thwarted by thick ash, so he sailed south to Stabiae, hoping to calm its terrified residents. Sadly, dense sulphuric fumes caused his death.

So vast was the eruptive column, Pliny the Younger witnessed the spectacle from 21km away and wrote about what he saw. For many years his writings lacked credibility, but since scientists eventually validated his account of the event, those types of explosions have been called Plinean eruptions.

His writings note that for several days before the eruption, the earth shook, but that did not cause fear, as it was a common occurrence in Campania.

Today two million people live in Mount Vesuvius' immediate vicinity. The last eruption was in 1944. In 1999 it puffed some smoke to remind everyone it is still there and breathing. Scientists consider future eruptions a certainty.

It is possible to drive the 13km to the Vesuvius Observatory. On the way, vineyards cling to the slopes and a famous wine — Lacrima Christi (Tears of Christ) — is produced there.


Two-and-a-half hours south of Rome.


CIT Travel has accommodation in Pompeii starting at $218 a couple and day trips from Rome starting at $135 per person.

Qantas flies daily to Hong Kong, with Cathay Pacific connections to Rome, starting at $2390 from Perth, $2393 from Melbourne, $2409 from Sydney, $2422 from Brisbane, $22482 from Adelaide and $2494 from Darwin, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.
Please note prices are valid at time of filming.

More information

CIT World Travel
Ph: (02) 9267 1255

Italian Government Tourist Office
Ph: (02) 9262 1666, fax: (02) 9262 1677

Qantas: 13 13 13

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