Location is everything. If you can ignore the occasional earthquake and having Mount Vesuvius looming over your shoulder, well then Pompeii in the first century CE was quite the place. Today we got to see a few more things than we saw a few years ago, also now knowing a bit more about what we were looking at. One never knows which houses will be open at what time here, and the ticket sellers are certainly not going to provide that information.
So it was just luck that we saw the House of the Faun, the House of Venus in a Shell, the House of Mendander and a few other domiciles of the rich and famous. If you were on the A list, the dinner parties must have been quite something. The faun and the Alexander mosaic in the House of the Faun are reproductions, but the overall effect of its frescoes and peristyle gardens and those of all the other lavish houses which remain can certainly give one house lust.
The public areas like the forum with its Temple of Apollo, various other temples, the theater, the Odeon (small enclosed theater) and the large Ampitheatre give a good idea of what the populace was doing when they weren’t at home. They were talking, visiting, shopping, watching plays, hearing orators or cheering on gladiators.
Done with all that? Then it’s time for the baths. The Stabian Bath complex is mostly intact, with its three different temperature tubs, the caldarium, tempidarium and frigidarium – one set for each sex. The center courtyard was the gym area, and all of it must have been beautiful. Note the small niches which served as lockers, and the still-glorious marble floors.
Attention must be paid to the graffiti still visible on the walls, which announced games or pumped for candidates for office. And then there is Pompeian fast food – the snack bars all over town, which would have served olives or soup or some other treat from their street locations.
Our last stop today was the Villa of the Mysteries, slightly outside of town. It is so called because of a room with frescoes that seem to indicate that young girls were prepared for initiation into the mysteries of the cult of Dionysius there. I’ll buy that. What a gorgeous place.
And then there is just the overall wonder of the place. Yes, there was definitely one bad day in the life of Pompeii. But what a life it was and what beauty it contained. Today a small French boy jumps for joy across the blocks in the street, just as many young boys before him must have done. The humanity of Pompeii is its greatest gift.
Don’s Food Corner
It wasn’t much of a food day, except for encountering Italy’s bizarre concept of a cafeteria in what had been Pompeii’s forum baths.
Unlike a cafeteria in the U.S., in Italy you do not pick up a tray and move along a counter, picking out what you want as you go and then paying for whatever you’ve chosen at the end. No. In Italy — and especially at the “cafeteria” at Pompeii — you first go to the cashier and tell the person at the cash register what it is you want, then you pay for it and you are given a receipt that has printed on it what you have ordered. THEN, you go to the counter, hand your receipt to person behind the counter who will then gather the food you ordered and paid for and put it on a tray.
Now, if you have followed this chain of events carefully, you might have noticed that there is no way of knowing before you go up to the cashier what is available to order. There is no menu. You haven’t been able to walk down a line of food items on display to choose what you want. No, you have to know in advance what they have and pay for it. Plus, there are two lines. One to order and pay for whatever you want and a second line to pick up the items.
The only certain way to know what you might be able to order is to look on the trays of people who have already picked up their food and order something that looks like you might want it.
Exasperating and time-consuming. We took the path of least resistance. After seeing people walk away with big slices of pizza, we ordered that. (We also saw people with spaghetti and lasagna, but it is uncertain how they knew they could order these dishes.) As for the pizza itself, it seemed pretty good. Or was it that we were so relieved to have anything that it tasted so good?
Also, since it was lunchtime, there was only a skeleton crew on duty. There are strong unions here, you see, and the bulk of the cafeteria workers were on their mandated lunch breaks, making it a very long process to get that slice of pizza. Is that all clear?