The archaeological site of Pompeii (as opposed to the modern city of Pompei) has long been on both our wish-lists, so we were happy to trade time in Naples for a side trip. However, given the scale – think town, not museum exhibition – it’s a visit that certainly warrants preparation. Otherwise, you risk at best missing out on most of the highlights, or at worst getting hopelessly lost in a maze of streets that offer no shelter from the relentless heat. Given a mid-30s forecast and my Scottish genetics, this was a fate I wished to avoid, to the extent that I even looked into a personal tour guide; but with only one day in our schedule, there was no-one available. Rather than join a larger excursion (and be locked to their timings and choices) we therefore self-organised, setting off bright and early in the hopes of beating both the heat and crowds.
The first step, of course, would be getting there. The Circumvesuviana network of trains is local to Naples, separate from the national system, over which it has precisely two advantages. The first is location – their Napoli Garibaldi station is actually just a set of platforms at the main Napoli Centrale station, whilst Pompei Scavi – Villa dei Misteri is only a few hundred metres from the entrance to Pompeii.
The second is incredibly cheap prices, although these come with some complications – you can’t buy through-tickets from national rail destinations, nor pay online or even by credit / debit card. Instead, you’ll be purchasing from ticket vendors who play fast and loose with the details, presumably for their own gain. Perhaps the experience would have gone better if we had a fuller grasp of Italian, but the scam seems to be that they’ll jump around the combinations of single / return and number of passengers until you’ve handed over enough money that they can short-change you. In our case, a surplus €5 note was set aside part-way through this dance, and only grudgingly returned when I pointed it out. We still ended up paying €12 for €10.40 of tickets, but that’s a hit I can tolerate. Caveat Emptor.
As for the service itself, prepare to be underwhelmed… The rolling stock is more inner-city metro than fully-fledged train; seating looks uncomfortable, but you may never find out due to the extreme over-crowding. Expect lots of grafitti, and precisely no air-conditioning. Pick-pockets are also apparently common. I was very glad that this wasn’t part of our main journey, as I have no idea how we’d have managed with suitcases. Fortunately if you pick the right trains – described as ‘direct express’ in the timetable – you only have to endure all this for a little over 20 minutes before reaching Pompeii, and even the slower ‘direct’ services will get you there or back in around 35 minutes. Both are of course inaccurately named – these are regional trains with lots of local stops to shuffle passengers on and off.
On arrival, expect another hustle: official-seeming tour guides warning you of queues that will take 1.5 – 2hrs to clear, unless you join their group to bypass the lines… However, they won’t be heading over for another 15 – 20 minutes, during which time they’ll presumably find more ways to help you spend money. We took our chances alone, and of course found no such queues, gaining entry in a matter of seconds rather than hours.
Although all this might sound quite negative, once we got through the gate and were able to explore, Pompeii turned out to be all we hoped for and more – it’s definitely worth negotiating your way through the potential pitfalls and scams to experience it first hand!
Part of this enjoyment came from our tour guide, in the virtualised form of Rick Steves. This turned out to be perfect for us: detailed enough to successfully navigate the site and learn a bit about what we were seeing; but lighthearted enough to be enjoyable rather than feeling like a lecture (unlike the 150 page official guide). Using the app rather than the direct download allows you to easily repeat 30 seconds if you haven’t quite got your bearings in time; or skip to the next location if desired (we avoided some buildings which had enormous queues). The only issue we found was that there have been cosmetic changes since the recording – most notably, there are no longer any plaster casts of victims to be found in the market place. But obviously the general layout has been the same for a couple of thousand years, and I’d still happily recommend this tour through it. Although the narration runs to less than forty minutes, we happily spent about an hour and a half exploring its suggestions en route to the Theatre. There we took a picnic break in one of the few patches of shade, before making our own way back to the entrance via some leisurely detours.