A Little Help in Pompeii

Scenic view of Naples and the Mediterranean Sea from Mt. Vesuvius, Italy.

Sometimes when you make plans, the task may seem a little too daunting to tackle on your own. This is difficult to admit (especially for those Type A personalities…..who us??) In those situations, take a look to see what is available for guides or assistance. Pompeii was that trip for us.

We have a vast appreciation for history and get completely wrapped up in ancient ruins. Sometimes Jen is Helen of Troy and Craig is Paris, but that is another story for another time. Naturally when we decided to go to Italy for our honeymoon, we looked into a day trip to Pompeii. The once thriving Roman city was founded in the 6th Century BC only to disappear after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The city of Pompeii had an estimated population of 12,000 on the eve of the infamous eruption.

At the city’s origins it was actually a port city, right along the Mediterranean Sea. The volcanic lava and ash completely changed the landscape of this region of Italy. The city is now a few kilometers from the Gulf of Naples. Following the initial eruption, the city and location were forgotten and continuous volcanic activity buried it further.

More than 1,500 years later an architect rediscovered Pompeii and built aqueducts through its many buildings, but the architect kept his discovery quiet. It wasn’t until 1738 when a palace was being built for the King of Naples that excavations began for Pompeii and Herculaneum nearby. From there the process of uncovering a city buried in up to 20 feet of volcanic ash began. A hidden city lost for a few millennia and discovered by a King……sign us up! Obviously, this was a must see for us and we were going to do whatever it took to get there.

Our research began with the convenient, easy to use railway system in Europe. With our home base being Rome, the cities are separated by 136 miles and takes approximately two hours by train. Sounds simple enough; you hop on the train, hop off and explore. Here’s the catch; you need to switch trains in Naples and make sure you get off at Pompeii Scavi and not the other Pompeii stop. We were learning an Italian word a day on Craig’s app, we can absolutely handle train signs in Italian. Sure, no problem. We had our plan written out, but we were both feeling a bit uneasy with not only the train switch, but the proper stop and the possibility that our Italian was not up to par.

Flowers grow on the side of Mt. Vesuvius, overlooking Naples and the Mediterranean Sea, Italy.

This was our first trip overseas and we were lacking even a little bit of experience. Imagine a high-strung Craig and a panic-stricken Jen at the wrong destination? It would have ended with naive, trusting Jen convincing Craig to pay the nice man trying to “help” us with directions, while Jen repeated ‘grazie’ over and over again because it is the only word she really learned. We would probably still be somewhere between Naples and Pompeii living off lemons and olives. There may even be local folklore by now about the crazy Americans that respond only with ‘grazie’ to any questions thrown their way. Totally fine….

Naturally, we did not want to miss out on Pompeii, so we started to search for guided tours. The great thing about big destinations is the limitless possibilities. We found fantastic luck with Viator. They offered several options for day trips from Rome to Pompeii. The ruins only require about three hours to see your fill and do not need a full day visit. This allows you to wrap another location in with your day.

The Amalfi Coast is close by, granting you a visit there or the other archeological site, Herculaneum. You can decide to venture up the volcano that devastated and forever changed the coast of Italy or simply explore the ruins with your own personal expert. We decided on the “Pompeii Day Trip from Rome,” including a hike up Mt. Vesuvius and a meal of pizza in Naples (the birthplace of pizza!). For those that are cost conscious, when you take into account train tickets, transportation, entry fees and food, this was only slightly more expensive and worth the peace of mind.

While we enjoy the planning of each destination, we have to admit it was nice to allow someone else to take the reins. It allowed us to have a page in our book marked Viator, rather than detailed steps and turns for each second of the day. It took any anxiety we were feeling about the trip away. Viator does a brilliant job of going into great detail of your trip, including where pick up and drop off is, so that is all you need to worry about. Some trips even allow hotel pick up and drop off.

Street in Pompeii, Italy, with raised crosswalk in the event of rain.

The trip we chose was with a group of about 30 people, all English speaking. You choose language preference when booking. This is an important detail; you wouldn’t want to end up on a tour with a guide speaking a language that you didn’t understand. It would involve a lot of smiling and head nodding at everyone. You might even unknowingly invite everyone to your hotel room for drinks. Double check your language selection.

We traveled by bus to Pompeii, which took three hours. The great thing about guided tours is the continued entertaining information. They do not miss any opportunity to share their knowledge of landmarks you pass by. As Craig mentioned in Episode One of our podcast, one of our guides pointed out a monastery positioned on a hilltop near Naples. This is on our list of places to see on our return trip. If not for the guide, we would have passed by and not thought twice about the incredible building rich in history. The three hours flew by as we soaked in the Italian landscape.

Upon arrival, our tour guides handed us over to an archeological expert. He was informative, entertaining, knowledgeable, helpful and just perfect for the job. Without him by our side we would have walked by many seemingly ordinary things and kept going. He pointed out graffiti done on walls by children 2,000 years ago. He took us to bath houses that featured the genius of the former residents, who invented their own saunas.

We saw evidence of the first ‘fast food’ concept used by street vendors and grooves in the cobblestones from horse drawn chariots. And we took in the intricate fresco art in the more luxurious homes and private baths indicating high rank or wealth.

Fast food station in Pompeii, Italy.

He even pointed out a carving on a single cobblestone which pointed in the direction of a brothel. They were pretty direct with the carving and there was no mistaking what exactly you would be headed towards. Those Pompeiians didn’t want to leave any doubt, much like our teenage boys’ drawings on any surface. Insert eye roll by Jen and a boyish giggle by Craig.

He not only helped with places to see, but buildings that we could skip due to being repetitive. This is a large area to cover and we may have spent hours going through residences that were almost identical. Paying for a guided tour gave us great insight and a more personal history of the area, versus simply historical facts.

While walking the streets it is hard to imagine that this place had disappeared for centuries, buried multiple feet below the surface. The work that has gone into this excavation and continues to this day is hard to wrap your mind around.

Sauna in Pompeii, Italy.

The “pinch me” perfect moment of our entire trip to Italy happened on this day and we have our guide to thank for this memory. This uncovered city was once a center for civilization, complete with an amphitheater. While walking into the large open space that entertained thousands in another time, our guide picked up on something that the rest of us missed.

We assumed he was allowing us to take in our surroundings peacefully while he spoke with another tourist. He quickly called out to let us know he found a way for us to hear how well designed the spaced was for acoustics. On his way in he observed a local opera singer was in another group tour and he convinced him to sing for us.

Amphitheater, Pompeii, Italy.

Jen immediately began recording. In the Pompeii amphitheater, in a city that had been forgotten and buried for centuries, we were fortunate enough to be listening to an Italian opera singer. There are no words to describe the flood of emotions listening to him evoked in us both. We listen to that recording repeatedly to transport us back, even if for only an instant.

At the end of the tour of the ruins we were allowed thirty minutes to venture on our own. We took the opportunity to look at the plaster casts of lives lost that day, most in the middle of everyday tasks, as the eruption caught so many by surprise. We absorbed what was once a grand civilization changed in the blink of an eye.

Plaster cast, Pompeii, Italy.

From there our bus took us most of the way up Mt. Vesuvius. Remember our previous post about the roads in Cornwall, England? The road up the volcano was very similar, except it was a constant zig zag up the mountain. Oh, and the fact that we were on a giant tour bus. Oh, and there were other tour buses coming back down!

Our bus driver had to beep at every corner to make our presence known to any oncoming vehicles. Jen tried to ignore the white knuckles of the driver and the nervous laughter of our guides. She distracted herself with the guides chatter about giant lemons outside the windows. Decent distraction, due to the nutrient rich lava soil the lemons grow to the size of grapefruit and this is naturally the origins of limoncello. Good to know if we died falling off the side of the mountain we would be thinking about giant lemons…. We weren’t sure who was crazier; the people that made homes on the volcano or us for sitting on a bus that defied the laws of gravity at every turn. It’s a toss up.

Once the bus parked and our guides high-fived the driver, we were ready to leap out and feel the sturdy ground beneath our feet. There is a visitor center with a small restaurant for those that do not want to hike the remaining one mile to the top. It is a wide, clearly marked path to the top with some great views of Naples and the Mediterranean Sea. You pass multiple steaming craters, which fills you with a warm, fuzzy feeling….

It’s a steep climb; however, people of every fitness level are taking this hike with you; elderly couples in their Sunday best, teenagers racing to the top and us (right in the middle–thinking we can still make the trek like a teenager, but our bodies reminding us we are closer to that elderly couple.)

There are shops along the way selling creations made from lava rock. We couldn’t help but think about the commute for those workers hauling up their goods every single day. We bought a few souvenirs, took a couple selfies, appreciated the experience and began our descent back down.

Back on the bus we head for a meal of pizza in Naples. This was hands down our best pizza in all of Italy. They offered two choices-ham or marinara. Jen chose the wrong one, so Craig naturally shared his marinara. Something to note-pizza in Italy does not always come with a tomato sauce.

The meal time was a great opportunity to chat with the other tourists in your group. We met another couple on their honeymoon that was on a European adventure using Airbnb at every port; a young teacher using her summer vacation to travel all across Europe, staying in hostels to save costs; an American working overseas that uses his days off to check off bucket list destinations.

It was insightful to learn tricks that worked for them and what they thought of places we have yet to travel. There is comfort in surrounding yourself with people from home. They may have been strangers and not from our home state, but we shared a common trait- Americans in Italy. Oh, and that the only Italian word they learned was ‘grazie’ too.

Time to head back to our home base, Rome. On the ride back the guides allow you to rest from the long day and talk amongst yourselves of the incredible sights. As most times in a moving vehicle, Jen fell asleep and Craig took a picture of her…. We were dropped off in Piazza del Popolo and journeyed back to our hotel.

Bath house in Pompeii, Italy.

We highly recommend searching Viator for those day trips you are not quite comfortable making on your own. Or for the days where you want to see multiple places with the ease of a group tour or private car. We love detailing out each day and making the plan ourselves, but we equally enjoy sitting back a day or two and letting someone else handle it for us. We used Viator on our trip to England and plan to use them for a couple day trips on our return to Italy.

What destination would you prefer a guided tour? Tell us in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading, and #NeverStopPlanning.

Happy New Year from Jen and Craig

Leave a Reply