Exploring Italy’s lost city: Pompeii

As semi-well traveled history buff, I'm always a little skeptical about visiting ancient sites of great significance for fear of disappointment.  To me, Pompeii was one of those places.  Could a site like this live up to the tales we were taught in grade school about how an ancient people were frozen in time after a deadly volcano descended upon them?

After traveling throughout southern Italy I had heard mixed reviews about the famous city buried under volcanic ash. While some locals said the ruins were a must-see, others thought they were over rated.

I decided to go into my Pompeii experience with an open mind and with the knowledge that while I may not be able to see everything, I could stumble upon some of the city’s greatest authentic treasures.

The minute you step through Pompeii’s crumbling city gates you feel as if you have been transported to another century.

Pompeii is a city steeped in history and frozen in time. Around every corner is another mystery surrounding the city that has become more famous now for it’s destruction than its existence.

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Once a thriving port community in ancient Rome, the fate of Pompeii was forever changed thousands of years ago. In 79 A.D., perched just above Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius spewed volcanic ash burying the city and all of its inhabitants.

Now a story of mythical proportions, archaeologists have learned much about daily Roman life since discovering the city’s existence in the 1600s. After the city began to be unearthed in 1748 tourists began flocking here from around the world and continue to do so today.

Because it continues to be one of Italy’s top tourist attractions, the country has recently undertaken an extensive restoration of Pompeii’s ruins.  Announced in April, the European Commission and Italian government are jointly pledging 105 million euros, or about $130 million, to a four-year restoration plan. One fourth of Pompeii has yet to be excavated, and the funding will also go to increasing the number of archaeologists on site.

But for tourists looking to visit Pompeii before the restoration is complete the ongoing construction will not take away from the experience.

With easy access from Naples by bus or train an expedition to Pompeii is well worth it’s 11 euro ($14) entry fee.

While parts of Pompeii are currently closed off to visitors, there is still plenty to see in the miles-upon-miles of ancient ruins.

The key to enjoying your experience is to embrace the fact that you will indeed get lost.

Because of the remodel many of the signs and maps throughout the city have been removed or are hard to find. And even with the help of a print out map from the ticket office I was still wandering in circles.

Walking along Pompeii’s cobblestone streets was so breathtaking I became bored, and a bit frustrated, trying to follow my not-so-useful map.

Luckily for me, getting “lost” is one of my specialties. And like other seasoned travelers will attest, getting lost often means stumbling upon hidden gems that become the most memorable parts of your journey.

As it happened, an unintentional detour lead me to one of Pompeii’s most interesting places.

Inside the remains of an ancient fish and produce market, alongside centuries old fresco paintings, are the body casts of some of Vesuvius’ victims.

During a part of the excavation process, archeologists found hollow spaces that had been created when some of the victims’ bodies decomposed. By filling these spaces with plaster, archaeologists were actually able to recreate the suffering in facial details and body reactions of two Pompeiians in their last few moments alive.

Looking into the facial details of the body casts, the emotion on their faces tells an entirely different story than the ones in the history books.

This eerie experience made the story of Pompeii seem come alive.

Just a five-minute walk from the former fish market is the incredible Greek Theater. Able to seat up to 5,000 people during its heyday, the Greek theater was the epicenter of entertainment in ancient life. Today, the theater looks different, and has been modified to include seats and row numbers. While this may surprise some to hear, performances are still held at the theater to this day, although they are few and far between.

Right outside the Greek theater are the cobblestone streets that run throughout the city. As I was wondering around, I began to see a recurring set of three large stepping-stones on almost every street. While at first I thought they were seemingly insignificant, much like everything else in Pompeii, these stones tell a story.

Each morning ancient Pompeii was flooded to clean the roads. In order to cross the street while the water dissipated, three large stones were put in place throughout the city’s streets so that pedestrians could cross as the water washed through.

By learning small details like this I began to construct my own image of Pompeii in its prime, with people bustling around the city living their daily lives.

Pompeii is the one experience I never fail to describe in detail to family and friends. It's a place were the past comes alive, whether you're a skeptical history buff or not.