The thing about Italy is that it is both so antique and so alive. You can choose to be statued to a standstill or else to let the days wash past in seafront sunshine and pizza.
Mid-August, temperatures white-blue, we ripped ourselves out from under the umbrellas of apathy and girded up the little Fiat for an expedition to Pompeii.
Pink and tender from our wolfing on the tangenziale we took all precautions: full tank of fuel; picnic; water; sun cream; guidebook; hats; and a well-programmed iPhone. The result – branding of the highest order – clearly English tourists ready to be munched.
It took us about an hour to get to Pompeii from north of Naples.
The first part of the journey was along well-maintained roads lined with rubbish. Thousands of stuffed shopping bags had been washed up along the edges as if by some retreating tide and then left to rot and split.
The traffic and litter-strewn intersections were a constant for the first ten minutes or so, with the added distraction of an elderly lady strolling the inside lane of one of the busier roundabouts.
Then the decaying bags disappeared and Vesuvius loomed, the road opened up and we flew along a multi-lane highway with signs that pointed us to Pompeii.
We were nearly there … and had to find a park. Alarm bells clanged.
A man stepped into the street and urged us into his parking. We swerved, then an even older man jumped in front insistent that we turn immediately right. We gave up, crammed the Fiat into his trellised shade and clambered out to do battle.
We nodded warily. The small man, built in a walnut skin beneath a cloth cap, broke into fluent English and offered us: a very good deal at the restaurant below us – we had our picnic, no thank you; and an amazing deal on a recently published guidebook – we had that too, no thank you.
We eyed each other – the price? He pointed to his friend at the top of the line of cars:
“Ten Euro for him (his parking) and for me – whatever you wish. Then you go and good luck to you.” He tapped his chest and then pointed to both eyes: “I shall watch your car,” he said drawing the words out slowly.
There was no Plan B.
The old man encouraged us into the traffic and we began our picnic-heavy walk up the slope towards Pompeii.
A few facts – the date of our visit was 25 August 2014,the same day of the month on which Vesuvius completely buried the town and around 2,000 of its citizens in AD 79. For the next millennium and a half most of Pompeii lay unclaimed beneath pumice and ash. It was in 1748 that the real digging began. That date, and the digging that continues, make it the longest continuously excavated archaeological site in the world with about a third still to be revealed. Each year there are around 2.5 million visitors to the over 160 acres.
We clutched our maps, water bottles, and by now very annoying picnic, and walked and walked and tried to imagine how the city would have felt. We peered into doorways, squinted at fragments, found space to admire broken houses and amputated columns. We were free to go almost anywhere and at one point found ourselves briefly alone and ill at ease in front of the bodies captured in cast when their imprints were discovered perfectly preserved in the lava (this links to an article by Professor Mary Beard).
Occasionally we stooped through a dark doorway to find an attendant in position. Only once did I hear a reprimand and that was to ask a young man to put his shirt on. That brief confrontation, that reminder to be respectful, has stayed with me.
Pompeii is about cataclysmic loss of life … about the horror of the unexpected eruption in AD 79, and about a town overwhelmed and then left buried for a millennium and a half. The trauma still whispers, and Vesuvius stands proof.
We were generous to the old man when we returned.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs and The Phraser 2018