How to Win at Pompeii

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📸 Andy Holmes via Unsplash

Even at 9am, the Mediterranean sun aggressively splits through the sky and I’ve long since whipped off the thin jumper I wore over my cotton playsuit as protection against the early morning and heavily air-conditioned flight from LGW.

Standing sticky from a full-body application of sun cream liberally applied in the loos of baggage reclaim, D and I wait as part of a crowd hanging by Napoli Airport bus stop to take us into the city centre.

As the anticipated bus pulls to a standstill, the impatient congregation swarm like bees around a honeypot. Slipping to the front of the hive, we buy our tickets and collect the obligatory expected sigh from the driver as he sorted out €16.48 in change from our fresh and flat tourist-twenty.

We plant ourselves midway down the body of the carriage, the suitcase we’re sharing rocks and bashes against our bare legs with every bumbling jolt of movement as the scruffy city of Naples races past the windows.

‘Piazza di’ Garibaldi’ a cool robotic voice comes through the speakers.

The doors retract open and passengers stream out as D and I haul our suitcase onto the blazing pavement. A pungent smelly mix of exhaust fumes and hot rubbish sliced through with urine causes a harmonised nose wrinkle from us both. We can see our next port of transport – Napoli Centrale train station – in the distance, down and across the road from where we disembarked.

The streets pulse with locals going about their regular Thursday morning. I march forward, weaving in and out the parade of people, D clasps the handle of the suitcase and rolls behind me.

Employing tag-team efforts we manoeuvre the case down escalators and steps, self-assured in following the light blue line, per Sorrento. Underground, the warm maze of strip-lights, linear colours, and discoloured tiles zap our confidence almost immediately. There were no further light blue lines to follow. Craning our necks, twisting on tip-toes and flitting around corners just to see if there ‘might be a sign over here’ D and I give up willing a marker for Pompeii or Sorrento to appear from nothing and gabble our trouble to a non-English speaking station official. He relays correct directions to where we needed to be in bellowing Italian and exaggerated hand gestures.

Copying back to ourselves the sequenced flicks of the wrist and pointing of fingers, our feet took directions to the automatic gates guarding the train platforms dressed in the per Sorrento baby-blue stripes putting us back on track.

Behind our triumph, another pocket of swarming travellers hum and buzz and shout in chaotic lines outside three ticket windows. A different station official guides D and I to the smallest of the queues. ‘Pompeii Scavi?’ I say slow and loud in uncertain ignorance attempting a native pronunciation. The bored man behind the glass says nothing but beckons for money to be pushed through the bowl at the base of the pane. I have no idea how much the tickets cost, nor did we have the time to sit and work it out. Bibbing ourselves through the gates and glancing down more stairs at the platform, D breathes out a low and drawn out ‘Oh shit’.

Below us is a sea of people. Crammed, sweaty, tinned sardines all expectantly waiting. Hoicking the suitcase down a flight of stairs in efficient synchronicity, we meet the fringes of our next battle. Again I lead, threading through the masses, stopping every third or fourth step to check on D and see if she wants to swap. She’s fine.

I secure us a spot on the platform with a little breathing room, eyeing the old display board hanging above us which displayed Sorrento ‘It’s the next one’ I say.

A tall girl steps through the mobs surrounding us. Wearing a white broderie anglaise midi-dress, she stood out as a gulp of sartorial oxygen amongst the denim shorts and rhinestone belly tops favoured by the gaggles of Italian teenagers that makes up large portions of the crowd. ‘Excuse me’ she says in a soft lilted accent of America’s deep south. ‘Does the next train from here go to Sorrento?’ D and I stare at her for a silent beat, momentarily transfixed by how strikingly beautiful she is amongst the drab dinge of the platform. I first notice her skin; Disney-princess pale and impossibly clear, save for a constellation of freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks. Her face is sweetly cherubic; the likes only usually seen perfectly preserved hanging in a museum bought to life by expert glowy brush strokes of Renaissance masters. Dark auburn-red hair tied into a long bouncy ponytail swishes behind her as she talks. ‘Yeah, we think so’ D smiles.

The Tall Girl smiles back and continues picking her way down the horde, pure white and red flash against the dull muted mass of other travellers. An approaching train whooshes more clammy sour air into the platform hall as I watch The Tall Girl disappear, thinking she looks too clean to be taking a grimy train from Naples on what appeared to be her own.

‘No Sorrento’ a woman calls above the rumble of the train as she shakes her head in conversation with another woman. My ears prick, breaking the spell gazing after The Tall Girl and turn my attention to the two ladies in front of me. ‘No Sorrento’, she shouts and shakes her head again.

Fuck. I panic we’ve just lead a woman travelling by herself to an impending doom of Taken-style proportions or worse. I consider battling through the crowds to get to her but they’re too dense to push through. An incoherent mumble comes from the platform speakers, barely audible above the noise from below. Maybe that was something about this train not being for Sorrento?

I really hope so, as I can’t see The Tall Girl in the now thinned out pack of people left over from the departing train.

Five minutes later, another vacuum of rotten wind charges into the platform hall. This is the train to Sorrento. The carriage is heavy with humidity and sweat and people. D and I cram ourselves and our case into a far corner, next to the doors on the opposite side from where we get on. We are both firmly stuck under separate pairs of damp male armpits.

To escape the unpleasant view at my eye level, I twist my head towards the back of the car. White and red immediately pulls my interest – there she is. The Tall Girl was safely on the right train and sat in a seat facing away from me. The back of her gleaming dress and shiny hair, a beacon once more in a sea of drab. ‘Oh thank God’. I nudge D and point her out in relief.

The journey rattles through 13 stations before Pompeii. The pressure of passengers taking up the car slowly drains away with each stop. The armpits are gone too and we can both breathe a little better.

‘Pompeii Scavi’ is melodically announced over the tannoy.

Back into the searing sun and cleaner air, a steady current of people file down to the platform exit of Pompeii Scavi towards shouting and the brightly coloured umbrellas of local tour guides.

‘The queue to get into Pompeii is at a two-hour wait, if you come with me you’ll go straight in’

‘English-speaking tour of Pompeii starting in 10 minutes’

‘ Unless you’re with my tour, you will be waiting nearly three hours to get into Pompeii’

Turning to each other, D and I figure the tour-touts at the station were exaggerating wait times to pressgang visitors into their groups. We want the freedom to roam the site without restrictions of having to traipse off after a group and we also weren’t overly keen shelling out a possible €15+ on top of the €15 admission fee – protecting the holiday’s prosecco budget where we could was naturally the main factor in this decision.

From researching the logistics of this excursion in the weeks leading up to the holiday, I home in on signs for the station’s luggage room to offload our suitcase. Paying €3 for the whole day, the case is safely stored and we sail by the still bellowing tour guides prowling the concourse.

The clamourous guides weren’t lying.

The what-seemed-like-miles of people forming a snaking line equated to definite two-hour wait. D and I join the end of the queue, clinging to slivers of hope and optimism that it looks worse than it actually is. That somehow, miraculously, the line would magically go down quickly and we wouldn’t fry from standing around nearly 35degree of direct sunlight.

Wilting in the heat in less than 10 minutes we reluctantly start googling ‘Pompeii fast track tickets’ and ‘Pompeii official tour guides’, conceding to let our precious booze budget take a hit. Scrolling through the mass of information D holds up her hand and says ‘ It says here that the best time to queue up for tickets is at 9am or 1pm. There’s another comment here on TripAdvisor from someone saying the exact thing too. ‘Wait until 1.30pm.’ What do you think?’

It’s just coming up to midday. My tummy speaks in response, signalling it was finished digesting the chocolate croissant from the 5am Pret stop this morning.

‘We could risk it? Go have lunch and wait to see if the line does go down.’ I jerk my head in the direction of a roadside restaurant sitting under an orange grove capitalising on the perpetual flow of sight-seers. The queue hadn’t as much as crept half a step forward since we become part of the tourism traffic.

D nods.

Moving from the line much to the loud delight of the people behind us who gain an advancement of less than a foot towards the far-far-away ticket office (just calm down Karen, you’ve still got a long way to go). We scuttle out of Pompeii’s gates to a welcome round of ‘Ciao Bellas’ and icy Aperol spritz’s at the restaurant opposite. Our table is outside under a shady canopy. Overly-ripe oranges and vines dangling above us scent and absorb the dry Italian heat; as we have a direct view of the queue it makes an absolute dream set-up to people-watch those milling around Pompeii’s entrance.

A basket of squidgy warm bread and a ceramic pot of olives is plonked down next to us after ordering mains. D and I ‘salute‘ our goblets of Aperol and finally catch up with each other’s life news and plans from the last two weeks in explicitly minute detail; occasionally breaking from the flow of chat to tear through chunks of focaccia drowned in vinegary oil.

Wheel-sized plates arrive sometime later, and as we tuck into griddle pan vegetables with strips of melting mozzarella, D glances up at the queue ‘Still looks busy’ she says slowly chewing on a mouthful. ‘We’ve still got 40 minutes until 1.30pm. If not, we’ll just join the line again and chalk this move up to a delicious mistake’ I shrug in reply.

Feeling incredibly full and lazy from the heat and spritzes, we draw out the last dregs of our drinks. Another pause in the conversation causes us both to check out the line. But there’s nothing to look at because all of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people, have gone.

The entrance looks like a ghost town.

No shouty-guides, no screaming children, no impatient fellow tourists ready to elbow you out of the way and not one group leader waving a flag-topped stick up in the air within sight.

‘Ahh I love the internet’ D smiles with satisfaction ‘I guess we’ve just won Pompeii’ she says clinking her glass with mine.

ACTUAL USEFUL TIPS FOR POMPEII

1/ If you have bulky luggage with you, stick it in the luggage check at Pompeii Scavi train station. The lockers are guarded all day and cost €3. A small price to pay for an afternoon to be blissfully bag-free.

2/ Suncream, sunglasses, sunhats and natural fibre clothing (cotton = your best friend) are VITAL if you are visiting in the summer. Not only can Italy get hotter than Satan’s balls, there’s little to zero shade protection once through the ticketed gate.

3/ Take a water bottle with you. They have refilling stations (from taps that look like they’re well acquainted with a garden hose or two. But hey, beggars most certainly can’t be choosers) all over the site that are free to use.

4/ Go either at the crack of dawn (8.30am if you’re interested as to what I class as dawn) or wait until after 1.30pm to get your tickets. Any time between those two points will have you misspending precious hours standing in line having to listen to Cindy from Arizona complain about the lack of Starbucks on the Amalfi Coast (I mean come on Cindy get a bloody grip, you’re in coffee-mad Italy for fuck’s sake.)

5/ Pompeii is a city don’t forget, so it is bloody massive. You won’t be able to see everything even if you spent a full day there. Plan what you definitely want to visit (the replica Roman villas are cool, the museum is supposed to be fantastic, the brothel with Roman erotica painted on the walls is a highlight as was the amphitheatre) and hit those first. That leaves you time to potter through the streets and come across something unexpected as a bonus. Mary Beard is an authority on Pompeii and her ‘what to do’ article is invaluably helpful.

6/ Like I said, even though it’s a ruin, it’s still a city. Comfy flat shoes are not-negotiable. Those tottering around on the very old, very cobbled and very uneven streets in heels may have great insta-pics but are essentially morons. Don’t be that person.

7/ There is one restaurant within the actual city walls but it is dank, clammy and served sad looking food. Either eat before you go or have lunch in one of the restaurants that circle the site. Yes, they are a bit expensive but what tourist-traps aren’t. The one D and I went to gave us a lot for our money and it was nice being under the oranges as it made the air smell like Tropicana juice.

8/ Don’t go in with a tour guide if you like doing things at your own pace. The groups are large and people have said it was a waste of money because they couldn’t hear the guide unless they became their literal shadow.

9/ Do a little research on what actually went down at Pompeii before you go. Yes a volcano erupted, thousands died blah blah blah but the story of Pompeii itself; what it was like as a city, who it’s people were, what did life look like there, why did people ignore the rumbling Vesuvius to stay and what happened in the aftermath of it’s defining tragedy is so so so so fascinating if you’re into history and cultural anthropology. Mary Beard also has a book that covers all this and is an excellent resource to swot up with (the audio version of this book is wonderful if you’re not a big reader).

10/ If you don’t have a lot of time to wander, consider going to Herculaneum (accessible by train from Naples). It tends to be much much quieter, more compact, better preserved and you’ll still get your fix of horror struck skeletons realising they are about to perish in the volcanic pyroclastic flow… get your cameras ready!

How to Win at Pompeii

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