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My Pompeii private tour

13th Jul 2016

As I walked down a cobbled street in Pompeii and saw Vesuvius rising up in the distance, I reflected that something had changed. It didn’t seem likely that Pompeii itself had changed, as the ruins of Roman towns tend to remain more or less unchanged over time. A 19th century visitor would have the same view as the 21st century tourist, gazing at the hazy outline of the volcano, framed by rows of ruined villas and temples. But if Pompeii was the same, what was different?

The first time I went to Pompeii - more than ten years ago, on a school trip - I didn’t enjoy the experience. It was too hot, and I was already worn out from days of intensive sightseeing in Rome, and sleeping badly in noisy hotels. I simply didn’t have the energy or the desire to traipse around Pompeii with forty other schoolgirls, feigning interest in ruins and taking half-hearted notes. At one point, suffering from the heat, a headache and stomach cramps, I leant against a wall in the garden of a villa and had a brief hallucination that the grass was talking to me.

I was in no hurry to return. But when I had the opportunity to join one of Through Eternity's Pompeii Private tours, I thought it was only fair that I gave the town another chance. Seeing Pompeii on a breezy spring day with a small group of friends and a private guide would surely be a more enjoyable experience than my nightmarish school trip.

We met our guide, Francesca, in front of the gates of Pompeii, and I soon realised that we were lucky to be on a private tour, getting to avoid the lengthy queues at the ticket office. We got to enter directly, and within minutes we were walking along the famous cobbled streets of Pompeii, past the temples of Venus and Apollo.

Pompeii was a reasonably large town, with a population of 20,000, and many of the villas, temples, bars, baths and brothels are still standing. Considering the devastation of the eruption, it’s surprising how well-preserved the town is in parts. You can walk through the rooms of luxurious villas and see beautiful, vividly coloured frescoes. Famous villas such as the House of the Faun are particularly impressive, and as we walk through the grand garden and courtyards, Francesca tells us about the lives of Pompeii’s wealthiest citizens - private baths, days spent lounging in the gardens, and evenings spent feasting on seafood and dishes drenched in garum (fish sauce) while watching dancers, musicians and acrobats.

Even more evocative is the House of the Tragic Poet, a large villa famed for its elaborate mosaics and mythological frescoes. Visitors to the house are warned to beware of the dog (“cave canem”) by a floor mosaic depicting a fierce black guard dog. Inside, walking through the atrium, we admire the frescoes and discover why the villa has captivated so many generations of visitors, inspiring novels and poetry. Although we’ve been left with an impressive collection of artwork, we know almost nothing about the owner of the villa.

The gap between our knowledge and our ignorance of the town and its inhabitants is a recurring theme on our private tour of Pompeii. Archaeologists have identified the purpose of some of the most derelict buildings in Pompeii, and historians have written books outlining the details of daily life in the town. When we visit the theatre and famous temples such as the Temple of Isis, the experience is enriched by the explanations of Francesca, as we learn so much about Roman theatre and religion, and have a much better understanding of what it must have been like to live in Pompeii.

Yet in some parts of the town, an air of mystery prevails. Pompeii has left behind some intriguing clues, but there are some things we may never know, such as the identity of the house owners, or the meaning of some of the artworks. The Villa of the Mysteries, a well-preserved house on the edge of the town, has some of the most beautiful frescoes I’ve ever seen, portraying scenes of some kind of ritual. As Francesca explains, the exact symbolism of these frescoes is still debated. They seem to depict Dionysian rites before a marriage, but it’s difficult to determine exactly what’s going on.

The most poignant mystery of Pompeii can be found in the theatre, in a specially constructed room. When we enter, we find ourselves surrounded by bodies - the victims of Vesuvius. These are the plaster casts of the unlucky Pompeians who did not manage to flee the city. Couples, families and dogs are frozen forever in their moment of death, huddled together or contorted in agony. Although we may not know exactly who these people were, or what their relationships were with each other, it’s impossible to look at them without feeling deeply moved.

Everyone knows the story of the tragic events of 79 AD, but hearing it from Francesca while I walked through Pompeii was a profound experience. As I explored the houses of Pompeii and looked at the faces of the dead, I felt connected with the past, and with the people. Seeing the parallels with Pompeii and modern cities, I was able to understand the human scale of the tragedy.

As a grumpy teenager, being shepherded around in a large school group, I had been unable to appreciate Pompeii. Returning as an adult, exploring at a leisurely pace while listening to the explanations of my guide, I found that my perspective had changed completely. At the end of my Pompeii private tour, I looked at Vesuvius - deceptively distant and serene - and felt glad that I had given Pompeii a second chance. Some places never change, and Pompeii least of all, but people do.

~by Alexandra Turney~