Friday, September 13, 2013

One Day in Pompei: Back in Time, to 79 AD, to 1984

"Beware the savage jaw of 1984" -- David Bowie, "1984"

"Sex crime, sex crime
Nineteen eighty-four
Nineteen eighty-four" -- Eurythmics, "Sexcrime (Nineteen eighty-four)"

My history with Italy goes way back to 1984, which was a very good  year indeed, the inspiration for at least two great pop songs, and the 52-week period in which my mom's 1983 Christmas present to me -- a one-year subscription to Billboard magazine -- kicked in. It also was the year that I saw the television movie The Last Days of Pompeii. By the time the credits rolled, I knew I had to go to Italy one day to visit the real-life city in ruins.

It took me nearly 30 years and four trips to Italy, but today I finally made good on that '80s promise to myself and took a train -- two trains -- from Rome to Pompei. Was it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. If by "wait" we're talking those 29 years, definitely. It's not like I didn't find plenty of things to occupy myself over the course of those almost three decades.

But if by wait we're talking the three-and-a-half-hour train ride to Pompei, well, I'm not kicking myself, but I certainly could have found several equally fascinating ways to entertain myself today right here in Rome. I'm glad I went, but the truth is, I found the whole experience slightly underwhelming and borderline boring. In my experience, with the exception of Machu Picchu -- which is as notable for its elevated setting as for its ruins -- if you've seen on hour's worth of ruins, you've seen enough.

Walking through the ancient city, I got the impression that Mount Vesuvius has been upstaging it for centuries -- before, during and after its historic eruption. Would we be interested in Pompeii at all nearly 2,000 years after its tragic end were it not for the circumstances surrounding it? Sitting in the ancient theatre was pretty cool, but I suspect that by Roman Empire standards, Pompeii was just an ordinary city that Vesuvius turned into a star.

When I wasn't marveling at Vesuvius -- which, along with the rows of mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance on the opposite side of the ruins, was just as much a main attraction for me, if not more -- I was thinking of Laurence Oliver, who starred in The Last Days of Pompeii, wondering if Gaius, the character he played in the '84 telefilm, stood in whatever spot in which I happened to be standing.

How strange is that my childhood memories of an actor as celebrated as Olivier revolve around films as uncelebrated at 1981's Clash of the Titans (in which he played Zeus) and Pompeii? That's kind of like spending the '80s knowing The Beatles primarily from 1982's "The Beatles Movie Medley" and Stars of 45.

But I digress, just as my undivided attention to Pompei kept doing today. I once read somewhere that corpses of people who were trying to outrun death when Vesuvius erupted had been perfectly preserved, frozen in time, mid-dash, by the volcanic ash. Surely that must be an urban myth. Oh, but what a madhouse that would have made Pompei today! I shuddered thinking about it and returned to the TV movie replaying in my head.

Burning Pompei Question: When did the ancient city of Pompeii drop an "e" and become the modern city of Pompei?

Traveler's Tip: Walk around the outskirts of the northern side, which is closest to Vesuvius, to enjoy the silence (no crowds!) and the views of the ruins and of the modern province of Naples.

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