What is it like to visit historical Pompeii amid Covid-19?

  • Global
  • Wednesday, 24 Mar 2021

The faun sculpture from the House of the Dancing Faun is well worth seeing. — CESARE ABBATE/Archaeological Park of Pompeii/dpa

He stands at the entrance to the ruins of Pompeii, Italy for seven hours every day. A young city guide, he’s been ranting for several minutes – about the Mafia, dubious tourist offices and constantly changing rules during the pandemic.

“It’s a disaster, ” he says, “almost nobody comes.”

Mattia Buondonno agrees with his colleague. He has been guiding tourists through the excavation site of Pompeii since 1991, telling them about life in the ancient city.

In the good old days – before the pandemic – Buondonno used to give three guided tours a day. Now, only a few isolated visitors stroll along the cobbled streets with raised pedestrian crossings and chariot-wheel ruts.

  Buondonno is a tour guide in Pompeii. — FLORIAN SANKTJOHANSER/dpaBuondonno is a tour guide in Pompeii. — FLORIAN SANKTJOHANSER/dpa

Most of them are Italians taking advantage of the unique opportunity to look at their country’s heritage without the normal hordes of tourists.

Pompeii opened again on Jan 18 – under strict conditions, of course. Visitors are only allowed to enter the site through the gate at the Piazza Anfiteatro and must follow a predefined route. A maximum of 500 people are admitted every quarter of an hour. The new rules certainly have advantages for those who make the trip.

A rare luxury

The long queues of cruise ship visitors that used to stand outside the famous House of Julia Felix have disappeared. Now only a few couples stroll through the colonnades around the garden, sampling the luxurious peace and quiet enjoyed by rich Romans.

On this site, a waterfall once splashed into a basin while nobility lounged on cushions on nearby marble steps. For aesthetic pleasure, all the walls and even the ceilings and columns were completely painted.

“Families competed to have the most beautiful frescoes, ” Buondonno explains.

For wealthy patricians the villa was the family’s status symbol. The House of the Dancing Faun, for example, covered 3,000sq m. In comparison, the famous House of the Lovers seems downright modest.

For connoisseurs of Pompeii, it is nevertheless a new highlight of the city tour – the ruins were closed for 40 years after an earthquake and was only reopened in February 2020.

The house owes its name to some poetic graffiti. A fresco compares the life of the lovers to that of bees – as sweet as honey. “Like many houses restored after the great earthquake of 1962, it is painted according to the latest fashion, ” Buondonno explains. That is, according to the last of the four styles that archaeologists have identified in Pompeii.

An ancient gym, snack bar

The European Union launched an action plan to save the dilapidated ruins in 2014. A total of €105mil (RM512mil) was spent, around three quarters of which came from the EU. The money was used to restore two other houses in addition to the House of Lovers.

The House with the Orchard remains closed for the time being because it only has one entrance and exit and therefore poses an infection risk. The House of the Ship Europa, on the other hand, can be visited again after a long and painstaking renovation. The many amphorae found here suggests the house was owned by a wine merchant.

If you’ve made it to Pompeii and don’t have time for all these delights – which would be a pity – you should at least take a look at the exhibition in the Great Palaestra, Pompeii’s ancient gym. In the spacious courtyard here athletes once lifted lead weights, ran and did gymnastics. Afterwards, they cooled off in the pool, through which water flowed from the aqueduct.

  It seems almost unreal how well the frescoes of this snack bar have been preserved at the Thermopolium in Pompeii. — LUIGI SPINA/Archaeological Park of Pompeii/dpaIt seems almost unreal how well the frescoes of this snack bar have been preserved at the Thermopolium in Pompeii. — LUIGI SPINA/Archaeological Park of Pompeii/dpa

The many ancient snack bars look strikingly modern. They were called Thermopolium, and their counters with round recesses for keeping pots warm can be seen on every corner. Archaeologists recently excavated a particularly well-preserved street restaurant, with a brick counter decorated with frescoes of ducks and chickens.

In the clay pots, the researchers found duck bones and remains of pigs, goats, fish and snails. And above the picture of a dog, some scrawled writing reads “Nicia cinaede cacator” – Nicias, a shameless defecator.

Antiquity was not always sublime. – dpa

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