food / travel

Shut Out In Pompeii, Touring The Ruins Of Modern Italy

Why can't the Italian state take better care of one of the world's most treasured archeological sites? A tour of ancient artifacts, contemporary degradation and out-of-order bathrooms.

Follow the guide
Follow the guide
Mattia Feltri

POMPEII — “Excuse me, I haven’t been here in 35 years,” says the woman.

Giovanni, our guide, scratches his head. “Try over on via dell’Abbondanza, there’s lots of graffiti there,” he says.

“It was something like Lucia loves … loves … someone,” the woman says, trying to remember the ancient inscription she hoped to see again. The request may seem odd, but hardly unique. Two other girls ask where the amphitheater is. “That way, two kilometers down.” Another man asks where the Macellum is: “After the arch on the right.”

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Pompeii's via dell'Abbondanza — Photo: Lord Pheasant

Then Giovanni takes his guide’s badge off from around his neck, “because if I don’t, they swarm at me like flies.”

"They" are the tourists who come to Pompeii, some more interested than others in the ancient gems scattered around. Among the most incredible jewels in the entire world of archeology, people come from far and wide to see this incredible city that was engulfed and preserved in the lava of Mount Vesuvius.

Often, visitors come in organized groups — better off, for avoiding this destination's first pitfall: never even finding it. If you’re coming on your own by car from Rome, you go past Naples and must resist the temptation to follow the signs for the next southern city of Salerno — the logical decision according to any map — because it’s only when you reach Pompeii that you will actually see a signpost for it. And even then, there are two exits to choose from, so you never know if you've taken the right one.

Finally, there’s a small brown sign unreadable to anyone short-sighted — badly placed, waving in the wind, and totally unreliable. “Archeological Zone” is written on it, just like you might see at any other sparse necropolis in the country.

The police, willingly, collaborate. Small streets run alongside dilapidated buildings that are grey and chipped. Finally arrived at your destination, you realize that the parking lot costs between three and five euros, and that you have to go to the bathroom, which you’ll need a 50 cent coin for.

Ancient loaves

Giovanni loves his job. He informs us about every nuance along the pavement, every shade of red. He quickly corrects anyone talking about the lava destroying the city: The destruction was caused by exhaust gases from Vesuvius, an earthquake and probably by a tsunami, and so on.

He reaches out to show us things — there are no signs or panels — like at the Villa Strozzino, the oven where, in the 19th century, they found charred loaves of bread; or at the inn where Pompeiians drank wine and played dice until that fateful day in 79 AD.

He shows us what was left of the antiques, with frescoes telling the story of each room, and then you turn a corner and head down a narrow street by chance. The House of the Tragic Poet, which features the famous Cave Canem mosaic, is listed on the map given out at the entrance, but the gate is locked and chained, although the mosaic is visible from behind the gate. Giovanni says we’re going in and, confused, we go in through the back.

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"Beware of the dog" — Photo: Mitch Barrie

I ask him why the front is closed — he shrugs: “Boh, I don’t know.”

A friend gave us a quite recent list of all the houses, buildings, and zones that haven't been open to the public for the past six months. Fifty-one sites closed because of a lack of staff, and 26 more for restoration. The list hadn’t been updated since then.

We headed up to the House of the Etruscan Column, “closed since the 1980 earthquake.” From there, down to the via delle Nozze d’Argento (“Silver Wedding Road”) — thus called because King Umberto I and Queen Margherita celebrated their nuptials there — which was also “closed since the 1980 earthquake.” There are no barriers and rusty scaffolding is straying from the walls.

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Ruins in ruins — Photo: meteoweb

The House of the Vettii, with the fresco of Priapus weighing his erection, has been “closed for more than 20 years.” The small Casa Fontana is closed for an indefinite amount of time, its door hidden by a blue plastic tarpaulin and scaffolding.

Open: never

Then onto the bigger Casa Fontana: “I’ve been here for nearly 40 years and I’ve almost never seen it open,” says Giovanni, pointing to a magnificent fountain, just inside a courtyard.

We stop the custodians, with whom we’re counting building after building that they’ve “never seen open,” or “opened for six months three years ago, but then closed again.” It’s a string of questions, interrupted by questions in English, German and French.

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The House of the Diadumeni... Closed. — Photo: The Consortium

They’re tourists looking for the “mummies” (woe betide them for calling them mummies: they’re actually bodies encased in ash layers, Giovanni chides), for the brothel or for the House of the Faun. They’re listening to the audio guide, frowning.

The whole city is covered by a holy nothing, apart from the signs with the names of the streets, and going around by yourself means moving from stone to stone, in places that definitely lack life and memory, ending up in front of a portrait whose source and meaning it is impossible to know.

They’re very proud here because Pompeii is now open seven days a week. In 2012, 2.3 million tourists came, plopping down 19.5 million euros. And they’re even more proud because the ticket office now offers the option of paying by credit card. But they know that even though they live on an gold mine, they can only manage to extract a few nuggets of the mother lode.

The inertia of Italy's culture ministry means that, year after year, the Pompeiian red stucco crumbles just a little bit more — and not just walls, say the custodians; the local art of stabilizing and fastening has been lost, and the private companies now in charge are actually making things worse.

The companies that are responsible for maintaining the ruins seem to go in circles — starting a project and leaving it unfinished because of more pressing issues. The works on the House of Sirico alone cost 570,085 euros. It’s impossible to look inside: The restoration crew take pride in their work and expertise, and don’t want to be animals on display.

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Restoration work under progress — Photo: Justin Ennis

On via del Foro, they've opened a very colorful Autogrill restaurant. There’s one bathroom for men, and one for women: both out of order. The only other facilities on the entire 66 hectares are at the Porta Marina entrance, where going to the bathroom becomes a collective nightmare.

A group of Japanese tourists, looking particularly desperate, ask where Porta Marina is, hopping a bit with urgency when they've understood how far away it is. For a moment, they've vanished behind a wall, reappearing relieved.

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