The plan to get to the ruins before they opened to the public was banjaxed by the local vino rosso.
Aptly named Vesuvio, it wiped me out just as effectively as the volcano did to the Roman town. Guess I must have needed the sleep.
By nine thirty I’m sitting outside what I can see will become my favourite coffee bar with what passes as a large Americano in these parts, a pretty damn good croissant with apricot jam, and a stray dog. The mission is to locate the target and familiarise myself with the wider area and spot potential problems.
It’s only five minutes from the cafe to the nearest entrance. I’m about a hundred yards from it when I hear a strange metallic sound from somewhere near my feet.
Damn those cheap Argos watches! The strap’s broke and impact has thrown the back off somewhere down a Pompeian drain. Good job I packed my work watch, though doubtless that’ll melt in this relentless heat. It would be nice to have a day when something doesn’t break.
I get to the gates and the whole place is a mass of people. Then I realise why it’s so busy – entry is free on the 1st Sunday of each month, and the masses are taking advantage. I head up between the Ampitheatre on my right and the Palaestra on my left, heading north for the Via dell’Abbondanza.
The road’s named after the Goddess of Abundance and it’s abduntantly full of people. We’re crawling forward like migrants waiting to be registered at a refugeee camp, stopping every few seconds whilst another family or loving couple hold the procession up with the obligatory souvenir photograph.
It’s a surprsingly long way, and the slow procession, the heat and the uneven 2000 year old road surface make it seem even longer. Maybe that explains why we start before the public can visit – otherwise we wouldn’t get to the work site until lunch time.
Suddenly, there on the right, I see the tell tale barriers closing off an area. Well hello, Regio VII, Insula XIV.
I need time to contemplate this, so I head in to one of the many little shops that flank the street. None of the tourists seem to go in to these working class ruins, so I’ve got the place to myself to get my bearings in the shade. I dig out the map I picked up at the entrance and read the information.
Oh God, it’s a non-smoking site! I’ve really been let down by the intelligence on this one! Instinctively I reach for a cigarette to deal with the shock. Then I notice some small icons on the map – smoking areas! Ok, a new plan. I need to see how long it takes to get from here to the nearest one and whether I can get there and back in a 15 minute break.
Stepping back out on to the main drag I take a last look for today at what’s going to be my main place of work for the next few days. We’re going to feel like goldfish swimming in a bowl full of boiling water. I rejoin the slow procession and head west towards the Forum.
I’ve seen some things in my time, but it’s been a while since something literally took my breath away. You don’t see the Forum until you step in to it – and I’m sure the Romans planned it that way. It’s enormous and mind-blowing. It’s bigger than traflagar square and more inspiring – and it’s aligned with Vesuvius.
I spend about fifteen minutes just grinning and letting my head spin. Then I realise, I most definitely need to sit down in the shade with a cigarette, so I head towards the Temple of Jupiter.
As a minority memeber of a dying breed, I’m used to indulging my habit in cramped bus shelters outside airports or in wind ravaged porches outside pubs. The small side street behind the Temple of Jupiter must qualify as one of the best smoking areas in the world. What’s more, I reckon I can get there and back on my break, although I might have to shout “Permesso!” very loudly and wave my trowel to get through the traffic.
Refreshed, I head for the Herculaneum gate in the far northwest of the town and the Villa of the Mysteries. From there I wander back to the Theatre and then towards the Ampitheatre.
It’s impossible to describe Pompeii in words, the experience or how I feel. It’s overwhelming. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. At one point I laugh out loud when I realise I’ve got lost in a town that hasn’t been inhabited for almost two thousand years. There are not many places on the planet where you can do that.
Four hours later and I’m back at the entrance. I’ve feel like I’ve walked miles and my head is spinning.
Back at the safe house, there’s a message from Agent Chester. We’re starting tomorrow at 0720 hours!
0720 is not a time I’m familiar with. Neither is the safe house – they don’t do breakfast until 0730. Neither is my favourite coffee house.
I’m going to try and find a bucket to stand in as I work so I can collect the bits of me that melt.
I’m just about to file my report when there’s a very large bang that makes me jump so much I nearly fall of the terrace. Someone has fired a decent sized piece of artillery. It continues sporadically for about ten minutes. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s the Pope’s birthday.
Whatever the reason, unexpected loud bangs when you’re sitting at the foot of an active volcano should be discouraged in this agent’s opinion.