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(Roger Hallett/Roger Hallett/The Globe and Mail)
(Roger Hallett/Roger Hallett/The Globe and Mail)

Pompeii the way it used to be:
wild, chaotic and full of life Add to ...

Forget most of what you think you know about Pompeii. The conventional view, the starting point for dozens of books and local tour guides, is that close to 30,000 people died in the great Vesuvian eruption, engulfed by pyroclastic flows and lava surges.

But a new book breathes life into the dead stones as a chaotic living city. Those who were killed by the volcano, argues classics scholar Mary Beard, were slaves with no means of escape. Or others who, as during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, chose to defy the volcano's rumbling omens and stay put. Or perhaps looters, who snuck back in and were trapped by collapsing walls or tunnels.

Unruly, sometimes unlawful and throbbing with humanity - it's a place much like modern Naples nearby. Today, you can easily spend the better part of a day wandering the streets of this eerily well-preserved city, less than an hour south of Naples. On occasion, I wondered whether a particular building or fresco hadn't been rather too well restored and improved upon. But that's a quibble. No book or website can really deliver the full picture of Pompeii, with its cult of the phallus, its storefront eateries and its majestic forum and amphitheatre, a building that accommodated 30,000 people (but had not a single lavatory).

Beard, who teaches at Cambridge University and has spent 20 years roaming Pompeii's elaborate ruins, offers a vivid portrait of life before the cataclysm with The Fires of Vesuvius, Pompeii Lost and Found. While acknowledging that many mysteries remain, her richly detailed narrative looks at how the city actually functioned, from its system of one-way streets to favourite foods (savillum, a custard-like concoction, and garum, a tangy sauce derived from fermented fish entrails); from the prurient graffiti in gladiatorial dressing rooms to how it handled human waste (6.5 million kilograms of it annually).

Beard argues that Pompeii's population was smaller than previously thought, about 12,000, and that most escaped the volcanic eruption, taking the bulk of their possessions with them.

That would explain why relatively few corpses (1,100) and household effects were later found. Some citizens and slaves - half the population were slaves, many of them Jews brought from Israel after the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD - must have been stranded or chosen to stay. There were, after all, remains of 21 fresh bread loaves found in Pompeii's ovens, when excavations began in the mid-18th century.

Beard's book is too new to have changed the way local tour guides and historians treat the Pompeii saga, but for anyone contemplating a visit to one of the world's greatest archeological sites, it's a useful read.

Another fascinating site, even closer to Naples, is Herculaneum. It, too, was destroyed by lava flows from Vesuvius, and lay buried under mud and ash for almost 1,600 years.

Wealthier than Pompeii, the seaside town boasted a number of impressive villas, including one owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law - the so-called Villa of the Papyri. Piso's library of Greek and Roman texts was said to be among the largest in the world at that time.

Amazingly, hundreds of scrolls, though carbonized, can still be painstakingly read using computer-enhanced multi-spectral imaging, affording the prospect that books long since thought lost to us might still be recoverable.

Some of the work has already been done and the results are on display in the National Archeological Museum (Europe's oldest) in Naples, the wisdom of the ages encrypted in charred fragments.

Naples is everything they say - dirty, noisy and a bit down at the heels - but I can't help thinking it's getting a bad rap.

Yes, the cabbies drive like madmen and would cheat their own mothers for an extra euro. And yes, the city is heavily influenced - a euphemism for controlled - by the Camorra, the local Mafia. In fact, there's a death warrant out on the head of Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah, the recent bestselling exposé of the organization; he has been living under police protection for two years. Armed Italian soldiers now patrol the streets.

Still, as with Pompeii, it's best not to swallow the hype. For a city of its size, about one million, old Napoli offers the casual visitor an extraordinary palette, a remarkable range of cultural, historical and gastronomic attractions (it is, after all, the birth- place of pizza and buffalo mozzarella), all eminently affordable.

In addition to Piso's scrolls, the National Archeological Museum (near the top of the Via Toledo, a 15-minute walk from anywhere in the city centre) includes the not-to-be-missed Secret Room, an exhibit featuring eye-popping, phallus-heavy frescoes, objets d'art and sculptures, representative of the rich and varied sex lives that Pompeiians are said to have enjoyed.

Some Jewish slaves, coerced into prostitution, may have formed their own judgments of these revels; on one wall in Hebrew are the words Sodom and Gomorrah.

Naples itself is an exercise in time travel. The city was founded by Greeks eight centuries before Christ - a trading settlement called Parthenope, after the siren of Greek mythology who apparently washed ashore after failing to bewitch Ulysses with her song. Some Neapolitans, in fact, still like to refer to themselves as Parthenopeans.

In the centuries since then, it has been ruled by nine or 10 separate regimes: Roman, Moorish, Gothic, Byzantine, Angevin and Aragonese, Spanish Viceroy, Bourbon and then, until Italy was formally unified in 1861, the House of Savoy. Evidence of these rich and various cultural and architectural presences can still be found.

That's particularly true at two castles, the Egg Castle (Castel dell'Ovo), on the island of the Megarides, the site of the first Greek settlement, and the New Castle (Castel Nuovo), built by Charles I of Anjou in the 13th century. The present building, restored in the 15th century, includes a Triumphal Arch, considered one of the finest Renaissance works of its kind.

The Egg Castle - so called because the poet Virgil is said to have inserted a magical supporting egg put into the foundations - was the seat of power for Greek, Roman and Norman rulers.

According to local legend, as long as Virgil's egg remains intact, so will Naples. The last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, went into exile here in 476 AD, fleeing the marauding Goths. No doubt thankful for his life, he founded a monastery.

These ancient presences have long since been eradicated, but what remains of the fortress is impressive. Have lunch in one of the many seafood restaurants in the fishing village (Borgo Marinari) that abuts its eastern wall.

Finally, don't leave without taking a look at Teatro di San Carlo, the magnificent Naples opera house. Originally designed for the Bourbon monarch Charles III, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the great Italian composers (and several foreign ones), directors and singers have worked here. The building sustained some damage from aerial bombing in the Second World War, but by 1943 had been restored and reopened.

One last piece of advice: Don't drive here. The streets are a microcosm of the city itself - throbbing, revved, aleatory, chaotic.

Just, I suspect, like old Pompeii.


Pack your bags

Getting there

Alitalia and Air France fly to Naples from Toronto and Montreal with connections in Rome and Paris. Naples is 90 minutes from Rome by car on the A1. Trains from Rome to Naples depart from the Tiburtina or Termini stations ( www.italiarail.com). In Naples, the Circumvesuviana train from the central station goes to both Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano).

Where to stay

Chiaja Hotel de Charme 39 (081) 415-555; www.hotelchiaia.it. Double rooms from $169, including breakfast. A former brothel in the centre of town on a pedestrians-only shopping street.

Where to eat

Da Michele Via Cesare Sersale 1-3. You can't avoid pizza in Naples. This place makes only two varieties, Margherita or marinara (tomatoes, garlic, oregano, cheese and olive oil).

Vadinchenia Via Pontano 21. For fresh seafood a few blocks north of the Hotel Chiaja.

What to do

Context Travel 1-888-467-1986; contexttravel.com. Its agents lead walking tours of Naples's museums, architecture, and history as well as excursions to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum (Greek ruins 2,600 years old, about two hours south of Naples).

Pompeii is a featured destination on The Globe's Mediterranean Odyssey cruise this August.

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