On Friday, I went with a group of Apolline Project participants to Pompeii. I have to admit, I’m rather disappointed in myself as an archaeologist for how I failed to manage approaching the site. We were unprepared in a number of ways and quickly became overwhelmed by arguably one of the largest and most popular archaeological sites accessible to the public.
That being said, there were certainly some positives to our visit: we were able to see a sample of Pompeii’s striking opulence, including ornate, marble lined baths, glowing frescoes, and massive public and private structures.
So, with my lesson in mind, I’d like to present a series of tips for how to best visit Pompeii (and other heritage sites and museums around the world):
1. Do your homework: there’s a lot of literature, movies, documentaries that have been generated about historical and heritage sites. Taking the time to read through these will help you understand the significance of what you’re going to see.
For Pompeii, I would suggest Mary Beard’s Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town.
2. Be your own tour guide: I know a lot of major museums and sites, Pompeii especially included, will have vendors outside the entrance trying to offer you a myriad of products including guided tours, discounted tickets, or a means of skipping the long entrance lines. These are attractive offers, and are likely too good to be true. These “guides” are often not commissioned by the site or local antiquities authority, meaning there’s no guarantee they’re giving you accurate information. Further, sites and museums have highly qualified and experienced restorators and curators that worked tirelessly to give visitors a balanced presentation of scholarly knowledge, sensible interpretation, and thought provoking display. Don’t let someone else try to regurgitate that to you. It’s like going to a 5 star restaurant and having a competitive speed-eater tell you what the chef’s food tasted like. Instead, grab a site map from the ticketing office, buy a guide book from the site or museum shop, download the official app published by the site/museum, or carry a credible 3rd party travel guide like Rick Steves.
3. Plan your trip: look up the website for the site/museum you intend to visit. Make sure your visit fits within the hours they are open. Do they have a free admission day each month? How long does it take to see everything their site has exhibited? Are there any special exhibitions showing? Make sure you have extra batteries for your camera and a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated. And definitely don’t forget the weather.
4. Keep an open, unclouded mind: visiting a major world heritage site like Pompeii can be overwhelming to the senses both positively and negatively. Whether it’s the putrid smelling tourist walking in a herd of other putrid tourists, or the chromatic orgasm you’ll experience gazing into well preserved frescoes, you’re going to need periodic moments to decompress. You’re doing a lot of walking, taking pictures, and seeing a lot of amazing things. Don’t be afraid to stop, sit down, write in a journal or talk to your travel companion. This is what makes the visit memorable. Don’t be afraid to spend all day at a site so you have time to process.