How to open locked doors at Pompeii
Given the circumstances, the mobile phone crowing every 30 minutes or so, and heat approaching 40 degrees, we got a lot of work done at Pompeii over the last few days. Arrangements on this site change almost every time you visit it – largely because the Italian archaeological service are always looking for new ways to cope with visitors figures that are now not far off 3 million a year.
The House of the Vettii, which used to be everyone’s favourite (great wall paintings throughout and a memorable picture in the entrance hall of a man weighing his huge phallus against a large bag of money) is now closed to the public – awaiting restoration sometime over the next few years. In fact the whole ancient town can give the impression of being closed or “in restauro”.
Gone are the days when you wandered round and a guard would open up anything that was shut. But there is a – very little publicized – secret for seeing some of the highlights.
They have just started an on-line booking service which allows you to reserve a time to see four of the best buildings that are usually locked. It’s only in Italian so far as I can see (though basic web options are not that hard to translate) and when you turn up at the place of your choice at your booked time, it’s a bit hit and miss whether you will be met promptly by the guard. But everything worked for us in the end. (My tip is either to print out the booking confirmation from the web – or if you can’t do that, copy down the long booking reference number that pops up; then you’ve got something to wave as you shout “prenotazione!”, that is “booking!”.)
If I could book for only one of these, it would be the Suburban Baths. These are just by the main entrance to the site, outside the walls of the old city, overlooking what would in Roman times have been the sea. (Now you have to use a lot of imagination to get the view.) These are famous for having a changing room (apodyterium) which appears to number its clothes lockers unconventionally, each one with a different erotic painting. But they are, all told, one of the best preserved sets of Roman baths you can see anywhere.
Other of these highlights are the so-called “House of the Menander” (a vast house in the city centre where Mussolini in 1940 dined the German Minister of Education; it's called after a painting still preserved there of the Greek poet Menander – look out for the skeletons found of looters who dug into it maybe two years, may be sixteen hundred years, after the eruption); and the “House of the Amorini Dorati” or “Golden Cupids” (a pricey bit of real estate, possibly connected with the family of Nero’s wife Poppaea, with a room painted in a style that is closer to British nineteenth-century wallpaper than anything you have ever seen from Rome).
All this is to the good. It’s great if the web can mean that the best bits can be opened and at the same time the number of visitors controlled. The House of the Vettii may have been a favourite, but over the last years before it closed it was so full of people that you really couldn’t see anything.
But not all changes at Pompeii are for the better. I don’t know how many people remember that cavernous and gloomy restaurant on the site, that served good homely pasta – and made a solid day’s tourism possible. Well it has been brightened up a lot, air-conditioned and it re-opened last week. It now serves barely edible pasta on plastic throwaway plates, with airline knives and forks. Maybe bring some sandwiches?