When we were first planning our trip to Italy, we thought we’d go to Herculaneum instead of Pompeii. We didn’t think we’d have time for both, and reviews online leaned towards Herculaneum having much smaller crowds. But while looking at tours we found City Wonders’ Full Day VIP Pompeii and Sorrento Small Group Tour from Rome.
On this tour, guests meet at the train station in Rome (where we were renting an apartment), take a hide speed train to Naples and then bus to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompeii for a tour and then have lunch in the beautiful seaside town of Sorrento. The small group numbers and high-speed train sold us on this tour vs. the many others available.
When we got to the train station there were a lot more than the promised 15 person limit. This was because some people were touring Pompeii and then climbing Vesuvius, and some were touring Pompeii and heading right back to Rome in time for lunch. There were multiple groups meeting up, and the tour company had everything super organized and down to a science. (I am not being paid to say this, it was just my experience.)
We boarded our train and kind of kept to ourselves on this first leg of the trip. Once we arrived in Naples, each group walked to the right bus for them. They were high, air conditioned tour buses, and a place where we could leave our belongings throughout the day. The driver also had bottled water for 1 Euro which came in handy quite a few times. Everyone in Pompeii was selling for 3 Euro.
On the way to Pompeii our tour guide pointed out sites and gave us some historical background about Naples and Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano in mainland Europe, which has produced some of the continent’s largest eruptions. “Vesuvius is most famous for the 79 AD eruption which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Though the volcano’s last eruption was in 1944, it still represents a great danger to the cities that surround it, especially the busy metropolis of Naples.” [geology.com]
Our guide seemed to think that living at the base of an active volcano affected the mindset and personalities of the people who lived there. They were known for short-term plans and living in the moment.
When we reached Pompeii, we were handed off to a Pompeii tour guide who helped us jump the line. After a quick water buying and bathroom break, she toured us through ancient ruins for over 2 hours.
I’m not one who is big into history. For some reason memorizing facts and learning from ancient cultures has eluded me. But Pompeii suddenly brought history to life for me! It was such an amazing experience that brought us right into the heart of a primitive culture. We walked ancient streets and used their crosswalks, we went into homes and saw where they collected water in the entry-way and could still view paintings on the walls!
We could see on the edge of fountains where the rock was rubbed smoothed and almost polished from the spot where people had to put their hands to lean in and take a drink – in the year 57!
There were penises engraved on building cornerstones pointing to the nearest red light district. There were bath houses and amphitheaters. We could see their ancient plumbing system in some areas – water was abundant here – but the pipes were lead!
Our tour guide gave us headsets so we could hear her even if we were 20 feet away and looking too long at one thing while she moved on to the next. She explained things in great detail and pointed out lots of meaning in the artwork I never would have noticed or understood without her. In fact, with all the time we spent in Pompeii, we probably saw 1/10th of the ruins, and I still could have easily gotten lost and had no idea what I was looking at without a tour. I strongly recommend a guide, not just a map!
We also witnessed ongoing excavation teams hard at work. And the most moving part is seeing plaster casts of the volcanic eruptions victims. It was not lava who killed the people here, but a pyroclastic surge of ash that killed people instantly and encased their bodies, forming a hardened shell. In 1864 Giuseppe Fiorelli, the director of the excavations, discovered a technique that allowed the body shapes to be preserved. It’s not a body, or a skeleton, but a plaster cast of the last shaped left behind by the bodies – some crouched, some curled up in a ball, and others of their family pets!
“Fiorelli’s excavators discovered hollow pockets in the ash in a lane named the Alley of the Skeletons. Inside, it was possible to make out human bones. But instead of digging through the ash to remove them, Fiorelli instructed the diggers to pour plaster into the hollow. They left the plaster to harden for a few days, then chipped off the outer layers of hardened ash. What was revealed was a detailed plaster cast of the body of a citizen of Pompeii at the moment of death.” [decodedpast.com]
Yes, it’s creepy, and it’s also history brought to life!
Our tour concluded with some time to wander the ruins on our own, take photos, and a few minutes to shop the souvenirs being sold outside the site.
Then our group boarded the bus again and we drove to scenic Sorrento. On the way we were able to stop and enjoy the view – looking out towards Capri – and seeing some of the local lemon, fig and olive trees.
Sorrento is a safe and touristy resort town on the seaside. The views are gorgeous, and you can buy lemon ANYTHING there. Pottery, towels, shirts, soaps, lotions, booze, cookies – you name it, they make it with lemons. Luckily our tour included a limoncello tasting.
Once the tour bus was parked, our guide pointed out a meeting place and time for the end of our trip to Sorrento. Then we had the option of lunch with him or going off on our own. He showed us where local shopping, upscale shopping, the beach and the town center were. He also pointed out where the limoncello would be if someone just wanted to meet later for that. We primarily stayed with our guide.
The restaurant he led us to for lunch called themselves “American style,” but luckily they actually were not American at all. They just offered a page of American cocktails in the menu and spoke really good English. Tables were reserved for us overlooking the water, and Brian and I got a table for 2.
After we ate our fill of pasta and tried the local cocktails, we had no space left in our tummies for the desserts that looked delectable. It didn’t matter though, because we were off to our Limoncello tasting – which included not only a few sips of different adult drinks, but also tastes of cookies, nuts, and candies made with local lemons. I bought my boss some organic lemon honey while there.
We had about 90 minutes to ourselves to look around Sorrento, and I was determined to find a gift for my mom. Brian patiently shopped with me and offered his advice, and graciously helped me finish off some dark chocolate gelato at the end of the afternoon.
After spending 2-3 hours in the heat looking at ancient ruins in Pompeii, the lavish and casual Sorrento tourist feel was a perfect contrast. I’d love to spend a trip in Sorrento, Capri, Naples and the Amalfi Coast in the future someday! (Although our beaches in the Tampa Bay area are much prettier!)