When planning our trip to the south of Italy, my friend Sara and I knew that there was one thing we absolutely had to do: visit Pompeii. It was just the two of us, a pair of 18 year old girls, on the trip of a lifetime. The ruins of the town of Pompeii have seen large streams of tourists over the years, and we figured our experience would be no different from most people’s.
We were wrong.
That morning we visited Mount Vesuvius which offered really awesome views over the Bay of Naples. It’s the only active volcano on Europe’s mainland, with hundreds of thousands of people living in its shadow today. The Italian government has offered money to people to move away from the danger zone (which includes Naples), but few people took the offer. Pretty freaky stuff, especially when I got up to the crater and it was smoking. Rather than throwing my hands up, screaming, and running back down to relative safety, I remained calm and followed the example of the hundreds of other tourists and took photos, hit the gift shop, and then headed back down to Pompeii (as we know, the safest location in case of volcanic eruption).
We almost didn’t make it – we had to run from the train station to the ticket booth. They stop letting people in at 3:30 because it closes at 5. We got there right at 3:30 and were, thankfully, let inside. By this point, they had run out of maps and we opted out of purchasing an audio guide. Lacking any resources, we wandered around and took lots of photos of things that seemed cool. I read a few plaques but mostly I didn’t need signs to tell me what had happened there (I watched the Doctor Who episode and read the Magic Tree House book about Pompeii, I was set).
Seeing all of the ruins was really interesting but it was slightly spoiled by the presence of loads of other tourists. What had been a comfort on Vesuvius was now an annoyance, and they got in the way of pretty much every photo. I turned to Sara and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have permission to come photograph after closing so you could get pictures of the empty streets?”
We walked around, looking for the amphitheatre. We found what we think was the arena, a giant circular theatre with a grassy area in the middle. It was sobering to think of the ancient inhabitants of this town gathered there, cheering and having a great time, not knowing what horrible thing was going to happen. Depressing stuff. By this time it was about half an hour before closing and our fellow tourists were starting to thin out. We didn’t really worry about finding the exit at this point because we were still searching for the amphitheatre.
Plus, we’d paid a pretty penny to get in here and weren’t about to waste our precious time trying to get out. We found the perimeter and climbed a little hill to look out over the tops of the buildings. Vesuvius could be seen in the distance; it was an eery sight, especially because there were now virtually no other people. When we got back into the town proper, there were a few couples wandering about looking for the exit. We thought maybe, with fifteen minutes to close and the sun quickly setting, we ought to start searching for the exit too. We started walking, almost completely unguided with only a few maps strategically placed in inconvenient places to guide us. At five minutes to five o’clock we rounded a corner and stumbled into the amphitheatre. Delighted, we began to take pictures (although without much light left, the quality was waning).
There was a gate that closed off the seating section of the amphitheatre, so tourists were forced to stay on the stage and take pictures of the seats. This is the part where I’m going to need everyone to do me a favor and not contact the Italian authorities. It was five o’clock, there was barely any light left, we were in a foreign country, and we decided we’d likely never be given this kind of opportunity again. You can probably guess what we did. We climbed over the gate and took turns sitting on the stone seats, taking pictures of each other that took a lot of lightening in photoshop to become even slightly recognizable. Sara ran up the steps to the very top of the amphitheatre and looked out over the dead buildings of the town.
She stood there for a few moments and then came back down and told me that I absolutely had to go. I did. And it was amazing. Even though my heart was pounding because at any moment we could get caught, and we had no idea what the trespassing laws of this country were, it was also pounding because here I was, in Italy—all on my own, in Pompeii. Wow.
It was now five minutes after five and we decided that we really should get going. We started to wander, and this is when we started to actually worry in earnest because we were lost, it was dark, there was no one around, and we were in the eeriest ghost town imaginable. The air felt alive in a way it hadn’t when there were other people around. The entire place felt oddly electric, and I couldn’t relax as we walked through the cobblestone streets that had been laid down before Christ was born. We walked around and around through a maze of streets that all looked exactly the same. It was ten, fifteen, twenty minutes after closing, and we hadn’t seen a soul. “Surely they don’t lock the gates, they must stay open half an hour after closing to let people out, there must be someone patrolling to make sure everybody’s out…”
We tried to find the perimeter with no luck. We tried to find a map with no luck. We tried to find anything helpful at all, no luck. It was getting really creepy and we were tired and hungry, wondering who we could call if we got stuck in Pompeii and what we would say. “Hey, uh, Mom, we’re kind of lost in Pompeii and it’s dark, can you come get us?”
We kept walking around, thinking we were moving toward a gate or the perimeter or the place we came in, but actually just coming to dead ends. Finally, when we were starting to really worry, we found a gate and started toward it, hoping it was unlocked and we could just walk right out, closing it behind us and no one noticing a thing…
Of course not. There was a tiny building with a little office with a man at a desk, and he happened to look up and see two girls wandering toward the gate half an hour after the place was supposed to close. Naturally, he got up and shouted something in Italian. We froze. This is it, this is the part where we get arrested by big burly Italian men we don’t understand, and end up in jail next to all of the guys from the Godfather. He came up and started saying something very sternly, and we just shook our heads. “Inglese?”
He sighed. “What are you doing here?”
“We got lost,” we said in our very legitimate American accents. I rambled on for a little while about how we were really trying to find our way out like, fifteen, no twenty! minutes before it closed, but we got so lost!
We probably looked like the pathetic young American girls we were–not exactly threats–and he just laughed a little at us and opened the gate to let us out. He pointed us in the direction of the Vesuviana station and we were on our way, safe and sound, but with a really cool story about our visit to Pompeii.