• The author at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. (Supplied)
As the writer discovers - and the doco 'Underwater Pompeii' proves - the city is a treasure trove of both ancient and modern human experience...
By
Abra Pressler

5 Jun 2018 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 5 Jun 2018 - 12:00 PM

Pompeii was one of the big stops on my 2016 archaeological adventure throughout Europe. I was 21 and backpacking across the continent solo. The archaeological site of Pompeii in Naples, Italy was one of my must sees for a simple reason — it is falling apart faster than it can be restored and I knew it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an ancient city I’d only read about.

Moreover, I’d always wanted to see the Alexander Mosaic, housed in Pompeii’s House of the Faun. As strange as it may sound, seeing one artwork was my entire motivation for travelling to Naples.

I took a lot of risks as a solo female traveller. I hitchhiked in Germany and went partying with people I barely knew in Spain. But perhaps the biggest gamble was travelling to Naples. Fellow travellers and other Italian friends I’d stayed with had warned me Naples could be a dangerous place. I did my best to shake my nerves on the train and went over what I’d do if something happened to me. It wasn’t until I got to my hostel that my fears began to subside. I’d gotten lost and someone had given me directions, while a stranger had grabbed the tail end of my suitcase as I was pulling it up the stairs... to help me with it.

I put out of my head what I’d heard from people or seen in the movies to find that, of course, Naples wasn’t any more dangerous than other cities I’d been in. I exercised the same amount of caution as I always had on my trip and got to exploring. From Napoli Centrale, you can take the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. The route is literally as translated, circling the monolithic Mt Vesuvius, with Pompeii lying south-west of the base of the mountain. It's around a 40-minute trip.

It cost 11 euros for a ticket to Pompeii. The grounds are heavily guarded and a large fence surrounds the site. Buses line the coach bays. Tourists are one of the biggest impacts to the archaeology site, but they financially support the work archaeologists, historians and other academics do. They also provide income for the local towns and historical sites, such as Herculaneum and Baiae.

Entering the site of Pompeii, it wasn’t as I expected. I’d always pictured it as a barren, dusty open worksite, but the reality is that Pompeii is a lush parkland with meandering paths and large looming oak trees, and there were just as many people enjoying the May weather on the lawns as there were exploring the ruins.

Increasing tourist numbers, a history of trial-and-error excavations, exposure to the elements, and an ongoing argument between restoration and further discovery leave Pompeii’s future in limbo. In the 1960s, more ruins were found in the shallow waters of the Bay of Naples. The "underwater Pompeii" (fully explored in the documentary streaming now at SBS On Demand) was an exciting find. It's a site that had been preserved by the sea, giving archaeologists a rare glimpse into ancient life and, later, provided an exciting dive site for tourists. 

With so much to explore around the Bay of Naples, it’s easy to let your guard down for just a moment. I certainly didn’t expect to get mugged in the paid ticketed area of Pompeii, with security and hundreds of people everywhere, but I did.

Pompeii is a deceptively large site. It’s a haunting experience to walk the cobblestones streets, where evidence of the volcanic eruption that buried the city in 79 AD can still be found. Some houses are open for tourists to explore, and the famous plaster casts of victims are displayed on site within glass cases.

I’d crossed the entirety of Pompeii and was sitting under a shady oak tree when a teenager approached me and started to speak rapid Italian. I presumed he wanted directions. I told him I didn’t speak Italian and thought he’d be on his way. His intentions became clear when he tugged on the strap of my handbag...

But, much to the horror of my family when I tell them this story, I refused to give it to him. I wasn’t about to let him run away with my passport and the little cash I had to get back to the hostel.

He yelled at me in Italian and again went to grab for my bag. I staggered backwards, my heart racing. Were other people seeing this? If so, why weren’t they intervening? I looked around and saw a group of school children, who were watching on in disbelief, but there was no one else around. He lunged forward again and this time he grabbed my handbag, but I wouldn’t let it go. In the scuffle, my phone fell from the bag. He scooped it up and ran away.

I stumbled towards security and told them everything that had happened. My phone had everything — maps, communications, photographs. It was my lifeblood on this trip — the very thing I relied on to know where I was going and to get me out of trouble, but even as I explained it to them, I knew there was no hope of getting it back. None of the security guards were surprised I’d been mugged, and I felt stupid — I’d let my guard down in a place I thought was safe, too caught up to realise I was walking into an isolated part of the site alone.

Security were empathetic and helpful. They encouraged me to keep looking around - maybe it would turn up at the office by the time I was ready to leave. "It’s not so bad," they said. "You are OK. Just be more careful next time."

It was true. I wasn’t physically hurt, just shaken up. I wasn't about to let this ordeal ruin my trip. Not when I still had to visit the National Archaeological Museum, which holds artefacts from the underwater Pompeii - as well as the Alexander Mosaic.

Made up of over 100,000 tiles, it depicts the final battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III. Haunting, intricately detailed and extremely well restored, the Alexander Mosaic is my favourite artwork. I cried when I saw it and a kind, old woman offered to take a photo of me next to it. 

The following day, I continued to explore the city. I tried the hostel’s recommendation of two-euro pizza (amazing), checked out local markets by the pier and climbed to the top of a lookout to take in the gorgeous Campania region.

Next, I had planned to travel to the north of Mt Vesuvius and visit Baiae, which lies only a few metres below the water’s surface, allowing tourists can snorkel and dive among the ruins. The site has revealed murder plots, brothels, baths and luxurious manors that housed Rome’s rich and powerful — and they’re still excavating.

Sadly, I never made it...

When I told my friends and family back home the mugging story, I felt bad that it seemed to perpetuate the idea that Naples is a dangerous place. The reality was that I rarely felt unsafe. My visit there will stay with me forever - and given how much more  there is to see, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

 

Watch Underwater Pompeii at SBS On Demand:

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