A TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009 entry

Author: Matt Aggett


The great mountain Vesuvius looms silently on the horizon, clouds slowly drifting across its crater. The November sun beats down from an azure sky with surprising strength. A couple struggle with their baby buggy up the narrow cobbled road. There is little noise beyond the small groups of people chattering to each other as they compose their photographs. This is the town of Pompeii, once a bustling vibrant home to some 20,000 inhabitants. Today it is silent.

Groups of dogs meander through the streets, many limping, the scars of battle clearly displayed. Others lie in the shadows as they shelter from the afternoon heat. A ghostly child skips by bouncing what looks like a rubber ball, chasing it round a corner, his laughter airily fading on the breeze. Intrigued, I follow.

I turn into a busy street. Carts pulled by oxen are slowly making their way along the cobbled road their wheels following the ruts worn into the stone through years of constant use. People dart in between the heavy traffic, stumbling from the high pavements and ignoring the warning cries of the drivers. Everyone is talking in a language I don’t recognise let alone understand. Their clothes are also decidedly unfamiliar. This is ancient Pompeii and it is anything but silent.

Across the street is a crowd gathered outside a stall with large terracotta jars resting on hot stones. There appears to be something resembling a menu painted on the side of the wall. A large man in a leather apron is busy ladling food from the jars into bowls which he hands to his grateful patrons. There is a general air of conviviality and there is much discussion over cups of wine.

I make my way up the street and spot the young boy running into one of the houses. As I reach the point where he disappeared, I notice there is no doorway and I’m free to enter. I am standing in what seems to be a little courtyard with a small pool in front of me with a further courtyard behind. Here the walls are covered in beautiful frescoes with vivid reds and wonderfully rich blues. Figures and buildings have been painstakingly painted to reveal an image strangely reminiscent of Chinese willow pattern, a man crossing a bridge, a woman with her hair bunched up her shadow falling against a turreted tower. At the centre of the wall is a porch decorated in intricate mosaic work, covering a small fountain. To the right is a small bronze statue of a man sitting on a rock his hand pointing to the water and his foot resting against the stonework.

A loud cheering from outside catches my attention and I head out to investigate. A small group of people are laughing and smiling and making their way hastily through the crowded street. The group is mainly made up of young women, their long, braided hair flowing down their backs. They are obviously in a hurry to get somewhere and it is difficult to keep up pace with the throng of the city’s populace. They head along a road leading out of the city and lined with tombs. This is the town’s necropolis, its city of the dead.

The small group continues along the road, laughing and joking all the while. We arrive at a large villa complete with its own vineyard. Muscular men, skins bronzed from working long hours in the unforgiving sunshine are gathering grapes whilst others are working what appears to be a wine press. I take these men to be slaves. The clothes they wear are of a coarse looking material that lacks the refinement of the cotton or linen the young women are wearing and they are careful not to make eye contact with those directing them.

I slip unnoticed into the house. It is cool and comfortable and provides much needed relief from the heat of the day. The rooms are lined with various frescoes and it is quite evident that the owner is a man of some wealth. The frescoes in the final room depict some sort of initiation ceremony, possibly the cult of Bacchus – there is an image of him reclining in the arms of a woman. In another scene a young woman is preparing herself for marriage whilst in yet another a satyr plays pan pipes as a nymph suckles a goat. The paintings are extremely detailed, full of allegory and undoubtedly telling a tale familiar to the young women who’d led me here. Perhaps one of them was the subject for this story. Perhaps it was her marriage that inspired this scene.

Returning back to the town I continue my journey through its bustling streets savouring the sights and sounds – the beautifully sculptured statues, the courtyards with their manicured gardens, shouts of street vendors, children playing ball. Eventually I end up in a walled garden. A number of people seem to be sheltering against the left hand wall, their faces fearfully looking upwards. I’m suddenly aware the sky has darkened and the hum of the city has given way to a huge thundering sound.

I look round and the great mountain is angry. Large volumes of ash and pumice are spewing forth from its cone, filling the sky and hiding the sun as they rain down on the city and its terrified inhabitants. I turn back to the group huddling by the garden wall and they are lying on the ground curled up, struggling for breath, a fine layer of ash starting to cover them.

As the debris continues to fall the bodies begin to change, the skin turning white and solidifying. Where living humans once lay there are now plaster casts covering the remaining bones, preserving the dying expressions. The horror of their suffering is all too evident. The garden is over grown, the great mountain roars no more. This is modern Pompeii and it is eerily silent.