GDST Travel Scholarship report: the ancient ruins of Pompeii

Cat Holmes, an alumna of Birkenhead High School Academy and recipient of a GDST Travel Scholarship, is our guide around the ancient ruins of Pompeii.

In July 2016, two friends and I travelled to Pompeii to enrich our knowledge of the Classical world. I had just completed my A level in History and Classical Civilisation, so travelling to see these ruins for myself was a trip I was desperate to make. The GDST Travel Scholarship helped me to pay for an apartment in Scafati, a thirty minute walk from the ruins and a fifteen minute walk from the train station where we would make trips to excavation sites and famous landmarks such as Mount Vesuvius.

We spent four days of our ten day trip visiting the ruins and other days travelling to Sorrento, Vesuvius and Capri.

Our first day at the ruins was one of the hottest days of our trip but we were still eager to venture around the historical site. We were surprised at the size of Pompeii, this wasn’t just a town left abandoned for hundreds of years but a city, we quickly realised we would need to spend more than one day at the site.

Walking into the ruins we were transported to 79AD to a city frozen in time, left preserved from development which had occurred in the modern Pompei just a few metres walk from the entrance. Seeing the statues and houses face to face was an incredible experience, I couldn’t help feeling like a Roman walking down the streets of this iconic city. We visited regions six, seven and eight during our first day seeing sites like the Forum, the focal point of the cities administration.

The Forum showed us just how civilised the people of Pompeii were and how advanced they were for their time. We visited the Temple of Jupiter and the Sanctuary of Venus, Gods that played a huge part in Roman daily life but Gods that had also been a key feature in our Classics A level course. The Gods were massively important to the people of Pompeii and this was evident by the paintings and murals which decorated the houses in the city. We were amazed at how intact the paintings were with their colours still so vibrant.

A favourite of ours was the painting ‘Venus in a shell’. We saw the Basilica, the large theatre and the Gladiators barracks where graffiti decorated the walls nearby. The graffiti displayed support for the citizen’s favourite gladiators and it was so interesting to look at all the little drawings etched into the walls portraying horses and chariots and cheering on their favourite men.

After only visiting half of the city, we decided to spend another day in Pompeii. This time we decided to pay for a tour guide who would take us around the city. Having a tour guide was a huge help as he explained the story behind each painting and small parts of the site which we would have otherwise overlooked.

An interesting fact he told us was about the street names, instead of names for roads the people of Pompeii chose to use pictures which you could see around the city to show the difference in roads. He also showed us a mural depicting the Iliad which we read for our Classics exam. As he was explaining the painting we were able to see Laocoon being killed by sea serpents- a feature I found particularly fascinating as it really brought the story to life.

Our guide also took us to places like the Amphitheatre and the baths and since he was a part of the excavations he told us about how the ancient city was and still is being uncovered.

The ruins around Vesuvius are much more than just those of Pompeii. We also visited the smaller sites Herculaneum and Stabia. In fact Herculaneum is much better preserved than Pompeii and it was here that we saw some of the 300 skeletons that were discovered by archaeologists. We were able to see the baths and the gymnasium. There was also a kitchen which used to use hot bowls to heat food and serve as a sort of ‘fast food’ restaurant.

Stabia was home to the Villa of San Marco, another well preserved glimpse at the Roman age. The wall paintings here were in particularly good condition and the colours and stories depicted on the walls were quite incredible. We were very lucky to have the train station so close as it meant we could very easily travel to all of the ruins around Vesuvius.

We also climbed Vesuvius to see the cause of such catastrophe. The top of the volcano gave us a spectacular view of the Amalfi coast and the city of Naples. At the top there were stalls selling jewellery and key rings made from the rocks inside the volcano and although it was extremely hot climbing the volcano the experience at the summit was definitely worth it.

The rest of our days were spent travelling to Sorrento to look around the market places and visit the beach. We also spent the day in Capri and took a boat tour around the island. Travelling by ourselves and having to figure out how to get the train in a new place and cook our own meals are skills vital for  university life, so this trip not only enriched our historical knowledge but it also improved life skills valuable for our futures.

Our trip was very successful and I learnt a great deal. It was an eye-opening experience and one that I definitely won’t forget.