Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Walking Pompeii With Rebecca Mead

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with The New Yorker writer to talk about the mythology of place, our fascination with horror, and how to approach a visit to the Gulf of Naples.
Women Who Travel Podcast Walking Pompeii With Rebecca Mead

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After a summer filled with European travel, Lale catches up with The New Yorker's Rebecca Mead, to learn a few surprising facts about one of the continent's most famous—and ancient—sites, Pompeii. Plus, she hears from a listener about what it felt like to explore a Greek landmark steeped in mythology.

Lale Arikoglu: Hello, I'm Lale Arikoglu and this is Women Who Travel. A couple of years ago, I found myself absorbed in a New Yorker article by the writer Rebecca Mead, which goes deep into the infamous history of Pompeii and the new archeological discoveries taking place there.

Rebecca Mead: The journey from Naples to the ruins of Pompeii takes about half an hour on the Circumvesuviana, a train that rattles through a ribbon of land between the base of Mount Vesuvius on one side and the Gulf of Naples on the other. I got off at the stop called Pompeii Scavi, the ruins of Pompeii, and headed towards the modern gates that surround the ancient city. Before Pompeii was drowned in ash, it had a circumference of about two miles, enclosing an area of some 170 acres, a fifth the size of Central Park.

LA: You had that wonderful piece in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, all centered around Pompeii.

RM: Yeah.

LA: I mean, what a fascinating, just terrifying place to visit.

RM: If you've never been to Naples as, you know, approx- a lot of your listeners will not have done it, you know, it's this beautiful city on a bay, amazing sea, you know, the island of Capri and Ischia or in the distance in the bay. It is one of the most beautiful sighted cities I've ever seen in my life. And, and looming over it there is this volcano with this sort of dipped out crater at the top that I'm not ex- 100% sure if I've got this geologically correct, but whenever I look at it I see a, I see a point, uh, that is no longer there that was blasted up into, you know, volcanic smoke and ash in AD 79 and, and buried. Not just the city of Pompeii, but all of the environs and all that whole coastline.

And it's this, you know, it's still, it's still active. It's still a place that if you're that kind of tourist, you can sort of climb up relatively close. I think this is something I never have done and never will do. It's just this looming presence over the city.

LA: We had Rebecca on the show a year ago to talk about walking in cities. And there was a lovely moment when she compared the sounds of footsteps in London with New York. So I fully expected her to be alert to detail in her observations about her trip to Pompeii. 

RM: You walk around it and you can walk around it for hours. I mean, it is a really evocative and suggestive place to be. You can sort of, you go into these houses with what would have been extraordinarily elegant gardens. And there's one that's been newly excavated, with this beautiful garden and this beautiful fresco of flowers that would have been overlooking an internal courtyard. The excuse for my going was that the problem with the site is that it's of course vulnerable. It's, you know, it's a large area that is exposed to the elements, and this borderline between what has been excavated and uncovered and what is still uncovered, some of that margin is very fragile.

So there has been this effort in recent years to shore up some of the boundaries. There have been excavations of little bits here and there, j... a few buildings, not a ton. But every inch of Pompeii that you dig in, you find something interesting. You don't have to go very far to find something that really teaches you new information, new knowledge about how those people lived and worked. So th... that's what, that's been going on for about five years.

LA: I love restaurants and bars…

RM: [laugh]

LA: And eating and drinking. Which clearly people in Pompeii also loved to do. And one of those recent discoveries, which I really loved, is the snack bar. You had this like really wonderful description of it. Because it sounds like it was a bit of a dive. And you describe it as if the Frick Mansion in New York was cheek by jowl with a Gray's Papaya, which if you've visited New York you might have gone and got a very cheap no-frills hot dog from. Tell me a little bit about the snack bar. Like describe it, what did it reveal?

RM: Yeah, well like I said, it's, it's right next to this very elegant mansion that was excavated, you know, more than a hundred years ago. But the, you know the excavations ended at the end of the street. So you, there was some damage to that area, and it was more, and it was vulnerable and it was falling and rest of it. So they started to excavate and discovered that there... there was this little snack bar. Now there are lots of these in Pompeii. And it's not so much that people loved to snack or to go out to eat or anything. It's more that many of the people who lived in Pompeii lived in one room, which would also serve as their workshop for their business or whatever it was, and they didn't have their own kitchen. So you would go and buy a food out.

But the snack bar, as in the grandest houses in Pompeii, there were frescos on the wall of, in this case, things that you might have to eat at the snack bar, like I think there's a duck. There's also a dog, which is a trope that you see elsewhere in Pompeii as well, uh, the idea of a dog being represented as, perhaps as a guard dog or as a member of the household in some way. And the other thing that was very interesting about this snack bar for the archeologists who excavated it is that, for the first time they were able to analyze what had been the contents of these clay pots that were sort of set in. It was like a counter with these clay pots set into it. I mean, it's a little bit like a ancient deli counter.

So for the first time the archeologists were able to analyze what had been in these pots. And they discovered there had been, I think there was like a stew made from snails and a, maybe a fish thing, and... but what was very interesting to the archeologists about this was that the food was cooked food. And there had always been a belief that these snack bar places didn't sell cooked food, hot food, they just sold uncooked or cold food. But because there was a law in Rome that said it was illegal to serve hot food in these kinds of establishments.

So what they discovered here is that, despite, in spite of the law, the snack bar owner had been selling snail soup or whatever it was.

LA: I love it.

RM: What you learn from that is that the letter of the law isn't always followed, the snack bar owner maybe thought that it was far enough away from Rome that nobody would ever catch him, or the law just wasn't observed, that it was more important to keep the people of Pompeii fed and happy than it was to strictly observe the letter of the law.

LA: Do you know why they weren't allowed to serve hot food? That feels like, I mean I guess there are so many wild and weird and arbitrary laws in history, but... or was it just a very strict health and safety person?

RM: I... I don't know for sure, and I'm not sure that it is known, but it does seem to me likely that that would be... it would be some kind of, you know, proto-health and safety directive, that you can't...

LA: Someone with a clipboard.

RM: Yeah. [laugh] Exactly. Coming round and putting out one of those health warnings, or, um, you know, counting the number of rats in the back or something like that.

LA: And immediately they come alive in my head in a way that, like, they hadn't before. Like I already have this whole narrative spun about who this owner was of the snack bar and why they didn't want, you know, why they didn't want to follow the rule. I love it.

RM: Yeah. Yeah. You're writing the novel in your head.

LA: Exactly.

RM: The historical novel that's got him as a character in your head.

LA: [laugh]

RM: Yeah.

LA: Because she was on assignment, Rebecca was able to talk to the new director, who was heading up the current excavations, and took her to see some of the most recent discoveries.

RM: I think it was in 2010, there was a totally different narrative about Pompeii, which is that it was a disaster and that things kept collapsing one of the houses, the House of the Gladiators collapsed. And there were all kinds of stories, both in the Italian press and abroad about how, you know, the whole place is gonna be ruined and erased and nobody can look after it, and there's looting, and da da da. Then both the current director of the site and the man who preceded him did this incredible job of turning around the PR story, in a way, as well as making the site much more secure and putting in a lot of effort to make the archeology work.

LA: How do you think regular tourists should tackle Pompeii and also be, sort of be respectful of it, especially as it is such a fragile site?

RM: I mean, I don't think you need to be taken around by a guide. Although, you know, it, it certainly is very interesting and it might save you a lot of time stumbling around places looking for a house that you then discover is closed when you get there. You can go there without doing some research first. You could read my article in the New Yorker and it would tell you a few, a handful of things that you should not miss. And it would give you a good guide to go around.
But I think if you were just to show up and wander around, you might feel very quickly, you know very hot, and like you didn't know where the most interesting, best, most dramatic, most new things are. So, so yeah. I would say do some reading first and wear some sturdy shoes.

LA: Coming up, some ancient graffiti in Pompeii that visitors queue to see.

RM: People line up to sort of file through this little brothel where there are these sort of cubicles with a kind of bed of, well, cement I suppose. Something that, you know, sort of brick cement structure as a bed. And just as in the snack bar, there's pictures of the food that you might want to eat, the duck that you might want to eat.

LA: [laugh]

RM: There are, in this brothel, images above these cubicles of couples in different sexual positions. And you can sort of imagine somebody going in there. I'll have one of those please.

LA: That's wild. No wonder that's the one that everyone lines up for.

RM: Yeah, yeah.

LA: We're all so predictable.

RM: It's almost, and you sort of have to walk through and it's very narrow. So you know, you can't just cruise by.

LA: Americans listening are probably going to think this is incredibly archaic. But school, I actually did a few years of Latin, and we had these Latin books that were centered around a family that lived in Pompeii. And you learned how to speak and write in Latin through...

RM: Mm-hmm.

LA: ...the everyday stories of this family. The dad was called Caecilius, it's still registered in my head.

RM: [laugh]

LA: And then you get to the end of the textbook and you've kind of got invested in their lives, and then they all die. It's quite brutal as a 13-year-old.

RM: You know, it's funny, I mean, I started Latin too and I read the same book. Caecilius est in hortō, I believe is the first sentence. Um.

LA: Oh, and I have in my head, Caecilius est in via.

RM: Oh, well both of those, probably.

LA: [laugh]

RM: At different times. But I don't remember the eruption. Maybe I didn't get to the end of the book. I don't... yeah, I don't remember that. I just remember the dog and the cheerful enslaved person, Grumio I think was his name. Actually I don't know whether he was cheerful. But he was definitely-

LA: Deeply problematic character to be living in that book.

RM: Very problematic, yeah. Which is something we might get onto.

LA: Yeah, and there seems to have reached... those books have really like, made an impression on, I think British school children who had to learn from them. A friend of mine actually managed to find a Caecilius T-shirt on eBay that she now wears proudly.

RM: My um, son, who's now 18, but when he was first learning to read, and like, probably, a d-... you know, like a deca... decade ago, he was really obsessed with these books. They were a series of books called I Survived and they were like, I Survived the Blitz, and I Survived the Titanic. And then with I Survived the... Pompeii, I survived the explosion of Vesuvius, and it tells the story of how, you know, of what we know from the historical record of local people kind of noticing something was up with the mountain, that they thought was dormant or extinct, I suppose. And realizing too late that it was gonna blow.

LA: You know, reading your descriptions of the sights and the lives that were led there, it becomes quite easy to forget. I found myself forgetting that these were, you know, this was real life and real humans, and then I, some detail would make me suddenly be like, oh God, yes, this was humanity, this was uh, a whole city. Did you find yourself almost starting to numb to the horrors the more that you were in Pompeii and then you would stumble across some small detail and it would all kind of come alive to you again?

RM: Yeah. I mean, you know, famously there are the plastic casts of some of the people who died in Pompeii. And this was this sort of brilliant technique discovered by one of the earlier archeologists in charge of the site who realized that there were these sort of irregularly shaped holes that they kept finding as they were digging. And poured plaster of Paris into one of these holes and discovered that it was the form of a citizen, or a, or a resident of the city who had died trying to escape. And there's a wonderful museum in the site that's got a number of them and there's, there's some others in other places.

And there's a sort of fascination of, God, you know, this sort of horror movie idea of these poor people, you know, they're dr... breathing their last breath and you know writhing on the floor. There's one of a dog who is chained up and couldn't escape.

LA: Rebecca has tips for exploring the Bay of Naples later. First, a short dispatch from listener and travel writer Diane Covington-Carter about another place steeped in mythology.

Diane Covington-Carter: Our first night in essence, when we sat at an open air restaurant, you could see this beautiful, lit up structure at the top of the hill, which is the Acropolis. And it felt magical. You could just feel this vibrating, I could feel this vibrating energy of something that had been there for 3,000, over 3,000 years. I mean, in America we're so young. And so the next morning when we climbed up there, and Acropolis actually means a hill. We climbed up to the Acropolis and we got there first thing, which I totally recommend, and walked through, and I listened to all the history and I tried to take it in as much as I could.

But what really was happening for me was like, my whole body was feeling this sense of vibration of something that had been standing there for 3,000 years, and had been through earthquakes and vandalism and every kind of possible destruction and still standing there. So I would say we started right after breakfast, about 8 a.m., it was still cool. You walk up a paved path, and it's quite steep, but we took our time. And you're walking through a park with a lot of animals and cats, especially cats in Greece. They let the cats run around. And there's cats everywhere. So I was fascinated with all the cats. And all the greenery and all the different trees. And then when we got up to the top and we started going through the buildings, what I learned, I had read ahead, but to reinforce, is that the Parthenon is within the Acropolis, is a special structure for Athena, the goddess of wisdom. And that was very powerful. And the story behind it, evidently the myth says that Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, were dueling or in a contest to see who could become the patron of Athens. Wasn't called Athens then.

And so what Athena did is she created an olive tree, like magically, boom, an olive tree grew, and of course olive trees create olives, olive oil, shade, oxygen, food, you know. And so, and then Poseidon struck down his trident and he created a spring of saltwater, and evidently the king at the time of the area thought, oh we got a lot of saltwater if you look around here, Greece is surrounded by the sea of course. I think we'll take the olive tree. And so Athena won that contest and she became the patron of Athens, and then Athens became Athens after Athena. I thought that was a really cool story about what women bring.

One of the images that lives in me since my visit to Greece is the porch of the maidens, which is this beautiful monument up in the Acropolis of these six women, and they've got their draperies, and their, and their knees are moving forward, they're in movement. And you can s... feel their strength and their beauty, and they're holding up this building's roof, and I was very moved by that, by that image of women from all those years ago, strong, beautiful and powerful.

LA: Getting to know the ancient stories in the area of Naples and Rebecca's tips on the best way to uncover them, when we get back in a moment. Although it's a short drive from Naples to Pompeii, Rebecca Mead loves to take the train.

RM: You take this train that goes through all these little settlements along the bay, and many of them have been there since, well even before Roman times, you know, since Greek times, Naples was Neopolis, which means new city in Greek. It's a Greek city before it's a

Roman city. So you just have this, like, real sense of the depth of history and the presence of the ancient world and millennia, of, of the past, all still mixed up with the day to day.
Every time I go to Naples, or any time I ever send anyone to Naples or go there with a new friend, I go there because this sense of this absolute continuity through the millennia is, is really thrilling, and, and it makes the life that's being lived at the surface level now, our contemporary life, make sense in a way, um, that so much of contemporary life sometimes doesn't feel, uh, that it does make sense. When you see the city of Naples, there's a kind of still very gritty, there are a lot of tourists now, I mostly blame Elena Ferrante. But it still doesn't feel like it's been, the tourists have emptied out everybody else.

I went to Naples with a classical scholar. And he took me down the Via dei Tribunali, which is the, sort of main street in the historic medieval center. And under these arches, these sort of colonnades, there was a fishmonger. And then we went into the archeological excavations, which are underground there. And you can go down to the Roman level, and there's a fishmonger just under the fishmonger that's on the street level now.

And then you can go down to the Greek level, and there's a fishmonger underneath the Roman fishmonger underneath the contemporary fishmonger. And every time I go to Naples or any time I ever send anyone to Naples or go there with a new friend, I go there, because this sense of this absolute continuity through the millennia is really thrilling, and it makes the life that's being lived at the surface level now, our contemporary life, make sense in a way.

LA: If you have the time to go further afield and are feeling curious to learn even more, Rebecca has some amazing suggestions.

RM: One is, the archeological museum in Naples is an unbelievable collection of frescos and objects, many of which were taken from Pompeii, but also from other sites underneath Vesuvius. And if you go to one, you should go to the other, because most of the houses in Pompeii don't have frescos on their walls anymore. So you should go and see the objects and the place they came from together.

And the other thing that I would advise is, there's Herculaneum which a lot of people have heard of but it much less visited than Pompeii. It's a bit nearer to Naples, so it makes it a slightly easier journey on that Circumvesuviana train. And Herculaneum's amazing because it was buried not by ash but by lava. So it's deeper, the buildings are preserved to a higher level, and it's a smaller city, it was really, uh, a town, it was really a kind of luxury seaside retreat. And you can go and imagine what it would have been to be standing in these unbelievable beautiful houses with these incredible views over what them was the sea, now is land, because it's filled in over the last 2,000 years.

But it's very, you know, it feels like, if the Hamptons were on a cliff looking down over an incredible, beautiful bay towards Capri, that's where you would be.

LA: Wow.

RM: So that's uh, yeah. And there, and there are a couple of other much smaller sites that are well well worth a look.

LA: And finally, a recent, slightly unexpected discovery has been doing the rounds online.

RM: Last month, there was an announcement that they had discovered a fresco that seemed to be of a pizza. An image of a pizza. And you look at it and you know, it looks really does look a lot like a pizza, and of course Naples is the birthplace of the pizza, and you know, has the best pizza in the world and all the rest of it. You know, this fresco does not show a pizza. They, they didn't have tomatoes.

LA: That is, that's hilarious.

RM: Uh, [inaudible 00:23:54] but it does look like one. Um, and it does look like a kind of a bread with maybe some, I think they, I think it's sort that it's fruit on it. But anyway, look it up. You know, Pompeii pizza. You'll see it.

LA: Yeah. Maybe like a tart.

RM: So this was just found a few weeks ago, or no, it was probably found a couple of years ago, but it, the news of it was just released a few weeks ago, and you know, it gets everybody excited uh, about it again, and you know, over here certainly, in, in Britain I was reading news stories where, or, you know, feature stories of people who were trying to cook the Pompeii pizza, and that's... you know, so, there's a, there's this sort of wonderful excitement about it.

LA: That's so funny, because we just did an episode on national dishes and the ways that countries and cultures and communities try to claim certain foods as their own. 

RM: Yeah.

LA: Sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not. And this feels like it would have been a wonderful segment for that episode about…

RM: [laugh]

LA: Naples pointing at the fresco being like, see?

RM: Yeah. [laughs]

LA: Rebecca, this was so fun. You made Pompeii come to life for me all over again. 

RM: A pleasure, thank you so much for having me. I'll see you in a year's time.

LA: Yes, exactly. Our annual chat.

RM: [laugh]

LA: Next week, Kate Kassin from Bon Appétit takes us on the road as she reveals how they choose America's hottest new restaurants and talks about her own culinary travels. I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me on Instagram at lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show's mixed by Amar Lal, Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. See you next week.