The Sunday porch: Pompeii atrium

enclos*ure- Pompeii courtyard, Hse of the Tragic PoetThe atrium of the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, Italy.  This house was built near the end of the 1st century B.C. and excavated in 1824.

Well-to-do Roman city houses had no openings to the streets other than the front and back doors.  After entering from the front directly from the sidewalk, one walked down an entrance corridor or fauces and into the atrium, which often had an ceiling opening to the sky, like the one shown above.

Underneath the opening was a shallow pool or impluvium to catch rainwater and channel it to a water tank below. The water could later be drawn up through the puteal — in the photo above: the short, round, hollow column beside the impluvium.

At the back of the atrium, opposite the entrance corridor, was the tablinum or central room of the house. The doors of family bedrooms also opened onto the atrium.

When I took the photo above about two weeks ago, I was standing behind the tablinum, looking across it and into the atrium.  On the other side was the fauces and then the front door of the house. Behind me was a very small enclosed garden surrounded by a colonnade and some other small bedrooms, a kitchen, and a latrine.

The walls of the atrium of this house used to be covered with six frescoes depicting scenes from the Iliad.  The three that survived can be seen today in the National Archeology Museum in Naples.

The house takes its name from one of the frescoes that was in the tablinum, which excavators mistakenly thought to be a picture of a poet reciting his verses.

Visiting Pompeii

To get to Pompeii from Naples, we again took the Circumvesuviana rail line from the Central Station (more information here).  We took the “Sorrento” train and, about an half hour later, got off at “Pompeii-Scavi.”   The entrance to the site is right there at the station.


For a 2 to 3 hour guided tour of the site with 8+ people, the cheapest options I found were:

  • Mondo Guide, a guide company loosely affiliated with travel writer Rick Steves.  Go to this link, and put your name/s on the list for the desired date.  If 8 people sign up, they will do the tour and everyone will be charged €12*.  If there aren’t at least 8 requests, there will be no tour that day (it didn’t work out for us).
  • Tempio Travel, a guide company with a ticket stand right where you get off the train (Infopoint).  They guide groups of 8+ as they collect enough people (we waited about 20 minutes).  For the price of €12* per person, our guide was OK, and since we have only a moderate interest in Roman history, we were satisfied.

Walks of Rome offers a group tour for a maximum of 12 people for €49 each, which includes the entrance fee.  They are recommended on the blog Revealed Rome.  (Its author also has a good, inexpensive Kindle guidebook by the same title.)  However, they were fully booked for our day.  For all these options, except Tempio Travel, book early.

If you have the budget, you can get a personal tour from Mondo Guides (see above) or Gaetano Manfredi (who is also recommended by Rick Steves).  There is also a Mr. Caporaso (, who was recommended to me in an e-mail from Mr. Manfredi. And, of course, if you do an internet search, you will find many others.  It seems that the per-person prices are €50 to €100+.

Of course, you can also rent an audioguide at the entrance.

Tickets and lunch, etc.

The entrance ticket to Pompeii is €11.  Contrary to what I read online, the site did seem to be accepting credit cards, but I would recommend having cash to be sure and for a faster line.  Mid-morning, near the end of May, it was not bad — about 5-10 minutes.

The ticket is for all day, but once you leave the site, you can’t re-enter.  So if you want to stay inside after your morning tour, you will have to go to the busy cafeteria near the forum to buy lunch (the restrooms are there too.)  However, there didn’t seem to be any restriction against bringing in a sandwich in a small backpack or bag.

Wear serious sunscreen; the site is almost completely open to the sun.

You will appreciate the ruins much more if you visit the National Archeology Museum in Naples and see the many frescoes and other artifacts that were removed from the site during the 19th and 20th century excavations.  (You may also want to check out this series of articles about Pompeii in The Telegraph.)

*Site entrance fee and transport not included.

In Amalfi


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Two Saturdays ago, we were just beginning a brief vacation in Italy, in  Sorrento on the Bay of Naples.

On Sunday, as a day trip, we took a local bus along the winding, narrow, cliff-hanging road that edges the gorgeous Amalfi Coast.

We rode it all the way to Amalfi itself– an important city back around the first millennium A.D., but now just a very pretty coastal resort selling hand-painted ceramics and products made from lemons.

The little strip of grey pebbles and fist-sized rocks that is Amalfi’s “beach” did not impress us, but the sparkling blue, clear-to-the-bottom water was very inviting.

There is one main street, which runs straight back from the sea and up into the surrounding hills about a half mile. On either side above it, houses and small lemon groves cling to steep slopes, connected by an extensive web of covered and open alleyways and steps.

The duomo or cathedral is the town’s major site. It was constructed and re-constructed from the 9th to 19th centuries and displays a mix of Norman-Arab Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, and Baroque architecture styles.

The photos above are of its Cloister of Paradise, built in 1268 as a gravesite for local wealthy merchants. The Arab style of the beautiful simple arches is not surprising, given Amalfi’s close ties during the Middle Ages with Arab traders throughout the Mediterranean (not excluding traffickers in European slaves).

Pretty as the cloister was, however, I have to say that my favorite Amalfi garden was this tiny terrace (below). Its horizontally espaliered lemon trees were guarded by a Roman soldier and the seven dwarves.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Visiting Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast

Travel writer Rick Steves says this about Sorrento:

The Sorrentines have gone out of their way to create a completely safe and relaxed place for tourists to spend money. . . . Spritzed by lemon and olive groves, this gateway to the Amalfi Coast has an unspoiled old quarter, a lively main shopping street, [and] a spectacular cliffside setting.

That’s pretty much what we wanted for the first two nights of our vacation, and that’s what we got.   Like Amalfi, aside from tourism, the city is now mainly known for growing impressively large lemons.  Its limoncello is supposed to be the best.  (Although I think it tastes like an alcoholic lemon drop, much too sweet; Amaro is my Italian digestive of choice.)

A swimming area along the Sorrento waterfront.
A swimming area along the Sorrento waterfront.
Getting around . . . train

To get to Sorrento from the Naples train station (Stazione Centrale), follow the signs leading downstairs to the platform for the Circumvesuviana commuter train.  Tickets are only €4.10 and can be purchased right at the turnstile.  Make sure you get on a train marked “Sorrento.”  They leave every half hour.

The Circumvesuviana was the only place where we had any problem with crime during our trip.  The platform was very crowded, and almost as soon as we entered the train, a pickpocket tried to take my husband’s wallet. After that, he kept his credit card and money in a small zippered bag with a loop attached to his belt — something like this.

We were each traveling with a rolling carry-on bag and a “personal item.”  This is the most I would ever try to keep track of on this train.

From the Sorrento train station, it’s an easy walk to the historic part of the city.


To return to Naples, we walked to the Sorrento piers and took one of the fast hydrofoil boats. The boats leave about every two hours, and you don’t need a reservation. (From the same place, there are also boats to Amalfi, Positano, and Capri.)

To buy the €15 ticket, go to the sunken semi-circle area in the photo below, consult the extensive, yet unrevealing signage to the find the correct line, and then ask for a one-way on the “Jet”  to Calata Beverello-Naples (a brief walk away from the Piazza Plebiscito).  The view of Naples as you arrive by water is lovely.

That's Mt. Vesuvius in the center.
That’s Mt. Vesuvius in the center.

The SITA bus that took us to Amalfi and back was a bargain thrill ride (the road is often only one and a half lanes wide) at €6.80 for all-day, on-and-off access. Buses leave Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi about every hour (but not 24 hours, so check the schedule for the time of the last bus). The Sorrento-Amalfi trip takes one to two hours, depending on traffic.  In Sorrento, tickets are sold at the SITA bus stop in front of the train station.  The buses are blue, except when they’re red.

Hotel and restaurants

We stayed at the Hotel Rivoli in Sorrento, right in the center of the historic area.  The rooms were simple, clean, and comfortable.  The staff were very helpful with directions and advice.  The €5 breakfast offered croissants, cereal, and fruit, plus enough sweets to fill out a respectable Christmas buffet table.

We arrived in Sorrento after 24 hours of travel and by 6:15 p.m., we were exhausted.  At that very un-Italian dinner hour, L’Antica Trattoria served us their three-course “light lunch” very graciously.  Given the high quality of the food, it was a bargain at €20 each. We also had a very good meal the next night at the more unassuming Ristorante O’ Murzill’ at Via Dell’ Accademia, 17.

.   .   .  borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.

— Walter Savage Landor, from “To Robert Browning