better than Pompeii: Ostia Antica

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I told you earlier:

Herculaneum > Pompeii

Well, you should know something else:

Ostia Antica > Pompeii

The ruins of the pre-Roman port of Ostia Antica are a very reachable 30-minute metro and train trip outside of Rome towards the Mediterranean. Once at the train station, it’s just a brief 10 or so minute walk to the gate at the edge of the ruins. Pay your entry fee and amble on in; there are no crowds to shuffle behind or lines to wait in.

Though I am not sure of its actual size, Ostia Antica felt as large as the ruins of Pompeii, if not larger. Regardless, it is quite evident that the entirety of the ruins have not yet been fully excavated, judging from the walls poking up from the forest floor beyond the already exhumed buildings. Starting at the ruins of graves and mausoleums outside of the town proper, the buildings only grown in size and level of preservation. The impressiveness of the preservation of the structures of Ostia Antica is what makes it better than Pompeii. Just as in Herculaneum, it is easy to imagine Ostia Antica as a throbbing, active port town. No need for verbal or pictorial reconstructions of most buildings; just look at them to know what function they served.

Ostia Antica’s only drawback in comparison to Pompeii is its lack of decorative flair. Its mosaics, incredibly expansive, beautiful, and accurate though they may be, are in black and white as opposed to brilliant color in Pompeii. Its buildings do not display as much marble, ornamental or otherwise, as Pompeii’s toppled temples and tumbled villas. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but I suspect Ostia Antica was not as wealthy as Pompeii. Plus, it is older, so what carved stone and color tile used to exist may have disappeared more completely than in Pompeii, with its sudden burial.

However, aesthetic quibbles aside, Ostia Antica’s mosaics, underground tunnels, towering amphitheater, and endlessly interconnected houses are excellent fun, especially since very few areas are roped off. I explored every corner and turn of nearly every building with which I came in contact for the first two and a half hours I we were inside the ruins. Of course, I never finished seeing everything. To do that you would need a good five or six hours, I think. As it was, our 4 hours or so in the ruins felt sufficient. I enjoyed it.

Go to Ostia Antica, people.



the glory days: the Colosseum and Roman Forum

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[Well, guys, I’m behind. I have eight or so posts in the works. Descriptions are going to be short and to the point.]

Despite being gradually dismembered by earthquakes and Romans looking for disused stone for their own construction projects, the Colosseum remains quite an impressive structure. The thing is huge. It certainly was a good investment, though. What with five hundred or so years of gruesome entertainment, a stint as a church and another as housing for squatters, and finally as a wildly popular tourist destination now and for hundreds of years to come, surely, the building has amassed as much use as could ever be expected from any construction.

It’s admittedly difficult to imagine what Rome must have been like judging from the Roman Forum. A column sticks up here to mark a massive temple; a crumbling wall stands there reminding people that dozens of shops once inhabited the area; a piece marble, a bit of travertine, some piles of bricks – the rest is left up to the imagination and the descriptions of guidebooks. Nevertheless, it is clear that for centuries ancient historical events piled themselves on top of even more ancient history in mad succession, until Rome finally fell and plunged its soaring architecture into centuries of disuse, disrepair, and, finally, destruction and burial by the elements.

So much history is bound up in the Colosseum and Roman Forum and the area surrounding the two. It’s incredible. I love ancient history. American history is so boring and brief. Even paving stones and water fountains in Rome are older than the United States.



Pompeii and Herculaneum

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Herculaneum > Pompeii

That’s the most important piece of information you need to know.

Though both Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, they were buried in different ways. Herculaneum was buried more quickly and at a higher temperature. Therefore – don’t ask me about the science; I’m just parroting what I read – the second stories of buildings as well as original wood was preserved rather than knocked over or burnt.

Pompeii is massive. You could spend 4 hours there and not see everything. However, many of its mosaics and artifacts have been carted off to museums, especially one in nearby Naples. Plus, since the roofs, second stories, and much of the walls of the buildings are missing, it’s quite difficult to imagine the city as anything more than ruins. You need a reconstructed picture, not just the descriptions of a guidebook or audio guide.

Herculaneum, on the other hand, is basically three streets by two streets. The buildings are frequently whole with the walls, second stories, and art intact. It’s very easy to picture living in the city. Since the size is more manageable, you can thoroughly explore the entire town within 2 and a half hours, if that. I much prefer it.

Of course, you can’t not visit Pompeii, but you just shouldn’t skip Herculaneum either.

Sacsaywaman and other nearby ruins

I took a tour of four ruins – Sacsaywaman, Q’enqo, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay – right outside of Cusco on Tuesday. I did not really want to take the tour, though I did want to see the ruins.

For weeks I had been hoping to find some fellow Spanish school student with whom I could visit the ruins according to the plan set out in my guidebook. According to the guidebook, the best way to see these particular ruins, which are located all in a row on a road outside of Cusco, is to take a bus to the farthest one and then walk the eight kilometers back to Cusco, stopping at each ruin and exploring at will along the way. Tragically enough, I could not find anyone to accompany me. All of the students who have been here for a while, like myself, had either already visited some or all of the particular ruins, had no interest, or could or would not make time on a Saturday morning to go along. The newer students either had made plans to tour the ruins as part of some grand tour of Cusco or had no intention of seeing them. So, I was stuck, since I figured it would be both unwise and rather lonely for me to walk from one ruin to another by myself.

Finally, last weekend I determined I either had to sign myself up for a tour or I would never go to the ruins, in which case I would be shirking my duty as a good tourist. On Monday after a considerable argument with myself, I managed to tear myself away from happily reading The Count of Monte Cristo while flopped across my bed basking in the afternoon sun to go book the tour. I headed to a certain, narrow street off the Plaza de Armas, where Lonely Planet told me was located a reputable tour agency. I could not find it. While I paused for a moment to stare at and ponder entering a random tour agency on the same street, a lady from said agency noticed me and beckoned me to please come in, as I was obviously looking for a Machu Picchu tour. Whereas I would normally have immediately rejected her proposal and walked away from her off-putting, annoyingly presumptuous salesmanship, I apathetically accepted her invitation and entered the office. Twenty or so minutes later I had surrendered S/40 in exchange for a “City Tour” for Tuesday afternoon, which had nothing to do with the city and everything to do with the ruins outside it, and a trip to Maras, Moray, and Salinas on Saturday. Admittedly, I felt slightly guilty for not comparing prices with other agencies, but I had feared that if I left the tour agency to check elsewhere, I might lose the thin shreds of motivation I had and not end up with a tour at all.

As it turned out, my tour of the ruins just outside of Cusco was just to my liking. It lasted from 2:00 until 6:00 on Tuesday afternoon. There were no more than 15 of us on the tour. We spent 45 minutes at the most and 20 minutes at the least at each of the ruins and our very nice guide gave all the explanations in Spanish. In fact, I was the only Westerner on the whole tour. Everyone else was a Latin American tourist, and I liked it that way. On the last tour I took – on my trip to Lake Titicaca – the guide tediously explained everything in both Spanish and English since some people on the tour only spoke English and others only spoke Spanish. It quickly became frustratingly boring for me because I could perfectly understand everything he said in Spanish but then was forced to listen to it again in his painful, nearly incomprehensible, accented English. Sufficed to say, I was relieved that there was only one language used on my tour of the ruins outside of Cusco. Furthermore, the amount of time we spent at each location was both perfectly adequate and perfectly brief, as I have never been one to spend massive quantities of time at historical sites of any kind (ask my mother about civil war battlefields sometime; or, better yet, don’t). ‘Twas a good tour. I am looking forward to Saturday’s.

From Claire's Peru Panoramas