Open Country by Erica Hume Niven

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I am not ready to clean my red Spanish shoes of their dusty film. The style is called “dry earth” because of the cracked desert look produced on the recycled rubber sole. I have brought the dust back from Italy, specifically Pompeii.

I visited this immense archaeological site in my teens. My strongest memory is long, straight streets and white marble columns highlighted in that ever-shimmering Mediterranean sun. As I flip through my photo album from 1987 I note that there are two brass sculptures that are absent from the site – now removed to be protected in a museum.

On the Sorrento to Naples train line there is a stop called Pompeii Scavi, only a few minutes’ walk from one of the best-known Roman towns preserved under volcanic ash and pumice. For 1,000 years the city lay under up to six metres of deposits.

In the early hours of August 24, 79AD, Vesuvius blew her summit cone, blocking the sunshine when hot ash rained down for hours upon this thriving city. During the 8th century BC a group of Oscans founded a settlement on a volcanic spur, created by an ancient eruption of Vesuvius.

In 80BC the Oscan settlement became a Roman colony and was renamed Colonia Veneria Cornelia Pompeii. Although the oldest buildings date back to the sixth century BC most of the buildings date to the creation of Rome’s domination over this strategic area.

My parents took a boat to Amalfi, allowing my brother and me to roam the streets of one of the most evocative ghost towns in the world. We walked up the Via Marina as people stopped to look through iron bars at pieces of buildings – sole pillars like de-fleshed limbs. As we entered the open area around the Temple of Venus, everything was beaten into silhouettes, we sat on large stone blocks – remnants of the Roman powerhouse, and patted one of the Pompeii dogs.

Stray dogs in this area are provided with veterinary care by the state and then put into Pompeii where they lie in the middle of tour groups enjoying the human shade and company. We met five dogs during our day’s tour; they are clearly welcomed by the ancient souls who drift in the dust-studded rays of light.

After turning and catching the Basilica from as many angles as seemed appropriate we walked down its eastern steps where we found ourselves looking through a curtain of people and pillars. The crowds tiny below the imperialistic edifices, insect-like, below the mountain – Vesuvius.

We turned our backs on the majority and headed along the Via Delle Scuole, a street that comprises neat and elegant municipal offices. This street turns at right angles into the Via Della Regina which ends at the Triangular Forum. This area is unusually dull due to the presence of trees. The cool and quiet air in this space is unusual so we sat on some pillar stumps beside a worker who had stopped for a smoke. When he left, a stray ginger cat tentatively came towards us to share some cheese crisps from the supermercato.

We put our sunglasses back on to greet the bright light of the large theatre. The high horseshoe of seats (cavea) has been rebuilt and is still used as an entertainment arena. Juxtaposed to this amphitheatre is the elegant Arcaded Court of the Gladiators which is in fact a portico for spectators to walk during performances. In the same complex is the largely original Odeon (small theatre) which would have been used for musical performances.

In the large theatre we stopped just before the eastern exit to watch a somewhat charismatic Italian man leading an English speaking tour.

After explaining how the acoustics worked, the dark-haired man used his Italian steer to persuade a small pale lady to sing a duet with him as a demonstration. The moment lit up the space, a connection with the dead that smiled. All the time, on every street, through every arch, the mountain looks on.