SEPT. 20 - NAPLES - Towering Mt. Vesuvius has been a constant presence here in Naples, brooding over the present-day residents of this city as it once did over the citizens of nearby Pompeii 2,000 years ago. In 79 A.D., the volcano exploded, showering poisonous gasses and tons of volcanic ash on the ancient town. Though some people had time to escape, thousands perished, and the town of 20,000 was buried until it was rediscovered in the 1500s.

When we arrived to see the excavated ruins, we were first struck by how amazingly extensive they were. Michelle expected a building or two, maybe a few crumbling walls. Instead, we spent the entire afternoon exploring the ruins of a completely intact (and quite large) Roman town. As one would expect, ruins of every type of building were represented: residences, shops, temples, theaters, even brothels. The residences, many of which were mostly intact and had colorful frescoed paintings, were perhaps the most interesting to see, as they provided a glimpse into the private lives of people who had lived and died two thousand years ago.

I've seen ancient ruins before, and we'll see more when we move on to Rome. But I don't think I'll ever experience anything quite like Pompeii. Calling them "ruins," in fact, is completely off the mark. It's more like going back in time to a (nearly) living and breathing Roman town. If all the tourists had been wearing togas, the image would be complete!

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