The idea of moonlight strolls through the dark ruins of Pompeii has been a long-cherished dream of curator Pietro Giovanni Guzzo. This dream has finally become reality with the launch of a spectacular audio-visual experience entitled Pompei di notte, suggestioni al Foro (Pompeii by night, impressions at the Forum), which will take groups of visitors on an hour-long tour through the heart of the night-time city. The show was presented last autumn on an experimental basis and a regular nightly programme is scheduled to start this April, with a planned run of 200 consecutive days.

Antonio Bassolino, president of the Campania region, has no doubt that it will prove to be the star tourist attraction of the summer. The project, which has been five years in incubation, required an initial investment of L.3 billion, plus a further e260,000 directly out of the regions coffers to cover additional installation costs and promotional activities.

The result is a fascinating combination of images, lights, sounds and commentaries, transporting visitors back to the world of everyday life 1,924 years ago just before Vesuvius cancelled life in this carefree and prosperous provincial city forever.

The tour starts immediately outside the Porta Marina, on the cobbled ramp that was one of the entrances into the old city. As the privileged group which was admitted to the preview huddled expectantly in the dark, lights suddenly went on in all the windows of the Suburban Baths, just beyond the gate. We heard water splashing, voices, laughter and cups banging on tables, as unseen ghostly patrons relaxed and enjoyed their leisure. As the lights dimmed, we trooped through the Porta Marina and into the city proper, where we immediately found ourselves immersed in the bustling atmosphere of long-ago daily life. The route led on along the stone-paved street, lined with shops and businesses, past the temple of Apollo and into the forum with the capitoline temple to Jupiter in the centre. The area was still in the process of being rebuilt after a disastrous earthquake which had hit the city some years prior to the eruption. At the far end, we visited the macellum (or covered market), then the curia (the seat of government) and the temples of Vespasian and the Lares (the guardian gods of the city). All along the 700-m route, a narrator recounts scenes of daily life prior to the fatal eruption, many of which strike us as eerily close to experiences in modern life the busy activities of prosperous businesses like the Eumachia weaving mill and the slogans left by hopeful election candidates on the walls of the curia. Throughout the walk, the dark and sinister bulk of Vesuvius looms in the background a constant reminder of the citys fate.

The tour ends with a spectacular grand finale in front of the vast wall of the basilica (which was a combined court house and stock exchange). There, we paused to relive the terrifying moments of Pompeiis tragic end, which came out of the blue on a limpid afternoon on 24 August 79 AD. We came out in goose pimples as we watched the audio-visual projection of the disaster, featuring scenes from the 1926 black-and-white Carmine Gallone film The Last Days of Pompeii, with background music by Ennio Morricone.

The difference between Suggestioni al Foro and other sound-and-light shows in archaeological sites, curator Guzzo explains, is that visitors are actually walking amongst the ruins, so that they can feel part of the life of the ancient city.

The project involves the use of over 500 energy-saving dichroic halogen lamps and 20 audio diffusers. Great attention was paid while laying cables and installing lighting to make them as unobtrusive as possible. So.l.e, the ENEL (Italian state electrical company) subsidiary that was responsible for setting up the system, stresses that everything has been carefully concealed so that the visitors eye wont be disturbed during daytime visits.

The So.l.e company was set up a few years ago by ENEL to provide artistic illumination for Italian cities and monuments and, to date, the company lights 60 per cent of all Italian towns using a total of 1,650,000 lights. Among its most spectacular achievements are the illumination of the magnificent Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples, the rocky promontory of Amalfi, the interior of the baptistry in Piazza S. Giovanni in Florence, the ghostly ruins of S. Galgano in Siena and the Victor Emmanuel memorial in Rome.

Before the night walks start on a regular basis, however, it would be advisable to straighten out a few problems. We found the lighting just a trifle too discreet. Much of the time, we were stumbling around on the uneven roads in the dark, tripping over bits of masonry and bumping into each other. Since each tour aims to convey groups of 100 people, there is a real risk of a few accidents if more foot-level lighting is not installed.

Some reservations have also been expressed about the price of the tour, which seems a bit steep at e24 a head, even though children under 18, accompanied by their families, will not pay.

There are two shows per night, at 21.30 and 22.20, Mon-Sun. Tours in English take place at 21.30 on Tues and Thurs. Booking is obligatory and tickets can be collected directly from the Porta Marina ticket centre 20 minutes before the start of the show. There is also an online reservation service at www.arethusa.net. For information and bookings tel. 0818575347 (10.00-17.00).