Here’s Part 3 of the Naples trilogy 🙂 Although this blog post isn’t about the city itself, rather the surrounding areas. Naples is a great base for seeing lots of things – you can climb Vesuvius and visit a number of archaeological sites. If I had more time, I’d have done all of that and then worked my way down the Amalfi coast but alas, that’ll have to keep for another occasion. So limited on time, I decided to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum. I did both of these in one day which is just about doable, but exhausting both physically and emotionally (I have a heightened sense of sympathy for those in natural disasters these days!)! As ever this is my personal opinion – there are obviously many more comprehensive guides to check out before you go.
Everybody has heard of Pompeii. Fewer have heard of Herculaneum though it’s arguably more preserved. Both were ‘frozen’ in time when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. Those that have seen both tend to recommend Herculaneum if you had to chose one or the other. I’m undecided. I’ll tell you about both and you can make your mind up.
Firstly, I’d just like to say how much I like the Romans! Wandering around Pompeii, you really get the feeling that the Romans knew how to live. Admittedly slavery probably wasn’t their greatest idea but generally I think they had it nailed back then. The lives of the elite seemed to revolve around lounging about all day on their chaise lounges being fed all manner of foods before relaxing in their saunas and pool, marveling all the while at the intricate mosaics and murals surrounding them – and then having orgies! Homosexuality was so acceptable they even depicted it in pictures on some of their walls. How did such a liberal hedonistic ‘anything-goes’ society end up so… well, catholic?!
These pictures were in the “suburban baths” in Pompeii.
I can’t get over how advanced they were. Vesuvius erupted 1938 years ago which seems an awfully long time ago but really, their lives back then seem remarkably similar (I’m tempted to say, perhaps better!). They had aqueducts and sewers. They ate similar foods, they had similar jobs, they had bakeries with brick ovens that look like the ones the Italians still use today for pizza, they had surgeries, launderettes and they had fantastic artists, sculptors and builders. They had sports halls (well, amphitheatres – much more glamorous than anything we manage today), takeaway restaurants serving an array of heated food (people didn’t have their own kitchens generally, eating out everyday instead), theatres, and brothels. It’s not hard to identify with the people of those times at all. Apart from all the infrastructure, they left their mark in other ways like graffiti and even in terms of leaving grooves in the roads where their carts travelled.
Pompeii is absolutely vast and that’s only the parts that have been excavated! The parts that are still buried really give you an idea of how much work is involved digging up meters of hardened ash without damaging the ruins underneath. The archaeologists must have endless patience; including sieving the contents of their sewers to work out what they used to eat.
I love the design of the well-to-do houses. Most had a large central area, partly covered with a roof angling into a hole in the middle where rain water would drip into a central pool which must have seemed like you had your very own waterfall.
I would definitely recommend going on a guided tour. Unfortunately, I didn’t! I got an audio guide but in my opinion, it’s almost impossible to use. It required you looking at a giant map trying to figure out which place was which and then putting in the appropriate two-part code. Some codes didn’t work. Many other codes worked but the rooms were physically closed off for visitors. The map had road names but the actual site doesn’t so pinpointing where you are is difficult. All rooms are physically numbered on the site itself, but these numbers differ from the numbers you need to press on the audio guide to hear the recording. Very rarely did an area have an information board, and even rarer still did it have an actual audio guide number on it. I was left with a lot of questions that I would like to have posed to someone (though there were some excellent staff in some of the ‘special’ rooms who were able to answer questions).
In the main larger areas there are a number of sculptures (of recent times I might add!) that given the surroundings are thought-provoking and poignant.
In some areas you can see plaster casts of the people that were buried by the ash. The ash hardened around them and the archaeologists were able to inject plaster into the cavities where the bodies had decomposed to create a cast. You can see their expressions when they died, even the creases in their clothes. There are lots of toddlers. Even dogs. It’s very sad.
Herculaneum is Pompeii’s less famous sister site. I’ve heard a few people that say that Herculaneum is “better” than Pompeii. It’s not at all, they’re just a bit different. Both were destroyed by the 79 AD eruption but whereas Pompeii was covered in ash, Herculaneum was covered in 16 meters of lava. This difference resulted in the preservation of wood, fabric, plants etc. and interestingly, the upper floors of houses which you don’t see in Pompeii.
Instead of plaster casts of bodies, there are skeletons; over 300 of them all crammed together in awful poses in the boat warehouses where they were presumably trying to escape. These boat warehouses which back then would have been on the shoreline, are now 400 meters away from the shore as the expanse of lava extended it. The Herculaneans couldn’t have escaped anyway even if they had got out to sea – there was a subsequent tsunami. I feel so sorry for them – it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end and I guess, it was for them.
There are still parts of Herculaneum buried under the town that towers above it but it is much smaller than Pompeii. It’s a much more compact and manageable site to view in a couple of hours. However, with Pompeii, you get a feeling of grandeur than you don’t get in Herculaneum (there are fewer columns and no massive forums and amphitheatres) so I think it would be a shame to miss out on that too. There are tickets that include both sites and another 3 archaeological sites in the area. If you’re there for longer than I was it would be quite nice to see all of them.
Something I would love to have done would have been to visit the underwater roman ruins in the Phlegraean Fields but I didn’t have the time or the diving qualification! If you’ve been, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below.
To get to both Pompeii and Herculaneum from Naples, the quickest and probably cheapest way is to take the Circumvesuviana train from the station at Piazza Garibaldi and go to the Pompeii Scavi Villa Misteri station for Pompeii and the Ercolano Scavi for Herculaneum.
After a day of viewing the destruction caused by Vesuvius, I must say, I really worry about Naples and its neighbouring towns and villages. Vesuvius isn’t the only volcano to worry about, there’s also the Phlegraean Fields ‘super-volcano’ which lies to the west of Naples. Hopefully though, Italy has had its fill of natural-disasters for now but still, I think it’s worth visiting this lovely part of the country sooner rather than later just in case, eh?!
If you’ve got any questions on Naples and the surrounding areas, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them 🙂