Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger? – Robert Harris, British novelist, from Pompeii
We arose early Saturday morning with an ambitious agenda for the day – visit Pompeii, hike Mt. Vesuvius, and visit the ruins at Herculaneum (or Ercolano in Italian). The looming question of the day: could we trust our GPS with the British voice to take us to the right destinations in one piece and without constant recalibration? We weren’t sure once we started the car and the GPS said that we had reached our destination. We restarted the GPS, only to be instructed by the recalcitrant Brit that we were to “turn left and take the ferry.” Really? Yes, we got a good laugh out of that.
Pompeii: in the direct path of Mt. Vesuvius
The drive to Pompeii was about 30 minutes from Naples. By the time we got there, the tour buses and tour guides waving flags were in full force. You could easily spend a day covering the grounds of Pompeii, but we knew we only had so many hours. We started out in areas away from the main section of the city, which was pleasant because there weren’t that many tourists, relatively speaking.
But first a few words about Pompeii. In AD 79, within a 24-hour span, a devastating volcanic eruption from Mt. Vesuvius completely buried the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, along with smaller settlements, farms, villas, and villages along the Bay of Naples. The poet Status wrote two decades later: “In the future, when crops grow again and this devastated wilderness blooms once more, will people believe that towns, people and estates are all buried beneath the soil?” Not in Status’s lifetime would that happen. It took approximately 1,700 years later before Pompeii and Herculaneum would be rediscovered by archaeologists.
Researchers estimate that Pompeii was founded in the seventh of sixth century BC by the Osco or Oscans, but was dominated by Rome in the fourth century and then conquered and turned into a colony by Rome in 80 BC. By 79 AD, some 11,000 residents lived in the city. Discovered in 1599, Pompeii would have to wait until a Spanish engineer rediscovered the city in 1748.
Vesuvius had lain dormant for hundreds of years, so when it erupted it spewed not only lava but a deadly cloud of ash that rose some 19 miles high. Pompeii was unluckily in the direct path of the cloud of ash and both cities were buried when the volcanic cloud of ash collapsed. Several waves of “pyroclastic surges” – avalanches of superheated ash and gas – down the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius. While the ash covered Pompeii up to 16 feet, Herculaneum was buried under up to 75 feet of ash.
As morbid as it sounds, one of the things I really wanted to see were the casts of the victims who died instantly. I remember reading about Pompeii as a child and photographs of the casts made a lasting impression on me. We wandered in and out of the various houses and businesses along the stone streets, which bore ruts from the wheels of chariots. We made our way to the amphitheater, which housed several casts inside a protected structure. The Garden of Fugitives also held a number of casts. They were as fascinating as they were sobering.
We did a loop and ended up at the main area of the ruins, where temples, large establishments, and social gathering places met. This area was overrun by tourists, whereas other sections of Pompeii were bearable. I think that when I come back, I’ll come as soon as it opens and spend more time – checking out the areas we missed and spending more time contemplating the lifestyle of the people of Pompeii and imagining what it must be like to live in such a beautiful city. While we left with much left to be seen, we all agreed that it merely means we shall return.
Herculaneum: buried under 60 to 75 feet of ash
A few people have told David that ancient Herculaneum is actually a better excavation site than Pompeii, simply because it was discovered after Pompeii and benefited from the lessons learned by archaeologists who were excavating Pompeii. We assumed our GPS led us astray again when we pulled up right within a residential neighborhood and saw few tourists outside the gates of a modest sign indicating that it was the excavation site of Ercolano. Once we got in, however, we were literally blown away by ancient Herculaneum.
For one, few tourists were there, and we felt as if we had a free reign of the whole site. We got there later in the afternoon, so it was cooling down ever so slightly. When you look down at the site, you see three levels of the ancient city. What’s amazing is that more excavation is taking place, and surely the modern residential structures immediately surrounding the site are sitting atop the rest of ancient Herculaneum. We did see a great deal more of this site, but I would love to come back and see the progress made by the archaeologists.
We entered the site by a suspension bridge. We saw fragments but also some whole mosaics and frescos in the houses. Both Raissa and David told me that Herculaneum was a more upscale city than Pompeii, and we all remarked that art was more prevalent back then within homes than with today’s residences. And their art was not mobile – it was lasting, and we are able to appreciate the numerous mosaics and frescos, many of which are intricate and colorful.
The original seashore along the Naples coast was more inland back then than it is now. It’s such an amazing place that continued to astonish when we turned a corner in a house and came upon artwork or wooden doors or door frames, window frames, and beams, which were charred by intact. I would vote for coming back to both places, and recommend both sites to any traveler venturing to Naples. I came away from Pompeii and Herculaneum with a deeper reverence for Nature and great appreciation for the engineering and beauty of the people of these two wondrous cities.
Mt. Vesuvius: 30-minute hike up an elevation of 960 feet is worth every step
Okay, so you have to endure the winding narrow roads up the slope, the crazy Italian drivers, the annoying humongous tour buses and their cloud of tourists. And when you stand in line, hoping that you can get in before the horde of French schoolchildren overtake you, you ask yourself: is this touristy place worth the hike?
In short answer: yes! The hike is not for the feint-hearted. We saw older people and even a woman in a brace walk up the slope, but with the sun beating down on your back and the gravelly path making it extremely difficult to get good footing, the hike is a challenging one. But we persevered to the top. I have to say that I expected looking down into a pool of molten lava, but the volcano hasn’t erupted since the 1940s and if it were in such a state, we wouldn’t be allowed at the top anyway. Once you get to the top, you look down into the giant crater and see rock formations, a deep cavern, and gases escaping from the inside of the slope.
The trail goes perhaps halfway around the rim. We thought it would be cold at the top, but the sun was so hot that we welcomed the fog rolling in and out so quickly. The walk down was much easier. We took the hike after our visit to Pompeii and lunch at the place where we parked. Beware! We were told that our parking fee would be waived if we ate at their restaurant. However, they tacked on a high service charge that more than negated the parking fee and then claimed that their Internet was down and we had to pay cash. While the food was decent, we recommend parking and paying, and eating elsewhere.
Seafood in Napoli
After Vesuvius we finished off the rigorous day with the visit to Herculaneum. From there, the Enrado-Rossi family and the DeMay family split up for dinner, with the latter celebrating Sofia’s birthday a day later at a well-known local Napolitano pizzeria famous for making the best pizza in the world. We wanted a break from pizza and pasta, and upon recommendation from our garage clerk Massimo, we ordered seafood at Victoria Restaurant by the waterfront. While I had my doubts about eating too close to the tourist area, we were not led astray by Massimo. We came to Italy with expectations of eating fantastic local cuisine, and so far overall we have not been disappointed at all.
This is our second night in Napoli. Tomorrow we head to the Napoli Museum to see the remains of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and another city, which were excavated and preserved in the museum, and have a leisurely walk around Napoli after today’s marathon.