Warning: images of skeletons.
A little fact about me: for my day job (alas, I am not yet a full-time digital nomad), I work in the field of history. Learning about the past and passing that information on to others is quite literally my job. History is something I’ve always been interested in; I remember being young and on family holidays to Spain and Malta, and my favourite part of the Berlitz guides we’d take with us was always the history section – other people holidaying in the 80’s and 90’s: I apologize for being that precocious little pipsqueak spouting history facts on the transfer coach. But I truly believe that in order to fully understand or appreciate a place, you need to know at least a little of its past, what has happened to form a country in a particular way – its triumphs, its cultural advances, the scars and sadness that have been inflicted upon it.
The area south of Naples has a big scar, one that glowers down on the area even today, making residents uncertain of their homes and place in life, a reminder that nothing is permanent.
That scar is called Vesuvius.
I woke up on that Tuesday determined to visit Herculaneum, one of the towns destroyed by pyroclastic flows caused by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. I’d visited Pompeii, a town more famous these days, but at the time of the eruption actually less prosperous than Herculaneum, twice before – this would be my first trip to Herculaneum. I felt a mix of excitement, and that feeling of guilt you experience when you realise you’re excited to visit a mass grave. After breakfast, where I gave up any pretense of not intending to have a cooked breakfast every morning I was here (screw it; the bacon was too good), I was into Sorrento, and purchasing my train ticket.
I settled myself into my seat, wiggling my backside and shoulders into the nice comfy padding, and happily looked forward to a nice, relaxing train journey. The train was quiet, with a few Italians heading off to Naples, and a few tourists. I like trains – as I’ve said before with coaches, I like to just sit back and watch the world go by. And with a train, you don’t get the sudden jolt of your Italian coach driver being cut up by a Vespa driver, resulting in a hammering of car horns and torrents of particularly floral Italian (definitely one of the advantages of speaking the language). And as much as I admire the fiestiness of Italian coach drivers, I was going for a day of learning and contemplation. A quiet, smooth train journey was just perfect.
The extremely sudden burst from about a metre behind me, of a jazzy recorded backing track, and two mad saxophone players joining in with it, made me jump so hard that I’m surprised I didn’t end up splattered against the train carriage roof, drifting back down to the floor like Wile E. Coyote.
It was a reign of terror. The Italians moaned quietly into their hands, including the young woman opposite me, who tapped angrily at her phone and muttered “che palle” under her breath, whilst tourists looked mildly horrified and whispered in a stricken manner into each other’s ears, seemingly confused about whether they had to pay, or participate in some way. The song seemed to go on forever, until it mercifully came to a particularly up-tempo and jolly crescendo.
The silence was stony. Tumbleweed blew across the station. A crow cawed.
“Grazie! Thank you very much!” one of the performers sang out, in a serious case of denial.
“Graaaaaaazie, thank you very muuuuuch,” the girl opposite me snarked, audibly, still punishing her mobile phone. We met eyes, and smiled at each other in a “this is hell” shared sympathy. And then they started the second track.
This song stopped immediately about thirty seconds after it began, like turning a light switch off, and the performers shot off the train with a hurried “grazie!”. Was the train about to leave? Was it time to move to another carriage and torture the occupants via upbeat jazz? Was a member of the local constabulary striding down the platform with a nightstick and a meaningful look in their eye? I guessed I’d never know.
The sudden peace was again shattered, this time by a garbled announcement over the train’s PA system. I strained to hear it properly and translate it, not being quite a good enough Italian speaker to be able to do it without hearing the words quite clearly, but the effect on the Italian passengers was immediate – cries of annoyed dismay, and leaping to their feet and off the train, leaving a trail of ever-more confused tourists in their wake. Following my general rule of “do what the Italians do”, I jumped off the train too, and looked up to the front of the train, where a group of passengers were remonstrating with the train driver, who was hanging out of a window. I much preferred this to the British system of wandering around confusedly, and accidentally getting on a train going to the cleaning depot. The Italian woman I’d been sitting opposite walked back down the platform, and spotted me.
“There’s a strike in Naples. The train only goes as far as Castellammare”, she said, sounding disgusted, before she walked over to the ticket office. Trailing behind like a duckling, I noticed that all the Italian passengers were getting their tickets refunded, and my heart sank. Suddenly my chances of getting to Herculaneum seemed remote.
Foreign visitors were the only ones left on the platform, and we drifted around like traumatized survivors of a zombie attack. A British couple spotted me as a fellow Brit and asked for help, so I let them know about the strike; they were visiting Pompeii, and were immediately confused as to what to do. A defeated-looking American couple with suitcases who needed to catch their flight home from Naples airport joined us, and we examined a timetable, which seemed to imply that there would be another train in ten minutes. The monitors on the platform still listed it as running. We decided to take a chance, and get on a train which was sitting on another platform.
We sat on our seats, which were less comfy than on the other train, and waited nervously.
Then two mad saxophone players got on with a portable backing track player, and started playing upbeat jazz.
The second song was cut off as abruptly as before, as they disappeared with a “Grazie!”. The train left the station, headed for Naples. Nothing more was ever said about the strike.
The train ride turned out to still be quite relaxing, and a good opportunity to study the local area. It passed through the small villages which form the suburbs of Sorrento, little towns cut into the mountainsides, and connected by tunnels in which the train seemingly accelerated to supersonic speeds. The towns stretched on down the Sorrentine peninsula, through Vico Equense and Castellammare di Stabia, and into the towns south of Naples; the blue sea on one side, Vesuvius on the other. The towns here looked rough and ready, buildings cracked and peeling, the stations heavily covered in graffiti. Through Pompeii, and onwards until we reached Ercolano Scavi.
I braced myself; this was the part of the day I’d been most anxious about.
I had previously visited this area using a tour operator (who I won’t name, but it rhymes with “phooey”), who had tried to sell their tour of Herculaneum to me by telling me what a violent, ferocious place Ercolano was. From the sounds of it, the ten minute walk to the Herculaneum excavations was impassable. Tourists would be immediately identified, stalked, hunted down, and carried off wriggling. Packs of wild dogs would pick off the survivors. The only way to get to Herculaneum safely was to take their coach. Panicked, I decided to go to Pompeii by train instead, far away from this terrifying archaeological site, and leave Ercolano for another day.
That day was now, and I clutched the straps of my shoulder bag, which had my camera hidden under some innocent-looking clutter, including sanitary towels (they would have to be some fairly desperate muggers). I prepared myself to run the gauntlet.
In fact, the only gauntlet-running I did was crossing over a road, with some middling-paced cars travelling down it. The locals were going about their business, taking no notice of me or any of the other visitors, unless they were bringing them drinks in the cafes. A pair of elderly men hobbled down the road with their walking frames. And that was how I learnt to ignore what the tour companies tell you.
The entrance to Herculaneum is easy to find, being marked by a large marble arch, and I got my first glimpse of the site. I could see straight away that it was smaller and quieter than Pompeii, which can be a bit of a scrum of tourists sometimes, and wondered how it would measure up in comparison to the other, better-known site.
Well, it was outstanding, and I urge you to visit it if you’re at all able to. It’s difficult to convey in words just how stunning and important it is, but I’ll give it a try.
Herculaneum was founded by the Greeks near the end of the 6th century BC. Unlike Pompeii, which was dedicated to commerce (particularly the production of a charming-sounding fish sauce, made from the rotting remains of said piscines), Herculaneum was more affluent, and focused on intellectual pursuits. Built on a plain of volcanic ash, it was much admired by the ruling class of Romans for its location, with a harbour which was described as “always safe”, and so was popular for building seaside villas with a view of the Bay of Naples on one side, and an attractive mountain scene on the other. It had all the usual trappings of a successful Roman town – good walls, aqueducts, baths, and a theatre. In short, it was a pretty good place to live.
On the 22nd August, AD79, some time in the afternoon, Vesuvius erupted. This undoubtedly came as something of a shock to the inhabitants of Herculaneum; it had been dormant for so long (roughly about 800 years) that it was remembered only as a mountain, not as a volcano. It can’t be understated how powerful the explosion was. Take a look at this photo I took of Vesuvius from Sorrento, on the other side of the bay:
The volcano we see today is much smaller than it was in AD79; the force of the eruption was so powerful that it blew the top of the mountain off, like taking the top off a boiled egg. It produced thermal energy which was 100,000 times the force of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A column of smoke, gas, ash, and rock shot into the air, reaching a height of 30km by midnight. By now, most of the inhabitants of Herculaneum had wisely fled, but evacuations were still ongoing. A shower of ashes had been falling onto the town throughout the day, though Herculaneum had avoided being directly in the path of the falling debris (that dubious honour being claimed by Pompeii).
Early the next morning, however, the column began to drop to a height of 20km, and this caused a surge of ash and gas to race down the southern slopes of the volcano at a speed of 70 kilometres per hour, a deadly cloud which had a temperature of just under 500 degrees. It brought instant death to all the remaining inhabitants of Herculaneum; another pyroclastic blast a couple of hours later did the same for the residents of Pompeii. The town was then buried under layers of volcanic ash, turned into cement by falling rains caused by steam from the eruption. In under two days, Herculaneum was completely hidden, unrecognizable as ever having existed.
It remained undiscovered until 1709, when a baker in the town of Resina, which had been built over the hidden ruins, started constructing a well. To his understandable surprise, he found some particularly fine marble statues, and suddenly Herculaneum was rediscovered. Excavations started in earnest in 1738, and continue to this day.
Indeed, as I walked down a tunnel towards what was historically the town’s harbour, I was about to see the most recent excavations, and perhaps the most famous. I went with a spring in my step.
The spring goes out of your step pretty fast when you are confronted with death, and the utter hopelessness of the people of Herculaneum who tried to evacuate, but left it too late.
It was far more affecting than I had imagined it would be. These skeletons had only been uncovered in the 1980’s – until that point, it had been believed that the town had largely been totally evacuated – and these were the remains of the stragglers, the unlucky. They’d taken shelter in empty boathouses by the quayside, perhaps hoping they’d be safe and sheltered there, but unfortunately for them it had been no shelter from the pyroclastic surge, passing through the building to kill them instantly. Their possessions fell around them – jewellery, lamps, even surgical implements, brought by a fleeing doctor who tried to save his tools. As with the well-known plaster casts in Pompeii, it’s pretty difficult to look at the remains, the positions they curled themselves into in a futile attempt at defending themselves, and not feel the utmost empathy for them.
It’s a brutal way to start your visit to Herculaneum, but it did bring home the importance and tragedy of the site. Without them, it would be easy to see the place as a Roman theme park, being so well-preserved; after witnessing the people who had lived here, it was a reminder to treat it with respect.
And it really is fabulously well-preserved, thanks to the ash it was buried in, which sealed it away neatly. I particularly loved this statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus, something of a local big-shot, and the nearby marble friezes.
Nearby is the villa which belonged to his family, undoubtedly one of the best-preserved Roman buildings in the world – stepping into it was like being transported through time, which sounds like such a cliche, but it was absolutely true. Look at how the red stucco has remained on the walls and columns, with decorative plates with satyrs and maenads strung up from the tops, and pool converted into a flower bed. It felt like I was intruding into someone’s house. Every so often a visitor would inquisitively step through the doorway, and I honestly half-expected some Roman matron to step into the courtyard and shoo them out.
There was also an impressive amount of thermopolia – essentially, a Roman version of McDonalds! These were the precursor to restaurants, for poorer residents who couldn’t afford a kitchen in their residence, and food would be stored in large jars called dolia (the theory differs in what kind of food was held in these – on my first visit to Pompeii, my guide suggested soup and other hot foods, but I’ve also seen dried food suggested as this would’ve been easier to remove and clean. As the jars are embedded into the marble counter, I think this is theory is a fair shout). I stood behind one of the counters, and it was a strange sensation. Your imagination takes over, and you really do wonder what it must’ve been like to be a slave working there. Probably not terribly pleasant, being the obvious answer.
Another thing that impressed me about Herculaneum was how freely I could roam. In Pompeii, everything is roped off, which is absolutely fair enough – it’s a very fragile site, and absolutely needs to be preserved as much as possible. However, Herculaneum doesn’t appear to believe in roping things off, and I found myself popping into Roman houses and having a poke around in their rooms, walking over mosaics which seemed to be barely altered since the days when they had leather sandals shuffling over them, and doing what every school child does in every historical site ever, and pondering “where’s the toilet?” It made the whole visit feel very immersive, and I liked it very much.
However, there was a downside to this free-range policy, and it was a pretty big one. (warning: rant incoming.)
FOR GOODNESS SAKE, WHAT POSSESSES PEOPLE TO GRAFFITI A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE?? I don’t get it; I really don’t. There can be no blame attached to the staff who look after the site, as there’s so many buildings that people can walk into, hidden from view, or where mischievous students can avoid the gaze of a teacher – it’s impossible to invigilate. But what on earth possesses people to walk into a site which has literally survived a volcano and centuries of being buried in mud, a literal portal into another time, and a slice of human history and tragedy, and say “hey Marco, I’ve going to carve a dick into this wall”? Do they really think that “DARREN 4 JULIE” is amusing, clever, or a timeless declaration of their love? Well, fuck those guys. May all your relationships fail. And your penis fall off.
Every so often, the level of preservation blows your mind a little. In the House of the Wooden Partition, there is, funnily enough, a wooden partition. Think about that – a volcanic eruption, and a pyroclastic surge which instantly killed everyone it touched, and a fragile, flammable wooden partition survived it all. I was pleased to see that this particular item was protected by a perspex case, lest someone carve “BOOBS” into its slightly charred surface, though a beautifully carved marble display table was free to touch. The walls were a deep red, lavishly decorated. The owner must’ve had a huge amount of cash to spend on getting artists in to decorate their pad, and these details and the items it contained really made the building feel like a home.
Another interesting house is the Casa Dello Scheletro (House of the Skeleton, named after an unfortunate whose remains were discovered on the top floor). Not only does it have a mosaic of arrows at the entrance to assist the more directionally-challenged guests, but it also contains this beautiful nymphaeum (an artificial grotto, dedicated to the nymphs of lore) with its colourful mosaics, and a lararium (a household shrine) which was comprised of seashell mosaics. Seeing this expression of Roman faith, the shrines they would’ve worshiped before, was strangely touching.
Another favourite was the Sede Degli Augustali, a quite cavernous building with a central skylight, where I was so engrossed in staring at the murals above my head that I completely failed to notice where I was walking, tripped on some uneven ground, and jarred my back pretty nicely. Derrrrrrrp. But it was worth it!
The murals portray Hercules entering Olympus, a nod to the town’s supposed founder, but was also a nice bit of buttering up of the Roman Emperors. Patronised by the Augustales, an imperial cult of wealthy freedmen, it was consecrated to the Emperor Augustus whilst he was still alive – imagine sending your head of state a letter saying “hey, we’re declaring you a god! We’ve built you a temple. Oh, and we’re throwing a massive party to celebrate!”. It’s not too difficult to see why Herculaneum enjoyed very good relations with Rome.
The men’s baths were quite fun. With a palaestra (a sort-of open-air gymnasium) facing south to gain the full benefit of the sun, shelves still remain where patrons would’ve stored their clothes, with water basins and decorative mosaics. Rather more tragically, the skeletons of 6 individuals were found here – 4 adults, a child, and a newborn infant, who had obviously hoped that the sturdy walls of the baths would protect them.
I’ll mention just one more sight (and thus leave the rest for you to discover yourself!), the Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite. Check out this wall mosaic of Neptune marrying Amphitrite. The skill it must’ve taken to make this, the beautiful, outstanding colour of the tiles, the ridiculous fragility of it, and its ability to survive. It almost summed up Herculaneum for me.
I exited Herculaneum after an exhaustive look around the site, plus an equally exhaustive look around the excellent bookshop located just at the ramp down to the ruins (I heartily recommend the guides sold there). I walked back through the non-threatening streets of Ercolano, and caught the busy train headed back to Sorrento.
A man standing with his wife and child spotted an empty seat, and shot into it before they could react, playing games on his mobile phone. He completely ignored his other half, who bored holes into his back with a glare which was hotter than lava flows as I stood, and pondered what was next for this area.
Vesuvius is still an active volcano. It is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, because of the 3,000,000 people living beneath its slopes, and because when it does erupt, it tends to do so explosively and with tragic results. Nothing remains in its area with any permanence – the funicular railway, so famous that the song “Funiculì, Funiculà” was written about it (and created probably the most catchy tune ever – YouTube it; I dare ya), was destroyed by an eruption in 1944, and never replaced. Most worrying, it is overdue for an eruption. It is constantly monitored, as any future activity should be detectable in advance, and there are plans in place to evacuate 600,000 people from the red zone should the worst happen. But they’ll be evacuated to other parts of the country, far away from their Campanian homes, and quite possibly not able to return for several months afterwards. And when they do return, what will be left for them? Will their homes become another Herculaneum, another mass grave?
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
And tomorrow I’d be visiting the city which lives under the constant threat of Vesuvius, a city with a rough reputation, which was already ramping my anxiety up a couple of notches. A city portrayed as being on the edge.
Been to Herculaneum or Pompeii? Have you visited other historical sites? Have you ever been aurally assaulted by mad saxophonists? Let me know in the comments! And if you like the look of Herculaneum, keep an eye out for my guide 5 Top Tips For Visiting Herculaneum, publishing soon!