This time we gave ourselves three nights in Pompeii, meaning we could spend the best part of one day at the ruins there and go to nearby Herculaneum on the other full day. One day is probably enough for most people at either site, but everyone should make it a point to visit both. Each can be an easy day trip from Naples, which any hotel can arrange.
Modern Pompeii, while not quite a destination in its own right, is a pleasant place to stay, especially if you've spent much time in crowded cities like Rome or Naples. There are trendy restaurants, most with sidewalk or garden tables; eclectic shops for browsing; a large cathedral; and an inviting piazza. A large "spa hotel" had signs that it would be opening soon in the center of the city, joining a number of more modest inns, such as La Casa de Plinio, where we stayed. The real destination here, of course, are the ruins of ancient Pompeii, which was destroyed on August 24 in the year 79 C.E. when Vesuvius (not known at the time to be a volcano) erupted and covered the city with 14 to 17 feet of pumice and ash. Vesuvius, by the way, has erupted several times since, including in 1944, and is the only active volcano on the European mainland. About three million people now live in areas that would be at risk in another major eruption. The one that destroyed Pompeii is said to have had the thermal force of 100,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
There is an entrance to the ruins near the center of the modern city, but it's a secondary entrance. If you want audio guides, you need to go all the way around the ruins to the main entrance, at the western end of the site. We used the in-town entrance, did without audio guides and relied on the map we were given. The walled area of Pompeii is about 150 acres, most of it unshaded against the southern Italian sun. The one snack bar in the ruins is busy and prone to running out of basics, like water, so visitors should bring their own. The amount of time required here depends on how thoroughly you want to understand the site, the buildings and what life was like 2,000 years ago. I think five hours is a minimum, maybe longer if you use the audio guide. My photos here hardly convey how big the site is or how each street pulls you down it to see a different villa, more baths or more shops.
Herculaneum, on the other hand, is a much smaller site; in ancient times, it had about a third as many residents as Pompeii. The ruins lie below the modern town of Ercolano. Here it was boiling mud, not ash, that buried the town on the day after the eruption. It seeped into every building, filled every crevice and enveloped dishes, textiles and wood, sealing everything in an airtight tomb under up to 50 feet of mud. Less than a third of the town has been excavated, partly because a working modern city sits on top of it. At Pompeii, what remains are stone and concrete. At Herculaneum, there are wooden relics, carbonized by the heat of the volcanic mud, but still recognizable as roof beams, an interior wall and even a boat. There is no food sold at the site, but it's small enough that three or four hours should be enough for most casual tourists. There are cafes and restaurants near the entrance to the ruins.
A wealth of information about both sites is on the Internet and in countless books. A little homework ahead of time will enrich a tourist's experiences considerably.
|This path leads through one of the town's cemeteries, all of which were built outside|
the city walls. It's the greenest part of the ruins, but still not very shady.
|A tomb, long ago opened and robbed.|
|These murals, which depict an unknown ritual, gave the name to the house|
they're in: Villa dei Misteri, Villa of the Mysteries.
|A winged figure appears to offer a glass|
to a woman whose hair is being dressed.
|This is a continuation of the scene depicted in the first photo.|
|This is a detail of the photo above it. Note the bug-eyed face|
at top left. A mystery, indeed!
|One of the 2,000 thought to have been killed at Pompeii by Vesuvius.|
|The streets of Pompeii were very|
sunny and hot when we were there
June 4, 2018. Early spring and late
fall may be the best times to visit.
|A portal to the distant past.|
|Vesuvius looms over|
at vineyard that has been
restored in the ruins.
|Looking south on Vicolo di Foro toward Pompeii's forum. On the right|
is the ruin of the Tempio di Giove, the Temple of Jupiter.
|Some architectural elements have been restored.|
|A bronze centaur is centrally placed|
in the forum. We saw similar brickwork
at Ostia Antica, the ruins of a seaport
|Grass is overtaking the stone seats of the amphitheater.|
|Tunnels under the amphitheater's|
seats allowed audiences to enter
and exit quickly.
|A villa's restored garden gives some idea of what Pompeii once looked like.|
|Fluted columns surround what was once a shallow pool.|
|A dog is forever chained to a door in this entryway|
floor mosaic at a private home in Pompeii.
|Not all murals at Pompeii are|
though I do like the bird
at the lower left.
|This is the view as one walks|
from the modern Ercolano
to the entrance of ancient
Herculaneum. As in most
Roman towns, the houses
adjoined each other; sometimes
one house would be behind
|This view gives some idea of how deep the|
mud was that covered Herculaneum. The mud
flowed into the sea and created a new coastline, too.
Herculaneum was a port with docks. Now it's several
hundred meters from the water.
|More skeletons in another boat chamber.|
|Time has not been kind to this fresco at the College|
of the Augustales, but it's amazing that it
still exists at all.
|Another fresco damaged by time.|
|This is one of two statues at the so-called House of the Stag that|
depict hounds attacking a deer.
|We know this is intended to be Hercules (a popular|
subject for art in the town named for him) because
he carries his iconic lion skin. Why he is shown
tubby and playing with himself is unclear. Also at
the House of the Stag.
|Entryways such as this invite|
exploration all over Herculaneum.
|This foyer in a Herculaneum villa was designed|
to impress, with different kinds of exotic
marble on the wall. A luxurious villa
was a status symbol then as much as it is now.
|At the House of the Telephus Relief.|
|A mosiac at another villa.|
|Another decorated wall at the same villa.|
|The ruins at Herculaneum give visitors a good idea of what the buildings were like 2,000 years ago.|
|The baths were closed the day we visited Herculaneum, but|
I was able to get a peek at the way into the subterranean rooms.
|Many frescos have delightful small touches,|
like this bird eating cherries.
|This wooden bed frame survived mostly intact buried in mud.|
|Mud still encases and protects the iron grille that|
was set into this window at least 2,000 years ago.
|Some mosaics are great works of art and some look like middle-school projects.|
|The streets of Herculaneum are straight and|
form a grid, just like those in Manhattan
|A terracotta mask decorated a villa wall.|
|A man holds a fish in this floor mosaic.|
|This timeless visage is displayed|
in the home where it was found. I
don't know whether this is the original
or a replica.
|Earthenware vessels lined up in what was once a shop.|
|Some frescos are very finely drawn.|
|As if gasping for air, this terracotta|
mask was carefully recovered after
centuries buried in hardened mud.