Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Italy: Pompeii and Herculaneum

Twenty-first-century tourists navigate a first-century intersection in the heart of ancient Pompeii.
Archeologists have given the streets names (Via dell'Abbondanza, Via di Mercurio, etc.)
but no one knows what names if any they had in ancient times. The streets sometimes
served as open sewers, so large stepping stones were used to keep people's feet
out of the muck.
We visited Pompeii years ago as a one-night stop driving from Naples to the Amalfi Coast. We followed some other tourists through a hole in the fence, entered the ruins for free and spent a couple of hours wandering around.

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
outside Rome.

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
necessarily museum-worthy,
though I do like the bird
at the lower left.

"Venus on the Half Shell" might as well be the title of this mural, which is
in what is known today as the House of Venus (or, the House of Venus in the
Shell). It preceded Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" by nearly 1,500 years, but
it wasn't his inspiration since Pompeii wouldn't be rediscovered for
centuries after his death.

This is the faun at the House of the Faun, one
of the most iconic statues from Pompeii. This is
a bronze replica of the bronze original, which
is in the National Museum of Archeology
in Naples. All of the best artifacts from Pompeii
and Herculaneum were removed from the sites
to be restored and protected in museums. In many
cases, very precise replicas replaced them.

Herculaneum was swamped by boiling mud when Vesuvius erupted in the year 79.
The mud was so deep that the city wasn't rediscovered until well-diggers bumped
up against buildings in the 1700s. The deep mud covered everything in a protective
crust that kept upper floors and even some woodwork intact.

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 boat was turned into charcoal and was also
preserved by the mud that enveloped it. Two skeletons
were found with it, one presumed to be a soldier
trying to escape the disaster with a bag of coins, the
other presumed to be an oarsman. There is nothing
like this at Pompeii  (or anywhere else).
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.

It's difficult to imagine the horror that the people of Herculaneum and Pompeii experienced.
Above are the remains of people who took shelter in one of Herculaneum's waterfront
boat houses, possibly hoping for a sea rescue. Archeologists have removed almost
all of the mud that filled the chamber and killed these people, leaving their bones
trapped where they've been for almost 2,000 years.

More skeletons in another boat chamber.

The College of the Augustales was an order of former slaves who, intent on
moving up socially, conspicuously aligned themselves with the cult
 of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. Their temple still stands in
Herculaneum, although some of the frescos (shown below) are in bad repair.
The plaque above noted a shrine to Augustus within the temple. 

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.

Inside the College of the Augustales. The wooden supports have been installed
to stabilize the building, though some of the flooring on what looks like a balcony has the
appearance of wood that has been turned into charcoal, and thus might be original.

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.

That's Achilles on the left with his mother. On the right is Telephus, the son of Hercules,
treating a wounded king during the time of the Trojan War. This is a replica of the plaque
that gave its name to the house where it was found, the House of the Telephus Relief. It's
the largest and most intact house at Herculaneum.

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
or Chicago.

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.


  1. "Some look like middle school projects" haha! Apt.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Katy B., apparently of Madison, Wisconsin. It's always gratifying to have complete strangers such as yourself react to my posts.