A Brief History
24th August 79AD
The more affluent Herculaneum (Ercolano), at around 20 hectares, is dwarfed in size by the 64-67 hectare Pompeii (Pompei). Both are advanced modern cities under the rule of Rome, part of the mighty Roman Empire.
It’s been seventeen years since the disastrous earthquake hit the region.
Herculaneum is home to around 4,000 residents. Pompeii to around 11,000. Both towns are bustling with daily life, in the shadow of the ever imposing Vesuvius, with the citizens unaware that today will sadly be their last.
People are working in occupations we’d still recognise today. Bakers, chefs, builders, scientists, engineers, poets, and soldiers to name but a few. In Roman society everyone had a role to fulfill.
Repairs from that disastrous earthquake, which caused many to flee, are still underway and not everyone has returned.
It is on this day one of the most catastrophic volcano eruptions in the history of Europe, and indeed the world, is about to throw molten rock and ash 21 miles into the sky at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. That’s around 100,000 times the thermal energy released by the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War 2.
The inhabitants are quickly killed, most likely by inhaling hot, deadly, sulphuric, toxic volcanic gases. Their advanced modern societies entombed, preserved in layers of volcanic rock and ash for centuries to come.
In 1709 Herculaneum was discovered. However excavation digs did not commence there until 1738. Sadly during digs at Herculaneum many of the original Roman artifacts were appropriated by the finders. Thankfully this was not the case at Pompeii, at least certainly not on the same scale.
Then in 1748 work began at Pompeii. In 1763 an inscription was found, Rei publicae Pompeianorum, that identified the town as Pompeii.
These days Pompeii and Herculaneum are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Two of the very best in the world. They offer an unrivalled and remarkable glimpse into relatively early life in the Roman Empire.
They allow visitors to walk through, breathe in and experience the rich, fascinating history.
I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to experience it for myself.
Walking Around Pompeii
Walking around Pompeii in July I quickly began to realise I’d grossly under-estimated the size of the town. It’s a vast dusty landscape, home to the ghostly ruins of the homes and belongings of thousands of people, basking under the relentless heat of the sun in the shadows of Vesuvius.
It’s also a tourist hot-spot – around 2.5m people visit each year.
I’m struck by how familiar the town seems. Roads, pavements, homes, businesses, entertainment and monuments. The Romans even placed stepping stones on roads for people to cross them without standing on them – because human waste flowed down Roman roads.
I quickly noticed Pompeii is also home to countless small lizards, which emerge from seemingly nowhere and dart of quickly to avoid any human contact.
We walked past, and into, a Bakery where the ovens could still be seen.
My wife and I spent five-and-a-half hours walking around Pompeii, with a half hour break for lunch at the cafeteria in the site. The heat is constant and there are few places to seek out shade, though thankfully a cooling breeze could be found in some locations. Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen goes without saying!
JJ Travel Tip: Take plenty of water with you. There are stalls across the road from the entrance selling ice cold water at €1 a bottle. It is possible to buy water within Pompeii for €2 a bottle, but that could be quite a lengthy walk to get there. There are also Roman taps, similar to what you see on the streets of Rome, with running water too but personally I wouldn’t drink it.
It was fascinating seeing the items of jewellery and tableware that had been recovered from the site. I was astounded with their intricate beauty. The skills these people had were incredible!
For me, being a huge dog lover, one of the coolest things I saw was a ‘Beware of the Dog‘ sign. Actually it’s more of a tile mosaic on an entrance to a villa, but it’s another reminder of how little removed this ancient civilisation is from our own. Man’s best friend hasn’t changed in almost 2,000 years. The ‘sign’ I refer to is actually behind plastic, so it’s really difficult to photograph. However, there was another similar tile pattern that could be captured much better and they look pretty similar.
We avoided taking a guided tour, which usually last two hours, preferring to steer clear of large groups of tourists and explore the place ourselves. It’s also easier that way to shoot a few photographs without people getting in the way.
I must say that if people visit and only take a guided tour then they are missing out on some special sights, particularly the more enjoyable quieter areas of Pompeii. You could, however, take a guided tour if that’s your thing and then go exploring afterwards on your own.
I would suggest allocating a minimum of five-six hours if you intend visiting Pompeii in just one day, otherwise there is so much that you’ll miss. Ideally I’d suggest visiting it over two days. This way you can avoid the hottest part of the day and won’t feel time pressured.
It’s also worth noting that various buildings are only open at certain times of the day. So visiting over two days at different times would allow you the ideal opportunity to see everything you want to and avoid disappointment.
Walking Around Herculaneum
Walking around Herculaneum, in full, only took my wife and I around two hours. It was similarly hot and dusty.
It is much smaller than Pompeii, and much of Herculaneum now has modern day Ercolano built on top of it. As a result some of it is underground and is only accessible to scholars and archaeologists due to health and safety issues.
Having already visited Pompeii and witnessed the masses of tourists it came as something of a welcome relief to find that Herculaneum was a lot quieter.
I also wasn’t too sure what to expect, worrying that perhaps it would be a bit too similar to Pompeii.
We found Herculaneum to be a more relaxed visit, we didn’t seem to have the same time pressures as Pompeii. The ruins at Herculaneum were also more impressive, in many cases better preserved than at Pompeii. It was fascinating seeing inside many of the buildings and how intricately and beautifully they had been decorated by their occupants.
Two of the most impressive and absorbing sites are the male and female public baths, which are incredibly well preserved. The tile patterns on the floors alone are truly something special to behold. We were fortunate enough for them both to be open – but we’ve heard that many people arrive to find them unexpectedly closed for repairs.
I paused for a moment in the quiet and cool of the the female bathhouse and drew in a slow, deep breath. Just allowing the imagination to flow freely for a few minutes really brought the place to life and give me, at least in an imaginary sense, some perspective of how life was then.
In general Herculaneum was just a wonderful place to be.
Due to it’s smaller size there are no facilities once inside it (though there are at the entrance). It was walkable with just one 500ml bottle of water.
It was a dream to photograph and I hope to return there one day armed with an SLR camera.
The saddest part of Herculaneum for me is near the exit, where all the human skeletons are. There are numerous little rooms with skeletons within, that you can get surprisingly close to.
I reflected for a moment. These were people, just like you and I. They had hopes, dreams, jobs, partners, fathers and mothers just like you and I. They wanted happiness, just like you and I. Their lives were cruelly, abruptly ended in tragic circumstances.
So I ask myself, should I be photographing them? I arrived at the conclusion that I should because I wanted to write about them and ensure that their lives and achievements are recognised and respected. I tell myself had that been me that’s what I’d want. I also reflect that one day all that will be left of any of us is what I see before me. It reminds me how fortunate I am.
As we leave Ercolano on the train the first thing I see on board is an advert for Kentucky Fried Chicken. I turn to my wife and say, somewhat sarcastically, “there we go, that’s how far we’ve advanced since Roman times…KFC!” Seriously though, you have to wonder that given how advanced Roman civilisation was why did that advancement not continue at such pace?
Either Pompeii or Herculaneum?
My strong recommendation would be go to both! I would suggest Pompeii first and Herculaneum second. However, if you only have time to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum my recommendation would be Herculaneum. The ruins of Herculaneum are better preserved and it’s less touristy (busy).
If these places are of interest you’ll be sure to be interested in Oradour-Sur-Glane, France.
How to Get There
The great news is getting to Pompeii and Herculaneum is very easy from Naples and Sorrento. The circumvesuviana railway runs between Naples (Napoli) and Sorrento. Trains run every half an hour and are inexpensive. You might want to see my previous blog on getting around the Sorrento area.
To visit Pompeii simply get off the train at Pompei Scavi (Pompeii Ruins).
To visit Herculaneum simply get off the train at Ercolano Scavi (Herculaneum Ruins). Some local waitresses will kindly show you the way…and hand you a flyer for their premises in attempt to secure your custom later in the day! After the first three it got a little annoying.
JJ Travel Tip: When you walk out ‘Pompei Scavi’ train station there will be people there that will tell you to go to your left for tickets to Pompei. These people are deliberately misleading you into buying guided tour tickets. It’s fine if you want one of these tours, but if you don’t then ignore them and turn to your right when you leave the station. Tickets are available at the entrance to Pompeii.
For current ticket prices and information please see official Parco Archeologico di Pompei.
The best time to arrive at Pompeii to avoid long queues is early in the morning. I arrived around 0830hrs and the queue time was only around 15 minutes – definitely worth the wait!
There was no queue whatsoever for tickets at Herculaneum.
The Roman Empire may have fallen, but were it not for the verocious eruption of Vesivuius in 79AD we would not have the fascinating insight through well preserved ruins into Roman life.