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, Pompeii
A mountain erupts !
On August 24, 79 AD Mount Vesuvius blew its top, literally. The initial explosion spewed tonnes of molten ash, pumice and sulfuric gas miles into the atmosphere. A firestorm of hell in the form of a pyroclastic surge rained down on Herculaneum while poisonous vapors, molten debris and fire fell upon Pompeii either burying or suffocating the inhabitants of both cities.
If you were lucky it would have been sudden death, if not you would have died of asphyxiation from toxic gases.
Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano on mainland Europe. It last erupted in 1944 and the last major eruption was in 1631. It is well overdue its next eruption and while sophisticated equipment is in place to track and warn of impending eruptions, there are over 700,000 people who live in the “death zones” around Vesuvius. It is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world, with three million people living in the nearby city of Naples.
It is hard to imagine evacuating that many people if it had another furious eruption !
Pompeii is a Unesco World Heritage site located 23kms southeast of Naples. At the time of Mount Vesuvius erupting it was a busy port town that exported products in the Mediterranean region.
The city’s burial under 6-7 metres of volcanic ash and pumice during the many hours the eruption lasted has served to protect it for centuries from vandalism, looting, and destruction from the weather.
It is estimated that there were up to 20,000 inhabitants at the time the mountain exploded.
It is late afternoon when we visit the site. The late hour means we have it almost to ourselves. Mt Vesuvius rises eerily in the distance over the remains of the town. Its volcanic peak seems so close and I can fully understand how people had no chance to escape, there was simply no time.
We wander the ancient streets viewing the baths, temples, forums and noble homes.
We visit the Forum, the centre of the city’s religious, economic, and municipal life. Most of the important civic buildings of Pompeii – the municipal offices, the basilica (court-house), the principal temples (such as the Capitolium), and the Macellum (market) – were located in or around the forum.
It is such a large site, it is great to dedicate at least half a day to visiting Pompeii. If you are short on time some of the highlights of a visit to Pompeii are listed below:
Casa Del Fauno – House of the Faun
We visit the House of the Faun which is the largest and most lavish residence in Pompeii.
It takes up an entire city block and was built-in the late second century BC during the Samnite period (200 – 80 BC). The owners of the house remain a mystery. Historians continue to speculate whether it belonged to the Cassius or Satrius families.
It is surrounded by intricate and lavish mosaics that you can still see today.
The house is named after the bronze statue of a dancing faun found in 1830. The statue is a replica and the original resides in the National Archeological Museum of Naples.
The entryway of the house has a “HAVE” inscription which functioned as a modern day welcome mat. In latin ‘HAVE’ means Hail to you and was set into the pavement to welcome visitors and passers-by.
It is a curious inscription as the local language at the time would not have been Latin.
The House of the Faun also contains a replica of the Alexander Mosaic. The original Mosaic is on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples, however the copy at Pompeii is an exact copy, it is identical in shape, size, colour and materials used. It was created after several years of work by the Scuola Bottega del Mosaico di Ravenna.
The mosaic depicts Alexander thundering into battle at the head of his troops to engage Darius.
There are two schools of thought as to what the original mosaic portrays. Some believe it depicts the Battle of Issus in the year 333 BC between Alexander the Great and Darius III, the King of Persia. Others believe it portrays the battle of Gaugamela between the two in the year 331 BC.
Historians believe the mosaic dates from around 100 BC and believe it to be a copy of an early 3rd-century BC Hellenistic painting.
We walk to the “House of the tragic poet” where “Cave Canem” , a Latin phrase for “Beware of the dog”, fresco is housed. I find it surreal that there are so many aspects of the ancient Roman way of living and our modern lives reflected everywhere. The Romans just did it more lavishly.
There are remains of cafes that served food, bakeries where bread was found carbonised and shops where goods were traded and sold. The bars had counters with three to four holes in them which served water and other beverages.
Pompeii was a modern, thriving and refined society from an Empire that bought infrastructure, engineering and literacy to a vast amount of the world.
It is very eerie to walk around a city where its inhabitants were annihilated. As the late afternoon sun glows pink and red from under clouds that are billowing like smoke, I can’t help but shiver as the dark clouds cast sombre shadows and add to the palpable sadness of the place.
Everywhere we walk, there are relics of a vibrant town and life from 2,000 years before us. Jars, frescoes, baby cribs and the plaster casts of those that perished on that awful night.
The thing that sticks with you after a visit to Pompeii is the remains of thousands of men, women, and children have been found there.
Most would have died from asphyxiation, their bodies covered with ash which over time has hardened and preserved the outline of their bodies.
The 19th-century archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a rather gruesome process where he could pour plaster of paris into the recesses of the carbonised remains, the results are a macabre collection of human statues depicting unimaginable pain and suffering.
It is very unsettling to see the moment of someone’s death preserved in ash and clay.
The hands of many cover their faces, most are cowering, crouched over and in some, you can see the expression of pain, agony and palpable fear on their faces as they perished. The immeasurable tragedy as always are the casts of the children. Their little bodies and faces haunt me for days.
After seeing the statues, we walk down the ancient stone roads. You can still see the drainage and if you look for it, you will see chariot tracks carved into the stones. I ask Mr 77 why the footpaths were so high and he told me it was because the streets had water and sometimes waste flowing through them. The stepping-stones across the road were to stop people being splashed with water or waste and which still allowed carriages to pass.
We continue to wander and find ourselves at one of the infamous brothels.
Pompeii, like many Roman towns, had numerous brothels. You can see frescoes of the earthly delights you could buy in each establishment painted onto the walls.
The Lupanar of Pompeii is the most famous and the paintings are well preserved. Lupanar, in latin merely refers to a wolf-den and was a slang term for a brothel.
The names of the lascivious and their activities are still carved into the walls. I find it really tragic for some reason that the beds are still in place where they would have been all those years ago.
Another highlight of Pompeii are the baths and the amphitheatre. We ran out of time to visit both, but figured since we had seen the amphitheatre at Pozuoli we could live with this. Completed in 80BC, it could hold about 20,000 people. It is the earliest surviving permanent amphitheatre in Italy.
Pompeii is an archeological treasure, an insight into how the Romans lived. It is an open air museum which gives us a glimpse into a society which has inspired countless books, tv-shows and movies and still impacts our modern lives.
It is also a great leveler. It is proof that mother nature is ferocious and she does not discriminate; whether you were a slave, from the wealthy elite, a businessmen, a prostitute, rich, poor, young or old. All who lived there perished on that fateful day. It did not matter who or what you were, the fury of the volcano doomed all.
As we leave with the last of the tourists, it’s getting dark and I feel a little sombre thinking of the fragility of life.
Mr 77 and I talk about the limited warning the residents of Pompeii had. How one event can change your life and the course of history in an instant. The fear and the devastation that the explosion caused and how we can never know when the next breath will be our last.
We walk past the empty cafes and sleeping street dogs. Vesuvius looms in the distance, a dark shadow reminding us that life is precarious. It has been a long day and we look forward to catching a train back into the living, vibrant, pulsing heart of Naples.
These guys have some great information and good map of Pompeii Pocketpompeii
The next day we visit Erculano (Herculaneum). Named after the mythical hero Hercules, Herculaneum was a summer resort for wealthy Romans and housed opulent villas and grand Roman baths.
At the time of the eruption, it is estimated that up to 5,000 people lived there.
Herculaneum is closer to Vesuvius than Pompeii and on that fateful night it was buried underneath a pyroclastic surge of 500 degree mud. The town was literally entombed, fossilised and preserved under more than 18 metres (60 feet) of mud and volcanic material.
Herculaneum gives a fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of wealthy Romans. The magic of Herculaneum is that for centuries it was considered lost. Its location was vague, buried under 18 metres of volcanic material, its memory was relegated to the pages of history and the living built houses rapidly on top of it in the towns of Resina and Portico.
There was rumour and speculation of where it existed but it wasn’t until the early 18th century, during the digging construction of a well, that a wall to the lost city was uncovered. This led to the discovery of the archeological wonder of the lost city. Tunnels were dug to explore the site and sadly, many of the well-preserved treasures were looted.
Under the direction of the Bourbon Kings of Naples, the site was mapped but with limited archeological means and with the towns of Resina (now Ercolano) and Portico expanding rapidly over the site, the original tunnels were lost.
We visited Herculaneum in the late evening, to avoid the heat. Amazing pink light bathed the ruins and Vesuvius is a sight as we turn and see it rising up behind us glowing pink in the sunset. It is sobering to imagine the fear you would feel if it exploded.
Due to favourable winds, the majority of residents of Herculaneum were able to evacuate and escape the deadly flow. However around 300 people perished on the beach in the mud flow while trying to escape via the sea, they were waiting for the naval boats to take them away.
Mr 77 and I walk among the ruins. They are a lot smaller than Pompeii but are far better preserved. Frescoes are still on the walls, the streets and buildings are mostly in tact and many mosaics are still visible on the floors of the houses.
In some of the homes, you can still see the remains of carbonised timber stairs leading to second story rooms and grates on the windows.
There are well-preserved public water fountains from the aqueducts lining the streets and the ancient plumbing systems are visible.
Herculaneum has the world’s best preserved Roman public baths (closed for restoration when we visited) and a 20,000 seat stadium which is still partly buried.
One of the most amazing and important finds at Herculaneum is the Villa of the Papyri.
Historians believe it to be owned by a relative of Julius Caesar. It is so important because around 2,000 scrolls have been discovered and it is one of the only surviving libraries of Antiquity.
Initially, unravelling the scrolls could take up to four years to enable scholars to read only parts of each scroll. Modern technology, such as multi-spectral imaging, is helping scholars to view each scroll so it can be studied and interpreted. Many of the scrolls have turned out to be works of Greek philosophy, including writings of Epicurus.
There is hope that a yet unexcavated area of the villa will uncover further scrolls that will provide minutiae details of roman life. There is a push from the international community to salvage the scrolls. Scholars are relishing the prospect of finding copies of Virgil’s Aeneid, missing volumes of Livy’s History of Rome, or lost works by Sophocles and Aristotle.
A good article on the scrolls can be found here – BBC Magazine
Sadly the Villa at the time of our visit was closed to the general public. I belive it will remain permanently closed until further notice.
While we could not see the villa, there are plenty of highlights at Herculaneum you can see and enjoy, here are a few below:
House in Craticum
I loved the House in Craticum – so named after a building style called Opus Craticum. You can see rubble walls mixed with lime, which are supported by timber beams. The walls were then covered in plaster, it is rustic and beautiful in the late afternoon light.
‘House of Neptune and Amphitrite’
In the ‘House of Neptune and Amphitrite’ there are some lovely and well-preserved wall mosaics. The house has been named after the mosaic depicting Neptune and Amphitrite, however, the left hand figure in this mosaic some historians speculate could be Poseidon. There are several good wall mosaics in this building and it is a good example of a wealthy Roman Domus. To read about the house in greater detail check out this site by Natasha Sheldon: a published writer on Ancient History, Archaeology. It has some great information Herculaneum – Neptune and Amphitrite
‘House of the Deer’ (or House of the Stags)
The House of the Deer was one of my favourites. Beautiful and tranquil, it was built to enhance the ocean views it would have had.
There are statues and remains of marble furniture which give you an idea of the opulence and wealth of the occupants.
Some of the statues are irreverant, so the owners certainly had a sense of humour. “Drunken Hercules” portrays an intoxicated Hercules barely able to stand while he appears to be relieving himself.
There are also the two gruesome statues of deer being taken down by hounds, from which the house receives its name.
College of Augustales
Historians think this building was a center of the cult of the Emperor Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire. It was a meeting place for the Augustales, a group of wealthy freedmen (onetime slaves, freed by their masters, and who ran successful businesses).
The small shrine is the main attraction of the building and its walls offer a number of frescoes depicting Hercules – the mythical founder of the city. The frescoes are full of colour.
Both Herculaneum and Pompeii are wonderful and poignant to visit. They are a reminder that life is precious and fleeting. It is a stark reminder that the cities and structures we build are at the mercy of the most powerful force on the planet, mother nature.
If you have time to visit both sites, I would highly recommend it. A visit to the two gives you an understanding of the scale of tragedy of that night and allows you to wander through the 3D museums to give you a peek into the ancient Roman way of life. Pompeii for its everyday aspects and Herculaneum to see how the privledged lived.
If you only have a few hours to spare then Herculaneum is the more manageable site, it’s compact and the remnants of this once beautiful resort give you an idea of the wealth of the Roman elite.
If you have more time, you should visit the wonderful villas of: Oplontis (Torre Annunziata stop, one Circumvesuviana stop from Pompeii) or Stabiae (also by the same train).
To see the real artifacts that were found at both sites, you should visit the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (closed Tuesdays), where most of the best preserved mosaics and items from Pompeii and Herculaneum are kept.
If you are travelling with kids, these sites have some good resources for helping children understand the ruins. Schoolatoz
For great further reading about the eruption, there is an eye-witness account on this blog Eye Witness History
For more detailed information of both sites you can read more here Ad79eruption/home
- Take your own food and water as food around the site is expensive, however there are cafes and food stalls if you can’t be bothered carrying food.
- Like all major tourists sites all over the world, pickpockets abound so keep your goodies safe !
- Download interactive maps before you go as you often can’t get maps in English at the entrance.
- Go early or late if visiting in summer as it can get really hot in the middle of the day.
- There are many uneven surfaces, so it’s best to wear flat sensible shoes.
- Parent with kids and mobility impaired visitors will find the best entrance is at the Piazza Anfiteatro, you can find a map to meet the needs of reduced mobility (parents with strollers!). The main entrance at Porte Marina, has a number of stairs.
How to get there:
Click on this map link to take you to the integrated transport options. It shows you where the train station, car parks and bus stops are which might help you decide how you want to get there. The train station is D6 and the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance is C4/5. unicocampania.it/files/mappe/pompei.pdf
You don’t have to pre-book your tickets. Pompeii is served from Naples by the Circumvesuviana railway (081 772 2444, www.vesuviana.it)
Take the train from Napoli Centrale to Pompeii Scavi (Villa Dei Misteri) station- a journey which can take around 35-45 minutes. On weekdays, there are 34 trains per day between 5.40am and 10.00pm. Costs vary depending on peak hour rates and cost between- €2.6 -€10.
The station is located 50 meters from the main entrance to Pompeii.
If you are coming by train from another city in Italy such as Rome, Milan, Ancona, you can easily change the train at Naples central station and continue to Pompeii on the Circumvesuviana. Check out your options, current pricing and the details at either The Man in Seat 61 or Rome2rio
Some of the jump on jump off buses stop at Pompeii and are a great way to get around if you only have a few days to see the sites.
Viator does a half day tour – Viator – Pompeii
From Naples the Nuova Marina port stop is where the SITA local buses go to Pompeii. The price is around 2.80 euro per person one way and it can be purchased from SITA office at the Nuova Marina port. Buses go once or twice an hour and the journey takes anywhere between 35 -55 minutes. Check out the timetables at Sitabus
Traffic can be a nightmare, so the train is the better option.
If you are travelling from Naples Get on A3 from Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi and Via Amerigo Vespucci, follow A3 to Strada Statale 145/SS145 in Pompei. Take exit Castellammare di Stabia, follow Strada Ponte della Persica/Strada Statale 145 and Via Ripuaria to Via Antonio Morese in Pompei.
There is a large car park, which can get crazy busy in peak times and can be expensive. Don’t leave any items of value in your car.
At the time of writing you could also park near Piazza Anfiteatro, it had metered street parking and you can enter the site from this side.
The ruins are open every day of the year, from April to October from 8:30AM to 7:30PM (ticket office closes 6pm), and from 8:30AM to 5:30PM from November to March (ticket office closes 3.30pm), but check opening times and entrance fees, as they can change at www.pompeiisites.org or www.pompeionline.net.
Admission into ancient Pompeii costs €11, but it’s free on the first Sunday of the month. Audioguides are €6.50; €10 for 2. No credit cards. It’s not necessary to purchase tickets in advance online, and you can enter at one of three entrances: Villa dei Misteri, Porta Marina and the Anfiteatro.
If you want to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Boscoreale and Stabia, a 3-day pass costs €20.
Want more information ? Check out:
How to get there
You don’t have to pre-book your tickets. Herculaneum is also served from Naples by the Circumvesuviana railway (081 772 2444, www.vesuviana.it)
Trains run every 30 minutes between Naples and Sorrento and makes several stops, including at Herculaneum and Pompei. The journey from Naples to Herculaneum takes around 20-30 minutes. Ticket costs vary but are around € 2.10 per person (valid for 100 minutes after validation).
Remember, there are two train stations called Ercolano, Ercolano Scavi and Portici Ercolano. Ercolano Scavi is the closest.
The lines are:
Circumvesuviana Naples-Sorrento (Ercolano Stop) Circumvesuviana Naples-Poggiomarino (Ercolano Stop).
These guys have some good reviews on Tripadvisor and do tours of Herculaneum – Tours around Naples
If you want to catch the public bus, check out the timetables at Sitabus
A3 Naples – Get on A3 from Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi and Via Amerigo Vespucci, Follow A3 to Via Cupa Monti in Ercolano. Take exit Ercolano from A3, continue on Via Cupa Monti to your destination.
Alternatively, if there are few of you, it might be economical to take a taxi. It is only about 15 minutes from Naples to Herculaneum but will cost you around €20 (if not more depending on traffic).
Tickets for Herculaneum
The ruins are open every day of the year, usually 08:30-19:00/19:30 April-October, 08:30-17:00 November-March, but check opening times and entrance fees, as they can change at www.pompeiisites.org or www.pompeionline.net.
1st April – 31st October: daily from 8.30 am to 7.30 pm (admission closes at 6 pm)
1st November – 31st March: daily from 8.30 am to 5 pm (admission closes at 3.30 pm)
Herculaneum is closed on: 1st May, 25 December and 1st January
Herculaneum single (valid for 1 day)
Full price € 11,00, Reduced price € 5,50
5 sites (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae, Boscoreale) – valid for 3 consecutive days – Full price: € 20,00, Reduced price: € 10,00 (*)
Free ticket: European Union citizens under 18.
Tickets and group reservation Ph. 199 757517
Don’t forget, there is free admission every first sunday of each month.
For visitor info: firstname.lastname@example.org – +39 081 8575111
Audioguides are €6.50; €10 for 2. No credit cards. It’s not necessary to purchase tickets in advance online, and you can enter at one of three entrances: Villa dei Misteri, Porta Marina and the Anfiteatro.