In high school I had an excellent history teacher named Richard Purves who instilled in me a love of all things Ancient Roman. Unsurprisingly, this put the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum near the top of my 'to see' list and I've finally managed to cross them off.
I arrived in Naples on New Year's Day to find that literally everything was closed. The Metro didn't even start until 4pm for some reason, although in true Italian style, a 4pm start means they didn't even open the gates until 5:15pm. When I got to the hostel, I found I'd accidentally booked to arrive on the 2nd instead of the 1st of January because sometimes I'm exactly as smart as I look. The hostel staff were incredibly kind and rang around all the hostels and cheap hotels in Naples which were amazingly all full on account of it being New Year's Day. Eventually they let me just crash on the couch in the hostel bar which was fine with me because they didn't charge me anything. Special shout outs to Hostel of the Sun in Napoli.
Open the Metro, dammit!
The next morning I was up at 7 (because my 'bedroom' was the room the hostel served breakfast in but that worked out well because I was out the door and first in line to get into my first stop on my whirlwind archeological tour of the surrounding Roman ruins. First, some backstory.
In 79AD, Mt Vesuvius erupted, spewing hot gas and ash all over the region. The inhabitants of the nearby Roman towns in the fallout zone (of which Pompeii and Herculaneum were the main victims) were no doubt shocked by this sudden turn of events since the Romans had never come into contact with an active volcano until this point. No doubt the thrill of learning about such exciting things as volcanoes totally took their collective breath away because they all quickly suffocated to death in the ash and gas and the entire area was covered in 5-6 metres of volcanic debris. The astonishing thing about the eruption, however, was the way it preserved the towns it destroyed. The volcanic effects were so hot and so sudden that whatever wasn't quickly destroyed by the volcano was 'flash fried' and preserved then buried underground. It was so sudden that even organic material like wood, papyrus and people were preserved and can still be seen today. Many of the people who died in the eruption were preserved in the positions they died in and much of the contents and artwork of their homes is still evident today. Understandably, for those studying how people lived in Ancient Roman towns, Pompeii and Herculaneum (or Ercolano in Italian) are kind of a big deal.
2000 year old wooden bed. Should probably change the sheets though...
My first stop was Herculaneum where I spent the morning wandering around the excellently preserved site. I'll include many photos but its good to remember that everything in those pictures, including the mosaics and artworks, are 2000+ years old. I did the maths, that's 85x longer than I've been alive and I've been alive for basically as long as I can remember.
Volcano: 1, These guys: 0
Herculaneum was a much smaller town than Pompeii, home to approximately 4,500 people and was primarily a seaside town for the wealthy, away from the hustle and bustle of the busy commercial port city of Pompeii. As you can see, the town is no longer a seaside town.
Hold off on booking that beachfront villa on the Amalfi coast
Another fun fact is that, although ancient Herculaneum and the other Roman sites were destroyed two millennia ago, that hasn't stopped other development in the area since. In fact, Pompeii and Ercolano are both moderns towns that totally currently exist. People live in Pompeii. They just built new Pompeii on top of old Pompeii and kept the name, presumably so they didn't have to change all the maps of the region. It's estimated that there may be more to the ancient towns than has been discovered but to excavate the site further would require evicting locals from the area and the local landlords, some with mafia connections, aren't big fans of this plan. As a result, people in these modern towns have to deal with expanses of ancient ruins in the centre of their towns, serving as a tragic reminder of what happened to the previous town of the same name, built in the same spot, under the same volcano which is STILL AN ACTIVE VOLCANO YOU GUYS!
Atleast the neighbors keep to themselves
Anyway, after Herculaneum, I discovered that Pompeii would be free to visit the next day and that if I wanted to make the most of my 'Five Sites' ticket, I'd have to check out some of the more out of the way ruins. It turned out this was a good plan. My next stop was the relatively unknown Villa del Poppea at Oplonti. This expansive villa had been preserved in much better condition than probably anything else I saw and I was amazed at some of the artwork still proudly painted on the ancient walls. The other cool thing was that I had the entire site entirely to myself.
What a head!
Another little-known fun fact: All Romans were 14year old males
Still having some time left in the day, I made my way back to Naples to check out the Museo Nazzionale, where all the artifacts taken from the respective archeological sites in the region were stored. If I'd been impressed by some of the mosaics and artworks the excavators had left on the walls at Herculaneum and Oplonti, it was safe to say I was blown away by the works they had taken to the museum. Again, remember these are 2000+ years old.
He'll never be the head of a major corporation
Unrelated bonus, the ceiling of the grand salon in the museum building is my second favourite roof, after the Sistine chapel. It did not photograph well though.
To be continued... I will return in...
A VIEW TO A VILLA