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©2019 Shawn Basey | Tbilisi | Prague | Travel blog and tips

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Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Cities of the Dead

March 5, 2018

 

 

It was finally time to see what we had come to Naples for. Or what I had come to Naples for. We were there to see dead Romans. I’m not so sure my wife was as interested in dead Romans as I was, but after that day, she was. 

 

Pompeii wasn’t the only city buried by the exploding debris and ash that flooded out of the crater of Mount Vesuvius. There were dozens of villages, though only a few have been excavated and are able to be visited. The crown jewel is of course Pompeii, but the real diamond in the tufa is Herculaneum.

 

The other major ruin which shouldn’t be missed by history buffs is Cuma, where the Roman Sibyl lived, but this history buff missed it due to not having enough time, Cuma being on the other side of Naples, and my just having a massive brain fart and not realizing Cuma was in effing Naples. I am clearly no oracle.

 

 somebody to watch over me

 

How to get there

 

There are two ways to these sites. You can take the L2 metro (metro map here) in the direction of Salerno, which is faster and far more comfortable, but drops you off a little further away both places. Or you can take the Circumvesuviana from the main station in the direction of Sorrento, which is slower, much more rickety, but takes you right practically to the doorstep of both.

 

 seeing my dreams at Pompei

 

And Circumvesuviana, man, that train is like the New York metro. All the signs are busted, there’s graffiti everywhere, the doors may or may not work, and the announcement voice seemed to have been one or two stops off, when it was working. It’s safe though, so have fun.

Ruins in Italian is “scavi”, and Herculaneum is “Ercolano”, so when you’re looking for the two sites, search for Scavi di Pompei and Scavi di Ercolano.

 

want to make it all easier to visit? try one of these tours:

 

 

Herculaneum

 

We took the Circumvesuviana and did the 5 minute walk downhill to get to the park. No stress there. At the gates were dudes trying to sell tours. No grazie, I’ve got my own little tour in my cell phone. And was I right! There’s quite a number of app based tours, complete with maps and GPS, that are available for both sites. Download those and save yourself some time and pain. You can skim through what interests you and find the really cool stuff.

 

 view of Vesuvius and Herculaneum

 

Herculaneum was a small port village for rich people, way back in the day. So there’s huge villa after huge villa, all squeezed together, in what I imagine was a bit of a tourist destination even back then. The walls are all well preserved as are the frescoes on the walls and the mosaics on the floors. There was even preserved furniture, statues, weapons, kitchen supplies, and in several instances, loaves of bread. If you want to get the feeling of how Romans were living in the ancient times, this is the village to visit, as you can walk around inside the houses at your own leisure, take a deep breath of air, and really see yourself there.

 

 taking in the air

 

preserved statue outside the suburban baths 

 

 public water well on the street

 

The common house had an entrance relaxation room, which was usually with a fountain in the middle and an open space in the roof to let the light in. The bedrooms and the kitchen would have doors from there, unless there was another indoor room for gathering. Even bigger houses would have open gardens lined with covered walks and statues, and the really wealthy would have their own bath (which I think was only the case in Pompeii). The rooms all had mosaic-tile covered floors and brightly painted walls illuminated with mythological scenes.

 

 the middle fountain with an opening above

 

 floor tiles

 

 wall mosaic and frescoes

 

frescoes 

 

interior fountain/pool 

 

Some houses had their own access to an underground aquifer system, while others people had to send their slaves to fetch water from the public fountains, which were at every corner. There were also a few cafes. A cafe would usually have a small bar area, where there would be jars inset to the surface to store hot foods. In Pompeii, the cafe culture was nearly ridiculous, as just about every other building housed a public cafe.

 

 the holes in the counter would be covered to store hot food

 

Herculaneum is a small site, so it’s hard to miss stuff, and everywhere you go is something amazing. So just take your time, but just make sure you end up at the boat houses.

 

 Romans were classy people with classy art

 

The boat houses were once at the beach, but are now some 20 meters from the sea. The villagers had all rushed down there, taking cover from the falling ash and pumice and waves of heat, bringing with them their valuables, hoping that the sea and the subterranean shelter would protect them from the wrath of the gods.

 

 the boathouses, were below that plaza in the back left, then there was the sea

 

It didn’t.

 

Now what’s left are skeletons reaching to the back of the boathouses, clearly crying out in terror as the probably the vapors and smoke suffocated many them before the heat shock gave them a quick and final resting place. As this was a late find, they left the skeletons as it were, no longer doing the archeological tradition of plaster casting the bones, as they did in Pompeii.

 

 

 

Pompeii

 

After a quick lunch in the modern town of Ercolano, we hopped back on the train and went to Pompeii.

 

Pompeii was a town of 11,000 at the time of eruption, strategically placed underneath an active volcano. To be sure, Vesuvius is still an active volcano, so all those towns around it continue to have amazing strategic placement, and are probably either cash crops or nightmares for insurance companies. It strikes me as exceedingly weird that Naples continues sprawling around the mountain, but then again, on the other side of Naples is another active volcano, so…

 

 the main gates and the suburban baths

 

The town was first settled in the 7th century BC, and was taken by Rome in the 4th century BC. It’s got well-preserved roads, walls, and statues, a bathhouse, an amphitheater, a coliseum, and dozens of other things you’d see in a major Roman town. To put it short in the words of the esteemed Macklemore, this is freaking awesome.

 

 the volcano Vesuvius looming in the background 

 

While I was getting my groove on to Thrift Shop after entering the ruin complex, my wife was already getting tired of the Roman fun. She did get a short thrill from the skeletons, but all the walking was already starting to wear on her. “It’s all the same.”

 

“No, that’s the Temple of Apollo! And that’s the Temple of Jupiter! And over there is where they celebrated the cult of the Caesar,” I said as I jumped from one ruin with big columns to another ruin with big columns, like a cricket high on crack.

 

 view in the forum

 

“And here, in the forum, here’s where a guy would stand and read off the daily news, keeping everyone up to date on what was happening in the Empire. There would also be outdoor markets here, and over in the Temple, you’d have to purchase animals, perhaps right here, to pass over to the priests to slaughter for sacrifice. Actually, did you know, the Ancient Jews really kind of had the same system as the Roman pagans and the Egyptian pagans, and, and, and—” I rattled off like a five year old in a toy store.

 

 looking the other way in the forum

 

This was directly after leaving the entry hut, which is a must visit. They’ve got a huge map frieze, that lights up as a video shows you what it used to look like and tells you about the location. Even though I had a tour map app on my phone, just watching the video and getting the feel where everything was almost made it unnecessary. Except that the site was freaking huge, so a map really is a must, or you’ll get pretty lost pretty easily.

 

 the big light up map of Pompeii 

 

What were my favorite sites?

 

First, a map:

As we took the Circumvesuviana, we entered at the stop right next to the site, Pompei Scavi – Villa Dei Misteri. During peak season, I’d suggest buying your tickets in advance with GetYourGuide, and you’d pick up those tickets right at the upstairs of the train station. If you’re not in peak season, it won’t be a big wait, you can go up to the gate and buy your entry there. Again, with the Arte Card, you’ll get the tickets for either free or for half-price. A lot of websites I see claim they only take cash, but that’s an utter load. They gladly take your plastic there too these days. Anyhow, there’s also an ATM there, so if by chance they’re not taking your card, then you can get to the ATM. But I paid by card myself.

 

 the basilica, which was used as a court

 

After entering the forum, you can continue past it toward the amphitheater, or go down the long way to the houses. You must see the houses. And see them first, because by the time you’ll get to the other side of the town, you’ll be too tired to see anything and want to head back, and of course you won’t want to miss the major sites. Where if you did it with the major sites first, you might be tempted to miss the houses, which you shouldn’t. If that makes any sense.

 

 a random street

 

The neighborhood is easy to get lost in. It’s well-cobbled street after well-cobbled street, with massive walls and doors all up and down. It was really interesting to see the Roman setup, they had streets for horse carts, which had clearly dug into the stones over the centuries centuries ago, and raised pavements for people to walk, along with huge blocks spaced for the horse carts, but high enough to easily step across from the pavements.

 

a narrow street , the blocks in the middle were cross walks

 

inside a house 

 

a shrine to the household gods 

 

The Forum Baths

 

In the neighborhood, head to the Forum Baths. That’s the first amazing thing to see. The city of Pompeii had at least four public baths, and the Forum Baths, though they weren’t the biggest, are the most well-preserved. After an earthquake a few years before the eruption, they were also the last to be used. The baths served as places to talk business, meet up with friends, and to get clean, obviously.

 

 the locker room

 

You’d first work up a little sweat in the hot room, and then alternate between the hot pools and the cold pools. The hot pools were kept hot by a system of tiles and fires underneath, which would be stoked by slaves. Not your African American variety here, but often a Gaul, German, or Greek would find their fates down below the pools of Roman men (and women). The bathhouses were separated, women got their own and men got their own, though that wasn’t always the case in all villages everywhere.

 

 a wash basin

 

the warming room 

 

Many of the larger villas had their own bathhouses, and the water was pumped in by an aqueduct and a clever system of canals and aquifers. Which also meant, most houses often had their own indoor water supply, but where they didn’t, there were public fountains on nearly every corner.

 

The Hood

 

It’s hard to say which house was the best in this part. We just kind of aimlessly walked around. I’d read the descriptions on my phone of whichever interested me, and though the houses were interesting, indeed none of them were as well preserved as Herculaneum. I got the most thrill in this area just walking around, imagining myself in ancient days, people dressed in white or red sheets running around about their daily business.

 

 another street and crosswalk

 

 

Lupanare

 

Speaking of their daily business, the Lupanare was the town brothel. It had really tiny rooms with small beds, each room right next to each other, and above the rooms porno murals. Really cool building. It’s kind of weird going into this site, as they’ve tried to design it that you have to enter from a certain direction, that is, from the Forum. This traffic control is because it’s a small building, and I’m guessing the most popular. Because of that, we visited this last.

 

 two stories of love

 

an item on the brothel menu 

 

Villas

 

After the hood, we went down a really long street with villas. Most of the villas were pretty largely intact and you could walk through, and many had their own vineyards. It wasn’t bad to be rich back then. Like now, I guess.

 

 a winery (recreation) in the back of a villa

 

The Amphitheater

 

This was the biggest attraction. All the really big events would happen here, from major gladiatorial games to Pink Floyd concerts. Yes, Pink Floyd concerts. They played a “show without an audience” there once and filmed the whole thing. Now there’s a kind of Floyd exhibition going on in the halls.

 

 approaching the amphitheater

 

This arena is also where they’d bring in wild animals and the always crowd-pleasing Christians.

 

 someone would prefer lions to more walking!

 

The Grand Theater

 

On the way back, it’s easy to hit the Grand Theater, which also hosted gladiatorial combat, but was mostly used for acting and music concerts. It’s actually still used for that as well, with occasional operas or plays being held there. It’s a pretty massive space, easily holding a couple of thousand of people, and steeply shaped like an IMAX.

 

 gladiators, poets, and thespians all in one show

 

Just imagine, what took us some 70 years of theater technology to finally innovate, they were doing 2000 years ago.

 

Temple of Isis

 

This could be a really cool spot, but it was closed with ongoing excavations, so I guess a reason to go back.

 

Fun fact

 

Pompeiians loved dicks. During the various digs, they found little (and big) dick statues everywhere. Neapolitans also like dicks and started a collection of found Pompeiian dicks at the University of Naples. They were apparently a little embarrassed by this dick fetish, so they kept the collection a secret until recently.

 

 what to draw on an ancient wall?

 

Also what amazed me at Herculaneum was the sheer amount of modern dick graffiti, which just goes to show that it wasn't just the ancient Romans who've got the fetish. From what I could tell by the languages on the walls, it's mostly Russians who love penises.

 

Plaster casts

 

At first when they found skeletons in the tufa, they’d carefully try to chip away only a little bit of tufa and then extract the skeletons. After which they’d fill it up with plaster, remove the tufa and voila, you’ve the shape of a person. This is still sometimes practiced, and sometimes it’s just left as a skeleton now—as in Herculaneum. The original skeletons have been carried off to a museum near you.

 

 I see no skeletons!

 

Stay tuned next week when we head off to the dark underground city far beneath Naples! If you liked this blog, share it with a friend. 

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