DAY 8 navigating through Herculaneum and Pompeii, and up atop Mt. Vesuvius:
This was the day of extremes. The day we walked through ruins that once only existed far below our feet to a crater that exists far above our heads, the day we spent amidst the remains of so much destruction and yet, at the same time, so much beauty — the flowers, oh the pink flowers that danced in the wreckage and breathed life (thanks to the fertile soil) into something so broken.
The natural masterpiece created over the course of the millennia by the volcanic eruptions and lava flows have drawn such a unique landscape: it is a reminder of the strength and grandeur of Mother Nature, against which man can do very little.
We were supposed to leave for Herculaneum at 7.30am today, with anxious Adrien, blue-eyed Torben, cheeky Arber and foxy-eyed Michele, but we were the only ones up and having breakfast at 7am, so we left without them for the Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano Scavi. The early bird catches the worms, hey!
Being a student with EU nationality, I scored discounts while buying the Herculaneum-Pompeii tickets. Miriam wasn’t supposed to, but the ticket seller was our Michele and sold the tickets to Miriam at a discounted price too. 🙂
Part. I: Herculaneum
The excavations of Herculaneum (once a sea town, named after the Greek hero Hercules) stretch over a smaller area than Pompeii. While roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of falling ash, only a few centimetres of ash fell on Herculaneum, causing little damage. Generally, the archaeological relics are in better shape than in Pompeii.
Herculaneum was originally discovered when a well was being dug in the early 18th Century at a depth of 50 – 60 feet below the modern surface. Initially, a series of ‘robber’ shafts and tunnels were dug to strip the site of any sellable valuables. However, between 1749 to 1765 Herculaneum was explored on a more scientific basis for the Bourbon Kings of Naples and the Two Sicilies.
Restoration work is ongoing, and while a lot of the timbers have been replaced, there is still much of the original charred timberwork present. The volcanic rock, or tufo, that covered the site for 1700 years formed an airtight seal. As a consequence, there are many well-preserved buildings, many with the upper stories still intact, and some excellent frescoes and mosaics on both walls and floors to be seen.
Herculaneum really gave us an idea of how ancient Romans lived. Herculaneum had bath houses for men and women, a bakery, a gymnasium and a temple. Visitors today can even see the remains of an ancient Roman fast food restaurant which used heated bowls. Many of the structures were expensive villas overlooking the waterfront. One of the most luxurious was the Villa of the Papyri, which may have been the home of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.
The Sacred Area of Herculaneum is where approximately 300 bodies of refugees from the eruption were found. According to the scientists, most of the bodies found appear to be in generally good health but several were suffering from advanced stages of lead poisoning.
Part. II: Mt. Vesuvius
We took a bus up to the ‘base camp’ of Mt. Vesuvius (a man aboard couldn’t stop saying “Bellissimo!” at the view we had as we snaked up the mountain), where we began our climb up to the crater. It was incredible what we saw — a virtually cloudless sky and the perfectly blue ocean framed by the Italian harbour cities; in the distance, mountain babies are being born and the horizon seemed to blur. Blurred lines. It looked and felt so much like heaven on Earth up there.
It was a ‘slippery’ hike up. So loose the surface was, that the sand just rolled under our shoes with every step. I began to doubt the traction of my shoes but just kept with it. Upon reaching the crater, we joined a tour which I had to try to shut myself away from almost immediately. I’m laughing as I type this, remembering just how hilariously the Italian guide spoke. ‘Pollution‘ became ‘Pooloooshen’, ‘Erupted’ became ‘Eroooopted’, and ‘Percentage’ became ‘Pursentasche’. The speeeeed, oh the speed at which he spoke! I didn’t want to be rude (knowing how ‘well’ I handle my laughter) so I walked a slight distance away to ‘take some pictures’. We were with a Belgian family and their confused glances shot at us every now and then told me we were all thinking the same thing. We did strike a conversation with them after and they confirmed our assumptions!
Funny thing was, Miriam and I walked over to the other side of the crater to find them listening to another tour to actually learn something about Mt. Vesuvius. We stayed for a while too and learned that Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum shortly after noon on the 24th of August. Pliny described the eruption as follows, “It resembled a (Mediterranean) pine more than any other tree. Like a very high tree, the cloud went high and expanded in different branches… sometimes white, sometimes dark and stained by the sustained sand and ashes.” Before the eruption of 79AD, there was not even a word for Volcano, which was created afterwards. Volcano derives from the word Vulcan – the Roman God of the Flame and Metal Forgery.
Mt. Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, during WWII. A long period of calm usually means an eruption may happen soon. Over 3 million people live in the immediate area of Mount Vesuvius. More people live dangerously close to it than to any other volcano anywhere in the world! Mt. Vesuvius is the only active volcano in mainland Europe and is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. (My parents weren’t too pleased about our decision to come here when they found out about this. Whoops.)
On our way down, we shared with each other how we’d imagine the type of relationships, where we’d settle down and the adventures we’d have with our future life partners. It’s exciting to see who’d come into our lives in the future to fill this role. 🙂
Lo and behold, upon reaching the ‘base camp’, Adrien, Torben, Arber and Michele emerged out of one of the shuttle buses and embraced us both one by one to say hello. They told us that they had had a little too much to drink the night before and couldn’t get up till 11 or so. We parted ways as we continued our journey to Pompeii and they, up Mt. Vesuvius (after having decided to give Herculaneum a miss).
Part. III: Pompeii
On the train ride to Pompeii, we enjoyed the tunes of an accordion player and witnessed a guy trying to get a number from a very reluctant girl, and walking to Pompeii Scavi from the train station, many restaurant owners along the way kept trying to coax us to have lunch at their restaurants. One even said, “Free wifi!” How did he know?
Miriam and I discreetly followed several tour groups (until we felt noticed, ha!) and learned a few things along the way (to add on to the bit of research I did beforehand).
Since Mt. Vesuvius had last erupted long before anyone alive at the time had been born, people thought that living near the most recognisable landmark looming over the bay of Naples was completely safe. It was lunch time in August 79AD when Vesuvius began 24 hours of spectacular eruptions. All the people in the 700-year-old town of 20,000 could have escaped. There was time to flee, but no one recognised the inherent danger of the mountain’s warnings!
By the time Vesuvius stopped belching poisonous gas, the bustling city of Pompeii was silent, completely buried under 4m of volcanic ash and debris. The city was abandoned and its location, forgotten. It remained silent for 1700 years.
In 1595, excavations discovered artefacts at Pompeii and centuries of pillaging followed.
Fun fact: At 150-acres, the walled city of Pompeii is the world’s largest excavation and archaeologist site.
From 30 km west of the volcano, Pliny the Younger (a local writer) witnessed the eruption and recorded his observations in two letters (the only surviving account of the eruptions). Volcanologists now use the term “Plinian” for the first stage of devastating volcanic eruptions, as the one occurred in the Pompeii eruption, in which dust, ashes, cinders, and rocks erupt high into the air, and in time settle back to earth.
Excavations and explorations have allowed scientists to learn that people in ancient times used mill wheels to grind flour, and they stored food in large terra-cotta jars. In the taverns, the food was stored in jars built in the counter, to keep them warm, and to be served. This is why in Italian, up till now, a snack bar is called tavola calda (hot table). To maintain the food at constant temperatures, all but the top of a jar was buried in the ground. Shops were clearly marked with carved signs: a goat for the dairy, grapes for the winery, bread for the bakery. Also, we found the world’s first mason jar!
Pompeii was a resort town inhabited by wealthy Romans. The town was endowed with a theatre (where we were an audience to a group of Latin students performing a Latin script) a huge amphitheatre and large training facilities. Gladiator’s fights were the highlight of the shows.
After about 45 minutes in the train, we were pleasantly surprised when we met the Germans at the train station. We proceeded to do a bit of grocery shopping together (we found oatmeal — German oatmeal — this time round!) before walking home together with the boys. Miriam talked to Michele while I talked with Arber… Arber, who moved from Kosovo to Germany when he was two, and Arber who studied German, History and Philosophy for five years, but had a change of heart after graduation. “We’ll see,” he shrugged. Miriam found out that Michele’s scar came about from a bicycle accident involving a fence!
Miriam and I shared 1 Gino’s Marinara pizza for dinner (big mistake — it was so good and half a pizza wasn’t enough, so I had an extra bowl of müsli for dessert!) while enjoying the Traci Chapman tunes Michele was producing with his guitar. Adrien was a lobster (white men, my Dad included) don’t do too well under the sun) and was slathering on after-sun lotion at this point. Torben was quiet and Arber was chatty as usual.
Later that evening, our yogi dorm mate, who greeted us while doing a headstand, taught us a bit about Pranayama (breathing methods) — breathe through the left nostril ‘for relaxation’ and through the right nostril to ‘get ready for battle’.
And then we met Lajoc, who told us his ‘sad story’ of how he decided to seek shade in the Herculaneum ruins (Miriam and I spent only 1.5 hours there) and ended up not being able to take the bus to Mt. Vesuvius ‘because there weren’t enough tourists to take up there’ . He was so sad, and however hard we tried to be, for him, we just couldn’t. He was just too much of a cartoon character.
An end-of-day thought: Miriam and I managed a day trip to Herculaneum, Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii (all transport and ticket costs included) for only 37,60€! Score!