After an unsuccessful attempt of going to Herculaneum yesterday (“Is this it? Surely this can’t be it. This is a car park in the middle of the city. I can’t see any signs for Herculaneum, this can’t be right. Let’s drive around a bit more and get slightly more lost so it feels like we’ve been somewhere.”) we made it back there this morning fresh with directions from the hotel, and the newly acquired knowledge that in Italy it is referred to as Ercolano, only the uneducated foreigners call it Herculaneum VERY ..LOUDLY … AND ..SLOOW…LY.
So Ercolano is not, as it first appears, a derelict car park. It is in fact a partially excavated town sitting underneath the metropolis of Naples and its surrounding towns (partially excavated because in order to excavate it fully you’d have to pull up several square miles of homes and businesses, I imagine not everyone would be okay with that). Like Pompeii, it suffered a fate of being buried under tonnes of volcanic ash and debris from the 79AD eruption. Unlike Pompeii it is smaller, better preserved (apparently the rain of volcanic debris that covered Ercolano was of a different composition to Pompeii, something called a pyroclastic surge…. I suggest you go to a palaeontology website to look that one up), and less crowded (the main pathways in Pompeii are so densely populated that you can’t escape the nagging feeling you are a member of someone’s flock of sheep headed towards an abattoir).
The site is the perfect size for exploring, in half a day you could see everything there, but – as with every archaeological site – try to go during a slightly colder time of year, or when a cloudy day is forecast. We all love a bit of sunshine, but no one likes it when you’re melting on the archaeology. As a result of the extreme heat of our Ercolano visit, I now own the previously mentioned Indiana-Jones-in-paper-hat which I have since been informed makes me look like a lady detective… a new career choice possibly? I do like a good puzzle and a story.
The buildings of Ercolano spill forwards and slightly downwards to the tunnels that lead to what used to be the harbour. Today the harbour is 400 metres away from the ocean, the Vesuvius eruption was sooooo huge it created a land extension nearly half a kilometre wide. Poignantly the harbour is where the majority of the skeletons were found in Ercolano, people trapped whilst trying to make their escape by boat.
The buildings are comparatively well preserved with original floors, construction features, wall frescos and mosaics in many of them. With a little help from the handy dandy map and accompanying site guide (make sure you get both at the entrance, one without the other is frustrating rather than useful), it’s easy to picture the rooms’ original functions and a couple of the mosaics are stunning like the Neptune and Amphitrite wall that even in its original state still wows you with its bright, rich colours; or the Triton mosaic in the bathhouse that has the benefits of being refinished and elicits choruses of admiring exclamations throughout the day.
Ercolano, because it isn’t so frequently visited as Pompeii, also feels like a more immersive experience, you’re allowed to get up close and personal to the ruins and several mosaic pathways have been selected so that you can walk over them, few things have been chained off so you can’t access them – it’s a fine balance between conservation, and bringing in the tourist euros to continue working on the site.
After about two and a half hours, our little group was done in. The kids were knackered, and we’d lost Granny – clearly she’d decided she’d had enough of all of us, needed some alone time, and if that meant getting lost amongst Roman ruins, in blazing hot sun, without a drink of water, or indeed any money to buy water… so be it, a small price to pay for getting away from her family.
Quick tip: when planning a trip to Ercolano, add another 45 minutes for the obligatory stop for ice creams and water, and finding errant relatives.
On the return journey we passed a sign stating “Vesuvius, this way”. You can’t ignore that. That’s like a big thunderbolt of lightning from the sky illuminating a pot of gold. So much to the indignation of the junior tribe members, who’d not only been duped into going sightseeing, but were now also NOT getting to go back to the hotel with the nice big pool for the afternoon, we drove up Mount Vesuvius.
The drive itself is fantastic, beautiful views, winding roads, plentiful tavernas along the route, and starting about halfway up, some remarkable sculptures. They begin with an avant garde piece on the roundabout before the road makes its ascent, the next thing you see is a giant skull, easily 7 ft long, lying on its side. From there every few hundred yards there is some new and intriguing piece of masonry on the side of the road. There doesn’t seem to be much of a theme, at first I thought maybe it was different body parts because there was a torso, a pair of feet, and –Granny reliably informs me – something with round eyes. But then there were also more abstract sculptures so who knows? That can be your afternoon challenge on google.
After a couple of miles and a few hand written signs instructing you that the top of the volcano is the other way, and not down the sign-maker’s private driveway, you come to a turn off where gentlemen are waiting to collect parking money from you. Then you keep on driving until you run out of road and find yourself in a gravel lot lined with souvenir stalls and drinks stands, where another chap tells you to turn around and find parking further down the hill, before telling you never mind, give him an extra 20 euros and you can stay where you are…except for walking half a mile back down to the ticket stand to buy tickets to walk up the crater. The Italian tourism industry is thriving. Eventually after much parting with euros and fielding of complaints, you take the 20 minute hike up the track that leads to the crater.
It’s worth it.
Picture the first drawing you ever made of a volcano, now imagine it done in subtle tones of green and brown and grey, instead of purple and orange crayon, and without the jammy handprints, and you’re left with a spectacular likeness of Vesuvius. The peak of the mountain rises sharply into the traditional cone shape, and when you get to the top you can look over the edge into a steep sided, bowl crater several hundred feet deep. All it needs is a bubbling pool of red hot lava at the bottom and you’ve got a multi-million dollar film set right there. It still feels like a film set without the lava, but it’s the scene at the beginning of the film right before the moment when all the happy tourists meet their unexpected doom. If you can drag your eyes away from the crater you can stare at the Umbrian landscape hundreds of feet below you, and the sparkling water in the Bay of Naples on the horizon. Doesn’t sound half bad does it?
There’s a pleasant air of camaraderie at the top amongst the adults, a sort of exhausted “Phew we made it up the steep hill, would you like me to take your picture?” atmosphere of bonding. People gratefully catch their breath in the first gift shop (yes that’s right there are gift shops on the crater), and buy postcards showing photographs of Vesuvius’ last eruption in 1944.
Which brings me to one teensy wrinkle in the Vesuvian table cloth. 1944 is really not that long ago (especially if you get English football fans onto the subject, then you’d think it was last year), in geological terms, it’s a blink of an eyelid. Furthermore the photographs show a fairly impressive display of spewing lava, and flying rocks – the top of the mountain has exploded. It does not take a huge amount of imagination to look at the grassy boulders of the crater and imagine a few feet below a river of kill-you-on-contact magma. With all that in mind, I can’t understand why no one seems all that bothered that the crater is still smoking. This is not a lie, there is smoke wafting out of the crater today. At first I tried to convince myself it was low cloud….it wasn’t. Definitely smoke..or steam, both hot gaseous substances coming from within the volcano, and therefore both a tad disconcerting if you ask me.
Looking around at the other tourists, I could not see one iota of anxiety, not one sweat bead of concern. Everyone calm, happy, relaxed, slightly wheezy maybe, but not remotely worried that they’re standing on the rim of an active volcano, in fact they look like all the holiday makers that go to Jurassic Park about 15 minutes before they get eaten by dinosaurs.
Surely, I thought, the people who work up here must realise the precariousness of their position, so I scanned a discreet eye for evacuation routes …nothing. Unless they’ve got a very well hidden zip line on the far side of the crater, or a toboggan route down the side of the mountain, these people are toast ..literally. One has to admire the bravado, the swagger, of the Italians whose daily lives revolve around an unpredictable force of nature that could obliterate everything they know and love. Are they panicked, nervous, living in constant fear? Are they bollocks – they’ve built a bar on top of the rim.