R+V vs. the Volcano

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
Trip End Nov 02, 2012

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Flag of Italy  , Campania,
Thursday, October 25, 2012

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.  

Good advice for many occasions, but not to be taken to heart when writing a travel blog. We arrived in Napoli early Wednesday evening directly from Roma, and thus began our blessedly short stay in this disappointing city by the sea. It took us only 10 minutes to walk from the train station to our hotel, but it felt like one of the longest walks of my life. I'm still surprised we managed to make it from one place to another without getting mugged. Let me sum up what we saw in Napoli:  sirens and police going non-stop, groups of men loitering everywhere, both during the day and at night, and a literal mountain of trash in the streets next to what was supposed to be a tourist site (i.e. the kind of place most cities make sure looks good for tourists).  To be fair, although the neighborhood was awful, our hotel was great, and the staff was extremely friendly. They recommended a pizza place a few doors down, which turned out great, because that was just about as far as we were willing to walk in this awful city. Let me put it this way:  when we made it through the four locked gates/doors to our hotel, the first thing they told us upon check-in was that theft and muggings are commonplace, so to watch ourselves and our belongings when out in the streets. "Welcome to Napoli, folks! Try not to get mugged!"

The only reason we made the trip south to Napoli was because I insisted upon two things:  getting a glimpse of Mt. Vesuvius and visiting one of the cities buried by Vesuvius' ancient eruption. Napoli is a good base of operations for tourists looking to see either Pompeii or Herculaneum (or even the volcano itself). In an effort to avoid the crowds, we chose to visit Herculaneum (Ercolano), which is a short train ride and a straight shot from the Ercolano Scavi train station.  

For anyone unfamiliar with the history:  

Along with its more famous sister city, Pompeii, Herculaneum was almost blotted out of the history books by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. During the afternoon of August 24th, the volcano erupted, shooting ash 20 miles into the sky. Prevailing winds pushed the ash plume southward, burying Pompeii and its inhabitants. In the early morning hours of the 25th, however, the plume collapsed, and the second stage of the eruption began. Many of Herculaneum's inhabitants evacuated the city when the ash plume appeared earlier in the day, even though it didn't greatly affect them at that point. Those who remained were killed when the first pyroclastic surge, a wave of hot air and pulverized volcanic material, swept through the city at over 100 mph in the early morning hours. Their bodies were uncovered en masse in boathouses on the beach. Although they were protected from direct impact, a wave of scorching heat registering over 930F killed them instantly. After the intense heat came the lahar, otherwise known as a volcanic mud slide (think Mount St. Helens). When the event was over, the city of Herculaneum was buried under 70+ feet of mud and would lay forgotten until a farmer digging a well hit upon the ancient city's ruins in the 18th century.

Tourist tip:  spring for the audio guide for your tour. Interpretive signage exists (and sometimes it's even in English!), but if you want good, informative programming, it's nice to have it at your fingertips and in your own language. Also, don't be surprised that parts of the city are roped off as excavations continue...just like with every other historic site you visit in this country. Like I said in Rome, archaeology is probably the safest career choice one can make in Italy.

There were simply too many awesome sites crammed into such a small space, but here is a list of what I would consider the highlights of our tour:
  • When visitors enter Herculaneum, they circle it from above, getting a good scenic view before entering a tunnel through the tuff (volcanic mud). The tunnel emerges onto what was once the beach (but is now 3-4 stories below ground level). The physical effect of bringing the visitor down through the volcanic debris before dropping them into the city is powerful.
  • Palaestra - Only a portion of the city has been excavated, and this is most evident in the Palaestra, which is, historically, an open area surrounded by covered porticoes used for wrestling and exercise. A sliver of Herculaneum's Palaestra is open to the sunlight (see map). Most of it still extends deep into the tuff, forming what appears to modern visitors as a cave. It is while walking into this cave-like area, standing in the dark before a five-headed serpent fountain, you realize that what you see outside of Herculaneum is a tiny part of the story. The majority of the city remains buried deep beneath modern Ercolano. For the foreseeable future, it will remain that way. After all, who would volunteer to have their homes torn down so that the excavations could continue?
  • Mosaics - OK, so we've already established during our time in Rome that I've got a bit of a thing for mosaic tiles. This place just kicked that into overdrive. I mean these mosaics survived a volcanic eruption that released 100,000 times the energy released during the bombing of Hiroshima! There were plenty of houses with tiled floors intact, but the best example to be found in the city has to be at the House of Neptune and Amphitrite. The house gets its name from the mosaic found in the nymphaeum (grotto with a water supply), featuring Neptune and Amphitrite in all of their colorful glory. The vividness of the reds, yellows, and blues makes it hard to believe these were buried for 1700 years.
  • Central Thermae - The central baths survived Vesuvius in remarkably good condition, all things considered. The baths are segregated into male and female parts, both with entrances onto a common courtyard. They're full of mosaic tile floors, frescoed walls, and original furniture/fixtures. Also, the doors are incredibly short, and it was hilarious to watch Violet stoop to walk through them. It's about as close as we'll ever get to feeling like we're in Bilbo Baggins' house.
  • Frescoes - Our audio guides kept telling us about frescoes in the first style...or second or third or fourth. To be honest, I have no idea what all of that means. All I know is that it shouldn't even be physically possible for so many frescoes to survive Vesuvio's eruption. Sure, there were plenty of places where the colors had faded or they had been cracked and fallen, but the quality of those that survived is astonishing. Check the photos below to see for yourself. The best examples can be found in the College of the Augustales. One of the neatest things, though, was seeing the incomplete frescoes. Where the paint has fallen away, you can see where the design was originally etched into the plaster, and when you have the etching right next to an intact fresco where the pattern clearly continues from one to the other, it's a bit like getting a behind the scenes look at how it was created. Blows watching Bob Ross create his happy trees right out of the water.
  • Cheers - Thanks to our audio guides, we learned about the culinary and social habits of Herculaneum's ancient inhabitants. Apparently, the populace didn't really have lunch like we do. Instead, they would frequent a thermopolium, which was essentially an ancient snack bar or cafe, where hot and cold food was sold from a counter containing built-in terracotta pots. The ruins contain several well-preserved thermopolia with their counters and terracotta pots intact. And I might have played bartender behind every one of them. One taberna has a few items of note:  surviving jars, wine racks (yes, original wood), and even an advertisement for drinking vessels in its 2000 year-old glory along one of the main thoroughfares. Who knew an ad could be such a cool thing?
  • The College of the Augustales (Sacello degli Augustali) - Hands down, this was my favorite 'house' in Herculaneum. Long story short, this building functioned as the headquarters of the Imperial Cult and really as a sort of city center for many social and religious events. This one in particular features a plaque, announcing that this collegium had as its benefactors the local Augustales, who were freedmen. Freedmen were kept from holding political office or participating fully in public life the way others were, so their duties with the Augustales allowed them a good deal of social advancement and prestige. At the center of this building, lit softly from above by a skylight, is a set of frescoes depicting the story of Hercules, who was, after all, the namesake of the town. Along the ceiling and encasing the caretaker's quarters one can see 2000 year-old wooden beams, which were carbonized in the pyroclastic surge of the 79 CE eruption. While most human remains were found along the city's beach, the caretaker's remains were found in his quarters; he went down with the ship, so to speak. The combination of historical importance, condition of the artwork and building, and the surreal lighting made this my absolute favorite stop in the whole of Herculaneum.   
Admittedly, we rushed through the last few stops on the audio guide tour since the afternoon was coming to a close and our feet were good and sore. Overall, we were both incredibly pleased with our time spent in Herculaneum. There were a few moments, walking through an abandoned courtyard with no one else around, where it felt like we had stepped back in time. To see what it would have looked like at its finest...
Under the shadow of Vesuvius, we found our way back through modern Ercolano and rode the train back to Napoli's Porta Nolano station, which was at least a little closer to our hotel than the main station. After night fell, we again walked a block or two down the street to a local pizza joint and had some tasty tasty pizza and limoncello. With full tummies, we turned in for our second and final night in this gritty city and fell asleep to a symphony of sirens in the streets outside our window, "beside the sea in dear old Napoli."  

 Lessons learned today:
  • Oh Napoli...you so nasty. 
  • Volcanoes are awesome. And scary. But still awesome. I'm a little sad that we didn't have time to climb to the top of it and peek in, although this might have inspired future trips to other famous volcanoes.  
  • Seriously, Napoli...where's your self-respect? Clean up a bit, man!

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