On an August afternoon in 79AD, 14 miles from Naples, the volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Lava poured from the mountain faster than people could run. In it’s path it destroyed two nearby unsuspecting villages, Pompeii and Herculaneum. Killing thousands and burying the cities in feet of lava and ash, not to be rediscovered for another 1,700 years.
Fast forward to present day where, during our trip to Italy, we decided to drive south from Rome to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum –The UNESCO World Heritage Sites famous for not only having been destroyed by the volcanic eruption, but also for how well preserved they have been for thousands of years. We booked a hotel in Naples to use as a home-base for the visit.
Brief History of Pompeii and Herculaneum
Before the eruption, Pompeii had an estimated population of 11,000 people, a complex water system, an amphitheater, a gymnasium, and a port. Nearby, Herculaneum was a wealthier city, with a population of 5,000 living in more upscale, ornate homes.
Both were substantial cities well on their way…but living in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.
When the volcano erupted in 79 AD, the cities and their inhabitants were decimated. They were completely covered in as much as 60 feet of volcanic ash for hundreds and hundreds of years. The ash actually preserved the cities quite well and allowed archaeologists to rediscover and excavate them approximately 1,700 years later. They remain extremely popular tourist destinations to this day.
Mt. Vesuvius is currently the only active volcano on mainland Europe. It is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the 3 million people living nearby. It has shown a propensity for violent eruptions in the past — the most “famous” being the aforementioned blast in 79 AD. This eruption was one of the most catastrophic in European history, killing thousands of people.
/end depressing history lesson.
The drive from Naples to Pompeii was quick, but it did slow down a bit near the entrance as all the tourists were looking for places to park. We eventually pulled in to a restaurant that had lots of extra space out back and a sign that said €10 Parking. We paid for our parking then walked across the street, through a market full of vendors, and to the entrance.
Once through the gates, we pressed play on a Rick Steves’ Pompeii Audio Tour and opened up the corresponding map. This made it easy to get around, and we learned so much more than we would have exploring on our own.
The level of preservation was incredible considering what had happened here. From the cobble stone streets and sidewalks, to the building walls, columns, and arches, and even ornate mosaic floors and wall paintings — everything was in remarkable condition.
One such mosaic floor that stood out was at the entryway to the House of the Tragic Poet. The floor featured a growling dog with the words “Cave Canem” — Beware of Dog. (At the end of the tour they sold posters and other items with this image on them.)
Walking through the streets it was neat to see tracks that had been carved by buggies traversing the same route time and time again. We also liked the stones that had been used in place of crosswalks allowing people to cross the road when it was flooded, but still giving buggies room to pass.
Some areas of the city were roped off (additional preservation measures were being taken) so we didn’t get to see the entire thing. In hindsight, we should have made it into a two-day visit to the sites. You could easily spend an entire day exploring only Pompeii. However, we had planned to see Herculaneum that same day. Feeling a bit rushed, we made our way back to the car and drove to site #2.
There were a lot fewer people at Herculaneum than at Pompeii, which allowed us to continue our Rick Steves’ Audio Tour uninterrupted as we walked around the city.
Herculaneum was in an even more advanced state of preservation. The ~60 feet of volcanic ash that covered this city preserved even wooden objects such as roofs, doors, and beds.
At the end of the tour, we walked down towards the shoreline were there were several small rooms containing human skeletons. This area was below the main city and was the one protected part of the city. They appeared to have been huddled together, attempting to survive the blast of Mt. Vesuvius. A truly eerie sight to see.
Touring Pompeii and Herculaneum in such well-preserved states allowed us to appreciate what life was like at the time, and also how devastating Mother Nature can be. How some 3 million people can still live anywhere near Mt. Vesuvius after having toured these locations is beyond us, but such is life. It was a worthwhile trip that we will always remember.
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