Pompeii and Herculaneum – Roman Life in 79 AD

I’d visited Pompeii 15 years ago. Or, to be more correct, I’d visited the town of Pompeii, but not the archaeological site. That was not for want of trying. I’d driven around Pompeii and the neighbouring area for a couple of hours and even went halfway up Vesuvius, but all to no avail. The UNESCO World Heritage Site seemed to me to have disappeared back under a layer of volcanic dust.

Stark Ruins of the Forum Overlooked by Vesuvius

Ruins of the Forum Overlooked by Vesuvius

That was before the days of sat-navs and my Italian was non-existent. Those are my excuses anyway for one of my greatest ever travel failures – being unable to find the ruins of Pompeii. In the end I gave up and decided to drive to Sorrento and around the Amalfi coast. It proved a great drive, and I include it in my Top Ten Road Journeys of the World. But it has always rankled me that I couldn’t find a site that covers 170 acres – the size of about 100 football pitches!

When I was invited to a wedding in Sorrento, I realised this was my opportunity to make amends for my previous failure. This time I was not only armed with my sat-nav, but also had carefully scoured Google Earth at high resolution to make certain I knew where I was going. I’d even selected where to park my car – at Camping Zeus, just by the Porta Marina entrance to the Pompeii site.

Porta Marina Entrance to the Pompeii Site

Porta Marina Entrance to the Pompeii Site

Following recommendations from friends, I’d also decided to visit Pompeii’s smaller neighbouring site, Herculaneum. Again, I researched it well and knew exactly how to reach the car park situated beneath the Visitors Centre.

Once I’d slept off the effects of some excellent Italian wines at the wedding reception, I was up bright and early and ready to explore. I’d been told that European citizens 65+ get a 50% discount on the entry charges. However it appears that concession ended in November 2014. But I had no complaints, since by chance I happened to visit on the first Sunday of the month, when there is free entry for everyone to Pompeii and Herculaneum!

The Author Seeking Shade on Via D'ell Abbodonza

The Author Seeking Shade on Via D’ell Abbodonza

I still had to queue to collect a free ticket, and whilst at the entry booths, I invested in an audio-guide for just a few Euros – this proved invaluable.

Pompeii

To visit a site of 170 acres is a daunting prospect when the temperature is about 35 C and there is very little shade. Also the uneven cobblestone pathways slow down progress. Although I consider myself to be a fairly spritely senior traveller, I knew I needed to be selective about which parts of the site to visit.

Terme Stabiane

Terme Stabiane

After entering the site up a sloping cobbled ramp at the Porta Marina gate, I was almost immediately confronted by the stark ruins of the Temples of Venus and Apollo and the Forum, with the threatening shape of Vesuvius clearly visible in the background.

Edging along the main Via D’ell Abbodonza, I found myself darting from one bit of shade to another. There are many small houses and workshops along the sides of the road, which in many ways impress more than the massive temples and communal areas. They give a ghostly insight into everyday life in Pompeii until suddenly brought to a halt in 79 AD.

Mural in the Lupanare

Mural in the Lupanare

Turning off to the right by the bath complex, the Terme Stabiane, brought me to the two theatres of Pompeii, the Teatro Grande and the much smaller Teatro Piccolo. They have superb acoustics as  demonstrated by a guide’s rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’.

I then explored the nearby mansions of Casa di Casca Longus and Cas del Menandro, with their superb wall paintings, before heading off to the obligatory view of the famous raunchy murals in the brothel, the Lupanare.

Herculaneum: Overlooked by Modern Houses and Vesuvius

Herculaneum: Overlooked by Modern Houses and Vesuvius

Three hours had passed, and I’d only visited the south-western quarter of the site. That was enough for a hot July afternoon. A cold beer and an espresso at the small restaurant by the Porta Marina entrance went down extremely well, before making the 20 min car journey to Herculaneum.

Herculaneum

This is a more compact site covering just 45 acres. The pyroclastic flows that covered the holiday resort of Herculaneum preserved the site better than Pompeii. Many two storey buildings survived and even some wooden structure including beams. It is fascinating to see how the site is basically just a large excavated hole full of ancient buildings with modern houses perched all around and, of course, Vesuvius peering out above.

Mural Depicting a Reclining Figure and Leopard

Herculaneum: Mural of Reclining Figure and Leopard

I found a couple of hours allowed me to get a feel of the site and to see many of the beautiful murals and mosaics.

Overall Impressions

Was it worth waiting 15 years to see Pompeii? Yes, definitely, with Herculaneum a great bonus.

I had expected to see everyday artefacts scattered around the sites, but almost all have been taken to the Naples National Archaeological Museum. A shame, but understandable if they are to be preserved. Also I had not realised how much of Pompeii is still being excavated, with many roadways and buildings blocked off. Not surprising really when you consider the size of the site – it is still very much ‘work in progress’.

Wall Mosaic of Neptune and Salacia

Herculaneum: Wall Mosaic of Neptune and Salacia

But these are small points. I’ve seen many impressive Roman buildings in my travels including the spectacular amphitheatres in Rome and in Pula, Croatia, and the massive villa in Piazza Armerina, Sicily. However, for me, the special fascination of Pompeii and Herculaneum is provided by the rows of small domestic buildings and criss-cross passageways, which give an almost uncanny feel of everyday Roman life in 79 AD.

Getting There

Several airlines fly from the UK to Naples with return fares ranging from over £200 in August to less than £100 in off-season months like October or November. Check with  skyscanner for flight times and prices.

Pompeii: Work in Progress

Pompeii: Work in Progress

There is a train service from Naples to Pompeii. However car hire is relatively inexpensive and gives the flexibility to visit other places in the area, such as Sorrento and Amalfi. Bear in mind that driving in the Campania region can be a bit hairy – almost every car has a few dents and scratches. Hence car hire excess insurance is strongly recommended.

Accommodation

I stayed at the Holiday Inn Salerno – Cava De’ Tirreni just a 30 minute drive from Pompeii. It is also well placed for visiting Sorrento and Amalfi, and for taking a ferry to the Isle of Capri. I found it to be an excellent hotel with friendly, helpful staff and strongly recommend it, especially when you get a 10% Senior Discount on the flexible rate.

Accessibility

Wheelchair access is very limited at Pompeii, although there are some wheelchair-friendly areas. Herculaneum is more accessible.


Posted 4th August 2015 by Steve Hanson

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