A Realistic Review of Herculaneum and Pompeii

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After a year of learning about Pompeii and Herculaneum, finally seeing it right in front of me was a confronting experience. I expected the relics to be labelled and that the ruins would be just that… ruins.

It’s a little different with Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Let’s start with Herculaneum.

Herculaneum is short train trip from Napoli and is smack bang in the middle of the modern city of Ercolano. To get there you can take a 20 minute journey from Napoli from Centrali station.

Be aware that there is more than one area listed as Ercolano and Pompeii on the tourist maps. You want to be at the area with the name “scavi” attached which roughly translates to “ruins”.

The trains themselves are pretty old (compared to the ones in Sydney), and it is challenging to catch the right train, especially if you don’t speak Italian. The trick is to ask the ticket desk for the approximate time for the train to Sorrento and what platform. Once you’re on the platform, check the overhead information board (the trains often run late, which is why you’ve asked for an approximate time), then check the front of the train as it approaches to see where it goes. You want the Sorrento train.

When you arrive on the train, follow the road down to the bottom of the hill.  You will see the entrance to Herculaneum.

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Just inside of the gate to the ruins, off to the right, lay the ruins about ten metres below street level. It’s sunken because Herculaneum resided on a beachfront.  The wall of Herculaneum, back in 79 CE, would’ve been directly up against the beach. The receding ocean level and erosion gradually pulled the structure away from the seaside.

For our visit to Herculaneum, Mum and I decided to get one audio guide to share. We were also provided a detailed map and a small book which explained everything.  Given we had the audio guide, we used it primarily, but we noticed it provided slightly different information, so the book was great to refer back to later.

Upon entering Herculaneum, the boathouses are the first thing that catches the eye.

In 79 CE, these boathouses provided shelter for around 300 people who were trying to flee the pyroclastic surges from Mount Vesuvius. However, the extreme heat and pressure from the volcanic blasts caused their internal organs to boil and liquefy, instantly killing them. As a result, their skeletons were extremely well preserved (especially after the pumice and ash solidified and encased their remains).

The experience of seeing the preserved bodies was confronting.  From an ancient historian standpoint, it was fascinating yet horrific at the same time.  I can’t imagine the terror they experienced fleeing the erupting volcano.

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Descending into the town, most of the houses in Herculaneum are wide open, completely free to the public and with no barriers. Meaning, anyone could go up to the walls and touch them (please don’t do this!). The frescoes (wall paintings done when the plaster of the wall was still wet) remaining were well preserved in buildings with roofs, as they would have completely faded with exposure to the elements, especially sunlight.

There were only two buildings closed off. One was the House of the Trellis, the only apartment-like building famous for its composition, being made of, well, trellis. The other was the Villa of Papyri, where about 1800 scrolls of papyri were found. It was the largest collection of papyri ever found in one collection.  Of course, these were the two I really wanted to see most.  I guess it simply means I’ll have to return when they reopen to the public.

We wandered around for hours.  There was so much to see, so many stories to imagine.  Mum and I talked extensively about what it would have been like, sharing what I had recently learned, what I was eager to learn more about.

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In my opinion, Herculaneum is a destination which should be savoured.

Take the day to explore it. Don’t fall for any of those ‘half-day’ trips. From a geek’s standpoint, while Pompeii is more popular, larger and gives you the ‘Ancient Roman city experience’,  you can gain better access to the artefacts and buildings in Herculaneum. And best of all, without the high volume of crowds, so you can visualise the ancient city more clearly.

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On to Pompeii.  It’s busy and disappointing.  (Yes, I really said that.)

Let’s face it, Pompeii is what the hoards come to see.  Despite the fact that we were there in mid November, there were a lot of people visiting. A lot of tourists.

I wouldn’t have found it so off-putting if they hadn’t been taking photos of modern statues which were littering the grounds of the city, and were detracting from the ruins. It was appalling! These people had travelled from god-knows-where and instead of admiring the relics, stopped to photograph statues which weren’t even from the time period! They had been placed in 2013!

Now, I’m not one to dismiss modern art.  I admire modern art. But, there is a time and place for it and having modern statues placed within the walls of Pompeii certainly was not the place.

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As I mentioned in this post, I was looking forward seeing the Forum in Pompeii, because it held most of the buildings I had studied most recently in high school.

I was disappointed to find that most of the buildings weren’t labelled on either the building or the map, so it took some digging around my knowledge to remember the layout of the building so we could identify it.

Admittedly, Mum and I had decided to not use an audio guide, or a guide at all, like we had in Herculaneum, which made it a bit more difficult. But, I believed I had enough knowledge to identify things. Once the cobwebs were dusted from the brain, some food to feed the blood flow, the knowledge came back and so did my excitement.  I was eager to share it with Mum, who thankfully was a willing participant (although I know she was just as irked by the modern instalments).

Despite our lack of information, we walked through the city exclaiming often:  “Wow, look at that building!” and admired it for the form and relic. Unlike Herculaneum, Pompeii was more of tourism experience, rather than a learning experience.

That said, there were a few buildings that were quite intriguing.

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We were able to access the Teatro Grande and Odeion, or the main theatre near the Forum and the smaller one right beside it. The Teatro Grande had mostly been over run by grass and vines. The stage area was left clear along with some marble steps near the front. The Odeion had its original wooden backstage flooring missing, but the lovely coloured marble in the stage made up for it. The larger theatre would’ve been used for plays, while the smaller theatre would’ve been used for poetry readings.

At the southeast end of Pompeii was the Anfiteatro, the largest amphitheatre. Its location next to Palaestra Grande suggested it was used for sporting events, like beast hunts, gladiatorial contests and athletic displays like races. The larger palaestra, or outdoor sport grounds, was used for gladiators and soldiers to exercise.  While the arena was left open, access to the stairs had been barricaded.

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Other interesting buildings included the Lupanare, one of the many brothels uncovered in Pompeii; the Panifico di Modesto, the Bakery of Modestus; and the Villa di Mysteri, the Villa of Mysteries.

This brothel found in a more condensed area of Pompeii, gave evidence to some interesting customs which were commonplace before the eruption. Firstly, the abundance of brothels found in Pompeii (with the number so far totalling thirty-five) suggests that prostitution was common during the time. The Lupanare near the Forum was the largest found in Pompeii, with ten rooms. Frescoes and graffiti lined the walls within in the brothel. Let’s just say that you had to be comfortable with sexuality to appreciate the frescoes that remained.

(Fun fact: the national holiday for prostitutes was April 23rd.)

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Another relic was the Bakery of Modestus.  It wasn’t uniquely a bakery. While it’s incredibly similar to other bakeries found in the town, 81 loaves of bread were found still intact in the ovens, completely petrified by the extreme heat.  These loaves of bread gave some of the most valuable evidence for the diet of ancient Pompeiians.

There was also the Villa of Mysteries, located far from the town. The most significant point of this excavation was that it provided vital information for the religious practices of the people. Murals painted around the villa are believed to depict scenes of initiation into the Cult of Dionysus. (However, the villa was a fair walk from the town and after seven hours of exploring Pompeii, circumnavigating the tourists, we were ready to call it a day and therefore did not make it to the Villa of Mysteries.)

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Despite all that’s on offer at Pompeii, Herculaneum is my recommendation for anyone visiting this area.

While there isn’t as much excavated and the overall size of it is much smaller, there was more evidence and more information available to the public due to its better preservation.

Currently, there are several conservation projects being undertaken at Herculaneum. While that means that many artefacts and buildings are off limits, it also means it will be better preserved for accessibility in the future.

As of now, there are no excavations being undertaken at Herculaneum in favour of conservation, but what is available is, in my opinion, better than what can be found at Pompeii.

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Don’t get me wrong:  Pompeii had its high points.

While it wasn’t as well preserved, there was more to see and explore. While you can’t see the intricate details of buildings, graffiti and statues, you can visit the museum just past the exit which holds many artefacts found in Pompeii. Artefacts such as pots, the loaves of bread and statues, along with a preserved body or two (sadly, we somehow missed this tiny museum).

If I could go back, I’d spend more time at Pompeii than we did, despite Herculaneum being more attractive to me. (I love ancient history, what can I say?)  Having said that, I would be better prepared on the next visit. I would take a few resources, like a book on Pompeii and a better map, and perhaps rent an audio guide or hire a personal tour. I’d also check out the museum…

I guess I’ll be returning!

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