Monday morning and we are packing up to move on south. Since our fav little bar is closed
again we stop at McD for cappuccino whilst walking to the train station. Catch a slow regional train to Napoli where we change to a different line that goes on to Pompei.
A 20-minute walk through town brings us to Domus Michael, a B & B in a nondescript building. But the inside is gorgeous, and our host Catello welcomed us effusively. The rooms are very modern with super cool lighting in the ceilings, a great bed and shower and a shared kitchen. After getting settled we mosey on back to the piazza around a large church, and the road past that is lined with shops and eateries. We decide on a place called Le Delizie that does not seem so touristy and enjoy a delicious dinner.
Pompei is a bustling town of around 25,000 people – about the same size it was 2,000 years ago when the looming Mount Vesuvius blew its top, destroying most communities within the area. Back in 79 AD Pompeii (ancient Pompeii had two ii) and Herculaneum to the NW were busy port cities with ships carrying wine, olive oil and other goods. They were also popular seaside tourist destinations for the upper class of Rome, with Herculaneum being favored by the wealthy elites and senatorial classes.
The last major eruption of Vesuvius before this was about 217 BC, with minor earthquakes occurring often enough that people accepted them as normal for the area. The volcano was covered in grass, shrubs and trees almost to the summit, which was possibly 2,000’ higher than after the eruption. Just looked like a normal mountain - right?
After several days of ground shaking in autumn of 79 AD, the pressure inside Vesuvius became great enough to violently blow out the “plug” that held in the gases and magma, and then the top third of the mountain. A column of fiery rock, gas and smoke shot straight up 19 miles, forming a huge dark cloud. The prevailing wind carried the cloud southeast towards Pompeii, where it began falling as a mixture of fine ash, small pebbles, larger rocks, and some boulders – all at temperatures from 200 to 500 degrees F! This Plinian-type eruption lasted about 20 hours and buried Pompeii with 9’ of burning pumice.
Early the next day, pyroclastic surges of molten rock flowed down the volcano, rapidly
reaching Pompeii and Herculaneum at 100mph. Many residents of the latter were able to escape as they did not have the ash fall of the previous day, but any remaining inhabitants were instantly killed by the tremendously high temperature of the surge.
Pliny the Elder had organized a rescue operation by boat from nearby Misenum and reached the shores of Herculaneum, but onshore wind prevented the fleet from departing. Some escaped on foot, but Pliny died, possibly from heart attack. Parts of Herculaneum were covered with 70’ of pumice and lava. The nature of this flow preserved buildings and humans with amazing detail in some areas of Herculaneum.
Herculaneum lay buried and forgotten for centuries until someone digging, possibly for a well, discovered part of the structures. Exploration was initially done by tunnels and later by careful, open excavation. Today, it is estimated only 25% has been opened. And what it reveals is an amazing design of lavish houses and villas, with extensive use of colored marble.
The apartments that fronted the seashore had boat houses built in so that after they had their morning wine & cheese they could walk over to the next room, launch their skiff, and take a nice cruise of the sparkling Gulf of Naples. The eruption changed the seashore considerably in the area, adding “beachfront” and moving the waterline farther away.
Present-day Ercolano now surrounds the area where Herculaneum existed 2,000 years ago.
We walked to the train station, caught a train to Ercolano and walked downhill to the ruins. No free audio app for this one so we were on our own – reading the plaques and trying to imagine life back then. Finishing up mid-afternoon we determined it was too late to get a ride up to Vesuvius, so scooted on back to Pompei for R & R.
Wednesday was an early morning so we could check out the Pompeii ruins and Mt Vesuvius.
Pompeii Archaeological Park covers a much larger area than Herculaneum. It was still a popular resort town, but maybe not so high-class, with more merchants & businesses. We again used the Rick Steves audio tour to guide us as we explored the ruins of this once grand resort town, but many areas and avenues were closed for ongoing archaeological excavating, making it a little confusing.
One interesting thing were the cobblestone roads, laid out systematically throughout. Large stone blocks were placed in the middle to provide a walkway for pedestrians above the water running in
the streets. The blocks were spaced so that standardized wagon wheels could pass, and the configuration of blocks indicated one-way or two-way traffic. Many of the areas had “fast food” stands fronting the street, with marble counters and cylindrical “wells” for food storage. Locals did not cook during the heat of the day and would stroll on down to the local bar! Water was piped in every building, using lead pipes. We also saw the amphitheater where ancient Pompeii citizens watched the gladiators, and modern day folks have seen Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, among others.
It’s about noon and we hoof it up the hill to the bus station, and after the usual confusion of
timetables and buying tix, board a bus to Vesuvius National Park. The winding road affords panoramic views of Naples to the north and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the east, and of course the volcano looming ahead. Admission to the park is limited with an enforced entry time slot, so we had to cool our heels (not in that sun!) for a while before walking in.
Some guy handed us some skinny walking sticks, and said they were free except for tipping them at the end. They were welcome as we skipped (haha) up the rocky path to the summit – maybe 40 minutes. The funicular (cable car) built in 1844 was destroyed in the eruption of 1944. After reaching the summit, there was a short wait for a free, English-speaking guide, who was quite knowledgeable and humorous as well.
As we walked the path around the crater, there was no current activity other than a small amount of Sulphur-rich steam. Vesuvius is classified as an active volcano, and by historical records is overdue for a big blow! Hopefully it will hold off a few more days. Leaving the rim
we walk back down the pumice path, skidding & sliding in the loose rock. Just before reaching the staging area we offered our sticks to a couple just heading upwards. As we were about to exit the turnstile, the guy demanded his sticks back, and wanted “tips” for using the sticks! How the heck did he know? Susie said everyone would remember my bright orange shirt. Hmmmm…
Felt good to sit down on the bus and ride on back to Pompei. Another long walk back to our room, and tonight a very short walk to nearby Addu Fabbio, a pizzeria for a delicious olive, mushroom & cheese pie. 9 miles today, and a good amount of elevation change!
Our time in Pompei is coming to an end, but we are excited to explore the Amalfi Coast next!