When Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79 AD, it engulfed the two flourishing Roman towns of Pompei and Herculaneum, as well as the many wealthy villas in the area. These have been progressively excavated and made accessible to the public since the mid-18th century. Explore the mansions, from the most modest to the most majestic, browse the shops, brothels and Roman baths or revive your school memories of Latin to attempt deciphering the graffiti which still visible on some walls.
After leaving Naples in the early morning, we arrive in Pompeii and enter directly into the site which has just opened its doors. We follow an experienced guide who explains to us the whole history of the city.
Pompeii was an Opician foundation of the 6th century BC, and Dionysus of Halicarnassus maintained that Herculaneum (Ercolano) was founded by Hercules. Both underwent changes of ruler in the centuries that followed: Oscans, Samnites, Greeks, Etruscans, and finally Romans in 89 BC, following the Social War. Pompei was elevated to the status of Colonia Cornelia Venera Pompeiana in 89 BC, whereas Herculaneum was only accorded the lower rank of municipium. The lives of both towns came to an abrupt and catastrophic end on August 24, 79 AD. The area had been shaken by an earthquake shortly before and reconstruction work was still in progress when Vesuvius erupted with tremendous violence. Pompei was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash and stone and Herculaneum disappeared under a pyroclastic flow of volcanic mud.
Since the discovery of the two buried towns in the 18th century, much more of Pompeii than Herculaneumhas been revealed by excavation. The main forum is flanked by the foundations of a number of imposing public buildings, such as the Capitolium (temple dedicated to the divine triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), the Basilica (courthouse), and one of the sets of public baths. Close by is the older triangular forum, where two theaters are located. The larger of these is of Greek origin, remodelled to suit Roman taste. Among other notable public buildings are the well-preserved Stabian Baths, from the 2nd century BC. However, Pompeii is renowned for its series of domestic buildings, ranged along well paved streets.
The earliest is the atrium house, entirely inward-looking with a courtyard at its center: the House of the Surgeon is a good example of this type. Under Hellenistic influences, this type of house was enlarged and decorated with columns and arcades and equipped with large rooms for social functions. In its most extreme form, this type of Roman house, known from towns all over the Empire, developed into a veritable palace, richly decorated and with many rooms, of which the Houses of the Faun and of the Chaste Lovers are outstanding examples.
Perhaps the most exceptional of all the houses in Pompei is the Villa dei Misteri (the House of the Mysteries). This enormous establishment just outside the walls, which developed from a modest town house built in the 3rd century BC, takes its name from the remarkable wall paintings in the triclinium, which depict the initiation rites (‘mysteries’) of the cult of Dionysus.
A special characteristic of Pompei is the amout of graffiti on its walls. An election was imminent at the time of the eruption, and there are many slogans to be found scrawled on walls, as well as others of a more personal, and often scurrilous nature.
We spend almost 3 hours there. What makes the biggest impression on me, despite the brothel (quite in advance on its time!) was the forever petrified statues of inhabitants of the city. Quite scary! We then go to a nearby tourist restaurant for lunch. This was a great and very interesting tour, taking my back almost 2000 years in the past along antique cobblestone streets. Half a day is just what it takes to visit the ruins, so do not hesitate to save the other half to visit Herculaneum or Vesuvius. This is exactly what I will do now and head towards Vesuvius, where I will spend the afternoon.
After a visit to Pompeii, it makes sense to go to the volcano (still active) that destroyed this city, Herculaneum and the surrounding area. After we left Pompeii, our bus follows a winding road in the middle of hills covered with vegetation, quite an unusual journey in a setting that does not make us aware about the presence of a nearby volcano. At a bend, the color of the earth changes. It turns gray and the vegetation becomes increasingly rare… The volcano is here somewhere, but it is like no other, quiet, falsely asleep.
We arrive at the parking site, pass the entrance point and start the climb, hikers stick in hand as set by the local tradition. After about 15 minutes, we reach the summit. The crater is amazing! It is only at this time that Vesuvius is revealed, and we realize that we are on the edge of an active volcano, shown by fumaroles and pumice stones here and there…
We go around the crater, and pass through two wooden huts on the way, selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs of all kinds. As the weather is perfect, we can also see Naples, its bay and the surrounding area. Wonderful!
A few pictures later, we go back down to the parking lot, get on our bus and regain Naples late in the afternoon. This is an absolutely unavoidable visit! Opt for a clear day, as the view once at the top will be even more beautiful! The walk to the top can be harsh for some, the ground covered with rocks crumbling under your feet, but the walking stick kindly loaned immediately after the entry point definitely helps and the view of the crater and the Bay of Naples is a well deserved reward!