09-28-2018 Day 4 Herculaneum, Vesuvius, and Pompeii

Near Naples, Italy on a gorgeous sunny day at 72 to 78 F / 22 to 25 C

An example of some of the amazing relief sculptures on the walls of homes in Erculano

Writing about visiting world famous sites filled with history is fairly challenging.  Deanna and I took a ton of photos, kept brochures and bought books.  Needless to say we were a bit overwhelmed by the volume of information and the sites that we visited on this very long day. Most everyone has heard of Pompeii.  Do I write about all that history, all that detail, or do I simply write how I felt about all of it?  I suppose the answer to this will evolve as I write.

It was a day we both looked forward to with great anticipation.  Shortly after we arrived in Montepertuso we made arrangements with Enzo to drive us to Pompeii.  Enzo suggested that we also visit Herculaneum (locally referred to as Erculano) and Mt. Vesuvius in addition to Pompeii. After a couple of days of discussion, we agreed on a price.  Enzo said that 45 EU per hour was the going rate for drivers, but for us! (sure) he would only charge 35 EU.  (Just an FYI, all the possibilities for typing the euro symbol on my keyboard in LiveWriter do NOT work, hence the EU).

The excavations at Erculano extend beneath the city toward the back of this photo.  Excavations are always in progress.

After reviewing some of the options for tours of the three sites available in Positano, we decided that Enzo’s offer was a very good deal and were glad to have such a great guy who spoke flawless English to be our guide for the day. Enzo said that it would probably take at least 8 and possibly 10 hours to do all three sites justice.  We were up early and left Montepertuso in the brilliant morning sunshine for our big day. 

Enzo drove along the cliffs as we had come the first day, but then took some back roads into Sorrento and on to Naples since it was still the busy morning traffic hour.  He deposited us at the entrance gate to Erculano precisely at 10AM and told us to take about 2 hours to visit because he wanted to be sure  we would have enough time to climb Vesuvius and also see Pompeii.  According to many, Erculano is the nicer site to visit, although after seeing Pompeii I would agree with another traveler we met who insisted that each has its own special character, and neither should be missed.

Erculano is less well known of the two cities lying in the shadow of Vesuvius, both buried in 79 AD when the mighty volcano unleashed her power.  Much smaller than Pompeii, Erculano was a seaside town with gorgeous villas filled with art belonging to many illustrious people of that time.  Unlike Pompeii, where several buildings remained partly uncovered by the eruption, Erculano was completely buried under a blanket of volcanic ash ranging from 9 to 21 meters / 30 to 68 feet.  During the 16th century, wells were dug that revealed the site of the town, but excavations didn’t begin until 1709. The excavations continue to the present day, with much of the buried town of Erculano beneath the current town of Erculano which is part of the metropolitan area of Naples.

We visited the site without a guide, following the guidebooks as best we could, simply enthralled by the colorful frescoes, jewelry, pots, and other pieces of everyday life that were displayed along the streets and in the homes of the people who lived there at the time of the eruption. 

Two hours wasn’t nearly enough time to really see the place in depth, and we could have easily spent the entire day wandering the stone pavements.  Near the end of our visit, we walked down a long path to the fornici (vaulted spaces) that were once right on the beach.  Here there were bones and skeletons which at the time we thought were real.  Only later did we learn that these bones were excavated in 1980 and casts were made and placed in their original positions.  It was probably the most dramatic site at the ruins, if not the most lovely.

When we saw these bones, we did not know they were casts of the originals

Choosing photos to keep from our explorations was difficult, there was so much.  Yet choosing photos for the blog is even more daunting.  What I have used here is just a smattering of the images we kept.

Enzo met us at the gate at exactly noon, and took us on some more winding back roads.  We rose quickly in elevation on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius “Vesuvio”. Views of the huge metropolitan city of Naples spread out below us, with the sea reflecting the sunlight and Capri hazy in the distance.  Enzo was enthralled with the “clarity” of the day, saying that often the skies are clouded over and that we were exceptionally lucky.  The haziness was attributed to humidity over the sea, not smog or pollution of any kind.  He mentioned the lovely island of Ischia to the north of Capri, insisting that it was much nicer than Capri, just as lovely and less crowded.  It seems that Ischia is the Napolitino’s favorite vacation spot.

Enzo paid an extra 5 Eu to park farther up the road than the tour buses so that we could hike the mountain without the extra miles required from the public parking lot.  The trail to the summit is wide and fairly steep, covered in volcanic ash and cinders and a bit like walking on marbles.  Step slide step slide step.  There were a lot of people on the trail, but according to Enzo it wasn’t a busy day in the least.

I am not sure how long the hike was in miles or kilometers, but it took us about 90 minutes round trip to go up and back, including our time enjoying the view at the top.  Living as we do, in the shadow of the Ring of Fire volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest, Vesuvio looks a lot like just another big volcano to us.  Still, it is dramatic to think of how active it is and of the nearly 3 million people that are in the path of her wrath if she decides to blow again, which she last did in 1944.

When we got back to the car, it was early afternoon and we were getting hungry.  Enzo drove through the back corridors of Naples to the freeway and to the entrance to Pompeii, very near the center of Naples. I had somehow never imagined Pompeii to be in a populated area like this, picturing ruins out in the country.

Enzo knew the owner of the cafe at the entrance to the ruins, and arranged a table for us to have lunch.  It was a nice gesture, and made things much easier for us.  As the day progressed, Deanna and I found ourselves feeling incredibly appreciative of Enzo and his kindness and driving skills, his knowledge of the area and his willingness to accommodate us in any way he could.

Our late lunch in the outdoor dining room was one of our more memorable meals in Italy.  Deanna had a classic carbonara pasta and I had a fabulous salad with the sweetest, freshest tuna I have ever tasted anywhere!  We had plenty to switch plates and share with each other. Once again, perfect tomatoes, rich balsamic, fresh everything made a perfect lunch.

I loved this artist rendition of what Pompeii looked like before 79AD

Fully sated, we wandered into the entrance to the city of Pompeii, a bit overwhelmed at the huge size of the city.  This time we made sure we had the appropriate guidebooks so that we could at least begin to understand what we were viewing.  Still, the site is huge and somewhat overwhelming.  So much has been done to preserve the feeling of what it must have been like to live in this lovely city.  Wandering the stone roads, looking into the houses, thinking about life in Roman life in 79 AD was fascinating.

A not so busy day in Pompeii with Vesuvio looming in the background

We walked and walked, realizing too late that we would have to walk all the way back to the entrance to meet Enzo at our designated spot.  By this time I was worn to a nubbin, with my knee giving me trouble and feeling like I couldn’t take one more step.  We were at the farthest end of the city, near the coliseum, and saw another entrance gate where we thought maybe we could reach Enzo.

I have forgotten to mention another lovely thing about Enzo.  I told him our phones were not turned on for making calls so he gave us his phone to call him if we needed him.  We made use of that phone, calling him to ask if he could meet us at the Coliseum gate instead of the entrance gate where we had agreed originally.  Only problem was I called the wrong number, and reached some guy back in Positano who was a co worker of his, and the guy called Enzo and said, “Your people are waiting at the Coliseum Gate”.  Enzo found us at the gate in time and got a great laugh out of the kerfuffle.

Evening approached as we returned to Positano via the crooked narrow road we were accustomed to by now.  Enzo started telling us all about the wonderful Limoncello that could be found in Positano and Deanna told him that she had bought some that said it was “made in Positano” and it was truly awful.  Deanna had been so excited to buy it when we were in town that first day and I couldn’t imagine why.  Most of the time when I have had Limoncello it is bitter and not all that great.  Enzo had a solution for that problem, and insisted on taking us to his friend’s factory in Positano, Veneti and his wife and kids were busy cutting lemon rinds behind the glass in his small shop.  We tasted his Limoncello, Limoncello cream, and all sorts of other goodies before succumbing to the lure of something uniquely linked to the Amalfi Coast.  We purchased several bottles, and filled the shipping boxes to 10 kilo, which is the limit we could ship for a set fee.  Pretty sure the fee was 75 EU, but those bottles arrived this week and I can say that it was worth every penny.  A sip of that Limoncello brings back all the beauty of the Amalfi coast and the lemony Southern Italian sunshine.

It was dark and late when we finally arrived back home at our apartment, tired, happy, filled with visions of our adventures, and so very grateful for Enzo who made the day as easy as it was.

As I close this blog, I can see that I haven’t even begun to touch on the complex history of these two magnificent ruins. I can also see that I haven’t expressed what a wonder it was to stand atop Mt Vesuvius with all of Naples, Erculano, and Pompeii, the Isle of Capri, all in view. There is always the internet, and hopefully some of the photos I have put up will pique your interest.  Deanna and I spent many days trying to figure out how to remember this day, how to process all those photos, how to decide which to keep and which to dump.  There was so very much to assimilate.  We could have easily spent a day at each place and would have still had a hard time taking it all in. 

When it comes to buying Limoncello in Positano, buyer beware.  We gave that first bottle that Deanna bought to Sara and Enzo, saying maybe they could clean the sinks with it.

Photos of our day in Erculano are linked here

Photos of our time at Vesuvio are here

Photos of Pompeii are here

Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

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