One of the joys of extended travels is discovering the connections and overlapping layers of history, from the Neolithic to this shocking few weeks in Post Cold War Europe. You see snippets of history, in both the context of the ancient society, and the modern context of how it is presented.
In this part of the world, it is still stunning to discover the vastness and complexities of the Roman empire from Morocco to England, and of course, in modern Italy.
The past week’s events in Ukraine overlapping with visits to two of the world’s greatest archeological sites, Herculaneum and Pompéi has been sobering. Most of us understand the risks of Putins end game, but it’s especially painful for Europeans who bore the brunt of two world wars and protracted Cold War. History does feel like it is doomed to repeat itself.
There is a lot to take in at both UNESCO sites, so we decided it was best to separate our visits by a few days. We had planned on trying to get to Herculaneum early on Sunday morning from Naples, and set out from our hotel at 8am sharp only to be stymied by misinformation on the metro and train schedules….(BTW the Moovit app is best in Naples).
So as we sat on a crowded platform, with the prospect of getting to Herculaneum 1 1/2 hours after opening on by far the busiest day of the week, we decided eating €5 train tickets was a small price to pay for a better experience and left the station for another day. Another blessing of long term travels.
It was a great decision as we were able to stop at Herculaneum on the way to Sorrento on Monday, and had the place practically to ourselves….oh, and the sky was bluer on Monday too -:). This also gave us the opportunity to watch the excellent BBC documentary on Herculaneum which really did enhance our experience the next day.
Both Herculaneum and Pompéi are on the CircumVesuvia regional train line that runs from Naples to Sorrento, so an “on the way” visit is a great option, especially as both sites have left luggage facilities. The Pompéi entrance is very close to the train station, but Herculaneum is almost a kilometer away downhill, so best if you are traveling light with backpack luggage, but it is certainly doable with a roller bag (if you can stand the sound on the sidewalks!)
Herculaneum was a prosperous and smaller city than Pompéi; kind of a posh suburb. When it was hit by the huge earthquake of AD 62, many of its wealthier residents took the damage as an opportunity to remodel…of course, only to be buried by 50 feet of the pyroclastic flows of Mt. Vesuvius just years later in AD 79. The site is compact and surprising in its somewhat dense surroundings of a more modern town.
What was also surprising to us, was all the people that still live in the shadow of the mountain, taking a calculated risk that it won’t erupt soon, or with such force. They say there will be some warning from the vulcanologists and seismologists next time. And of course, we lived in San Francisco for 30 years, so can understand taking a risk living somewhere you love or is your home. Or both.
After a nice day off in Sorrento walking in the local hills of lemon groves, we visited Pompéi by taking the train back from Sorrento on Wednesday, and again enjoyed an enjoyed light crowds.
In fact we walked up to the ticket window at 9:30 am with no line. It did get a bit busier as the day went on, but still an apparent trickle compared to pre-COVID times, as the tour buses have not returned yet. Somewhat a golden time for travel if you can get here.
Pompéi is vast and sprawling, and it stuns you with the scale of the city’s ancient streets, sidewalks, and lunch cafes. Romans ate lunch out routinely, apparently to feed their appetites building vast baths, forums, and an amphitheater.
It was so easy to visualize the vibrant community, with its rolling and meandering streets, variety of villas, and the detailed understanding that has been miraculously deduced about the residents of almost every significant building. Artists, traders, cooks, politicians, and more recently nearby, slave quarters that give insight into the reality of the indentured servitude that supported much of the Roman’s impressive legacy.
It also helps to visit the fantastic Archaeology museum in Naples first as we did, so you can see many of the original artifacts, frescos, sculptures, and mosaics first, and the drop them into Pompéi and Herculaneum, like objects in SimCity AD79. There are a lot of in situ items still remaining at both sites, and many buildings at Pompéi are under restoration or access is limited to protect the fragile elements from so many visitors.
So as we headed out of Pompéi to continue along the Amalfi coast, we both relished this unique time to travel, our freedom, and the fact that our civilization is generally still thriving. But also more cognizant than ever that it can fall apart in an instant….or at least an archeological instant. We have to learn from history and react.
Peace and love to all, especially to those who have recently fled their homes from an impending calamity.