The One with Pompeii & Herculaneum, Italy

Sunday, February 15, 2015

I'm kind of obsessed with Pompeii. Have been for, oh, 20 years or so. Ever since we moved to Washington when I was 10 years old and we were inundated with Mount St. Helens eruption stories. Fascinating stuff man! We left our airbnb apartment early in the AM and somehow found the random camping parking lot our friends told us about, filled with orange trees that smelled nice. Only 15 minutes away!
AT LAST! Dream come true!
First, a little about Pompeii: A once thriving commercial port of 20,000 people, Pompeii grew from Greek and Etruscan roots to become an important Roman city. Then on August 24 A.D. 79, everything changed. Vesuvius erupted and began to bury the city under 30 feet of hot volcanic ash. For the archaeologists who excavated it centuries later, this was a shake-and-bake windfall, teaching them volumes about daily Roman life. Pompeii was accidentally rediscovered in 1599 and excavations began in 1748.

To quote the preface on page 210 of Pompeii by Robert Harris, which was taken from "Dynamics of Volcanism": The surface of the volcano ruptured shortly after noon allowing explosive decompression of the main magma body. The exit velocity of the magma was approximately 895 mph (Mach 1). Convection carried the incandescent gas and pumice to a height of 17 miles. The thermal energy released during the AD 79 eruption would have been roughly 100 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Can you believe that??? The magma flew out at 895 mph - 17 miles high! Snap! I bet people thought it was the end of the world. That's what I would have been thinking. Pompeii got the worst of it because the wind was blowing in that direction.

Volcanoes were such a foreign, unheard of phenomenon that there weren't words to describe what was happening. Luckily a man by the name of Pliny wrote down as best he could the events as they unfolded - he actually died doing so because he got too close. Here are some artists paintings of the "manifestation" as Pliny called it:
Here's what Mt. Vesuvius and the surrounding area looks like today from satellite:
It's like a big pimple just waiting to be popped!

Every once in awhile Mt. Vesuvius gives people a scare and threatens to erupt again. Scientists say volcanoes like Mt. Vesuvius erupt every 2000 years. That means it's set to go off again any time now. Do the 3.5 million people living around the disaster waiting to happen know that?
Until recently it was thought everyone in Pompeii died from suffocation. But now it's believed that everyone burned up instantly from 482 degrees surges from the volcano. Men, women, children, and animals alike remain in the exact placement as they were when they died, as we would soon see.

After buying our tickets we made out way up to the Porta Marina, the original town gate.
Before Vesuvius blew and filled in the harbor, the sea came to here. You can see the stone rings on the low wall where ships tied up to the dock.
Up we went through the Porta Marina making our way to the heart of Pompeii.
Loving all the different elements they used to build the walls. And TOUCHING the walls of Pompeii :)
Our first glimpse of the ruins.
Every day Pompeiians flooded the streets with gushing water to clean them. These stepping-stones let pedestrians cross without getting their sandals or togas wet. Chariots traveling in either direction could straddle the stones (all had standard-size axels). A single stepping stone in a road means it was a one-way street, a pair indicates an ordinary two-way street, and three like this one signify a major thoroughfare. The large basalt stones are the original Roman pavement. Fox and Chris enjoyed hopping over the stones.
The sidewalks, elevated to hide the plumbing, were paved with bits of broken pots and studded with reflective bits of white marble. These "cats' eyes" helped people get around after dark, either by moonlight or with the help of lamps. Genius!
Our first stop was the forum. Perfect place for a stroller selfie! Vesuvius was looking particularly foreboding. But I also spy a bit of rainbow!
Pompeii's commercial, religious, and political center stands at the intersection of the city's main two streets. While it's the most ruined part of Pompeii, it's grand nevertheless. Picture the piazza surrounded by two-story buildings on all sides. The pedestals that line the square once held statues (now safely displayed in the museum in Naples). In its heyday, Pompeii's citizens gathered here in the main square to shop, talk politics, and socialize. Business took place in the important buildings that lined the piazza.
See that (not-so) innocent mountain sitting quietly in the background? Not Pompeii's friend.
Looking down Via Dell'Abbondanza into the city. We couldn't believe how HUGE Pompeii was!
The Forum was once dominated by the Temple of Jupiter. Jupiter was the supreme god of the Roman pantheon - you can just make out his little white marble head at the center of the photo below.
Fox foxing around.
The Temple of Jupiter.
Along the side of the Forum were racks and racks of ancient amphorae and other pieces recovered during the excavation. 
No museum display cases for these. Just sitting here. Piled up. Do something with these things people!
One of the eeriest things we saw were these:
Casts of Pompeiians and their pets, captured in their last moments. They were quickly suffocated by a superheated avalanche of gas and ash and their bodies were encased in volcanic debris. While excavating, modern archaeologists detected hollow spaces underfoot created when the victims' bodies decomposed. By gently filling the holes with plaster, the archaeologists were able to create molds of the Pompeiians who were caught in disaster.
It is so macabre to see how people looked in their last moments of what was sure to be a freaking terrifying way to die. Crouched on the ground, covering his eyes because it was probably burning hot.
Words can't even describe. So sad.
This cast is just sitting on the shelf. It's not an actual body, it's a mold, but still, this was a real person! Who were they? What was their story?
Back to the sights!
Original carvings.
Off the Forum we walked into the fish and produce market. Frescoes on the wall show that this is where Pompeiians came to buy their food - fish, bread, chickens, and so on. 
These fine examples of Roman art - with their glimpses of everyday life and their mastery of depth and illusion - would not be matched until the Renaissance, a thousand years after the fall of Rome.
Another poor soul who was caught in the disaster. Just the way they are positioned, arm above their head, brings to mind the scary things that must have been happening when they died.
We passed by the the modern cafeteria - we ate lunch there later.
Then we entered the baths of the Forum. Pompeii had six public baths, each with a men's and women's section. We entered in the men's side. There was a gymnasium where clients could work out, then relax in a hot bath (caldarium), warm bath (tepidarium) or cold plunge (frigidarium). This was the tepidarium, ringed by mini-statues called telamones which divided the lockers
The caldarium had amazing engineering. There was a double floor which was heated from below and double walls with brown terra-cotta tiles to hold the heat. To keep condensation from dripping annoyingly from the ceiling, fluting (ribbing) was added to carry water down the walls. Romans soaked in a big tub opposite this fountain. Smart people! My 21st-century bathroom isn't even this savvy!
The fountain spouted water onto the hot floor, creating steam. The lettering on the fountain reminded those enjoying the room which two politicians paid for it... and how much it cost.
What did every good Roman want after a bath? A snack of course! Across the street from the Forum baths was an ancient McDonald's marked by a series of rectangular marble counters. Most ancient Romans didn't cook for themselves in their tiny apartments, so to-go places like this were commonplace. The holes in the counters held pots for food. Each container was like a thermos,with a wooden lid to keep the soup hot, the wine cool, and so on. A groove in the front doorstep was for the shop's folding according doors. There even used to be an awning that stretched over the sidewalk to shield the clientele from the hot sun. 
Just up the street was the House of the Tragic Poet. While it was closed for restoration work, we were able to see the famous "Beware of Dog" (Cave Canem) mosaic on the entryway floor.
We did get to go in some other houses that showed the typical floorplan of a Roman house. The homes were often like a train running straight away from the street: atrium with skylight and pool to catch the rain, den, and garden with rooms facing it.
Details of Pompeii.
The Evans girls in Pompeii.
Look at these wheel grooves in the pavement, worn down through centuries of use.
The city went on and on. It was incredible.
Obviously water was critical for a city of 20,000 people so a 100-mile-long aqueduct carried fresh water down from the hillsides to a big reservoir perched at the highest point of the city wall. Fountains were located throughout town. Chris was brave enough to try the water. The verdict? "Flavorful." I don't think he meant that in a good way.
Soon we were at the legendary House of the Faun.
The grand entryway was marked with HAVE ("Hail to you") in the pavement in front as welcome mat. The English translation, i.e. have, was also fitting for this house because it was home to a ton of the treasures we saw in the archaeological museum in Naples.
This was Pompeii's largest home. Upon entering you were greeted by a delightful small bronze statue of the Dancing Faun, famed for its realistic movement and fine proportion (the original is also in the museum). With 40 rooms and 27,000 square feet, the House of the Faun covers an entire city block. Not too shabby!
The floors were so cool. I would have liked living here. That is, until the volcano erupted...
The original location of the mosaic or the Battle of Alexander.
Fox walked into this nook, found a rock, picked it up and said in his Charlie Brown voice, "I got a rock."
After marveling at the House of the Faun, we head back out into the streets.
We passed by some of the original 2,000 year old lead pipes which were part of the city's elaborate water system.
More cool shots of Pompeii.
The noobs walking down the ancient streets.
This bright blue mosaic caught my eye and we tried to get closer to it but it was all blocked off.
Our last stop was the theater. Originally a Greek theater built with the help of a hillside, this was the birthplace of the Greek port here in 470 B.C. During Roman times the theater sat 5,000 people in three sets of seats, all with different prices: the five marble terraces up close, the main section, and the cheap nosebleed seats up by the trees. High-profile boxes flanked the stage for guests of honor.

The kids posing as Chris ponders the wisdom of Rick Steves.
Squinty photo with my boy. We could see the old gladiator barracks behind the stage of the theater. They lived in tiny rooms and trained in the courtyard.

We were starving so we headed back to the cafe and I got some legit Neapolitan pizza: chewy crust, sauce, big chunks of fresh mozzarella, basil, tomato, and olive oil. D-lish.
You could spend days exploring this site. Three-quarters of Pompeii's 164 acres have been excavated and Rick's walk only took us through about a third of it. We loved what we saw!
At this point in our day we had several options: drive to the top of Vesuvius (but it was covered in clouds), go back to the apartment and takes naps, or do what we came to do and site-see some more at Herculaneum.

Herculaneum it is!

Smaller, less crowded, and not as ruined as it's famous big sister, Herculaneum offers a closer, more intimate peek into ancient Roman life. While it may lack the grandeur of Pompeii, it is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
Caked and baked by the same A.D. 79 eruption that pummeled Pompeii, Herculaneum is a small community of intact buildings right in the heart of the modern city of Ercolano. The city was buried under nearly 60 feet of super-heated ash which hardened into tuff, perfectly preserving the city until excavations began in 1748. You can see just how much material piled up comparing the ruins to modern street level.
 Stroller selfie in front of Herculaneum. Where do the ruins end and the modern city buildings begin? :)

Cool wall.
Herculaneum is the only ancient site where the original wood beams survived. Charred, yes, but still there.

 We checked out the House of Neptune and Amphitrite. It was neat to see intact second floors to get a better sense of what the homes used to look like.

Original art and mosaics.
Beautiful decoration.

 The inside of the Seat of the Augustali is decorated with frescoes of Hercules (for whom this city was named). It was a forum for freed slaves climbing their way up the ladder of Roman society.
 Ceiling details.
 At the nearby Bottega ad Cucumas wine shop, the drink list remains frescoed on the outside wall.
 More gorgeous mosaics. I loved seeing these in their original position.
Original wine racks.
 Another fast-food joint like in Pompeii.

Never seen a tree like this before!
 It was awesome how intact so many of the buildings were.

While Chris waited up on street level, I booked it down to what was formerly Herculaneum's beach. Archaeologists used to wonder why so few victims were found in Herculaneum. But, during excavations in 1981, hundreds of skeletons were discovered here between the wall of volcanic stone and the city. Some of Herculaneum's 4,000 citizens tried to escape by sea, but were overtaken by the pyroclastic flows. So sad.
 These arches were part of boat storage areas.
But seriously, the modern-day buildings blend right in with the ancient ones!
Pretty much an awesome day. LOVED finally seeing Pompeii in real life.


  1. Such a fun day! Seeing Pompeii was so cool!

  2. What an amazing journey that must have been ... for all those things to have survived that volcano ... just wow ... and the people ... so sad!!!!

  3. i love all your vacation posts! not only fun to look at all the pics but love how much info you's like a mini history lesson!

  4. I am so glad that you made it to Pompeii! Isn't the place incredible? Thanks for the memory down the lane as I was there in 2013 (We also went to Mt. Etna and it was calm at the time...). Thanks for taking the time to write this post. Here is my link about the trip (if interested).

  5. I'm look forward to reading your travel posts as well! It's fun seeing photos of these amazing places with your sweet kiddos in the shot. It's gives one perspective on the actual size of everything, but also a reminder of these being locations of everyday ancient life who's streets must have echoed with the sounds of children then as well! :)

    I would love to see the inside of the modern homes as well and spend a week with an Italian family. How or is their culture shaped by living next to one of the world's most amazing historical places?

    Love traveling along with the Evans Family! Thank you for taking all the time to write these blog posts.

  6. This was my favorite travel post. I HAVE to HAVE to go to Pompeii now. Yeah, I've been there before, but I don't remember any of it. You are so lucky and your photos are AMAZING! And you have cute little kids, to boot!

  7. I'm going with Carolyn. Those photos are amazing!

  8. This is so awesome, Paige! I loved seeing each and every picture on this post. There's just something eery and fascinating about a place like Pompeii. You're making me want to visit sometime! I'll add that to my "dream" list. :)

  9. Thanks for all the pictures and info about Pompeii. The Pompeii Exhibit just opened at the Seattle Science Center and we are going on Sunday. I showed my boys your pictures and they thought they were cool!

  10. WOW! So amazing to have an up close look at the history of Pompeii!! You captured some great photos Paige!

  11. Fabulous post! Thank showed me some of things we missed in Pompeii (as i was recovering from a broken collarbone on our visit).

  12. So cool that you had the places pretty much to yourselves--interesting history for sure!

  13. Wow! I never really understood what happened with Pompeii so it was good to hear it from you and reading about how quickly the volcano exploded shocked me.

    I wanted to ask if it was eerie walking through the ruins of the city?


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