Pompeii and Herculaneum

A while ago, my husband, Bryan, and I took a holiday in Italy, and I thought I’d share some of the highlights with you. We flew to Naples, an extremely busy city, and then stayed in Sorrento, a pleasant town reached by only one road which meanders through several long tunnels. 

Our hotel in Sorrento looked across the Bay of Naples to the towering volcano of Mount Vesuvius in the distance. We enjoyed several sightseeing trips, though the one to the Isle of Capri was a complete washout, with torrential rain, a very rough sea crossing, and zero visibility. We can say we have been there – but we saw nothing! 

The next day, we were scheduled to go for a coach trip along the Amalfi Coast, but the weather was even worse, so we decided to forego that pleasure and have a lazy day in the hotel and explore Sorrento. According to other tourists who braved the elements, we made the right decision.

Fortunately, the following day, the sun shone, and as it was our free day, we decided to take the public bus to a little town called Positano. Another guest at the hotel put us wise to the fact that you have to buy the tickets from a shop or the bus station before you board the bus, and we got this organised the night before. We were warned there are few buses and long queues. We waited for around an hour in a queue at the bus station for the bus to arrive, only to find it was full, and we couldn’t get on it. We resigned ourselves to another long wait in the hot sunshine, but fortunately, about 10 minutes later, another bus came along (literally waited ages for one and then two came along!!) and, being at the start of the queue, we got the two front seats and had a splendid view of the Amalfi Coast on the 45-minute journey. However, the bus was packed, with many people standing, and we felt sorry for all the people it sailed past at other bus stops as they futilely waved their tickets at the driver.

We arrived at Positano and followed the crowd, walking downhill for well over an hour before reaching the harbour. It was a picturesque and busy little town, and we decided to take our time walking back up the long hill and get some lunch on the way. However, about halfway back, we saw a queue of people waiting for the bus to Sorrento and decided it might be prudent to join it, given the shortage of buses and a large number of tourists.

Of course, no visit to this region of Italy is complete without a trip to Pompeii, but first, we visited Herculaneum, a less well-known town that was also buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the autumn of the year 79 AD. Herculaneum was discovered in 1709, and only a fraction of it has been excavated. The town had a population of around 5,000 people and was wealthier than neighbouring Pompeii as it was a seaside resort for the Roman elite.

Herculaneum is better preserved than Pompeii as the flow of volcanic lava hit the town at a temperature of 400 degrees, and it was sealed tight under a sea of mud some 25 metres deep. As a result, not only statues, shops, baths, and a theatre were preserved, but also wooden furniture, textiles, and books.

One of the most memorable sights in the town is that of the boatsheds where hundreds of skeletons were discovered. The ones in the picture are not actual skeletons but replicas. Whilst most of the town had been evacuated, these people were waiting for rescue by boat when an intense wave of hot gas hit the town, killing the people instantly, vaporising their flesh and leaving only charred bones.

I first heard about the town of Pompeii through the popular series Up Pompeii, broadcast by the BBC in 1969. The main role of the slave, Lurcio, was played by Frankie Howerd, and the programme always started with The Prologue. The series was full of double entendres and asides to the live studio audience, and I remember it as being very funny at the time. Some of you might remember it.

The day of our visit to Pompeii was hot and sunny, and fortunately, we arrived early before most of the tourist coaches. Pompeii was a city with a population of around 11,000, and although it was buried in 79 AD, it is thought to have been built on the remains of an even earlier city, possibly also buried by a volcanic eruption. At the time of the eruption, the town was situated on the coast but is now some 700 metres inland – the result of all the solidified lava. This was the remains of a theatre. The lower, wider slabs at the bottom were occupied by the richest people, giving them the best seats.

The remains of a town house
built around a courtyard.

The inside of a house. The hole in the roof was to allow torrential rain to gather in a container below, as water was always in short supply.

It was amazing to see paved streets from so long ago. In places, there were ruts where the cartwheels had worn away the stones, and in others, stepping stones to allow people to cross to the other side without stepping in the inevitable waste that accumulated in the streets.

We saw several of these curious containers on almost every street corner and were told they were the food outlets of the day. The stone receptacles would have contained soups and stews for shoppers and visitors to buy. An old-style McDonalds or Burger King!

The eruption lasted for two days, and in the first phase, most inhabitants had the chance to escape through the pumice rain that poured down. Sadly for those who stayed behind, conditions soon grew much worse. The air became clogged with falling ash, making it difficult to breathe, and buildings collapsed under overloaded roofs. The people were used to living with earthquakes, and some still remained even though the city was covered in several feet of ash. However, on the following day, a hundred-mile-an-hour blast of superheated gas and pulverized rock poured down the mountainside and vaporised everything and everyone in its path. The bodies of men, women, and children were frozen where they had fallen, many clutching valuables they had been hoping to save.

As bodies decayed, they left voids, and archaeologists made plaster-cast moulds of unique and gruesome figures in their last moments of life.

One building was known as the lupinare and was an ancient brothel. Women were captured from various civilisations and kept as prisoners to work as prostitutes. They often had no common language and used to howl to attract the attention of customers – hence the name lupa, which stems from the wolf. We were intrigued by a kind of pick-and-mix menu of paintings around the walls where customers could point to their choice of sexual activity!

A fascinating town, Pompeii remained untouched until 1748 when a group of explorers looking for ancient artefacts began to dig. If you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit.

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