Running from the Law: Pompeii & Herculaneum

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pompeii & Herculaneum

Shall we get back to Italy recaps?  Ready?.......ok!  (No, I was not a cheerleader, but that was pretty convincing, huh.)  

How do I even begin to describe the amazingness of Pompeii and Herculaneum?  Honestly, there are no words.  But, you know me, I like to talk, so I'm going to try anyway.  And pictures help, so here are a million.  Seriously, this is a LONG post (it's taken me around three weeks to write), so grab a cup of coffee and dig in!

When Ryan and I decided to take this trip, we both knew we wanted to visit these two buried cities.  We'd both studied them in school and were fascinated by seeing ancient Roman life completely preserved in such an incredible way.  We were told by friends that had visited the excavation sites that they were not only amazing, but they were very expansive and we'd be well served to hire a private guide.  Probably the smartest thing we did while we were there.  A co-worker recommended a tour guide for us that went above and beyond - she was not cheap, but was worth every penny euro and probably made this day our favorite day of our entire trip.  If you're planning on going, send me an email and I will get you her information. She was fabulous.

We met our guide Carolina at the train station, which was just a short ride away from Sorrento, where we were staying.

As we entered the city, Carolina pointed out the moorings on the side of the city walls.  She explained that back in 79 AD when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, the Mediterranean Sea came all the way up to the city walls.  Now, probably much due to all of the displaced ash from the eruption, the shore is miles away.

The entrance to the city was impressive.  Surrounded by protective walls and steep inclines, it's obvious that it was built this way for protection.  I was already amazed at the size of the place.  How did they possibly build this stuff so long ago without cranes or trucks or Home Depot?

As we walked through the main square, we saw ruins of temples and stores and government buildings.  It was pretty easy to imagine how it looked years ago and how the city would have revolved around this square.  The views of the mountains (including Mt. Vesuvius) behind us were beautiful.  The two peaks you see in the photo used to be connected and were one large mountain/volcano.  Today it's about 1/3 of the size it was before it blew.

As soon as we mentioned that we were both lawyers, Carolina insisted on taking our picture at the courthouse.  This is probably where Ryan would have worked if we lived here.  I can just see him now, heading out to work with his briefcase, wearing a toga and some leather sandals.

We walked through courtyards of the grand marketplace, where the people of Pompeii purchased their food and groceries (including fish, goats, pottery, wine, bread, slaves, etc.).  Some areas had separate stalls for each vendors and some were open air markets where vendors fought over the best real estate.  This is probably where I'd work, selling baked goods or fashion accessories or pigs or something.

We also got to visit a few bars and stores along the main drag.  Below is a counter top which housed giant pottery jugs of wine.  Ancient Italians had great style, the counter tops were all marble, of course.  I don't even have marble counter tops...or giant jugs of wine.  Totally jealous.
This was a giant oven for baking bread.  Not sure why I insisted on getting a picture of us in front of it...but doesn't it remind you of a giant brick pizza oven?  Mmmm...brick oven pizza. 
Below is a mortal/pestal for grinding the grains into flour for bread.  The grain would be placed in the top cavity, sticks would be inserted into the holes on the top portion and people would rotate the heavy stone top to grind the grain, which would fall out the cracks in between the two pieces.  Unbelievable.  Makes me really appreciate my Cuisinart...and Bread Company.
We then moved on to the "storage area" of Pompeii.  Large buildings have been erected to house  some of the various items that have been uncovered in the ruins.  Most of the "really cool shit" (as our guide put it) was in the museum in Naples, but we got to see hundreds and hundreds of clay jars and jugs.  And if that's not cool, then what is?   I was amazed at the amount of pottery that survived completely intact.  I break a dish or a wine glass once a week.  This is some sturdy-ass stuff.

Disclaimer: I interrupt this light-hearted blog post for a somber moment.  Feel free to skip this part if you're emotional/hormonal today and can't deal with dead bodies.  

We then came to the portion of the tour where the harsh reality of what we were seeing really sank in.  This is not just a tourist attraction, this was a burial ground.  People lived here and people died here.  We saw the cast of a dog that was chained up and unable to run away from all the ash covering the city.  I cried.
A person, crouched and covering their mouth and nose, trying not to breathe in the ash and toxic fumes.  I'm bawling by this point.
Another man (probably a slave) that didn't make it out.  
His finger and skull bones are visible through the plaster mold. 
There was also the mold of a pregnant woman, lying on the ground, holding her belly.  Just the sight of it pushed me over the edge and I had to get out of there.  I can't even imagine what these people went through and how scared they must have been.  Our guide said that most of the people managed to escape, they saw the volcano blow and had time to evacuate, but of course, not everyone made it out.  And it absolutely broke my heart to imagine the scene.

After I stopped bawling (perhaps not the best idea to visit a burial sight as a pregnant, hormonal, emotional wreck), we eventually made our way to the bath house, which was like a spa or health club.  Nothing like the idea of imagining naked Roman men to improve your mood.
 The bath houses had dressing rooms (complete with shelving and areas for people to store their belongings), exercise facilities, bathing rooms with giant tubs, steam rooms (heated by ducts in the walls and floors).  Pretty impressive.  This particular bath house was spectacular - it had everything.
Large windows to let in heat and light.

Beautiful marble tubs.
Cavities in the walls and floors where the heated air could circulate, heating the rooms.
 Tables and benches.
 Gorgeous carvings on the walls and ceilings of fantastical creatures like Pegasus and angels.

And elaborate carvings of muscle men in little grass skirts.
After the bath house, we moved on to real houses. 
Mansions, even.  Some of these places were pretty impressive. 
This house had giant pillars, lots of bedrooms and two indoor courtyards.
This was the area where the roof was cut away and they could collect rain water in a basin on the floor for use in the house.
This is the kitchen.  
Not quite as fancy as our modern day kitchens, but since they probably had slaves do all the cooking, it makes sense that they're not too fancy.  And there was a toilet right in the kitchen.  Not so sanitary, guys.
Many of the rooms were painted in bright colors or black (both very expensive and signs of wealth).  
The frescoes on the wall were surprisingly well preserved.

But my favorite part of the house was the warning at the front door to beware of the dog, 
completely done in gorgeous tiny mosaic tile.  We saw this same dog and warning on signs all over Italy.
Other houses were more welcoming...this one actually had a welcome mat!
As we walked down the streets of this neighborhood, it was really cool to see all the row houses and try to imagine what it looked like years ago with the narrow streets and the cute little entrances. 

Ryan's favorite part of town was the streets.  He was so impressed with the stepping stones across the street that you could use to cross when the streets flooded so you didn't have to get your feet wet.
And equally impressed with the grooves in the roads for the horse-drawn carriages/buggies.

But I have to admit that the highlight of the town was the brothel.  I'd heard that there was a brothel, but I had no idea it would be so...dirty (in a hilarious way, of course).  Our guide said that many of the town's prostitutes were from other countries and did not speak the same language as their customers, so to make things easier for ordering, they drew pictures on the wall of the various sexual positions you could choose from.  Yep, Medieval porn.  SCORE!

I'd like a #2 please.

And then there were the uber-comfortable stone beds where the deeds occurred.  Ouch.
After the brothel, we moved on the amphitheater.  Now this was cool. 

Can you even imagine how they built this way back in the day?  And it was acoustical perfection.  Our guide had us take turns standing center stage and had the other person go way up to the top of the seats.  When the person on stage would speak (in a normal voice), it could easily be heard way up top like they were using a microphone.  Coolest experiment ever.  Ryan was so bummed he didn't have his guitar with him. It took everything I had not to break out into One Day More from Les Mis.
And then it was time to leave Pompeii.  We walked along the edge of the city and were just so impressed with the gorgeousness of the place.  It really did have a magical hidden castle feel to it. 

Next stop, Herculaneum. I'd heard mixed reviews on Herculaneum - most people said that it wasn't really worth seeing if you'd done Pompeii, but others said it was completely different and that it couldn't be missed.  We wanted the full experience, so we did both.  And I am SO glad we did.  

I was really excited because our guide said that Herculaneum was one of her favorite places to give tours.  It has a completely different look and feel than Pompeii.  For one, it's right in the middle of a modern day city.  It's not isolated out in the woods somewhere, it's underneath the current town.  And it's much smaller.  Herculaneum was a luxury resort area on the ocean as opposed to a complete city.  It was composed of villas and boutiques and decadence.  

Pompeii was buried in ash, but Herculaneum was buried in a mudslide.  When the volcano erupted, it displaced the entire side of the mountain, which covered Herculaneum.  Herculaneum was discovered before Pompeii and excavations were incredibly tedious and very expensive.  A good portion of the city was uncovered, then they found Pompeii.  You can imagine that the ash in Pompeii was much easier to deal with, so excavations in Herculaneum were abandoned.  They just stopped!  You can tell right where the excavations ended, because they built a wall and called it a day.  What a shame, I really wish we could have seen more.
Below you can see the difference in elevation of the former city (on the left) and the current city (right).  Herculaneum was buried under hundred of feet of mud, dirt and clay.

The bars in Herculaneum had the same stone wine vats and marble counter tops, only look how well preserved they are here.  The mud (although harder to get rid of) worked much better as a preserver than the ash.  There were all kinds of things that survived in Herculaneum that never would have made it in Pompeii, which made for a very interesting distinction between the two cities.
Since it was a resort town, the streets were better taken of and didn't have the carriage grooves in them.

The bath houses were very similar though.
Arched ceilings (with grooves to collect condensation so they wouldn't get dripped on), shelving, benches.

Marble tubs and wash basins.

Gorgeous mosaic tile floors.

One of the coolest things in Herculaneum was the presence of the original wood in the structures.  For real, the wood survived.  It's black now (and enforced with a metal casing), but it's there.

This is a real wood doorway, completely intact.

And the best part of Herculaneum, the mosaics and the paintings on the wall that are still there and still beautiful.  Can you even believe this?

This is a black dining room.  Black paint was a sign of incredible wealth.

This was a temple dedicated to Hercules (where the town got it's name).

Below is an actual advertisement for wine.
As you can see here, this is where they stopped excavation.  The front portion of this building is excavated, and then they put up a wall and stopped.  And now there are houses built right on top of the city.  I could only imagine the case of imminent domain that would come out of this when someone decides to continue excavation.  

As we made our way back to the edge of town, we visited a few villas and houses.  It was really amazing to see the difference between the two cities.  I'm so glad we decided to do both.

I really can't explain how amazing these tours were.  Ryan and I were both completely blown away and didn't stop talking about the cities for the rest of our trip.  Definitely one of the biggest highlights.  If you go to this area, you cannot miss visiting these cities.  You'll be amazed.

Next: Isle of Capri


  1. Thank you for making me so jealous of these pictures!!! I want to go to Italy SO bad. and I will visit these sites. AMAZ!!

    Classic & Bubbly

  2. So, I was all prepared to mock you and be all "Remind me why we're friends again? Your life is sooo hard with all that travel and baby belly and Coronado hotel stays, blah, blah, blah!" but THEN, this happened: "It took everything I had not to break out into One Day More from Les Mis." You redeemed yourself. Because you know if it was me, I totally would have. I'll give you a private rendition this weekend.

    But still, Isle of Capri? I still kinda hate you.

  3. So cool! As always, your photos are gorgeous. And how freaking long did it take you to upload all of these? No wonder you haven't posted in 2 weeks. You'be been uploading...

  4. Fantastic pictures!! I've never been to Herculaneum - very cool. I can't believe they just... stopped digging. I bet there's archeological students all over the world who would love to get a chance to work there. It always amazed me that no one returned to Pompeii to try to salvage something - anything back then. I can't imagine if something happened today & people just moved on - totally leaving an entire town/city buried behind.
    PS - I love how you stand on your tip-toes next to Ryan, it's so cute. LOL

  5. Photos are amazing. You've saved me so much money with these recaps. Kidding, kidding.

  6. I wondered if you would post about the whore houses! That was my favorite part. :)

  7. So cool... I was OBSESSED with Pompeii when I was kid. I mean, morbidly so. And somehow as an adult I still haven't made it there!

  8. Wow - that is amazing! The cast of the dog is SO sad!

  9. SO fascinating! I can't wait to see this stuff for myself. We weren't planning on seeing Herculaneum as part of our trip this spring, but we might have to reconsider!

  10. I'm so jealous of all your Pompeii pictures. I'm completely fascinated and would love to see it!

  11. I totally want to go now! I'm amazed at so many aspects of these cities: the history, the structures, how well preserved the artifacts are. You did a great job at capturing all of it.

  12. You’d be amazed once you personally see these historical buildings in Pompeii and Herculaneum. I haven’t been there yet, but it’s included on my list of places to visit. :) I’d love to take pictures on the amphitheater, bath houses, mosaics, and paintings. I love your shot behind the huge brick oven too! It was greatly built because even if a hundred years has passed, it was still standing there.