Saturday, August 14, 2010

Herculaneum, limoncello, and a pilgrimage to the top

Looks like I'm continuing my slow posting this week! I'm pretty tired this morning too - it's raining, so it's pretty dark outside and inside, and I didn't sleep well after lots of shenanigans by my upper bunkmate, who must be an only child and also perhaps an heiress of some kind, due to her inability to be quiet in a room full of sleeping people. Oh well - I'm switching rooms today, so who knows what tonight will be like?

Yesterday, my plan was twofold: visit Herculaneum, and then take a bus part of the way up Mount Vesuvius and climb the rest of the way. I got a bit of an earlier start than usual (yay me!) and was at Herculaneum by about 10:30. I had talked to Giovanni about this trip beforehand, who had some definite opinions about the whole thing, i.e. that Pompeii is "nothing but crushed houses" and Herculaneum is much better preserved and easier to understand. While I'm not sure I agree totally with the first part (I think it's funny, though), the second part is definitely quite true. The first thing that impressed me is that Herculaneum is SMALL:

I'm standing on one end of the site, and those multicolored houses that you can see at the horizon are actually the modern town of Ercolano - so the whole scope of the Herculaneum excavation is understandable from a single viewing location. That is definitely not true of Pompeii.

Herculaneum is also filled with all sorts of beautifully preserved and evocative spaces, like this arched space in the Suburban Baths:

I really got the chills walking through the baths, because the level of preservation is such that you almost feel as if the complex has been sitting dormant for decades, rather than millennia, and that the original inhabitants might come back to reclaim it at any time. The Baths are right near the entrance to the site, which goes past some warehouses where more than 300 skeletons have been found. I didn't see the skeletons, but they were definitely on my mind as I walked into the baths.

I really loved the polychrome decoration in the House of the Relief of Telephus:

The columns along that colonnade are faced with marble and then painted, and the paint survives, which is amazing. I also love the striped pattern on those two brick columns - this sort of inventive use of different shades of brick appears in houses all over Herculaneum. My Fodor's guide includes the line that some of these houses almost feel like one could move into them, after a little renovation, and while I think that's an exaggeration, I can definitely understand the feeling.

I thought about Katie Wood a lot at the House of the Stags:

Katie presented the sculptures in this courtyard during one of our Roman sculpture classes, and they are pretty awesome. These are plaster casts - the originals are in a museum somewhere - but it was still cool to see the casts in situ. I was kind of amazed at how small they all were, because somehow I had imagined the groups of the stags being attacked by dogs as much larger than this. As it is, they worked well in this house, which is actually quite an opulent one.

Herculaneum is also proud of its thermopolia, listing several of them in the little guidebook and walking tour:

You're all probably pretty familiar with these by now, considering they're everywhere in every archaeological site. I had a bit of a new thought yesterday, though - I hadn't thought much about the awesome crazy-quilt mosaic of marble on these counters, but now I realize that they're probably cheaper leftover building materials that still add a bit of class and durability to the establishment. I'll have to think about this some more.

This awesome mosaic was in the House of Neptune and Amphitrite:

It's in terrific shape, and I especially love the shell border. I had to struggle a bit to look at it - there was a small tour group, and the guide really wanted to push in front of me, and did so rather deliberately, but when I got my chance to look, it was totally worth it.

Here's the House of the Beautiful Courtyard:

This photo illustrates an important architectural feature that is almost unheard of in Pompeii but appears all over Herculaneum: surviving second floors. We know that most of the houses in Pompeii would have had second floors, but because few of them survive, we still have all sorts of questions about how the space in Roman houses was organized. I'll have to read a bit more about Herculaneum to see if anyone has really done anything with all this extra information.

Another amazing survival in Herculaneum's particular environment is wood:

This is the House of the Wooden Partition, and that partition has been standing in this house since antiquity. The partition was intended to create some privacy between the public and private spaces of the house - the head of the family would have met clients in the atrium and other front rooms, while family life would have taken place in the back rooms behind the partition. I wonder if anyone has written about the public/private situation in this house - I'll have to check my books after I get them out of storage.

And one last shot of Herculaneum:

There's Vesuvius, hulking above it all, a sleeping menace, and my destination for the second half of the day.

Before heading up to Vesuvius, I had some pizza for lunch. I was getting sick of pizza in Rome, but I have a renewed interest thanks to the fact that it is really delicious down here in the Naples area. This particular pizza wasn't as good as some of the ones I've had in Naples proper, but was still respectable. I also took the opportunity to have my first taste of limoncello:

Pleasant, but awfully strong! I think I'm going to buy a bottle to bring home with me as an occasional after-dinner treat.

After the limoncello, it was time to head up to Vesuvius (good thinking there, Sarah). I reached the bus stop just as the bus was leaving, but the driver waited for me to get my ticket and hop on, which was really nice of him. It was more of a ten-passenger van than a bus, and as we wound up the narrow roads, I really developed an appreciation for this driver's ability to get this old, creaking, manual-transmission bus all the way up the volcano. We had a definite language barrier, but I think we were friends by the time he dropped us off at the lower parking lot before the final climb.

Here was the view up the trail when I first started out:

Not the worst climb I've ever done, but a bit steep, with lots of switchbacks and very soft, dusty soil. I saw plenty of idiots attempting this in flip-flops or worse, which is just asking for twisted ankles and such.

As I walked up the hill, I was treated to many gorgeous views of the Bay of Naples:

It was a bit of a cloudy day, so the view wasn't as crystal-clear as it could have been, but I think I was glad because there was absolutely no shade on the trail. I would have been baking on a clear day; as it was, there was a pleasant breeze that was quite refreshing.

Here I am at the top, with the crater behind me:

And here's the crater, from a different vantage point:

These pictures don't really do justice to the sublimity of the experience. Walking along the crater's rim, there was a drop-off on one side into the crater, and on the other side down to the Bay of Naples. You kind of feel like you're walking into the sky, but then you remember that the volcano was once twice as high, before the eruption that buried Pompeii, and looking up into the sky to imagine that extra height is just dizzying. I'm so glad I did this - definitely a sight to remember.

Well, that's it for now - I need to figure out what to do with the rest of my day today!


  1. My Sarah on the rim of Vesuvius - I am speechless!
    You continue to write such marvelous and informative posts. They all reflect the intelligent and detailed planning that went into this Grand Tour. Congratulations!

  2. The place pilgrimage seems to be great place. Congratulations , you got chance of going there. Have a wonderful time!
    best italy tours