Naples, Herculaneum, Vesuvius – in Superb Southern Italy

Nestling in Naples
The city of Naples (Napoli to locals) at first glance appears tattered and unloved with its grime and rampant graffiti, but its charm takes a gripping hold along the old narrow streets bustling with activity.

Round a corner and the scenery morphs into spacious squares with fine architecture; palaces, churches and castles dot the urban sprawl.

And then there’s the pizza! Naples is home of the modern pizza; developed here in the 18th century. Our mouths will forever water at the thought of Neapolitan Margarita – thin dough topped with vine-ripened tomatoes grown in rich volcanic soil, mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil!

The temperature reaches the high-30’s Celsius daily, which combined with high humidity is like being in a sauna. We appreciate the winding streets of the historic centre wherein there is always a shady side to walk on – and walk we do, every day.

Our Naples Photo Gallery

Our fascination with archeology draws us to the Catacombe di San Gennaro, the oldest and most sacred of Naples’ catacombs, in the northern part of the city.

Somehow forgetting my habit of counting steps, downward we go into the vastness of the catacombs. As we amble along we learn from our guide Lisa that there are three different types of tombs corresponding to social class. Open-room cubicles for the wealthy were once guarded by gates and adorned by frescos. Smaller rectangular wall niches were for the middle class, and floor tombs were for the poor.

The oldest and lowest area dates back to the 2nd century. The catacombs became a Christian pilgrimage when the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro, was buried here in the 5th century. His remains were later moved to the Cathedral of Naples. This level also contains the tombs of the city’s bishops from the 5th to the 11th century. Lisa mentions, “Looting was prevalent between the 13th and 18th centuries, and restorations of catacombs only began after that time, and when all the skeletal remains were transferred to another cemetery”. Luckily, some ancient mosaics were left intact, such as this one Lisa points out as representing St’s Peter and Paul carrying the crown of martyrdom.

Another day we find the entrance to Subterranean Naples in the middle of the historic area. What lurks beneath these streets is one of the world’s most vast urban wonderlands. We purchase tickets, wait for guide Vita, and down we go. Some 700 cavities have been discovered with an estimated two million metres yet to be unfurled. Vita takes us through 2400 years of history – from the ancient Greek hollows excavated as cisterns to supply water to the city above, to sections that were air raid shelters during WWII, to a notorious clan running a subterranean drug lab that was busted in 1992.

At one point we are challenged to navigate some tight passageways, which Vita says, “This optional part of the tour is not for the claustrophobic and once committed there is no turning back as people will be behind you.” We are handed a candle (the modern battery kind) and we are away, wisely letting some of the younger folk go ahead. The pitch blackness is barely disturbed by the candle. Our shoulders brush up against the sides as we shuffle along. After stubbing my toe a few times, I find it best to point the light downward along the pathway with twists and turns. I must admit being relieved to see the exit, yet glad we did it!

There is an old saying “a beach is a beach….NOT HERE! A rock is a rock is more apropos down by this waterfront. “Now that’s Nepalese tough,” I quip as we see sunbathers lying on blankets/towels or straight on the rock slabs catching the rays.

Further along this rocky shoreline is the castle built by the Normans in the 12th century – Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg). This odd name stems from the Roman scribe Virgil, who is said to have buried an egg on the site where the castle stands, warning when the egg breaks the castle and Naples will fall. Thankfully it is still standing for us to walk through freely (as in no admission) to see how it was later modified to suit military needs.

It is now high time to see the site that has been a desire since learning about it in elementary school (which at my age is close to forever) – the unparalleled Pompeii! These ruins are so deserving of their own write-up, please see my special entry on our website – Phenomenal Ruins of Pompeii

Scouring Herculaneum
The fate of this ancient Roman fishing village and beach resort for the wealthy runs parallel to Pompeii’s in that Herculaneum also suffered massive earthquake damage in 62 AD, and was destroyed by the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius. One of the differences was unlike Pompeii being buried under layers of ash and pumice, Herculaneum was submerged in a 16m-thick sea of mud, which fossilized the town of 4000 to 5000 citizens, resulting in an unprecedented preservation of furniture, delicate household items and even clothing!

Our Herculaneum Photo Gallery

Overlooking the site we can readily see the depth of the volcanic mud still along the sides of the ruins. Rising above is the modern town of Ercolano; under which much of the ruins remain unexcavated.

A ramp brings us down to cobblestone streets sided by houses of the well-to-do.

To walk on two thousand year old tile along one pathway is a heady feeling.

Being that there were no bathing facilities in homes, the sizable public bathhouse was well utilized. Men and women used separate rooms for dips in hot and cold pools. The spacious men’s change room has shelves above marble benches where togas and sandals were once stored. I envision men folk sitting and debating world affairs with fellow bathers before moving on to the waters.

It was customary for locals to purchase their noon meal at an eatery that served hot food and drinks. We stop at the brick counters decorated with marble and inlaid with terracotta jars once filled with the steaming nosh. Most had a back room to sit and eat and chat.

The walls adorned with frescos are engrossing. In this, the house of Neptune and Amphitrite, rich colours depict this god of the sea and his nymph bride.

Most impressive is the Hall of Augustales. This structure, dedicated to Emperor Augustus, was a meeting place and where imperial celebrations were planned. Frescos depict the heroic Hercules standing next to Juno, queen of the gods and Minerva, goddess of wisdom.

Another is of the great Hercules in battle with river god, Achelous, over the love of beautiful Deianira.

My mind swirls with the timeline experts have deduced. While Pompeii was being bombarded with pumice and ash on August 24th (the believed date of the eruption), Herculaneum, being nine miles northwest of Pompeii was missed by this initial onslaught which was pushed by the wind to the southwest. The Herculaneum residents would have heard the thunderous blasts and under a darkened sky began escaping that same afternoon and evening by boat. It was not long after midnight on August 25th when their small town was engulfed by the molten mud. At this point most of the people had evacuated, but tragically those still down by the beach were suffocated and incinerated when hit by a cloud of superheated ash and poisonous gas travelling at hurricane force. It was here in 1980 that archeologists discovered 300 skeletons lying on what was once the shoreline.

Looking back over our shoulders as we leave the ruins, we agree that Herculaneum’s high level of preservation makes it look more like a town that has merely been abandoned.

Back in Naples it behooves us to visit the National Archaeological Museum for the wealth of relics on display from the ruins of both Pompeii and Herculaneum; sculptures, mosaics, artwork, jewelry and a haul from brothels in what is called the “Secret Chamber” with erotic items and explicit paintings.

Climbing Vesuvius
Now that we have seen the ruins Pompeii and Herculaneum, it is time to pay a visit to the culprit. Rising ominously beside the Bay of Naples, Mount Vesuvius forms part of the Campanian volcanic arch – a string of active, dormant and extinct volcanoes.

Our Tramvia bus takes us from Naples to the base of Vesuvius, then continues spiraling upward and drops us off at the end of the line for all vehicles, at about an altitude of 1,000m.

Our Mount Vesuvius Photo Gallery

In 1995 Vesuvius was proclaimed a National Park, and as such we pay our entry fee and begin our 40 minute hike to the rim of the crater. We pass folks not in as good a shape, but also are left in the dust on the gravely trail by those athletic types. The day is clear, which gives us pause around each curve to look at the panorama below.

Almost at the crater is a hut, where one can buy drinks, snacks and souvenirs. Unique lava stone jewelry takes my eye…and a wad of Euros from my pocketbook.

If desired you can wait at this hut for a scheduled volcanology tour guide, but it is onward for us on our own. The path continues upward and circles the edge of the crater, often narrowing to walking single file especially when rugged stone steps are involved. From viewing areas along the precipice we gaze down at where plant growth has rooted in the rich volcanic soil, and in other areas a moon-like landscape of rocks and cracks emitting sulfur gases.

Vesuvius is still one of the world’s most carefully monitored volcanoes. Since the massive eruption of 79AD, Vesuvius had blown up more than 30 times. The most destructive explosion after that time was in 1631, the most recent was in 1944.

Rick unfailingly laments that wherever we travel there is always another mountain to climb. Being that the year of the last eruption is my birth year, and the day of our climb happens to be on my birthday – Rick just smiles without a single complaint…but then sneakily incorporates his sentiments into this video of our climb

From the crater rim is a spectacular view of Naples below, appearing like a miniature cityscape model. More than half-a-million people are said to live in the so-called “red zone”; the area most vulnerable to pyroclastic deposits in a major eruption. There are government incentives to relocate, but few residents are ready to leave.

Back down to wait for the next Tramvia to Naples, we find a seat in the sunshine at one of the restaurants for ice-cold lemonade and a honkín’ big sandwich to replenish the calories shed in the climb.

Our summer in Southern Italy thus far has proven to be more spectacular than we could have imagined, and has us thinking “why not see more, and why not waaaay further south?” Palermo Sicily – here we come!

More Info:
Tramvia Napoli – bus service to and from many sites/cities


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