Day trip to Herculaneum

by wired2theworld on January 17, 2012

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Many people who stay in Naples make a point to visit to Pompeii during their time there. And if you haven’t been, you should go. It’s an easy 35 minute train ride and well worth the trip. But Pompeii isn’t the only place time stood still in 79 AD.  Herculaneum is Pompeii’s lesser known (but still fascinating) stepsister in volcanic disaster.

Herculaneum was a seaside town filled with the vacation villas of wealthy Romans in 79 AD. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, smothering Pompeii in ash, the residents of Herculaneum we killed not by ash, but by the poisonous gasses which spewed out from the volcano. The town itself was covered by more than 20 meters of mud which dried as hard as concrete. This has made the excavations much more difficult and as a result, slower, and the area uncovered is much smaller than Pompeii. I think this makes visiting the site much easier and more “user-friendly”. While you could easily spend an entire day here, exploring all the nooks and crannies of buildings, we spent about half a day and were back in Naples for a late lunch. Today much of the ancient city still exists beneath the modern day city of Ercolano and is yet to be excavated.

View from the ruins back toward Mt Vesuvius. Yes, it's CLOSE.

To get to Erculano from Naples take the Circumvesuviana Line from the Naples termini station. You will need to buy a separate ticket. At the time we went the tickets cost 2.10 euro each way. Follow the signs in the station and buy your ticket before you go down to where the trains are. The train was surprisingly crowded and we stood for most of the ride. Keep a firm grip on your belongings as this line is notorious for pickpockets. Make sure you get off at the Ercolano Scavi stop. This trip is easy and you can certainly do it without a tour.

When you get to the town, it’s a straight shot from the station to the entrance to the ruins, about 6 blocks down the main street. We took our time, stopping for a quick espresso along the way. I also noticed there was a nice looking museum, but it was closed on the day we were there. The ruins at Herculaneum are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and at the bottom of this post are some good resources for visiting Herculaneum.

And now, for the tour…

Once you enter the gates, you walk across an elevated walkway which gives both an amazing view of the excavated ruins below and of the entire Bay of Naples.

From this perspective you can see that the town of Herculaneum is about 4 stories below the present day city.

It's incredible how some of the streets could easily exist in present day, down to the sidewalks and gutters.

There are even beautiful gardens planted with fruit trees which are direct reconstructions based on plant remains and seeds found in the area.

Fountains inside private villas.

There are colorful mosaics still on the walls.

According to my sister in law, a Roman Historian "the wine fresco lists prices – 2 (II) Asses (the standard cheap unit of measurement, here the 2-Buck-Chuck equivalent) up to 4 (IIII) asses – the same amount you could buy a decent loaf of bread or a cheap prostitute for."

"The amphorae in the picture are mostly wine and oil amphorae, but on the left of that picture there’s one of the deep hearths with a giant round amphorae which would have held soup or stew for the fast-food customers who stopped by – think basically like a slow cooker at a soup-and-salad joint." (Info thanks to Anise Strong)

Inside one of the baths.

Mosaic tile floor of the bath

My private Roman Historian says, "The plaque is a dedication by a former slave, incidentally, and an interesting combination of fairly expensive stone and a not very competent stonecutter, look at the T in the second line and the spacing. Saving costs, maybe? Anyways, it announces that he has endowed a yearly dinner for the chief elected officials and the priests of Augustus (all former slaves) of the town."

I was surprised at how many two and three story buildings there were.

There are brilliant frescos both outside...

...and inside the buildings.

One of the main streets at the back of the complex. It's possible to walk through and inside many of the structures.

This is modern day Erculano and the street from the ruins leading back up to the train station.

Random wheels of cheese on the way back to the train.

Resources for visiting Herculaneum:

Visiting Herculaneum: Pompeii’s Overlooked Neighbor on Why Go Italy
The official website for the archaeological ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum (in Italian and English)
The UNESCO pages on Herculaneum
Tips for visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum in One Day on Italylogue
If you are in Naples, don’t forget to visit the Archaeological Museum there which holds most of the original artifacts and mosaics pulled from both Pompeii and Herculaneum.