Tom and Linda's 2011 Europe Trip

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Pompeii & Herculaneum

Thursday, 29 September: Sorrento, Italy

From Sorrento to Pompeii

The Circumvesuviana is a commuter train that runs between Napoli and Sorrento, stopping at all the little towns along the way.

There are many, many little coastal towns, and most of them look a lot like this from the train. Probably much prettier from the water.



We had to be careful to get off the Circumvesuviana at Pompei Scavi, to get us to ancient Pompeii, rather than to modern Pompei.

This time we did it right and got off the right train at about noon. The gateway to the ancient site is just across the street from the stazione.


Approaching the entrance, we saw this off to our right. This area used to be the docks. No water around now, but it was once a major port in Roman trade.

The coastline has moved, probably partly because of the defining event of this city.

The entrance to the ruins of Pompeii is a very steep stone road that used to be the road up from the seaport.

Wide pedestrian sidewalks flank a stone-paved road. The road ends in three stone blacks that kept chariots out of the Forum.

We were generally impressed with the size and openness of the site. You can walk down most streets and walk around or at least see into most homes and shops.

Upper floors are mostly gone, but you can see where beams were set into the walls to hold them up. There is work ongoing to preserve and restore.

Narrow streets paved with large stones and curbs for the chariots, smaller stones or more refined paving for pedestrians.


The streets are built for chariots, with sidewalks for pedestrians on either side. In places the wheel ruts are quite deep. In others, it's clear the stones have been replaced with new smooth ones. When the volcano froze the town, repair was clearly underway in many places.

The large stones across the road near the two tourists are crosswalks so pedestrians could keep their feet out of the muck in the street. They were spaced to allow chariots to straddle them.

The numbers on the buildings are sort of addresses used in the audio tour.


The chariots had standard axle widths and wheel diameters, and could straddle the crosswalk stones. One-way streets have only one stone, 2-ways have 2, and major thoroughfares have 3.

Of course the horses had to negotiate them as well. This is pretty narrow for a two-way street, but aren't those curbs imposing!


Once up the steep street from the port, you walk directly into the Forum. Nothing particularly funny happened.

The Forum is huge and oriented on Vesuvio, visible here in the background. If you imagine the top back on the mountain you can see how it dominated the town.


Around the four sides of the forum are the Government (parliament building - behind the camera), Justice (basilica or courthouse to the left), Religion (temple of Zeus, ahead), and Commerce (a 2-story shopping arcade to the right).

The forum was a place for everyday business, but also a gathering place for the citizenry. Voting and civil demonstrations took place here. The population of the city was about 20,000. Imagine this place with that many people in it!


The site wasn't too crowded when we got there. More tour groups arrived as the day went on, though.


Looking into the Basilica (courthouse) from the Forum, we learned that it was in the process of reconstruction from the earthquake of 62AC when Vesuvio erupted in 79. As a result, you can see the building process.

The columns are built withshaped bricks, then covered in stucco, which is used to glue on a carved marble face that would make them look like solid marble.

It's all a facade. Some of the marble still clings to the flat brick walls and its integral columns, but the brick beneath is undeniable.


The top of the column stub shows the shaped bricks used to create the fluting. Tom's hand for scale - as if that were really useful.


Looking out of the Basilica back toward the Forum are a few more complete fluted columns. The round columns are part of the arcade across the front of the 2-story building.

This arcade supported a roof that sheltered a sidewalk all around the Forum. Some of the fallen lintels have been place between the columns - see in the reconstructed ones how their slanted ends nest for strength.

You can see a bit of the parlaiment building to the right and the shopping area across the way.


A bit of reproduced facade detail, protected from weather and tourists by plexiglas. It must have been glorious.


And some detail that has survived as well. Laws were literally carved in stone.



Alternating curved and peaked arches, a style later used by Michelangelo when he designed for the Medici


Across in the shopping area off the forum is the Fish Market, which now contains some startling things.

Some of the frescoes have been either left intact or reproduced. Unfortunately most of the well-preserved mosaics and frescoes found in Pompeii have been removed to the museum in Naples, but there are bits here and there. The walls left behind are very colorful and show perspective, a technique that was lost for centuries.


The figures in the glass cases are amazing. During excavation, archaeologists found there were voids in the ash deposit. Rather than digging them up, they decided to fill them first with plaster, and these are the result. The voids were left by the decomposed bodies of the fallen after the ash had hardened, so we can actually see some of them in death.

Many of the dead were found here in the fish market, and many more down at the port, trying to escape by sea. Few of the 20,000 residents got away.


All through the avenues of Pompeii, even the half of the mountain that remains is visible.


Hiding behind the Temple of Zeus, with its wide steps and fluted columns, is the one and only cafe. We stopped for lunch.



Pizza by the slice, complicated by the payment system. You have to pay first and get a chit that you give to the server. That requires that you look in the cases, decide what you want, figure out how to tell that to the cashier, then go back to the case to get your food.

This eliminates the foreigner's trick of pointing to what you want rather than figuring out how to say it, and makes a crowded place that much more crowded! My sister has pointed out to me that the American obsession with efficiency doesn't always translate to other cultures.

For some strange reason, fries come with your pizza. Carb up, people!

The pizza was good. The fries, not so much.


There is tourist access to the men's baths, on back behind the Temple of Zues.

This included this large soaking tub, some of it with its marble face intact.


The little muscle-men along the walls defined locker areas, and there were once benches below them.

The resident stray dogs found this a cool place to relax in the afternoon. We were warned to leave them alone.

This was a brazier that probably created a steam room.


And a large marble fountain with inlaid brass lettering. Maybe even solid marble, since it doesn't seem to be chipping anywhere.



There were a few private houses we could walk around inside.

In this case, the ropes are there to preserve the sidewalk carving, but the house could be entered from the sides.

Every large house had the same basic layout. A grand entranceway was flanked by shops, owned by the family.


The shops around the entry sometimes had hidden doors back into the house, and I think were usually run by the family.


Still standing are marble counters with big ceramic holes built into them, used to keep cooked foods hot or olives or wine cold. There are many many of these "fast food" places around the city.

The majority of Pompeii's 20,000 people lived in small apartments and didn't really cook in their tiny kitchens. They ate out on the street and talked to their neighbors.


Inside the grand entrance to the house was the cistern, which sat under a hole in the roof to catch rain water.

This central room is surrounded by others - a dining area, an office, sleeping rooms, etc.

Floors were mosaic tiles, smaller in entry ways, bathrooms and kitchens to make them less slippery when wet. This house has much of its tile intact, as well as some of its frescoes. Like the frescoes, most of the tile floors found in Pompeii were removed to the museum in Naples. In some places copies are being built in place.

Bathrooms were close to kitchens, sharing plumbing. There was a drainage system under the sidewalks that went down to the harbor.


One of the houses we walked around was the largest in the city - 27,000 square feet! It took up an entire city block and was 2 stories tall with two enclosed courtyards.

This is its front-hall cistern, in front of the collonade that defined the first courtyard.


The first large enclosed courtyard was more of a formal garden with fountains and sundials and such.


And the second courtyard might have been used as a kitchen garden.


I enjoyed winding through these walls and imagining what the rooms were for.

There was often a little shrine like the one on the right, set against a wall. For the household gods perhaps?

Organic destruction of the walls is an ongoing problem. Italy's current economic distress often saps funds from projects like preserving these ruins.



Pompeii had a very sophisticated plumbing system.

These are the remains of drainage and supply pipes that were set under the sidewalks.


And here are lead pipes ascending the wall of a large house. Hot and cold running water, if you were rich enough.


The water system was amazing – piped down from the surrounding hills and stored in a tank at the highest point of the city wall.

Then each neighborhood had a "water tower" aquaduct arch with a reservoir to help the local water pressure. This also created a grand entrance to the neighborhood.

Notice that this wide street is set up for four lanes.


There were three separate water supply systems - one to the public baths, one to the fine homes, and one to the city fountains that were the water source for those without direct service. When there was a shortage, these systems were shut off in that order - very democratic.

Most of these fountains have been replumbed and have brass spigots that work. You can fill your water bottle on the street corner in ancient Pompeii!


Commercial Services

We saw a commercial bakery with 4 or 5 huge grinding mills - stone hopper at the top, turned by slaves or donkeys using wooden poles inserted into those holes on the sides. Huge oven in the center and a sales counter on the street.

We couldn't get in to the brothel a few blocks away, as several tour groups had converged there and it was a very narrow street. The brothel was small and had very intricate graphics over the doors to the tiny cells that seemed to be something of a menu of services.

There were second-floor windows overhanging the street for the women to sit in. Prostitutes were called "lupine" because their calls sounded like wolves howling. The same system is in use in many modern European cities.



This was a temple for the Egyptian goddess Isis. The Romans didn't suppress the religions of the peoples they conquered, but absorbed them and allowed worship of all gods in their cities. This was part of their success.


There are plans to partially restore this area, and posters on its walls show those plans. We were overrun by a student group here, kind of avoided them, but learned some things from their tour guide.



This is one of two major theaters in Pompeii. This, the Grande, is outdoors and is the classic half-circle. The seats have modern seat number plates, many have been restored and there are modern iron railings, so it must be in use on occasion.


The other theater, the Picolo, is smaller, indoors, and is a full circle. It was probably used more for plays, whereas this one was more for sport.


Here you can see the little metal seat numbers and the standing gallery around the back.


Over the back wall of the Grande are the ruins of what seems to be a low-income residential area.


Behind the "stage" is the training and living area for the gladiators. They slept in small cells around the periphery of this training field.

There was a roofed collonade all the way around for weather cover. Some of the cells currently contain electrical generators.

A part of the gladiator quarters has been restored and roofed, but was not open to the public when we were there.
Perhaps the renovation was still in process.


Back out of Pompeii

A 180° turn from the last picture is this park. We walked through it back toward entrance.


And it was back through the Forum to the Marina road and away from ancient Pompeii.


Standing on the far side of the tracks from the Pompeii Scavi station, we waited for the Circumvesuviana to take us on to Herculaneum.


Ercolano Station > Herculaneum

The modern Italian city of Ercolano is built over and around the ruins of ancient Herculaneum. The train station isn't in the best part of town.


No hop across the street here, the entrance to the ruins is 8 blocks from the stazione, down through busy, modern Ercolano.


You can see the shoulder of Vesuvio in the background.


It's an interesting comparison. The Herculaneum site was under major renovation and a lot of it was closed off. It is much smaller and in much better shape than Pompeii.


Here you can see a house that is being renovated and has been reroofed.


About 180° around Vesuvio from Pompeii, Herculaneum was buried in boiling mud rather than ash. The hot mud apparently charred, then quenched and sealed wood, so much of the organic matter is preserved and the upper floors are frequently intact.

Many places still have mosaics and frescoes in place, or they have been re-created when the originals were taken away.


As you approach the site, walking at modern street level, you look down into the ruins from the top. The comparison of the ancient architecture to the modern is undeniable.






To enter the site, you have to walk around two sides of it at modern street level, then across this steel ramp.
Below the ramp in the foreground is the docks area.


Restrooms and sometimes a cafe can found here at the top of the ramp. The cafe was closed, and the site was almost deserted.


Again, there were many "fast food" counters, usually in better shape than the ones in Pompeii. This one has clay pots and marble counters still intact.



There are places where you can touch the volcanic fill and rub it away with your hand. Feel the archeologist at work.


Many places still have mosaics and frescoes in place, or they have been re-created when the originals were taken away.

The frescoes show quite sophisticated perspective, an art concept that was lost when Rome fell and not recovered for centuries.

Enclosed rooms were often painted with false windows, doors, archways and hallways to make them feel more open and the house seem bigger.

The rooms would have been very colorful.


Looking through a doorway across an atrium, you might think the house extended much farther back than it really did.


As in Pompeii, paved streets are flanked by sidewalks. But Herculaneum was hillier than Pompeii, and there are more sloped and and winding streets.




There are garden areas almost intact, and many trees grow among the ruins. It almost looks hospitable.

The statuary here is copied from the originals found in this garden. Hounds killing stags and gods weeing on the plants.

Hercules, perhaps? After all, the city is named for him.


The stone structure underneath the plaster shows generational changes in building materials, and clear evidence of repair.
The earth moved often in this place.


At the top of this picture is the walkway around the site at modern ground level. The walls of the dig have been coated with concrete to stabilize them. The ramp across the way offers access to stairs back up.

This was the beach area - still with water in it, albeit stagnant now. As in Pompeii, many people tried to flee this way.


This modern door is the entrance to the baths. The statues in the courtyard are modern copies and the rail to the right overlooks the beach.

We didn't get to see the baths - there's a project underway. They've laser-scanned the place and are working on a 3D model.


The baths backed up to the beach and the boat docks. Hundreds of bodies were found there, trying to escape by sea. Few got away.


Erstwhile boat docks are now used as workshops for the restoration. And the remnant of Vesuvio still towers over the town.

Up and around, we said goodbye to Herculaeum. It was a long tough walk back up the 8 blocks to the train station.


We were accosted by an evangelist at the train station, but the language barrier got in the way. He spoke Italian and German fluently, but with my limited German we only really managed to talk about his children and where he lived.

Overall, it was a tiring but rewarding day.

It was a long train ride back to Sorrento, but we lucked into an express train that skipped about half the stops and got up some pretty impressive speed now and then. We found the streets of Sorrento alive with music, including this trio.


On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped in the square for dinner at one of the many sidewalk cafes. Tom had pork & mushrooms and I ordered the seabrim special. It was encased in salt and baked. The waiter brought it out still encased, broke it open, skinned and filleted it at the table. It was quite impressive, and also delicious. And expensive at 20 euro - I thought it was only 12 when I ordered it. Oh well. Worth the experience.

Tired, footsore, we stopped to buy a couple postcards and found our way back to the hotel first try this time. We took off sweaty clothes, showered, finally got on the hotel's wi-fi, checked email, I FB-chatted with Barbara, wrote my journal and fell asleep.


The story continues with a ride along The Amalfi Coast.


1 Getting There
6 Olympia
11 Ephesus
16 The Cinque Terre
2 Sorrento
7 Santorini (Thira)
12 Athens
17 Pisa & Sienna
3 Pompeii & Herculanium
8 Istanbul
13 Venezia
18 Tuscany
4 The Amalfi Coast
9 Varna & Odessa
14 Padua & Verona
19 Montepulciano
5 Sci-Am Cruise
10 Yalta
15 Firenze
20 Rome & Home

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