Pompeii at dusk, with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.
I'd been warned about Naples: well-meaning friends cautioned against going anywhere without a driver, avoiding public transport, generally sticking to well-traveled routes. But the only menace I felt while there was from a looming volcano, sulking under the clouds much of the time; and a splitting headache I couldn't shake the whole time I was at Herculaneum.
We arrived at the Naples airport after dark, and walked from there to our hotel. The air was balmy and tropical, matching the architecture, or at least what I could see of it in the dim light of the street lamps.
The darkness hid the ever-present graffiti, which covers every flat surface in Naples, sadly. But fortunately Naples has just enough charm, especially after dark, to make the grubby exterior fade away.
Even the statues have been covered with graffiti, like this one welcoming visitors to Naples from the marina.
Or maybe instead of charm, call it history. Neopolitans built their city on top of volcanic rock, and despite living next to an active volcano (Mt. Vesuvius is overdue an eruption) they don't seem to care much that each day could be their last in Naples. But then, this is a city that withstood Allied bombardment in World War II, and then freed themselves from the Fascist government before the Allies could complete the job. And now they reap the benefits of that earlier eruption, the one that destroyed the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
If any place could be said to be at the top of my "bucket list" it would be Pompeii. I've wanted to see the ancient Roman city there for years, ever since I learned how important it (and the nearby city of Herculaneum) was to the study of Roman archaeology. Until Pompeii was discovered in the 18th century, virtually unchanged since the Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, little was known about how the ordinary Romans lived outside of Rome.
Now, thanks to a few centuries of excavations at both Pompeii and Herculaneum, we know a lot more about how people must have lived around the turn of the millennium. Despite the ravages of the volcano, and a few excursions by thieves, much of the two towns was discovered intact underneath the layers of volcanic ash.
I was eager to discover Pompeii for myself, but even more than that, frankly, I wanted to escape the dreary British winter weather. Particularly the mud—this year's rains have been the worst in recorded history.
And speaking of history: do your homework before you go to Naples, Pompeii, and Ercalano (Herculaneum). Even if you only skim through some websites, it's worth it to know what you're looking at. The book Pompeii by Mary Beard is a frank account of what exists at Pompeii and why, though Herculaneam gets short shrift in the book.
Pompeii and Herculaneum were barely in existence a few hundred years by the time the first century brought its changes, including an earthquake in 62 AD. They became part of Rome around 80 BCE, and a few Roman citizens had country palaces in the area. Nero's wife, Poppea, was said to come from Pompeii.
In February, there are very few visitors to Pompeii walking the narrow streets, some of which still have visible wheel ruts.
The streets in Pompeii are narrow, just wide enough for a donkey-drawn cart. You can still see the cartwheel ruts in some places, and archaeologists have even determined which way the carts were going, leading some to suspect that some cardos were one-way streets. At intersections you'll see large stepping stones, which allowed people to cross without stepping in the muck. Pompeii regularly flooded, plus refuse—the dung of animals as well as people—accumulated in the streets.
Roman infrastructure was plentiful: there were public fountains and public baths, while the larger private homes had their own baths. And their water system was ingenious—except for the lead piping that carried water to the inhabitants.
Outside the city walls, in the necropolis, were monuments to the dead, and beyond that the wealthy built their suburban villas during times of peace. Inside Pompeii you'll also find both a large and small theatre, and a large amphitheatre where gladiatorial fights were held. But that's not my cup of tea; I preferred the House of the Faun, where a replica faun (the original is at the Naples Archaeological Museum) dances in his little garden.
The bronze faun at the House of the Faun dances alone in his fountain.
There are sad reminders everywhere in Pompeii of the fate of its residents. Next to the forum you'll see warehouses where thousands of archaeological finds are stored, including the casts of people who died there, and a dog contorted in death.
Herculaneum is less well excavated. The entrance takes you past the "beach" area, where once the sea was close by. Skeletons were found in the boat houses there, probably people waiting to escape by boat when the poisonous gas arrived before the winds changed and they could sail away.
People in ancient Rome lived simply, with most falling asleep where they could—only the rich could afford their own bedrooms. And only the rich had specialized dining areas; others ate "fast food" from the thermopolia, cafeteria-like shops with large heated food pots set into marble counters.
Thermopolium in Herculaneum, with large earthenware pots underneath marble countertops.
See below for more practical tips for visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum, but don't ignore Naples itself, which, unlike the cities downwind of Vesuvius, wasn't covered with volcanic ash, at least not in 79 AD. The Greco-Roman ruins in Napoli, as it's known in Italy, are all underground.
There are several sub-terranean tours of Napoli, and we accidentally landed on the wrong one when the driver from the hotel drove us through the rainy streets of Naples to a piazza and let us off at a posh cafe (Gambrinus, if you're in the mood for coffee and pastries). A man was standing outside the entrance with a Napoli Sotteranea sign, so we assumed it was the one I'd read about, the one with tours in English. Instead, we were led around the corner for a tour of the underground WWII bomb shelters, given by a spry old man who spoke a few words of English, including "toilet" and "bombs." He ran up and down steps, through narrow tunnels, yelling "Andiamo Indiana Jones!"
This was probably one of the most surreal moments I've ever had, anywhere, especially when he turned the lights out in one of the caverns and told us to practice yoga. (I think he meant meditation—I was too scared to Om, frankly.)
But the stories he told, and that we managed to grasp in our limited knowledge of Italian hand gestures, were interesting. Turns out his mother was seven months pregnant when she lived underground during the bombardment, and he was born right after the city was liberated.
Inside the Greco-Roman tunnels underneath Napoli.
The other subterranean tour, which I highly recommend, especially if your appetite for surrealism is waning, is Napoli Sotteranea, not LAES Napoli Sotteranea. (I'm not sure if the similar names are a deliberate confusion, but I suspect they are, and I also suspect our driver was in collusion with the tour guide, as we were the only people on that tour.) It's found at Piazza San Gaetano, in the heart of old town Naples. It's a fairly long walk from either the port or the train station, so a taxi may be your best bet for getting there. It's also about a 15 minute walk from the museum, so you might combine the two.
The square itself is suitably touristy, with several restaurants, including the best pizza to be found in Naples at I Decumani and a limoncello "factory" where they make and sell the real thing, from real lemons. You can peer into the vats of alcohol and lemon peels, then buy lemon-flavored pasta, biscuits, and risotto to take home with you.
The underground tour lasts a little more than an hour and was conducted by a very entertaining guide named Alessandro. When he found out we were from Britain he started making apt jokes about the Brits and the Scots, from his time living in Edinburgh. I suspect he's a stand-up comedian in his other life. (I wonder if he's tried the Indiana Jones practicing yoga in a bomb shelter shtick?)
But Alessandro knew his stuff: when I asked about the diamond shaped pattern on the walls, which I'd seen at Herculaneum and Pompeii, he explained that archaeologists think these were the Romans' version of earthquake proofing in seismic areas, since this type of construction is found nowhere else. Since I have never seen it before, in any of the Roman ruins I've been to here or in Germany, I suspect this is true.
The cleverness of Roman engineers knows no bounds, I have discovered.
Diamond patterned Roman walls, designed to withstand seismic activity.
During this tour we saw the remains of the Greco-Roman theatre where Nero is said to have entertained a crowd during an earthquake. Our guide was suitably skeptical of this—after Nero died, he was reviled by his successors, who would have willingly spread such tales. But who knows?
Don't be in too big a hurry to leave the square after your tour: directly across from the entrance to the underground tour is the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Go inside, pay the entrance fee (€9) and you can show yourself around the underground remains of the Greco-Roman market, walking down a Roman "cardo" paved with tufo (volcanic rock). You'll see the bakery, a winery, a laundry, and the tax collector's office. Then you can tour the museum upstairs, where the top floor houses a charming collection of 18th century doll-like figures representing ordinary Neopolitans.
Sadly, the rain that prompted us to leave Britain followed us to Naples. Our tour of Capri on Sunday was cancelled when a storm chopped up the seas and the hydrofoil operators decided the sea was too rough for passage to Capri. The afternoon turned out to be bright and sunny, however, and without any real purpose, we walked from the port to the Piazza Dante, where we struck up a conversation with a young woman and her dog, and then we ended up at the Museum again, where we easily found a cab for the ride to the hotel.
If I have any regret, it's that I didn't schedule another day in Naples, so that we could have made it to Capri, or maybe taken a tour of the Amalfi Coast. I'd have liked to spend more time in the museum as well, perhaps when I didn't have a splitting headache.
I'd definitely recommend going to Naples in February, despite the rain that dampened our journey almost every morning we were there. There were no crowds at the sites, and the weather was downright warm most of the time we were there. The temperature was 17C the day we left, and predicted to get to 20 on the weekend.
For all my well-meaning friends' warnings, I found Naples far less dangerous than its sister city in Florida, and the weather very similar. I'd go back in a heartbeat—provided Mt Vesuvius has no plans to erupt.
Because I suspect a pyroclastic cloud would be a real headache.
For more photos of Naples, including Pompeii and Herculaneum, check out this photo set.
To get to Herculaneum and Pompeii from Naples: Take an Alibus (limited stops) to the central train station, go downstairs and follow the signs for the Circumvesuviana. Buy a ticket to the destination you want and look for the platform (binario 3) for the train heading to Sorrento. They leave every 30 minutes (at least they did when I was there).
Check the train scheme on the wall to figure out which station is the one before Ercalano (the Italian name for Herculaneum) or Pompei so you'll be ready to depart; it's not easy to spot the signs as you roll in to the platform.
Ercalano is about a 20 minute train ride from Naples; Pompeii is about 40 minutes.
To get to the ruins from the Ercalano train station: go out and around the roundabout then straight down, past the MAV (an audio-visual tour of Herculaneum) about a half mile to the entrance of the ruins. Don't bother with a cab or shuttle unless you are impaired and want to save your walking for the ruins themselves, which really aren't wheelchair accessible.
Go to Herculaneum first, and buy guidebooks for both Herculaneum and Pompeii. Then study the Pompeii guidebook before you go. Consider it homework. You'll be grateful you have some idea what you're looking at, even with the assistance of the audio guide.
Plan to spend a whole day at Pompeii. We were there five and a half hours and didn't see it all. Check closing times before you go. Herculaneum is smaller, and can easily be seen in a few hours.
Don't waste your money on a guided tour, especially one that drives you from Naples and allows you only two hours. That's not enough time to see even half of it. (Unless you know a respected tour guide—don't bother with the touts selling tours at the gate.)
To get an audio-guide you'll need to leave some ID. If you've emptied your pockets and handbag of any extraneaus credit cards and ID, be sure to keep a driver's license or some other ID to trade for a guide.
Many of the houses within Pompeii will be closed for renovation. Be grateful they're trying to save it and don't worry; there's plenty to see otherwise.
Be sure you go outside the walls of Pompeii for great shots of the town and surroundings. (You don't actually have to leave the ticketed area of Pompeii to do this.)
At Pompeii there's a cafeteria-style restaurant that seems to have a decent selection of sandwiches, salads, and even pasta. There's little to eat at Herculaneum other than what's available in a few vending machines. The town of Ercalano has little to offer except a nice pharmacy where I was able to buy acetaminophen for a headache.
Definitely make time for a trip to the Naples Archaeological Museum. It holds most of the treasures from both Pompeii and Herculaneum: marble statues (ground floor), mosaics (first floor), and wall paintings (second floor). We were able to see it after our visit to Herculaneum, since the museum doesn't close until 7:30.