If you have an interest in exploring Pompeii, it’s definitely worth considering the lesser known Herculaneum, a coastal town further south that was also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.
As a resort it was much smaller than Pompeii and now sits at the base of the modern town. A ten minute walk from the circumvesuviana train stop, you pass through imposing gates into the site. The first striking factor is it’s depth in the ground as you view the ruins from a bridge that loops around to the ticket office.
The site gets less attention than Pompeii, which means there are less crowds. Some argue that the remains are more in tact but this isn’t what I experienced; it seemed to simply offer up more wonders and provide another outlook.
Once you enter and walk down into the site, the streets bring out your imagination, lined with palaces and pubs. As a resort town it was largely a place for the wealthy and their staff. Towards the back of the site once you’ve weaved through buildings, homes and pillars, you find a row of shops. Take time here as it’s the best representation of everyday life I saw at either site.
In front of one shop, you can see the owner’s advert on the front for his wine pots; he’s drawn what’s on sale in the various sizes and colours with the relevant prices beneath. It’s certainly worthy of a double take.
Another highlight is the original wooden structures within the buildings. This is only trumped by the ancient bed frame seen in the central palace along with grand wooden doors. The mundanity of these items coupled with their age are very curious and make a couple of thousand years seem like no time at all.
It turns out Romans had the ingenious idea of painting artwork directly on their walls rather than bothering hanging up frames. The examples here are plentiful and most are protected by a member of staff who ensures they remain preserved; unfortunately in a number of the palaces, modern graffiti can be seen and one member of staff even told me that some artwork had been damaged by visitor’s bags rubbing against them. It’s good to see they’re taking the appropriate measures to maintain it’s quality as much as possible as we’re so fortunate to have this insight in the first place.
The Romans were obviously very skilled and the remaining colours give a glimpse at how impressive their work would have looked in their prime. The golds and yellows were partly made using arsenic and cow’s urine, with the red created from bison blood. A benefit of visiting Herculaneum is that it feels like you’re closer to the art than in Pompeii as there are less roped off areas, although seemingly more staff on guard. As long as you’re respectful they don’t bother or rush you and will answers your questions.
Streets of Herculaneum
The streets of Herculaneum are very complete and it’s easy to catch glimpses of Ancient Romans going about their business in the corner of your eyes. My favourite aspect of this site was just walking the paved roads and appreciating the structure and how it would have worked. As with Roman settlements it’s logical, straight and decorative.
I recommend Herculaneum as a place to visit after Pompeii, perhaps on the same day as it’ll take roughly two hours of your time. The benefits of going in the late afternoon are cooler temperatures and a chance to experience the sunset.
If you approach the site with a clockwise route, towards the end of your visit you end up at a large open space which was a square, still complete with statues. To the right of here you can go down further and visit a collection of preserved bodies. These residents had gone underground in an effort to survive the eruption but instead suffocated. This is particularly sobering and a place for reflection.
In the Campania area of Italy, Herculaneum is easy to get to, quiet and well-preserved. It’s ideal for an afternoon of exploration with the surrounding town offering a large number of coffee shops and eateries. The views are also lovely as it’s right by the coast; the perfect spot to engage with history.
The site is clearly well-loved and offers a number of treasure troves with some complete buildings and roofs intact. It’s a very enjoyable visit but ultimately, if you only have time for one site, go to Pompeii as it’s significantly larger and more immersive. Just don’t discount Herculaneum as it does stand out on it’s own merits.
Saving the best till last, here’s Castillo de Sant’Angelo and it’s stunning frescoes. Not to be missed, it borders the main shopping street.
For information on tickets, I’d recommend this page, which also give details of the audio guide which is available for an extra cost. I opted against this at the time as the map they provided made it rather self-explanatory but I’d love to hear from anyone who has used it.