On the second day of my adventure, I set off for Herculaneum, riding the Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano. The train was full of commuters and tourists bound for Ercolano or Pompeii. Both are on the same line, just other sides of Mt. Vesuvius. A small trio also boarded, playing “La Bamba” on the accordion and bongos.
Five years ago, I had visited Pompeii and found it fascinating, if overwhelming and huge. I read that Herculaneum was a richer suburb, almost a resort town, back in the day. Much smaller than Pompeii, it was also much better preserved. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, Pompeii was instantly melted by pyroclastic (lava) flow, which rushed into the city at 100+ MPH and 900+ degrees Farenheit. Pompeii was destroyed in an instant, fossilizing its citizens in horrific positions. You could see terror in their body language. An entire city had been both melted and frozen in a moment.
Herculaneum, on the other hand, was buried in mud up to 75 feet deep, a much slower demise. This meant that the city was remarkably well preserved – including amazing frescoes, mosaics and more. Where the heat in Pompeii melted and burned everything, archaeologists in Herculaneum have found wooden furniture and containers, beams of buildings and more.
It was incredible, and something I’ll never forget. Per my guidebook’s suggestion, I did the audio tour, listening to letters from Pliny the Younger about the devastation as I stared at a city stopped in time. When archeologists originally excavated the ruins, they found virtually no bodies, which puzzled them. But then they began excavating the original marina (several hundred feet inland from the current shoreline, another effect of the Vesuvius mud). Huddled together along the boats, they found hundreds of skeletons of people who had tried to flee the city by boat and not escaped in time.
Similarly, I was surprised at how far down Herculaneum was, a testament to the mountain of mud that had buried the city. You could stand at the edge of the excavation and look down into the city. And yet, at the present day ground line, modern apartment buildings reach right to the edge of the site – likely sitting on top of still-buried ruins.
It rained on and off all morning, which fit the somber feel of the ancient city. I followed the map and my guide, marveling at how the town was laid out – from numerous snack shops and bars (the ancients didn’t cook at home) to bakeries and public baths. I also noticed how short the ancients were, as I stood up alongside bars and doorways.
My original plan had been to spend the afternoon on Mt Vesuvius, as I’d heard it offers incredible views of the entire area. But Vesuvius remained shrouded in rain clouds and fog all day, so I decided to grab lunch (pizza again) and head back to Sorrento.
I hopped a quiet Circumvesuviana train bound for Sorrento, well before the evening rush. I people-watched and wrote a bit. I heard announcements in Italian, but no one on board seemed to react, so I didn’t really pay heed. At one point, I glanced up and thought the scenery looked unfamiliar, but rationalized that my morning express train had been packed, standing-room-only, and skipping stops. After a few more stops, though, I decided to get up and look at the
map. (The trains were woefully inconsistent with announcing stops, and many maps were missing, so you often sat far from one.) Suddenly I realized that at some point, my train had switched to another branch and was no longer bound for Sorrento but for another town. As I stood there and tried to count back how many stops I needed to go to transfer to the right line, a young local saw my perplexed look and confirmed what I needed to know. (My blonde hair tended to stand out a bit – people could instantly tell I wasn’t local.) A Welsh couple had made the same error, so we waited together, chatting to pass the 30 minutes and then making the transfer together.
Of course, right as we arrived in Sorrento, the skies opened again, pouring down sheets of rain. I rushed into the nearest enoteca to grab a glass of wine and wait for the worst to pass before venturing out for dinner. As I sat down, I heard my name – and saw the same Welsh couple from the train, with the same idea. We shared a bottle of wine and chatted while the rain subsided.
After the rain let up, I wandered the town and enjoyed the passeggiata for awhile, window shopping and people watching before grabbing dinner and dessert and making my way home for the night. And as soon as my head hit the pillow, the rain started again.