Since we were going to be in Rome for a whole week, we thought a day trip to Naples to visit Mount Vesuvius and the Ancient Roman town of Herculaneum would be doable, and worth the travel.
If you remember from my blog post on Rome (previous post), our Rome apartment was very near the Termini train station and therefore it was rather easy for us to catch the 7:30 trains to Naples.
There are significant fare differences between the various categories of trains and there is an opportunity to save money for people on a tight budget, but for us, it was more about saving time rather than money. So we chose the fast train (Alta Velocita or AV) called Frecciarossa, to Naples and we paid about 45 euros for a one-way ticket. This train is fast and sleek and you do also get a reserved seat. It takes about 70 minutes from Rome to Naples (Napoli Centrale).
From Napoli Centrale we took the Circumvesuviana train, that departs from the underground station below Napoli Centrale, it is easy to find, just follow the signs or take the stairs or escalator down. It is on the Naples to Sorrento line, via various stops including Herculaneum and Pompeii. It costs about 2.20 euros to get out at Herculaneum Scavi, and about 2.80 euros for Pompeii. The train was very crowded and we had a group of loud and smelly teenage boys (that possibly forgot to spray deodorant that morning) who were standing next to us, so it was a great relief that it was only a short journey to our stop.
We were advised by a friend (thank you David) to climb up the Mount Vesuvius in the morning (since in the afternoon there is more chance of clouds and fog up there, obstructing the views ) and this advice proved to be great. Also, we decided to visit Herculaneum rather than the better known Pompeii ( afternoon), because of its more compact size, also it is less busy and better preserved than Pompeii. It turned out to be the perfect combination for us.
We arrived at Herculaneum Scavi station and found the Vesuvio Express Agency, who operate the buses that depart from there (just outside the station) at about every 40 minutes. The journey up the Mount Vesuvius takes about 20 minutes and costs about 20 euros, which includes the entry to the Volcano Summit. The bus driver used the horn a lot on the way up and on the way down, to warn other drivers at every corner since the road was very narrow and winding in places and had some very steep drops. A collision on that road would not have been very nice. So I did find it reassuring that the bus driver was taking the right precautions and driving very sensibly.( Italian drivers are not known for being sensible drivers!)
As we went up, we were able to see people living and working right by the base of the volcano, we went passing private homes, gardens, hotels and guest houses and I could not help but wonder if the Volcano decides to blow its top again, it will not be an easy evacuation. A population of about 3 million people live in the Naples area, so I just hope that there is a good evacuation plan in place. You can’t help to think what possesses people to live at the foot of a live Volcano? Maybe the answer is all around? The beautiful scenery, the fertile soil, the blue skies, the trill in the sense of danger? Trusting that all is going to be fine?
The bus leaves everyone at the summit car park. From there we had to walk up to the Volcano crater, it is a moderate hike up 860 metres via a dusty and pebbly path (comfortable shoes are a must here, preferably trainers or walking boots, and I would also recommend a warm top since it can get chilly up there). But we were lucky and it remained sunny and warm the whole time.
The smallest Volcano in the world, it is the only active Volcano in mainland Europe and it is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcano’s since the explosive eruptions can involve pyroclastic flows, which are fast moving currents of fluidised rock and gases (causing the infamous devastation of Pompeii and Herculaneum). As you walk up the Mountain, the views are spectacular and you can see the lovely Bay of Naples, the Island of Capri, and in the distance the Amalfi Coast. Since exploding on 24th of August AD 79, it has erupted more than 30 times, with the most devastating eruptions in 1631 and its last eruption of 1944. Another eruption could happen at any time, but the volcano is constantly monitored for any signs of activity (relief…).
The steep walk takes you to the crater rim and you can peep into the crater itself which still smokes slightly.
We had the perfect weather on that day, sunny, but not too hot. A very clear day to enjoy the panoramic vistas. We had about 90 minutes to do the walk up (that’s what we were told by our bus driver), enjoy some time at the top, take pictures, and then return in time to catch our bus back to the town of Herculaneum (Ercolano), which was enough for us since we wanted to spend some time in Ancient Herculaneum in the afternoon.
There is a small shop at the top selling little mementoes and I bought a small bracelet of volcanic rock, and the girls also bought small gifts. Not every day you can shop at the top of an active volcano!
There are various different walks up and around the rim of the crater and even down into the crater (you do need a guide for that though), but we did not have enough time or a guide to show us. So we did the main walk up to the crater and spent some time there just enjoying the spectacular views of the city of Naples. It was exactly what we wanted, but if or when I return again in the future, I will probably explore more and maybe hire a guide, and also stay for few days in Naples which is in itself a fascinating city. I would love to return here with my husband Brian and my son James who is studying to be a Geologist ( my daughter Chloe has been here already on a school trip in 2007, she loved it).
We were told that it can get cold at the top ( in fact my daughter Chloe, said that she was very cold in just a t-shirt when she visited in 2007), but for us, the sun was shining and it was a very pleasant temperature. The are areas for sitting down, catching your breath, admiring the views and having a drink (water is sold at the little shop).
My Italian grandparents were here in the mid-1960’s when they did a return trip to the mother land, staying in Italy for about 6 months visiting the family, and they also visited Mount Vesuvius. It made it even more special for me and my sisters to be walking in the footsteps of our grandparents and trying to imagine what were their thoughts on visiting this spectacular place.
The ruins of Pompeii are more famous than Herculaneum, and therefore not many people know of this little town that was also devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Ancient Herculaneum has been better preserved that Pompeii, with much of this ancient Roman town still buried beneath the more modern Herculaneum (Ercolano), and less than a quarter of it has been excavated.
Buildings, wooden structures, artefact, bodies of adults, children, and animals, were all preserved due to the different way in which Herculaneum was struck by the pyroclastic surge and the intense heat that carbonised all organic material, and which were then buried under about 20 metres of ash. Herculaneum was destroyed more than 12 hours later than Pompeii and many of its inhabitants had returned to the town thinking it was safe to return. The blast cloud collapsed in a sea of ash, rock and volcanic gases that reached extraordinary high temperatures. At the time around 5, 000 people lived in Herculaneum and 20,000 in Pompeii. It is estimated that 16,000 people died in the volcanic eruptions of AD 79 as they were taken by complete surprise.
Some 300 skeletons were found in 1981, at the old port, inside the arches of the boat houses where the victims took refuge hoping and believing that they would be safe. They were waiting to be rescued via the sea. They carried with them jewellery, coins and even keys to their homes since they were hoping that they would be able to return.
Walking around this ancient site you can’t help but imagine how their once tranquil life was so abruptly destroyed. There are reasons to believe that it was quite an upmarket Roman town, with luxurious public bath houses with complex water systems and aqueducts that brought the water from the mountain to the town. The bathhouses would have been used for socialising and were open to every citizen. Mosaics and frescoes decorated the walls.
The narrow streets with pavements are still intact, preserved for 2,000 years and there are ruins of buildings two to three stories high that could have been businesses or private homes. The frescoes showing how they would advertise their businesses to sell their product.
We were in awe of this place and its buried treasures and the lives that vanished in an instant; no one was spared, men, women, children, rich or poor. It is a fascinating and sad place. It does raise questions of how all this can be protected since at present visitants to the site can get very close and even touch the frescoes and it would be such a shame if measures are not taken soon to ensure its preservation and longevity.
We spent about 2 to 3 hours exploring the site and left later in the afternoon on a slower train back to Rome. We used the Inter City and bought a return ticket for about 22 euros which took us about 1 hour and 1/2 to get back to Rome. But we did not mind the slower return – we were tired but very happy to have experienced Mount Vesuvius and ancient Herculaneum in one day.
We got back to Rome and decided to go straight on to have dinner, choosing a restaurant near our apartment. After sitting down and choosing our food and drinks we suddenly realised that we were not very elegantly dressed for dinner and in fact, we looked a dusty mess, it made us laugh. This was possibly the poshest restaurant of our entire stay in Rome and the only night that we did not make any effort to dress up for dinner. But in any case, it was a lovely meal and were well looked after by our waiter. We welcomed a chance for reflections and discussions of such an inspiring day. After dinner, we walked the short distance back to our apartment, already planning what we were going to do the next day, but already feeling a little sad that it was nearing the end of our stay in Rome.