Why would you want to visit Pompeii, a city that was frozen in time during the 1st century AD? What is it about this lost city, now rediscovered, that attracts so many visitors and inspires so much attention? Why is Pompeii important?
And what about Herculaneum, the nearby city at the base of the volcano, also totally destroyed by the same massive eruption? Herculaneum was not inundated by ash, but by a volcanic flow of boiling mud, traveling at 450 miles per hour. When the mud cooled, it hardened into a 60-foot-deep rock formation and the city remained buried for more than 17 centuries.
On a more pragmatic note, what will you actually see during your visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum? And how can you best balance your visits to these remarkable but ruined places with an equal measure of astonishing beauty and delight?
Why is Pompeii so fascinating?
For starters, consider that this now abandoned ancient city was once a thriving port. It was here that nearly 1,000 people died under a 15-30 foot pile of volcanic ash when a violent eruption pulverized the upper 3,000 feet of Mount Vesuvius, forming a massive four-kilometer column of debris that then returned to earth.
Think of your visit to Pompeii as your own personal time machine to transport you back to AD 79. You will walk through an actual Roman city, noting the lifestyles and surroundings that you would have experienced had you been alive during the 1st century. Yes, the city it was finally destroyed. But before that he was very much alive. And, miraculously, the very fact of its destruction has frozen and preserved it as a living illustration of life during these early Roman times.
What will you see in Pompeii?
What was it like to be a woman in AD 79? If his family had a social status, he would marry at age 14 and be initiated into the order of Dionysus. At this point, she would leave her own family behind and join her husband’s, where she would assume the role of mistress of the house. Rarely, if ever, would he leave this house for the rest of his life. During your visit to Pompeii, you will be able to stroll through some of these royal houses, with their fountains and courtyards, mosaics and gardens, all mysteriously preserved forever.
How did worldviews and circumstances differ greatly based on your social status? The wall paintings, still intact after 1700 years, show what life would have been like for you as a member of the upper class, with a slave putting your shoes on, or as a slave, putting those shoes on.
What was it like in the Roman baths, where men met to discuss business and politics and to demonstrate and celebrate their assumed control over their part of the universe? What was it like in a brothel, where prostitutes lived in tiny cells with hard stone beds carved out of rock walls?
And the public spaces? And the entertainment amphitheaters? What would it be like to walk the streets, jumping from stone to stone to keep shoes and clothes above the dirt that flowed when the streets were used as sewers?
And then there are the plaster casts of the many victims. Their decomposing bodies, buried for 1700 years, left cavities in the ash. During excavations, these forms were filled in with plaster. As a result, you will now see the casts of real people, men, women and children, even pets, all in their final poses, with their clothes and faces clearly visible. These casts bring the final residents of Pompeii to life in the actual moment when life as they knew it suddenly ended. As ghoulish as these molds are, they are also fascinating.
Your time in Pompeii will be filled with one discovery after another. But take an umbrella with you, even if it’s not raining. The sun beats down mercilessly on this barren ancient stone landscape, and you’ll be happy for the protection.
What else will you see in neighboring Herculaneum?
Plan to visit Herculaneum second, because it is even more remarkable than Pompeii. Once again, this city was totally destroyed. But, in this case, the destruction came in the form of boiling mud. As a result, the structures of the city were not crushed by ash as in Pompeii, but were filled with molten mud that actually preserved the buildings as they were on that fateful 1st century day.
Herculaneum is definitely a visit for a different day. Don’t even consider trying to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum consecutively on the same day. You can expect to save time using this compression strategy, but you will seriously regret it. Instead, plan to experience each of these cities as a separate visit, and give each city the time and attention it deserves.
What’s the best way to travel to these remarkable ruined cities?
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum are located in the Bay of Naples, near Mount Vesuvius. This body of water is bowl-shaped and ends at the tip of the Sorrento peninsula. So when visiting these cities, plan to stay in Sorrento, at the tip of the peninsula.
Sorrento is a beautiful city, with extraordinary views of Vesuvius. It is perched on top of a rocky cliff, with beaches and boats located far below sea level, reached by an elevator that plummets through the rock.
Choose a hotel near the park with the elevator. This will put you within reach of many wonderful restaurants and shops, and even a small theater where you can see local artists as they share their native dance and music. At the end of your intense days wandering around ancient ruins, you will need and deserve a good meal, accompanied, of course, by some local wine.
How can these sobering experiences be balanced with an equal measure of beauty and delight?
So now you are here, staying in a hotel in Sorrento, where you will have every opportunity to relax after your intense visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum. And from here, it’s just a short boat ride to the beautiful island of Capri.
So, this is your chance to balance all this intensity. Buy a ticket, board the boat, and cross to Capri for at least a full day. When you arrive, take the funicular to the top of the rock and enjoy lunch in a restaurant overlooking the bay.
Before boarding the funicular, check the departure times of the boats to The Blue Grotto. Pick a tour at a time that you can easily take, allowing at least an hour to roam the shops first.
Return to port long before your Blue Grotto tour departs. This boat will take you to the entrance of the cave, where small rowboats float waiting to take small groups through the narrow opening.
Once inside, you will be mesmerized by the blinding blue light. So here you have the same measure of astonishing beauty and delight. You will keep this stunning image in your mind forever.