“Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night… it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.”
Pliny the Younger, 79 AD.
Once you approach Naples it is hard not to notice the Vesuvius now -luckily- a dormant volcano. So we decided to risk an “unexpected” eruption and decided to stay two days at Herculaneum and then two more at Sorrento, the start of the Amalfi coast.
We were comforted about the safety of the area when our landlord at Herculaneum told us -on arrival- that the weather was very beautiful so no eruptions to spoil things would take place! Now relaxed because of this important piece of local knowledge, we decided to explore both excavation sites. Of course, the fact that the eruption was now settled did little to help me to be a relaxed driver!
The Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79 AD after being dormant for about 800 years. We know the exact date because a Roman called Pliny the Younger. Happened to be there and write about it. We even know that after lunchtime the mountain started to throw ash and stone thousands of metres up into the sky that later, because of the wind, landed on Pompeii and surrounding areas causing severe damage. Herculaneum, meanwhile, was only mildly affected but people started to flee in panic. It is hard to imagine what went on during these terrible hours.
That night, while Pompeii was being destroyed, the first wave of ash and very hot gas, known as a pyroclastic surge (1) hit Herculaneum at over 150kph. The area suffered six more of these phenomena that buried the city, causing little damage to most structures and leaving these and victims almost intact.
The intense heat is believed to have been the cause of death (rather than suffocation as previously thought). The temperature reached at least 250°C and, even at a distance of ten kilometres from the volcano, and this was enough to cause the instant death of all residents, even if they were sheltered within buildings.
After two days it was all over and not only Herculaneum and Pompeii but the whole region was buried under a thick layer of ash, lava and rock.
Although we arrived a couple of millennia afterwards, to see what the excavations had revealed. To see Herculaneum from above was breathtaking and really dramatic.
We spent a day at Herculaneum during which wife and daughter walked it all and saw the various houses, thermal baths, etc. Although I was with them for a while, ruin-watching saturates me after a while. Yes, I openly admit my cultural shortcomings so I soon left them to it and withdrew to a shady spot to read a book hoping for a siesta that did not take place because of tourists’ annoyance, a common problem in popular areas.
After a good night rest during which I recharged my archeology batteries, we drove to Pompeii, now the bushsnob a slightly more relaxed driver that, with the help of my co-pilot daughter (also ex ed in chief) managed to navigate the tortuous way to Pompeii in the best style of the rally driving teams!
It was then easy to find our meeting place with our guide. Perhaps influenced by my absence during part of the previous day visit we had decided to have a private guide for a couple of hours to focus on the key areas and then to have the place for ourselves to explore self-guided (or for the bushsnob to indulge in a self-siesta…). It was much more crowded as Pompeii is a much larger and very popular. The decision was a great success and even I managed to last the entire guided course without getting distracted or bored!
To me the highlights of the two paces were the mosaics and frescoes that are still well preserved in many of the excavated houses and baths. Apart from the famous dog of Pompeii, now protected by a glass encasing, there are numerous other examples of mosaic-rich floors and walls that really called one’s attention. Further, careful watching can turn an apparent oil stain on a wall into a lovely small fresco.
Then, our archeology task well completed, it was time to enjoy Sorrento, or so I thought as, somehow, we overlooked the fact that we were getting there during the weekend, a time we later learnt, better to be avoided in this city. But this is the next post.
(1) A pyroclastic surge is a fluidized mass of turbulent gas and rock fragments which is ejected during some volcanic eruptions. It is similar to a pyroclastic flow but it has a lower density or contains a much higher ratio of gas to rock, which makes it more turbulent and allows it to rise over ridges and hills rather than always travel downhill as pyroclastic flows do.