On a friend’s recommendation we booked a private car to drive us to Vesuvio, Herculaneum and Pompeii with our own tour guide at the two ruins. Despite the fee, we thought this was a good choice after our train ride the day before and how long it would take to get to all the sites, a near impossibility if we wanted to do them properly.
The driver – Igor – picked us up at 9am and we joined the insane traffic, adding yet another car to the road, as we drove around narrow and winding streets, catching glimpses of seaside towns. It was indeed picturesque.
Our first stop was Vesuvio, approximately an hour and a bit away from Sorrento. The road up the mountain wound around and around, so much that I had to stop reading or else I’d be ill by the time we got to the top.
Igor dropped us at the start of the trail and then drove off. Unfortunately, he’d neglected to drop us off at the ticket office about 300m back down the road. Without the ticket we weren’t going anywhere. So we trudged down, bought our €10 per person ticket, and then set off properly.
Within about ten metres the side of my left calf started cramping. And then the other side. I was not getting up the volcano very fast at all. Nevertheless, I made it after we went up the criss-cross path and then to a rest stop where we could join a guided tour.
The tour wasn’t so much a guided tour as a 2-minute chat standing still. And it turns out that much of the information he gave us was incorrect. For example, I was surprised to hear that Vesuvius wasn’t the volcano that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum but rather the volcano next to us which was called Mount Somma. This was in fact wrong and Mount Somma had erupted tens of thousands of years before 79AD and was now extinct.
Vesuvius, however, is alive and well. It’s last ‘little’ eruption was in the 40s. Another is due sometime soon and it’s predicted to wipe out a lot of the surrounding area. Visit Napoli while you can.
After the non-guided tour, we walked half the perimeter of the volcano, taking pictures along the way. It’s not as wide as Sierra Negra in the Galapagos but it’s got more cache for sure. There was really only one place with the gases come out, but lots of little lava lizards running around.
We spent about an hour and 45 minutes all up getting up there, walking around and then down again, and our driver was waiting for us when we got down so we could zoom off to Herculaneum. With it being just about midday I was ready for some lunch but we pushed on through.
Inside the crater
Plenty of life on the crater
Our guide, Andrea, met us at Herculaneum and then took us inside to see the ruins and learn a bit about them for two hours. Herculaneum was left a bit more intact after the eruption so there are two and three stories buildings still standing. Unfortunately only about 25% of the site is excavated and the rest lies under the ‘ugly’ (the guide’s words) new town of Ercolano.
What struck me was how much it got covered – it’s about 10 or 20 metres down – and the sea came in a lot closer. We were in fact standing at the edge of what was once the shoreline. This was also where about 300 bodies had been discovered. Andrea’s theory is that when the earthquake hit, the people remembered the earthquake from 17 years prior, and headed to the ocean to avoid the buildings collapsing on them.
There they slept but when the eruption came the gas was so hot – about 400°C – it killed them instantly. The children and the women at the back of these cave-like structures, the men in the middle, the slaves at the front. The skeletons we saw were reconstructions but they’re in the positions the originals were found in. It all looks terrifying.
We wandered through the city with Andrea pointing out different features such as water pipe systems, the gymnasium, baths, fast food shops and other ancient things. I asked where Hercules was represented, considering it’s a town named after him, and he showed us a few things.
One was a hydra statue-cum-fountain, another the ‘dumbo ears’ Hercules on a public water trough, and another of a fresco on a wall. Each time, before we saw another one, he called us ‘fans of Hercules’ which was starting to sound like a euphemism.
Herculaneum was also less visited than Pompeii so we didn’t have to battle the crowds too much. I really enjoyed this small site, especially as much more of it was intact. Andrea sounded very disheartened that so much of it was still underground but it looks like they’re digging tunnels underneath the town to uncover more.
Venus on a water trough
Pompeii via Pizza
When we finished, I said I needed food or else I wasn’t going to last a two-hour tour around Pompeii. This prompted a rather tense discussion between our guide and our driver. When asked what we wanted, we just said something quick like pizza so we zoomed off.
The driver took us to one of the entrances of Pompeii where there was a roadside pizza restaurant where a friend of his works. We wolfed down our large pizzas and then got back in the car to be taken to the other entrance to Pompeii where our guide had wanted us to go. There were food places there and it would have been better for the driver to have done what the guide asked but he was young and arrogant and knew best.
This created tension between the two and also made us a little later than intended. The guide was visibly annoyed with the way that things had turned out and probably thought we were going to complain to the company.
He brought it up twice before we could really get going. Nevertheless we got our full two hours worth, probably more, and I think that was more to stick it to the driver than anything. I’m sure there were words later, especially as Andrea had been with the company for 17 years.
Anyway, we moved on.
The first thing we saw were a selection of the bodies they’d extracted. These were kept in two semi-circular sealed glass rooms. They were in their death poses, one of a child and mother, another of someone covering their face to keep the gases out. Some we could even see their skulls and teeth. Unlike Herculaneum, where death had been swift, in Pompeii it had been slow and agonising. It was a sobering start to the tour.
Pompeii looked different from when I saw it 16 years ago. Then it had been overrun with vines and weeds and I think a lot of cats or dogs. Now it was almost sterile in its restoration. The city had been just about flattened from the eruption so the buildings weren’t as tall as those we saw in Herculaneum.
As with Herculaneum, I was surprised at how brightly all the walls and floors had been decorated. It seemed odd to think of it being so colourful because now we see so many bland representations but really the place must have shone.
We went into a number of buildings, check out a lot of mosaics and frescoes, graffiti, a brothel (including the penis carving on the road that acted as a signpost to the brothel), and gardens. Some of the gardens had been restored and were growing plants that had once grown there (they’d done soil tests etc). There were lots of pomegranate and quince trees, all bearing fruit, all rotting on the ground.
We checked out the amphitheatre and then the arena as well as the large gymnasium. Inside the gymnasium were large solid concrete structures in the ground. They were to represent the sycamore trees that had once grown there. When they were destroyed they were about 100 years old. The size is staggering. Also in this area we saw carbonised food – lentils, beans, peach stones, walnuts, pomegranate seeds and bread.
We had visited at the perfect time of the day as it was getting closer to 5pm, the sun was getting lower, it was cool, the crowds had thinned. And after about two hours, we were ready to head home.
Andrea took us back to the entrance, we said our goodbyes, and then Igor drove us back to Sorrento through the insane traffic. Again we got to see the towns hugging the cliffs and it was indeed beautiful, and a welcome distraction from the cars. Not for the first time I was very glad I had decided not to drive in Italy.
A modern art sculpture in ancient Pompeii
The gymnasium where 100-year-old sycamores once stood
I was ready to eat by 7:30pm even if Glen was still a little full from our late lunch. Perhaps my stomach has expanded on this trip. I’ll get it stapled when we return. I decided we’d go to Il Buco, a Michelin-star restaurant in Sorrento. I rang and was lucky to get a reservation for 8pm for the two of us.
We strode into town, got a little lost trying to find the place, and then took our seats. We ordered the fish tasting menu, which came with six courses plus a couple of small extras throughout. I also ordered the matched wine.
The food was delicious and the portions, though small, were an adequate size. Glen got full a lot quicker than and struggled on a couple of course. I managed to wolf mine down, aided by the large glasses of wine they served. I couldn’t finish two of them and at the end was rolling drunk and had begun to feel woozy.
After the three-hour meal, we wandered (stumbled?) back to the hotel and climbed into bed, staying awake long enough to make sure I wasn’t going to be ill and then went to sleep.
Fried polenta with salmon
Steamed lobster with local crisp bread and buffalo burrata cheese
Seared scallops on raw and cooked escarole
Risotto Carnaroli with burrata cheese on a pulp of San Marzano tomatoes and wild herb-scented prawns
Linguini with lemon-scented scorpion fish on roe and sundried tomato sauce
Fillet of local red snapper on fennel gratin with lime, carrot ginger cream puree
A pre-dessert that I’ve forgotten
Babà and white chocolate mousse, orange glaze and rum sauce