Saturday, 4 April 2009

Italy - Day 4, Herculaneum

There are eight hundred and seventy-eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and what is not altogether surprising is that Italy with forty-three of them is the single country with the most and that of course includes the archeological area of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

If I had known just how easy it was to use the train to get around then I would have made my own cheaper arrangements to go to Herculaneum but the trip was paid for so along with everyone else we assembled outside the hotel and waited for the coach that was going to take us there. The coach headed out of Sorrento back in the direction of Naples and went around the base of Vesuvius on the western side towards the modern town of Ercolano. This was an unremarkable and forgettable sort of town on the outskirts of the city and the drop off point seemed less than promising and left us with a long walk to the entrance to the site.

After the eruption the town of Herculaneum was buried under approximately twenty metres of lava, mud and ash and it lay hidden and nearly intact until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709. From there, the excavation process began but is still incomplete and today and the untidy Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of old Herculaneum which prevents its complete excavation.

Actually the excavation has now been suspended indefinitely to help preserve the ancient city. The volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of preservation for over one thousand, six hundred years but once excavations began exposure to the elements began the slow process of deterioration. This was not helped by the methods of archaeology used earlier in the town's excavation, which generally concentrated on recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the survival of everything. Tourism, vandalism as well as inappropriate excavation methods has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from the modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the buildings. Consequently the archeologists have decided that what remains buried is best left buried until it can be excavated safely.

From the entrance we had to descend into what resembles a deep pit through the twenty metres of tufa and down to the site itself and it became immediately apparent that Herculaneum is most unlike the remains at the site at Pompeii. The people of Pompeii died from the effects of the poisonous fumes but it was very different in Herculaneum. Pompeii was destroyed by fumes and ash that was carried by the wind in a south-easterly direction but Herculaneum was on the other side of the mountain to the west. During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius. A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of gas, ash, and rock that had reached a temperature of five hundred degrees centigrade racing down toward Herculaneum at a hundred kilometres an hour. When it reached the city it buried the citizens who had fled to boat houses and were trying to escape and the intense heat killed them instantly.

A pyroclastic flow is ‘a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano and the temperature within a flow may be so great that it is sufficient to burn and carbonise wood. Once deposited, because of the intense heat, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments deform and weld together. Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether. Filling from the bottom in this way was important because at Pompeii most of the buildings were destroyed by the overhead weight of the ash being deposited on the buildings but this didn’t happen at Herculaneum.

Because this was an organised visit we enjoyed the company of an informative guide who took us around the main buildings and explained them to us and also an audio guide that filled in the details when afterwards we were left to wander about by ourselves through the houses and the streets of the old city. No one knows for sure but visitors can only see about a fifth of the city which led me to speculate on what great treasures there must be waiting to be discovered in what remains perfectly preserved underneath the foundations of the modern town directly above.

Although the excavation site is much smaller than Pompeii, because of the state of preservation of the buildings I found Herculaneum to be more interesting. The buildings are intact and the frescoes and the wall paintings are much more vivid and it is possible to visit the houses of important people (including Julius Ceaser’s father-in-law) and the shopping areas and public buildings and the boat houses where most of the inhabitants died as they tried to make their impossible escape from the approaching boiling lava flow.

This was only a half day visit to Herculaneum so after we had seen all there was to see we left the site and returned to the coach for the thirty minute drive back to Sant’ Agnello in time for lunch. We went to the pool bar and had pasta and a beer and then spent an hour or so enjoying the sunshine. Some people were in the pool but I think they must have been from Iceland or some other northerly latitude because this was late October and although the weather was extremely pleasant the water in the pool had drooped below my minimum requirements and tolerance levels.

Just as in 1976 I couldn’t seem to get out of the habit of walking down and across to the little bar on the headland so by mid afternoon and tired of the pool area we wandered down and took a table in the sunshine, ordered a drink and simply wasted a couple of hours just watching people and admiring the magnificent scenery. Directly across the bay Vesuvius was partially obscured by the haze of pollution drifting down from Naples but it still looked brooding and magnificent. Below us at the foot of the cliffs the thin strip of black grainy beach disappeared south towards the Grand Marina and north towards the adjacent town of Piano de Sorrento just out of sight around the rocky headland. The blue sea sparkled as though containing fibre optic lights and the occasional boat would temporarily disturb this tranquility as it entered or left the harbour.

This brought memories of my previous visit flooding back; our very first overseas holiday, dad in his shirt and tie, the visits to the cities of Rome and Naples and the day trip to Capri; the old fashioned hotel Mediterraneo and the hot holiday rep Maria; dad getting cross when people from London kept calling Pompeii Pompey (he kept reminding them that that was Portsmouth); and the genuine excitement of being somewhere exotic and different for the first time ever. It was good too to be here now with Jonathan and I bored him with my silly stories but he was polite enough to stay awake and listen.

Later we skipped evening meal again and I have checked and it is interesting that even five years later the guest reviews of the Parco Del Sol are still far from complimentary about the quality of the catering. We used the trattoria again and had our final meal in Sorrento before a couple of drinks and then an early night so that we would be fresh for the early pick up back to the airport in the morning.

I had enjoyed my second visit to Sorrento, I had revisited some places that I had seen previously but had also seen Herculaneum which I had missed the last time. On the return journey home I wondered if I might one day ‘Come back to Sorrento’ again sometime in the future.

“Then say not 'goodbye', Come back again, beloved
Back to Sorrento, or I must die.”

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