Walking Through History: Pompeii and Herculaneum

When I knew I was going to the southern part of Italy, I knew I wanted to see Pompeii. I grew up always learning about it in school – the proverbial town just covered in ash from Vesuvius, where people where found huddled in the corners of their houses with their children clutched to them. It was always the stuff of legend, at least to me. And then I realized I was headed south!

In a funny moment, I considered Pompeii one of my “nerd” activities, and didn’t initially think to see if Holly wanted to go. But alas… I realized that in enough time to ask whether Holly wanted to go to Pompeii or Capri or somewhere else with a beach. And she chose Pompeii!


After we got back from Sorrento to Naples, we went to the archaeology museum, which was hugely illuminating for the day at Pompeii (and see tomorrow’s post for that recap… timeline got a bit weird for the posts!).

We left at about 10am and took the train to Pompeii. The train – the Circumvesuviana – is definitely an experience! It’s a bit out of the 70s – it’s loud, crowded, and old! But we made it to Pompeii, stopped for a lunch of pizza and gnocchi (I seriously cannot get enough Italian food), and then we went in.

Holy crap is Pompeii huge! I realized I sort of knew it in my head, that it would be big. But from the really realizing the size of it, I definitely thought it was smaller! I should have realized – it was, after all, a city… but being that it’s a tourist attraction, I think my paradigms for size of “city” and size of “tourist attraction” got confused.

We spent all afternoon walking up and down the streets of Pompeii. It was absolutely amazing. I was surprised how much was gone. Again, I know that sounds dumb, but I think with the everything I learned about it being so well-preserved, I expected almost more “city.” There was still a lot, though!

Many of the villas were open for us to walk through, and I loved the structure of how the house was built to surround a garden. It was so lovely. Pompeii was a holiday town for the most part, so that also helps explain (I think) the merging of outside and inside.

Even in the global warming era of today, the sea has also pulled back from the city. Pompeii used to be right on the sea, as was Herculaneum, and the sea is now definitely a decent ways away from the cities.

One part of Pompeii that’s incredibly well-preserved was their colosseum. It’s huge! And it really is almost completely intact (at least to my untrained eye).

I had so much fun just discovering everything with Holly. I wish I’d done more studying ahead of time, though! Even though we got an iPhone guide, there was still so much to learn and look up. Like the different shops! We looked up later that all of these counters and pots we saw were actually where goods were stored – especially in restaurants!

The next day, Holly left to go back to the States (sad day!) and I went on to Herculaneum. I have to say that comparing and contrasting Pompeii and Herculaneum is really interesting. Pompeii definitely has the press and name recognition (and way more crowds), but in many ways I found Herculaneum more interesting.

When Vesuvius erupted, Pompeii was covered in ash where Herculaneum was covered in mud. So Herculaneum is actually better-preserved than Pompeii was, and Herculaneum feels like you are really walking through an ancient city.

Herculaneum has multiple levels of the city that’s still preserved, so walking up and down it is fun. That also means there are more roofs preserved, and I think that goes a long way (at least for me) for making it feel like a city.

One thing that was incredibly sobering was going down to the bottom level, where the wharves are. When the eruption was going, hundreds of people went down to the wharf to try to get on a boat to get out and survive. But of course – they didn’t make it. So the wharf has all of these inlets that just have piles and piles of bones of the people who were trying to take refuge there. I cannot even imagine the fear as you’re trying to escape that kind of eruption. Or what it was like to be suffocated there. (I believe they died through suffocation from the fumes and toxins of the volcano rather than dying through being buried alive by the mud. Either way, it’s heart wrenching.)

Overall, I’m so glad I went to both sites. Some people say you can do them both in a day, and I can see where that would be possible. But it would be HARD and quite a long day. You wouldn’t really be able to take your time at both sites – especially with the size of Pompeii. Herculaneum is much more compact (they’ve only excavated a small portion because the remainder is under modern-day Naples), and thus can be explored more quickly. But I did like taking two days for it. It’s a wonderful walk through history!

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