I was in a crowded train on a Sunday morning. Everywhere around me were teenagers heading to the beach at Sorrento, screaming and yelling at each other. The only other people on that packed Circumvesuviana line on the Sunday morning in June from Naples to Sorrento were the furtive looking tourists- not knowing what had hit them. Most of them were heading to the star attraction in the region of Campania- Pompeii- a city of legend. Buried by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD, the ruins of the town still continues to impress tourists. So it was no surprise that when the train doors opened for the ‘Ercolano Scavi’ station I had to literally wrestle my way out to the platform. It was a good thing that I had years of experience travelling in the suburban trains between Tambaram and Chennai Beach.
Once out on the platform I quickly made my way outside to the square outside the railway station of the modern town of Ercolano- the only occupant at the time was an old man trying to sell me bus tickets for the climb up Mt Vesuvius. I looked around desperately hoping for a signboard pointing me to the ruins of Herculaneum- a sister town to Pompeii, buried by the very same eruption and forgotten for centuries. It was in fact Herculaneum that was accidentally discovered in the 18th Century and the town was the first site of frantic digging for Roman treasures. As time passed however, Pompeii became a much easier and more attractive showcase for the perfect Roman town preserved in time- a trend that continues to this day.
From the railway station, I had to follow a long road sloping downhill towards the direction of the sea until I came to a vast park- the site of the ruins. Upon entry you quickly realise how deeply the city was buried in ancient times by the number of stairs you have to climb down before you reach the ruins. The modern city of Ercolano breathes down the old town- daring it to grow any bigger as tourists to the site struggle to avoid the clothes drying from balcony railings in the apartments nearby entering into their photo frames.
The site of the ruins at Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii. However what the site loses in size it makes up in punch. The nature in which Herculaneum was buried meant that some structures and even organic material were better preserved than Pompeii. Many houses even had wooden frames still intact within them when they were excavated- nearly 2000 years later. I stand in awe in front of a two storied Roman house- its outer wall faced with wooden beams and a pattern of stone-work called ‘Opus Craticum’- a light weight construction technique.
Inside another house I find two massive and decorated wooden partitions used to divide the living room into two separate areas when required. Everywhere I turn I see the remains of colourful frescos, mosaics, shrines and fountains. The colour Red is predominant everywhere giving a sense of grandeur to the ancient remains. At some places the walls and floors are shaped like waves- the heat of the pyroclastic surge from the volcano made the floors and walls buckle- like rippling water, but their structure survived.
Houses are not the only attraction at Herculaneum- one can even glance through the remains of what were once shops, taverns and thermopolia- the equivalents of modern fast food restaurants. One wall had a cluster of tourists arduously clicking photographs in front of it. After a patient wait I saw that the wall once advertised the wares of a shop nearby selling different kinds of wines. There are also wonderfully preserved public baths with barrel vaulted roofs, floor mosaics of sea animals and seats with alcoves above for placing one’s belongings.
The eruption did not just cause damage to the built structures- much of the landscape itself was changed. Herculaneum was in some ways a beach resort where the rich and famous had some of their villas- in fact the magnificent villa of the Papyrii which has not yet been completely excavated had multiple terraces leading all the way to the water front. One can view the ancient structures built on the waterside where hundreds of people waited to be evacuated from the town during the eruption. Many survived but the remains of many people huddled up in sheds beside the beach were uncovered in modern times. Today the waterfront has moved away from the ancient town.
Herculaneum is a place that is used to being in the shadows- in the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius and also in the shadow of its sister town Pompeii over the last few centuries. But that does not make Herculaneum less special. The sea may have moved away, the modern town may have encroached upon the ancient ruins, and much of the town may still be unexcavated but what is left for the visitor is still a unique glimpse into the way people carried on their lives two millennia ago.
How to get there: You can get to Herculaneum by taking the Circumvesuviana train from Naples central to Sorrento. The stop to get off is Ercolano Scavi from where the ruins are a 10 minute walk. If you are also planning to visit Pompeii, you can buy a combined ticket at the entrance.
Alright, so what did you think of Herculaneum? Tomorrow’s post will be different- no travelling, photography etc- it will be going back to the early days. Curious? Check this space..