Digging History on a Naples Vacation
From Pompeii to Herculaneum, step back in time at the several archaeological sites near the city.
On August 24 in A.D. 79, Vesuvius, a volcano that had been dormant for as long as anyone could remember, roared to life, taking the local population by surprise. The consequences were apocalyptic and all life at the foot of the volcano was wiped out in one clean sweep. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in ash, mud and lava and only rediscovered some 1,700 years later, “frozen” in time.
Though Pompeii is probably the most famous archaeological site in the world, and at the top of visitors’ wish lists, you might want to consider the smaller and less-visited Herculaneum, or the even-less trodden site of Oplontis. But the remains from volcanic disaster aren’t the only ancient ruins in the area. Don’t miss archaeological sites on the other side of the bay, such as Cuma and Baia.
The eruption of Vesuvius drowned the thriving and bustling city of Pompeii in 20 to 23 feet of ash and cinder. Over time, four-fifths of the city was excavated and a walk through the excavations is a once-in-a-lifetime journey into the past, offering an insight into life during Roman times.
Surprisingly, many objects (such as bottles, glassware and silverware) were found intact in the city’s homes. The most famous houses are the House of the Faun, and the Villa dei Misteri, both filled with splendid frescoes, some of which are on display in Naples’ Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
Pompeii’s information office is located at Porta Marina, Piazza Anfiteatro, tel. +39-081-8575347, www.pompeiisites.org.
The nearby archaeological site of Oplontis is a short walk from the Circumvesuviana station of Torre Annunziata. This ancient suburb of Pompeii was also destroyed by the eruption of A.D. 79 and is where you will find the under-visited Villa Poppea, a grandiose holiday villa from the 1st century B.C. that houses what are considered to be some of the finest examples of Pompeian wall paintings in the familiar bright vermilion and turquoise hues. Originally the villa had a pool, courtyards, arcades and servants’ quarters.
Polontis’ information office is located at Via Sepolcri 1, tel. +39-081-8621755, www.pompeiisites.org.
A heat blast of 662 degrees Fahrenheit killed the inhabitants of the wealthy city of Herculaneum on the afternoon of August 24 instantly, as the dozens of skeletons found at the beach centuries later testifies. Over the next 18 hours the town was swallowed up by an oozing mass of red-hot lava.
Excavations first began in earnest on the site in 1748. The first major discovery was the luxurious three-story beachfront Villa of the Papyri, which is believed to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. It was so called because a library of 1,800 carbonized but still-legible papyrus scrolls were found here, making it paradoxically the only intact library to survive from Greco-Roman antiquity. The writings were mainly works by the Epicurean Greek philosopher Philodemus.
Archaeologists are still busy digging in and around the villa in the hope of unearthing more scrolls, ideally lost texts by Aristotle, Euripides or Sophocles. At least 80 magnificent marble and bronze statues were found here too, many of which can be seen at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. The rest of the streets of the city are lined with more beautiful seafront villas, the Forum, a theatre, thermal spas and more.
Herculaneaum, Corso Resina 6, tel. +39-081-7324311, www.pompeiisites.org
The ancient city of Cumae (Via Acropoli 1, tel. +39-081-8543060) is located 12 miles northwest of Naples and is the oldest section of the so-called Campi Flegrei (Phlegrean Fields), the highly volcanic area to the west of Naples. Founded in about 750 B.C., it was the first of the Greek colonies on the mainland, and arguably the most important. It was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. and was inhabited until its destruction by Neapolitans in 1205.
Remains of fortifications and graves from all these periods have been found on the city's acropolis hill and elsewhere throughout the area. The Cave of the Sibyl (Antro della Sibilla) is a 143 yard-long passage hewn out of the rock with dozens of shafts opening on to the sea that let in light and air. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, it was here that Sybil told Aeneas of his future role as the founder of Rome (making Cuma a holy site for Romans).
From the Cave of the Sibyl, a ramp leads up to the acropolis. The road leads past a lookout terrace to the remains of the Temple of Apollo and beyond this the ruins of a Temple of Jupiter on the summit of a hill. From here there are incredible views of the sea, extending as far as Gaeta and the Pontine islands.
Just a few miles southeast of Cuma is the Baia Archaeological Park (Via Sella di Baia 22, tel. +39-081-8687592) where you can see the remains of the ancient city of Baiae, much of which now lies under the sea. The coast around Baia was considered a glamorous holiday getaway (much like Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda is today) in ancient Roman times.
To see the città sommersa (submerged city) you can book a scuba-diving session or a tour on a glass-bottomed boat, which leaves from the port three times a day on weekends. To book either, visit www.baiasommersa.it.
Slightly further afield, about 50 miles from Naples, are the three majestic Greek temples of Paestum. This is the site of the ancient city of Poseidonia, founded by the Greeks in around 600 B.C. It was considerably modified and added to after A.D. 273, when the Romans took over the colony.
Much of the objects found here, including tomb paintings and sculptures, are housed in the impressive Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Paestum (Via Magna Graecia 919, tel. +39-0828-811023). Of the three temples, the Temple of Hera (built about 460 B.C.) is the best preserved. The site is surrounded by three miles of ancient fortified wall built out of travertine stone.
Themes: Historical Vacations
Pompeii is an amazing historical landmark. Its been year since I visited there, but the impression is still alive. The restored ruins are amusing for their story frozen in the bricks and the casts of bodies, which recall the loss of the port city back to life. I think everyone should go and experience this incredible city.