Ruined The pillars of Herculaneum

On every stag do I’ve ever been on, pretty much everyone gets way too pissed on the day they spend travelling to the actual destination such that the first/only full day is a lighter-weight affair than weeks or months of planning would have you think. When I woke up on Friday morning in Naples I feared I’d done similar; not that it was meant to be a day of excessive boozing, quite the opposite – I worried that I felt too rough to enjoy a full day out and about in Naples and vicinity.

Mercifully the champagne-fog lifted pretty quickly and whatever cobwebs were left behind got thoroughly blasted away by our hotel room’s fantastic shower. I do love a good hotel room shower and this is one of the best; it has three modes (hand held, ceiling, or horizontal jets), it’s easy to find the perfect temperature, and the water pressure goes all the way up to “invigoratingly punishing”. And in-keeping with the hotel’s general oddness, the supplied toiletries include bath salts. There is no bath.

While Helen showers I take a peek outside, leaning over the Juliet balcony. Yes, I learnt the proper name for this style of balcony courtesy of a WhatsApp message smartening me up (hat-tip: Alex).

It’s noisy and echo-y and lots of people are walking around and cafes are open and etc. It feels warm and looks sunny. We head out, down the spiral staircase because the lift requires a €0,10 coin to operate at certain times of day and we don’t have one. This gives us the chance to notice that as well as hotel rooms, this huge building also houses loads of offices too. It’s a pretty stunning building.

I would prefer to use the lift because old school lifts with manual doors and stuff are ace, and spiral staircases are horrible. Helen is of the opposite opinion, but appreciates how it looks especially because it gives her a chance to flex her new camera. Yeah, about that, many of the pictures in this and subsequent diary entries will be pictures Helen took.

Downstairs we stand around admiring things for a bit, and fail to convincingly decide what to do about food. We’d left the room too late for breakfast, but had heard that there’s a good cafe north of where we are. We don’t know which way’s north, mind. While loitering and taking photos I’m sure we’re about to be approached by some kind of hawker or scammer or whatever, despite the presence of armed police, so we just head out vaguely in the direction of Municipio metro.

There are loads of nice looking cafes and we’re completely paralysed by choice. We walk past a bunch, plus international detective agencies and shops selling police uniforms and stuff, seemingly unable to decide when to stop. I think my sense of direction is reasonable and that we’re walking roughly towards the station we want to get a train from shortly. There are main roads, side roads, pedestrianised bits, and tons of scooters.

Naples is kinda known for its chaotic traffic but I don’t think either of us had quite expected it to be so busy. It’s like being in some Vietnamese city - the traffic is constant, and therefore slow, and the way to cross the road is to just stride out confidently and let it flow around you. There are official crossings, and some of them even have red/green men – but they stay on green for about 2 seconds, and the cars and scooters don’t honour it anyway.

The most intense of the traffic is yet to come, though. First, after 15 minutes of fairly random walking we end up at a square called Piazza Carita and plonk down at a cafe where we can order breakfast. I have a bottle of water and a couple of pastries, while Helen orders ... something. Neither of us are really sure, tbh; the menu didn’t have much English on it, and many of the options weren’t available anyway so our choices were semi-random.

I believe I ended up with two sfogliatelle, though they’re so different that I reckon I only had one and a something-else. They are super-dense custard tarts basically, and very nice, as was Helen’s ham and cheese sandwich thing.

While there we tried to figure out how to get to Porta Nolana station. I think my sense of direction had failed us a bit and we needed to set off back the way we came, though not too far. Google maps told us it was 25 minutes on foot or 25 minutes by public transport so sod it, we walked.

GPS signal being wonky, we took a wrong turn again pretty soon, after walking around the edge of an absolutely enormous central post office, the streets and steps outside of which were lined with a freakishly large and strange flea market. Every table, or just tablecloth on the floor, was attended by an old man and the range of goods was remarkable. There were kids toys, religious iconography, spanners, hats, entire cookware sets, books, music, cameras, candlesticks, and loads more besides.

Back on the right track, it’s a long walk essentially above the metro line. The main road is completely logjammed the whole time, and horns are used to good effect. Each road crossing is as above – just step out and let the wheeled folk deal with it. After about 15 minutes we have to cross the big main road, and then head through another flea market district until the bus and train station at Porta Nolana. Just before the station there’s a gun and knife shop, and prior to buying train tickets we go to the kiosk to buy water, noticing that they also sell Tennents Super.

Tickets to Sorrento are easily purchased, though we’re not intending to go straight there. Our walk has ended up being perfectly timed in that a Sorrento service is leaving within 5 minutes. It’s an old bone-rattler of a train but being the start of the line we manage to get a couple of seats together. I’d deliberately led us to this station rather than the next one, which is the main terminus for yer bigger Trenitalia services and where, according to my research, lots of other people get on.

Sure enough, at Garibaldi the train fills to bursting. Many of the folk are tourists because as well as servicing a load of suburbs and further out towns, this train also goes to some of the most popular tourist attractions beyond the city limits, the first of which is where we’re getting off: Ercolano Scavi, aka the excavations at Herculaneum. Immediately outside the station there’s a line of 6 or 8 pizza restaurants, each of which has one or two staff members outside beckoning people in by dancing and flapping their menus open and closed like some kind of ritual.


About 1km down a straight (of course...) road to the excavations entrance, the real cameras come out of our bags. Herculaneum is like a sister of Pompeii – less famous and much smaller, but otherwise the same story: a town that was destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius back in whenever it was (AD 79? something like that) and whose remains were found during building work, now being preserved and restored to tell the story. Before reaching the proper, paid entrance you walk along this bridge to get an aerial view and it looks pretty cool.

There are plenty of other people about, not vast amounts but several school groups. Mercifully it’s pretty easy to steer clear of them for most of the time we spend wandering the site. We forget to pick up a map, and opt not to pay extra for the audio guide, so we don’t really learn much – but we’d watched a documentary or two in the weeks leading up to the trip anyway. Without distraction we’re free to just walk the streets imagining what life would have been like anyway. Personally I think it’s less about the ruinous eruption and how it must have felt to be present at that time, and more an amazing example of an actual town/city from 2000 years ago that literally hasn’t changed, giving an opportunity to imagine what life, not fiery magma/lava-induced death, was like.

My immediate reaction, and one which has not changed 18 hours later, is that it the whole town felt like one big structure, unlike any modern town or city. I’m sure before the disaster the neighbouring buildings wouldn’t have looked as uniform as they do now, but stripped back to the brickwork the dwellings and public buildings feel more to me like rooms in one giant building than individual elements.

There are roads between them but they are super-narrow, making it also feel very built-up. Maybe I’m just ignorant but this surprised me. Most of what remains here is single story though there are plenty which are double, and being so close together it’s .. well, not claustrophobic, but more reminiscent of wandering around New York or the City of London than I expected. I thought that closeness was a modern phenomenon and expected more space in something 2000 years old, and I don’t doubt that there are myriad reasons I should not have expected that.

This is a kitchen. The holes are where stuff get stored like grain, olives, etc.

Some of the buildings still have pretty remarkable decoration. As well as houses there are schools, fraternities, a court, and so on. Very few of them have any labels so, without map or guide, we’re ignorant of much detail but it doesn’t really matter to us.

Helen’s very much enjoying her new camera, while I feel like perhaps I’m getting to grips with mine. I’ve attached my 12mm wide lens with no zoom and manual focus. Focusing is a problem and I end up discarding a bunch of pictures, but for those that do work, I feel like I’m vaguely getting the hang of adjusting aperture and shutter speed and stuff to get a bit of control when lighting is challenging. Mind you, most of the good pics here are still Helen’s and I don’t understand why this software seems to reduce the detail of many pics. Hey Adobe, does iOS Spark Page reduce resolution or something? Or am I just making excuses?

I don’t think either of us anticipated quite how long we’d spend walking around without getting bored. One of the reasons we’d chosen Herculaneum is because it’s smaller than Pompeii, where lots of the good stuff is really spread out. This place is compact but still kept us occupied for more than 2 hours.

Camera and composition battle. Helen probably wins, even though I can’t remember which one is which.

OK, it starts to get a bit samey but our interest is nourished by dicking around with cameras. And anyway, then there are some non-samey bits - much larger buildings, some gardens, some earthenware.

Looks like Gordon Liu headbutted it in 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Surely I’m not the only person who thought that?

Then there are some statues. Look at this wanker.

Round about this time Helen wants to leave, but I say come on, there’s only really one road left, let’s see what there is. I’m glad to win because we see some of the best stuff yet.

There’s normally a tunnel that leads to the historic shoreline and some final big hitters, but today there’s some work going on meaning it’s shut. This means we have to head back to where we came in to the main complex, which gives us time to stop for a vending machine ice cream - which feels a bit wrong in Italy - and then stop to admire Vesuvius.

Descending this long metal staircase down a tunnel of doom, it’s mostly empty until we get to the end and our way forwards is hindered by two different school groups. One leaves the interesting stuff only to be replaced by the other, so we scoot past both up to the relatively uninteresting stuff first. Like this handless guy.

Once all the kids have buggered off we get to see what we’re down here for. Warning: quite gruesome and somber stuff ahead. At the top I spoke about how much of the excavations gave pause to think about what life was like, but the rooms down here by the ancient shoreline are solely dedicated to what death was like on the day lava and ash destroyed life and limb.

Here, then are the “fugitives” – a word we see written on an indoor display a few minutes later, and which initially seems weird but makes sense really: fugitive means on the run from something, not necessarily the law. These people were on the run from Vesuvius, and here are their remains preserved in the moment of their death. Scroll fast if you don’t like the sound of it.

Oof. That’s pretty tough. I’ve been up a few volcanoes including active ones that blew a few months afterwards, but nothing really brought home the full destructive power until seeing these remains, with the cause of their death looming over us.

The last thing we visit here is an indoor exhibit of a boat, fairly recently discovered when it was upturned and brought to the surface in a storm a couple of decades ago (I think). People did try and flee by sea, but to little avail.

With all this done, it’s time to set off. Google maps, remarkably, has the local private train company Circumvesuviana on its public transport directions, and it says there’s a train in about 20 minutes. Given it’s a 15 minute walk back to the station that’s just about perfect. Past the dancing menu-flappers, we buy another ticket to Sorrento, since the one we’d bought in Naples doesn’t actually allow a break of service that would make the entire journey over 3 hours, and get up to the platform with a couple of minutes to spare.

Our train arrives more than 10 minutes late and while more modern and less bone-rattler, it’s horrifically busy and we’re squeezed in like sardines. Mercifully someone gets off at the very next stop which enables Helen to get a seat and me to stand directly in front of her, which in turn enables me to almost fall on her multiple times throughout the rest of the journey as the driver flexes the brakes repeatedly.

It’s an “express” train of sorts. Limited stop, let’s say. But it still takes us forever to reach Sorrento, arriving at 4:30pm. Disappointingly (but not a surprise, we’d looked it up) the last boat back to Napoli is at 4:25pm so we’re resigned to getting the train back, and that’s fine, but right now we want some proper food and a beer overlooking the sea, please.

Adopting the British seaside strategy of exiting the station and walking straight forwards and down the hill because that’s where the sea is guaranteed to be, we hit a main road where there are only swanky hotels with private balconies. Strafing sideways, I successfully argue against an impromptu walk around a limoncello factory, and we reach a busy square with bus stops and loads of traffic and a sign pointing downwards to the port. It’s very very down, like staircases of maybe 150 or 200 steps to reach the road below, which is then another 500 metre downhill walk until the port. We’re at the sea!

A brief look at the ferry company windows shows us there really are no boats back to Napoli. To our left is “Peter’s Beach”, which appears to be a private beach with restaurant and bar and deck chairs and lifeguards and things. We walk in, are stopped by a lifeguard asking what we want - a drink, if that’s alright with you. Seated on the pier in half sun, half shade, we get a beer and a glass of white wine. This is nice.

We can relax now, where “relax” means “send photos of our drinking in a gorgeous setting to numerous people back home in an attempt to make them jealous, because we’re dicks like that”. It seems to work.

Sorrento is a big town on the Amalfi coast. I’ve been describing towns on this peninsular, Positano especially, as “vertical” because the pictures are so stunning. Like this one on the front of our guide book.

But actually Sorrento isn’t vertical in that kind of very-steep-town way, it’s more literally vertical: the town is flat, but up the top of a bunch of cliffs, and at the bottom there’s just the port and these beach bars with piers. Not that it isn’t nice, it just isn’t what I expected.

We’re still hungry and want to order food, but overhearing the English couple on the adjacent table we learn there’s no hot food until 7pm, only a handful of cold snacks. So we finish the drinks and ascend the cliffs, this time by using the lift just up the way. It costs a euro to go up and I find it hilarious that it’s not glass sided or glass bottomed or in any way fancy and an attraction in its own right: it’s just a regular lift like you’d find in a cheap hotel.

At the top we’re on the outskirts of the town centre. There are nice views back across the bay to Vesuvius, and down to where we just were.

Walking a few yards to a nice square with some decent look restaurants on the borders, we take a seat at one, we order pizza and wine and beer.

The food is fantastic. This pizza has anchovies on it, which are much much saltier than the ones I have on my Tesco self-serve salad for lunch each day. Cough, cough, cough.

Looking at train times, it seems we are just able to indulge my desire for craft beer by popping into Bar del Carmine back by the other, main square en route to the station. There’s plenty of space at the tables outside. A stout and a Bellini, please. Here we are able to watch, as the sun sets, the chaotic traffic as it all navigates the large open square with no road markings.

We’re also able to laugh lots at the pigeons. There are two, the tamest/most aggressive things you’ve ever seen, jumping up on chair backs and everyone’s tables, hunting for stuff to eat and mostly impervious to any hand waving or clapping or other attempts to get them to sod off. At some point a waiter puts a bowl of nuts on our table, which we notice after the pigeons who before we know it have jumped up and are pecking away at them.

Everyone at all the tables finds it kinda annoying but mostly funny, except for the poor girl at the table in front of us who keeps jumping up scared like I would if it were bees or spiders. Me and Helen find it hilarious and basically want to feed them, especially the one that’s lost a couple of toes. That said, they do get a bit too close and refuse to move when I wave a menu at them and shout “hop it! Get lost! Shift!” at them. To most people’s relief, the restaurant’s “old man who claps at pigeons” starts his evening shift around then and spends the next few minutes repeatedly shoo-ing them whenever they pause in one location.

With all this excitement we realise time is a bit short, actually. Getting the bill and then wandering back to the station, we join a long queue for our third tickets of the day. Circumvesuviana doesn’t do ticket machines, you always have to buy from a desk. Thankfully being the end of the line there’s very little confusion and the queue moves quickly. I’ve even got time for a strategic piss, except it costs €0,50 and we don’t have the coins. Grr.

We sit right at the front of the clapped out train, behind the driver and guard, and it goes nowhere. We eventually leave 15 minutes late and despite being another faux-express service, it’s slow and delayed and boring and crowded and we get back to Napoli Garibaldi about 20 minutes behind schedule. Frankly, all three of our rides on this train line were shit and we’re not sad to have got them all out of the way in one day.

At Garibaldi we have a look around the corridors of shops in the vain hope of finding a supermarket or off licence, but there are neither. It’s a vast and confusing station: there are long distance Trenitalia services up top, plus two metro lines whose entrances are miles from each other. We want Metro Linea 1 and follow the signs to it, which take us through another cavernous underground concourse lined with shops that don’t sell booze. Eventually we’re at the entrance to the Metro, have bought a couple of tickets, and get the escalator down.

Then the next escalator down. Then the next. Then the next. Holy shit, I knew Naples is big on its subterranean attractions but this has to be one of the deepest tube lines in the fucking world. What’s more, they are the slowest escalators I’ve ever been on. They kinda seem like those ones in Germany which are either stopped or slow when empty, but start/get faster once people stand on them – just without the getting faster bit.

At the platform we find some space and wait for the train, which takes 5 minutes to arrive and is too short to fill the platform length, meaning we need to jog up to fit on the end carriage. Fucks sake.

Thankfully it’s only two stops to Municipio and I’ve already scoped out the location of a nearby supermarket, which is easy to find and open.

Our entrance is blocked by a proper stand up heated and physical argument between two feisty local pensioners. Once we’re in we make a beeline for the soft drinks and booze, loading up on both. The beer is ludicrously cheap by London standards, or at least I think it is. We get 2 small cans of lager, 2 mini bottles of Prosecco, a large bottle of weissbier, and numerous soft drinks and it all comes to about €8,00. (Actually we tried to buy 4 lagers, but one of them was flawed and spilt Heineken all over the girl at the till’s hands. D’oh).

Back at Galleria Umberto there are a few tourists hanging around, and some homeless people setting up bed for the night. There are no footballers, which is good because had a ball come near us tonight I am sure I would have turned my 100% volley success rate into 50%.

In our room, a piece of paper is on the floor inviting us to an aperitif in the breakfast area between 6.30pm and 8.30pm. If that’s every night then fine, but not tonight since it’s already gone 9pm by this time. We put all the photos from both cameras on my iPad and admire the megapixels from the Fuji, while bemoaning how badly I manually focused many of my shots. I have a bottle of beer while awake, then a second which is mostly consumed between bouts of multi-second sleep during which I am frankly amazed not to spill anything. Perhaps it’s better just to go to sleep.

Created By
Darren Foreman

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