One of the great sensations of travel is the amazed shock of recognition that you get when you first lay eyes on something you’ve only seen in pictures, or on something very old and famous. That happens almost daily in Italy—it’s so chock full of old, famous stuff. A recent example occurred when we were on the grimy Circumvesuviana train that runs along the Bay of Naples.
As I peered through the dirty windows into the deepening twilight, wondering where we would find a hotel room when we reached Sorrento, I realized that the flat-topped, cone-shaped peak in the distance must be Mount Vesuvius—the Mount Vesuvius, the one that erupted in 79 AD and killed thousands of people almost instantly, in flourishing Roman towns such as Pompeii and Herculaneum and in patrician vacation villas all along the coast. Realizations like that always leave me thinking “Wow, it’s really real!” which feels simultaneously amazing and stupid.
We spent several days in the shadow of that famous killer volcano. We didn’t go up to the top (there’s not much to see there but views, no bubbling lava like in Hawaii). But we did sleep on the flank of Vesuvius one night, thanks to a CouchSurfing host who hooked us up with a beautiful B&B owned by friends of his in a spot we could never have reached without a car. We awoke to a glorious view over the Bay of Naples.
When Vesuvius erupted, it covered the surrounding area in more than 15 meters (50 feet) of rock and ash, and extended the coastline 400 meters into the sea. That makes the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum even more incredible: workers had to dig down through that much earth to expose what visitors see today. The current excavations represent more than 80 years of concerted digging, done at various times starting in the early 1800s.
For reasons of weather and logistics, we skipped the huge Pompeii site in favor of two smaller and more manageable Roman excavations: Herculaneum (in the present-day city of Ercolano), and Villa Oplontis, a seaside vacation home thought to have belonged to Emperor Nero’s wife Poppea. Between them, they offer remarkable insights into how Romans, rich and poor alike, lived two millennia ago.
Because these sites were buried before other things were built on top of them, they’re amazingly intact. Walls are high, and in some cases, second stories still exist, so you walk in and among and through real buildings, not just stone outlines on the ground. The rooms reveal fragments of wall paintings, mosaics, marble floors, columns, painted plaster molding strips, food counters, and even wooden objects (beds, doors, window frames). Historians must love it here because you get a three-dimensional sense of the building techniques and interior space of Roman-era homes.
I’ve seen lots of artifacts in my time, but I can’t get over how incredible it feels to look at a 2,000-year-old painting. Maybe because paint seems so much more ephemeral than stone or metal. Many of the interior walls of Herculaneum are painted dark red or white, with gold, black, or red designs on them, showing trompe l’oeil architectural elements such as columns, open windows, vases, etc., with swags and little birds and occasionally a square painting of figures or animals or a still-life, made to look like a separate picture hanging on the wall.
So many features of Herculaneum speak of everyday life. There are cafeterias on street corners, with big pots sunk into marble counters, where residents could buy a hot lunch. Bath houses have tile-floored sauna rooms and wooden shelves where bathers could leave their clothes. Public wells made of stone stand in the middle of streets. It’s easy to imagine people going about their daily tasks here—maybe buying fresh fish and eels from an open-air stall, like the one we passed in the modern town on our way down to the ruins. The seaside archways where fishermen kept their boats (one of which was excavated intact!) look just like those we’ve seen in harbors up and down the coast. And at Villa Oplontis, there is a 60-meter-long swimming pool that would be impressive in any current mansion. Never has 2,000 years ago felt so recent.