Their recast skeletal remains littered the barrel arched, vaulted structures on the beachside of the town, many embracing loved ones in their final moment before immolation and suffocation. It’s a brutal reminder that Ms. Nature is really in charge and can flick us humans off her back with a momentary shrug and belching of one of her mountains. In 79 AD, she did just that and ordered Mt Vesuvius to let lose its fatal eruption.
Up early and off we went to see Pompeii’s little brother city. A twenty-minute walk, one train, and two metro rides for an hour and a half, and we were there! A quick amble down the main street of the town of Ercolano and into the entrance of the archaeological excavation known as Herculaneum.
The site is but a small remnant of the fortified town of villas along the road between Naples and Pompeii. Its enclosure isn’t more than four square city blocks, and because of its relatively small size, one can take their leisure exploring it. There’s much to see as the excavation work continues daily, and unlike Pompeii, this site was reasonably unmolested by those seeking to remove its remains. What is most fascinating is the image it imparts on the culture and daily life of the well-off breed of Romans and their houses and villas back in the day. A lot of the walls and many of the roofs still remain. There are even a few second floors that survived the ash and the ages. Herculaneum is like a snapshot back in time, albeit an old and faded one.
What I found of interest was the comparison of the older ruins homes below to the modern apartments overlooking the dig site. The contrasts are striking in their similarities. In some ways, the ‘Old School’ villas looked much more ergonomically constructed than our modern-day structures. They had multiple floors, baths, running water, atriums, service apartments, large entrances, kitchens, and the works; all the desirable qualities of a well-formed home. But again, these were the villas of their day. As far as construction quality goes, hands down, the old villas were more stable and robust. By way of attractiveness, if the remnants’ colors on the walls and mosaics on the floors are any indication of the standard villa home, the old villas make our modern homes look boorish in comparison.
Herculaneum, as well as many of the other sites and museums we’ve visited, cause me to reconsider the paradigm I’ve developed of ancient peoples. My general view is that they lived like in the ‘Dark Ages’ of ignorance, squalor, and brutality. But the remnants of their artifacts prove over and over again just the opposite. Their paintings and sculptures are magnificent and speak to a humanity that art replicates. Their politics are as sophisticated, if not more so, as today. Their business acumen is perhaps superior when you consider the vast riches amassed over a lifetime without the aid of modern technologies that speed up everything. Their structures still stand, in spite of the ravages of time and war. Their stories, dramas, and philosophy still guide ours today. I suspect we have a lot we could learn from our very distant forefathers.
Our visit to Herculaneum was fascinating, and we were happy to have avoided the crowds and the size of Pompeii. Because it only took two hours to satisfy our curiosities, we had time for more shopping in Naples on the way home – more Italian leather shoes will be on their way back to the States soonest!
Our excursion was working its way up to be another ten miler walking day. Along the way, as we fatigued, we entered the routine quandary; ‘do we stop for food,’ ‘what type’ (quick or sit down), ‘where’? Or, do we just go home and figure it out from there. Usually, we have a pretty good nose for restaurants, but to get the right one means investigating many of the wrong ones first. This is tiring and contributes to the crankiness and general disagreeable demeanor, which is hard to tolerate. Fortunately, after only a single failed investigation, we walked by a small, budget looking mom & pop restaurant that was not only crowded but emanated an irresistible smell. I quickly made the ‘command decision’ and said ‘were eating here, no more discussion.’ What a tremendous off-the-cuff move that turned out to be. The food was hot, fresh, plentiful, and extremely tasty. The service was noisy, not quite rowdy, but the typical Italian bustling with activity kind. The clincher that made this one of the best restaurants we’ve visited so far was that the cook and owner came out during a lull in orders and chatted with all his customers. He was an agreeable, cherubic (in a manly kind of way) kind of guy, with a ready smile and quick wit. As Ursula and I are quite the oddity here, we became the focus of the discussion. We chatted about food, travels, and even a little bit of politics, all good-natured. The meal ended with a complimentary lemon cello, a large tip, and a great write-up review on the internet.
By the time we made it back to Bacoli to negotiate our way up the killer roads, the sun was down, and the moon hidden by the monsoon clouds. It was a trepidatious walk along the busy, dark streets. Still, with our luminous, yellow backpack shielding front and blaring lights from our cell-phones, we made it the base of the hill without becoming a traffic statistic. Climbing through the old Roman ruins by iPhone and watch light is was fun, for one occasion. But, as we made it home, the wine was waiting, and the evening was aglow. Another wonderful day in Bellissima Italia.