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27 August 2011

Exploring the Cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy

The remains of a street in Pompeii.  All photos in this feature are property of Jessica Spiegel. Please do not use without permission. All rights reserved.  
Jessica Spiegel shares her visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum with her evocative images of what remains of these two lost cities. Plus, she offers helpful tips on exploring these fascinating ruins on your own. I hope you enjoy this feature and please share your thoughts.

And now "Exploring Pompeii and Herculaneum...

Building interior at Herculaneum still unbelievably intact.Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.

Most people are familiar with the story of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried under a cloud of hot stone and ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD – but nothing quite prepares you for seeing the excavated ruins of the city for yourself. Pompeii is one of the most-visited tourist sites in Italy, but travelers aren't always prepared for what they'll see when they arrive. Not only that, most people aren't even aware of the other nearby ancient city that was also buried in the same volcanic eruption – and much better preserved than Pompeii. Here's a brief overview of the two archaeological sites, with some visitor tips at the bottom.

Pompeii

Tourists come to Italy, at least in part, for the history. It's great to tour the Colosseum in Rome or gaze up at David in Florence's Accademia, but it's another thing entirely to walk on ancient Roman streets. A visit to Pompeii allows for just that experience. Pompeii was a huge city in 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted, and although many people died, the initial blast was such that it didn't hit Pompeii with its full force for several hours. As a result, experts now believe that roughly 90% of the residents had fled the city by the time the city was well and truly buried by the pyroclastic flow of ash.

Plaster cast of just one of many Pompeii residents who fell victim to the devastation. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Baths off the Forum at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Sculpture details of the baths off the Forum at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.

Before the hot ash arrived, the city was primarily being hit by volcanic stones. As the stones piled up on rooftops, buildings began to cave in. This is why most of the structures we can see at Pompeii today often have walls intact but not the rooftops (and in some cases those have been rebuilt by archaeologists).

Building interior at Pompeii.  Note the recently-added rooftop mentioned above. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.

The pyroclastic surge that hit Pompeii covered the city in tons of ash, and the city would wait until 1749 to be unearthed once again. The ancient city covered more than 160 acres; only 2/3 of it has been uncovered so far, and it's still a huge site to visit.

Building interior at Pompeii with mosaic flooring. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Close up detail of back wall of room above at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Great Theatre at Pompeii. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
The ancient ruins of Herculaneum contrasts sharply with the modern city backdrop. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.

Herculaneum

While Pompeii is something of a household name, nearby Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) isn't nearly as well known. The city was buried (and preserved) by the same volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii, although the initial blast was in the opposite direction of Herculaneum. Very little ash fell in the city to begin with, but most of the city was evacuated anyway as residents watched an enormous column of smoke and ash shoot into the sky. Several hours later, when the weight of the ash in the column grew too heavy, the whole thing collapsed. The result was the pyroclastic surge of hot ash that swept through Herculaneum and buried the city and all the people left in an instant.

Ancient fountain sculpture in the Suburban Baths at Herculaneum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.

Although most of the residents of Herculaneum got out, several hundred died when the ash cloud collapsed. Herculaneum was discovered in 1738, even before Pompeii, but it wasn't until 1981 that archaeologists finally found skeletons at the site. Those who didn't flee apparently huddled along the shoreline in a series of caves they probably hoped would protect them, and that's where archaeologists found their remains. Herculaneum had been a smaller city than Pompeii – it was a seaside vacation town for the wealthy – and the excavated site is far smaller than Pompeii. There's an even greater percentage of the ancient city left uncovered at Herculaneum, as so much of the modern city lies on top of it. It would be impossible right now to excavate the rest of ancient Herculaneum without destroying the modern city above it.

More Herculaneum.   Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.

Another major difference between the two sites was the manner in which they were buried. Whereas the buildings at Pompeii were getting pelted by pumice rocks for hours before the cloud of ash buried what was left, resulting in many buildings collapsing before the ash even fell, Herculaneum didn't get any of that kind of beating. The ash cloud that fell resulted in a very quick burial of the city, which is why the site is so much more well-preserved now.

Ancient frescoes remain intact in the Hall of the Augustals – a place where freed slaves met and discussed business, religion and politics.  This building was dedicated to Emperor Augustus and built between A.D 17 and 27. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Cobble-stoned street in downtown Herculaneum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.
Visitor Tips

Most travelers in Italy don't go south of Rome, so many try to squeeze in a visit to Pompeii as a day trip from Rome. This is do-able, but it makes for an incredibly long day. If that's still your aim, it may be easier to book a guided day trip from Rome so as to avoid dealing with the logistics of transportation.

Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum is far easier as a day trip from either Naples or Sorrento. There are guided day trips that leave regularly from either city, but it's also easy to do a DIY tour of both sites. Depending on how active you want your days to be, you can visit both sites in one day or take one per day to spend more time in each. The latter option is especially warranted at Pompeii, which is enormous. As mentioned, Herculaneum is both smaller and better preserved than Pompeii, so while Pompeii has the name recognition many travelers find Herculaneum the more interesting site to visit. It can be easier to imagine Herculaneum as a thriving city, especially when you walk into houses with staircases, fireplaces, mosaics, and balconies still intact.

It's worth noting that many of the mosaics and statues at both sites are replicas, with the originals hanging in the fabulous National Archaeological Museum in Naples (a visit to which is highly recommended). Also note that if you like Herculaneum for its lack of crowds, you might like the even less popular cities (also buried by Vesuvius) of Oplontis and Stabiae.

Clay jars stored in one of the ancient remains at Herculaneum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel, please don't use without permission.

About the Author: Jessica Spiegel is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Portland, Oregon.

33 comments:

  1. Wow! This is a beautiful post with never seen before kind of pictures!

    Cruise Pictures

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  2. Thank you so much Sailor. I know what you mean, these pictures blew my mind and there were so many more I wanted to feature but didn't have the room. Glad you enjoyed it!! Thx for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  3. wow such a beautiful post but also sad. I didn't had a chance to go to Herculaneum. I stop by Pompeii when I was in Naples. Great site though and tons of pictures to bring back home.

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  4. Hi there Sarah,

    I totally agree with you. Jessica did a brilliant job of describing these two cities and her photography is stunning! Thx for stopping by and sharing your experiences with all of us.

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  5. Thanks for the comments! Pompeii is certainly the more famous site, but I really loved Herculaneum. It's so easy to visit both in a day trip, though, that you don't have to choose! :)

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  6. Truly wonderful photos and insightful text too. I visited the exhibit on Pompeii a few years ago at the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and really enjoyed it. Your blog post is a timely reminder to put these 2 world wonders high on my must-see travel list. Thank you very much.

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  7. Hi Aimee! Couldn't agree with you more about the post and the photos...my guest blogger, Jessica Spiegel, did an extraordinary job of photographing and describing these sites. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  8. Great tips and information. We have to get ourselves back to Italy, we were only there for a few days last summer and there is so much to see. I will definitely make sure to spend more than a day at Pompeii, it's fascinating.

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  9. Hey there my friends. I too, need to get back to Italy right away! Thx so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  10. fabulous photos, so difficult to get these scenes without people...when did you visit?
    Mary Jane

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  11. Hi Mary Jane,
    Thanks so much for your kinds words and compliments. As you know, this post was written and photographed by my Guest blogger Jessica. Let me find out from her when she took these pics and I or she will respond here to you. Thank you for stopping by.

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  12. It is a long time since I was in this area and this excellent piece is enticing me to return - soon! I also remember being WOWd by Paestum which is also in the vicinity. Will that feature in a future blog?

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  13. Splendid architectural details, amazing it's all still there. Thanks for the tour!

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  14. What a terrific post Jessica! And whoa .. that image of the plaster cast of a person who was a victim, really made me feel weird.. My parents have visited Pompeii and totally loved it.. It made history come alive for them. Hopefully me and hubby will go soon too once we get some spare time:)

    Well done Jeff - great guestpost!

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  15. Carole, Hi there and please forgive my lateness in responding to you. Thank you so much for your kind words and I will be sure to share them with my guest blogger. I think a future article on Paestum would be a great addition. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  16. Hi Lesley,
    Couldn't agree with you more about the architecture...hard to believe it's from 2,000 years ago...thx for stopping my to share your comments.

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  17. Thank you Mei so much for stopping by to share your comments! I will be sure to pass them along to Jessica!!

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  18. Thanks for all the comments. Regarding the question of when I visited these sites, this day trip (and all the photos) were taken in October 2010. I've not been to Paestum, but it's on my list.

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  19. I just love the photos and the narratives. I am far more than dreaming a European trip soon. Wished I can already pursue it soonest.

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  20. HI there Journeys and Travels! Thx for all of your compliments and I will be sure to send them to Jessica as well, the photographer who is responsible for these pictures. Thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts!

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  21. great photograpghy!

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  22. Hello Anonymous!
    Thank you so much for stopping by and for your compliments. All credit for this guest article goes to Jessica Spiegel!

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  23. Great stuff - It looks lovely - Props to Jessica - love the shot of the fountain

    Tristan

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  24. Hi there Tristan and thanks so much for your kind words. I'll be sure to pass along your comments to Jessica.

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  25. I think I'm going to add this as a side trip when I'm in Florence. I've really wanted to visit for years. Great job, Jeff.

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    1. Thank you so kindly for visiting my friend and for your kind words. While this was a guest post by Jessica Spiegel, article and photos, I can't take any credit. However, I will be sure to pass your comments and compliments along to her. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and definitely visit when you land in Florence.

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  26. WOWzers, I was there in 2010, and these pictures are more lovely than some of the sites I saw. What a talented photographer.

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    1. Hi there SJ and thx so much for comments. And I couldn't agree with you more about Jessica's talent!! Brilliant images!! Thx for stopping by.

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  27. thanks so much for this post. Incredible pictures. I love the info as I love history. Great job.

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    1. Hi there Debbie! Thx so much for stopping by and for your kind compliments! I will be sure to pass them along!

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  28. What amazing photographs and a very interesting article about the historic cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I certainly hope to visit both one day. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Hi there Charles and thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind compliments!

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  29. thanks for sharing these beautiful photos that bring back old memories of my trip to Pompei over 10 years ago.

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!