One of the joys of travelling is seeing breathtaking scenery. The view of the Bay of Naples from Villa Communale at Sorrento, for instance, I find deeply moving. There are few things I enjoy more than having a coffee while sitting atop the cliff and gazing out over Vesuvius and the steely blue ocean at its feet.
Though the takeaway coffee here is challenging. So far we have found no proper takeaway coffee in Sorrento. But there is a little place not far from Villa Communale that will just about do. When I asked if they did take away coffee the chap said “Yes of course” as if it were blindingly obvious that they did. As we have seen no one walking around with takeaway coffee so far, but rather everyone seems to gather around the coffee counter and down tiny espressos in ceramic cups in a few seconds, it was not at all obvious to me. It wasn’t obvious to Dada either. Indeed he refused to ask if they even did takeaway coffee out of embarrassment in case they didn’t.
Relieved, at the barrista’s answer I ordered 2 take away lattes. And they duly arrived – in crappy throw away plastic cups with a piece of tin foil on the top! Much too hot to hold of course so we had to wrap equally crappy paper serviettes around them. But the coffee itself was good nonetheless.
Another joy of travelling is seeing how people live in different parts of the world and imagining yourself living there. One inevitably finds oneself checking out real estate adverts and coming up with business ideas to earn income – in this case providing proper take away coffee, or even just proper take away coffee cups…
But there is a third joy of travelling. And this is the joy and gratitude that you DON’T live somewhere ghastly. And that was our experience today.
We caught the train again – confidently knowing exactly what we were doing and how to read the time table. Of course the train did not come as per the timetable and we sat there for an additional half an hour for the next train. Traffic rules and timetables are after all only guidelines in Italy … But eventually we were off, the train rattling squeaking and bumping its way along at surprising speed (frightfully uncomfortable seats by the way).
We eventually passed Pompeii and continued further towards Naples, our objective being a town called Ercolanum at which the ruins of Herculaneum can be found.
All along the way we saw the ramshackle sprawl of outer Naples. Mostly buildings of flats, nearly all in poor condition desperately in need of new render and paint, covered with innumerable satellite dishes like a rash of acne, and decorated with enormous amounts of washing, drying in the smoggy air. And that was the good flats. Then there were those that looked even worse – really derelict and almost a ruin, but the washing and threadbare curtains showed that there were people living there. The stations were covered in graffiti, and even a couple of the flats as well.
We arrived at Ercolanum, and had to walk about 500 meters to the site down a busy road lined with very unattractive, grimy shops. Dad was bailed up almost immediately by someone wanting to sell him a panini, and over a coffee we were approached by a rather petulant borderline aggressive beggar declaring how hungry he was (Dad quite discombobulated him by offering him a sandwich and he left in disgust), and we then had to listen to a taxi driver play drumsticks very loudly on his dashboard. We gazed around the place in amazement and both felt extremely grateful we didn’t have to live in such a dump.
Eventually we made it to the site itself. Herculaneum was covered by 30 feet or more of volcanic mud, and therefore most of it lies under the modern Ercolanum. So the excavated part is below ground level now. We started with a walk around the top of the excavation, and you can see down into the site from there. It is not that prepossessing at first – all mud coloured and in ruins after all. But once you descend into the pit your impression soon changes.
There are three parallel streets excavated, and these are lined with magnificent villas, even more magnificent than in Pompeii. It felt very wealthy, like the Mosman of Pompeii. And there is much more preserved than in Pompeii. Lots of absolutely exquisite mosaic floors, many chunks of frescoes, colourful fountains and several have a good part of their second storey.
It was truly amazing, in many ways more impressive than Pompeii. Best of all we found some actual wooden doors (two) which Dad took great delight in inspecting closely and then declaring “we could make them in Stockwells, no problem.”
It also felt very homely. You could easily imagine yourself living there (unlike modern Ercolamun which one would go to great lengths to avoid living in). On pretty much every street corner there is a tavern or a take away food joint (Herculaneum style), as well as a sprinkling of other shops such as the baker, grocers (run by a slave) and the gem cutter. There is also men and women’s baths (the women’s are especially beautiful and well preserved), and a very large public space for exercise and public gatherings. We even made a friend of a white fluffy (though dirty) stray dog that accompanied us for most of the day and enjoyed a Kitkat stick from me.
One disturbing element though was the amount of graffiti scratched into some of the walls – even into some of the frescoes. This felt even more sacrilegious than us tramping all over 2000 years old mosaic floors.
The town would have had a beautiful view over the sea (blocked by a huge wall of volcanic mud now), and at the bottom of the town there were a lot of boathouses, so many of them would have had their own boat. This is where they tried to escape when Vesuvius blew in 79 AD, and today in the boat houses you can see casts of lots of skeletons just as they were found.
The most amazing thing is that this is only about 20% of Herculaneum. The rest lies under modern Ercolanum and therefore can’t really be excavated without disturbing the town now. To me there is no question of which town should be prioritised …