Tag Archives: Pompeii

Naples, The Roman City of Herculaneum (remastered)

Herculaneum 5

“You could hear the wails of women, the cries of children, the shouts of men… many raised there arms to the gods, others declared that the gods were no longer and this was their last night on earth”, Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus

These are some of the pictures that I captured when visiting Herculaneum.  I have edited them a little and given them some colour because although I am no expert on these matters and I am mindful that I am doing an Arthur Evans here, my guess is that the walls and the mosaics were much more bright and vibrant two thousand years ago…

Herculaneum 4Herculaneum 3Herculaneum 2Herculaneum 1


Naples, Mount Vesuvius

From  literally anywhere in Naples Vesuvius stands threateningly close by, like a loaded gun pointed at the heart of the city…

Naples and Vesuvius

Even eggheads find it difficult to be absolutely precise about this but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world – not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 A.D. then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around the city of Naples.

The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent.

I visited the top of the Volcano in 1976.

Read the Full Story…

Vesuvius still smoking and active

Travelling – The Grand Tour of Europe

Tourists The Grand Tour of Europe

“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”  –  Mark Twain

People have always travelled to other parts of the world to see great buildings and works of art, to learn new languages, to experience new cultures and to enjoy different food and drink…

…In 2008 I flew to Athens and in the departure lounge queue behind us was a couple of girls and one announced to the other that ‘I only go on holiday for three things, to get drunk, get stoned and get laid’, I had to see who this person was and when I turned round she turned out to be so unattractive that I was tempted to say ‘Don’t build your hopes up, if I were you I would concentrate on the first two!’ but she was bigger than me so I said nothing of course!

In 1936 the League of Nations defined a foreign tourist as someone travelling abroad for at least twenty-four hours and its successor, the United Nations amended this definition in 1945 by including a maximum stay of six months.  In early 2010 the European Commissioner, Antonio Tajani, unveiled a plan declaring tourism a human right and introduced it with the statement that “travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life.”

Young English elites of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (early Rahs really) often spent two to four years travelling around Europe in an effort to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography and culture in an experience known as the Grand Tour.

In fact the word tourist has its origins in what used to be more correctly called the Grand Tour of Europe, which was a term first used by Richard Lassels in his 1670 book ‘Voyage or a Complete Journey through Italy’ and after that it came into general usage to describe the travels in Europe of wealthy young men and women in the years of the Enlightenment where it was quite normal to take a gap year (or four) in the quest for a broader education.

Lassels was a Roman Catholic priest and a tutor to several of the English nobility and travelled through Italy five times. In his book, he claims that any truly serious student of architecture, antiquity, and the arts must travel through France and Italy, and suggested that all “young lords” make the Grand Tour in order to understand the political, social, and economic realities of the world.

The Traveller Oviedo Spain

The primary purpose of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance and an an introduction to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent.  In addition, before museum collections went on tour themselves,  it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music and it was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor.

The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance as the historian E.P. Thompson observed, “ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power.”

While the general objective of the Grand Tour was essentially educational (and this probably what mum and dad thought that they were forking out for) they were also notorious for more frivolous pursuits such as getting hammered, partying heavily and sleeping with as many continental lovelies as possible and so began a tradition that thousands of holiday Brits continue to this day in the party hot-spots of Europe.

When young men on the Grand Tour weren’t misbehaving like people on a stag weekend to Amsterdam they were mostly interested in visiting those cities that were considered the major centres of culture at the time, primarily Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples.

90 Rome

The Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend some time in smaller towns and up to several months in the three main cities on the itinerary.  Paris was considered the grandest and most cultured city and was usually first en-route and tourists would rent apartments for several weeks at a time and would make occasional visits to the countryside and adjacent towns.

From Paris, they travelled south either across the Alps or by a ship on the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and then they would pass on to Rome or Venice.  To begin with Rome was initially the southernmost point they would travel to but when excavations began at Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 the two sites also became additional major stop-off points.

Other locations sometimes included as part of some Grand Tour included Spain and Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States. However, these other spots lacked the cultural and historical appeal of Paris and Italy and the substandard roads made travel much more difficult so they were not always the most popular.

Some of them didn’t have vineyards either so I suppose that might have reduced their appeal somewhat.

The British it seems have always been rather keen on travelling abroad and we have left our mark all over Europe (and not just through football violence either) in Nice one of the first and most established holiday resorts on the French Riviera, the long esplanade along the seafront is known to this day as the Promenade des Anglais and in many other historic resorts in continental Europe, old well-established palace hotels have names like the Hotel Bristol, the Hotel Carlton or the Hotel Majestic, reflecting the predominance of English customers.

In fact there are nearly three hundred hotels around the world called Bristol. They take their name from Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803), the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who spent most of his life travelling around Europe enjoying the best hospitality money could buy.  What a good life that would have been, to be sure!

This sort of thing really appeals to me; both the exploration and knowledge and having a really good knees up at the same time and I have become determined to travel as much in Europe as I possibly can. There are forty-six countries in Europe and I have only so far been to twenty-nine so I am just over half way towards my objective of visiting them all.

Ryanair was Europe’s original low fares airline and is my favourite which is lucky for me because the airline has over eleven hundred low fare routes to one hundred and sixty-one destinations in Europe and North Africa.  In the last three years I have flown thirty times at a very reasonable average cost of £40 return all inclusive.

Not all of these flights were with Ryanair of course and I have been forced to use others but I generally find that these work out more expensive.  A return flight to Athens with Easyjet for example costs £120 and my biggest bargain so far was with Ryanair to Santander in Cantabria, Spain at just £10.02 return.  To put things into some sort of perspective it costs over £80 to go to London on the train from Peterborough with National Express and for that you are not even guaranteed a seat.  That is about .90p a mile and on that basis it would cost approximately £1,800 to go to Santander and back by train!

Ryanair over the Alps

In 2015 the most visited country in Europe was France, followed by Spain, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany.  Spain made the most money out or tourist revenues and on average the Germans spent most while away from home.  The most visited city was London (although as usual France disputes the official figures) and the most visited place was Trafalgar Square, followed by the Eiffel Tower and then the Vatican.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, which has its headquarters in Madrid, produces the World Tourism Rankings and is a United Nations agency dealing with questions relating to tourism.

For the record I visited Trafalgar Square in 2008, the Eiffel Tower in 2005 and the Vatican in 2003.

Mount Vesuvius – Living on the edge of Disaster

Mount Vesuvius…

“…when the sun burst through the morning mists and fired this tinted magnificence, it topped imperial Vesuvius like a jeweled crown!” –  Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

Planet Earth is just like a human being – when it becomes angry it gets to shout its mouth off!

On the next day we were back on the road with a half day trip to nearby Mount Vesuvius which is an active stratovolcano situated to the east of Naples.  I am being deliberately specific here because what that means technically and geologically is that it is a tall, conical shaped volcano composed of many layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash laid down over the centuries by all of the many previous eruptions.

Read the Full Story…

Or, if you don’t like Vesuvius here are some other Volcano Visits:

Yellowstone Super Volcano

Fire Mountain, Timanfaya on Lanzarote

Italy, World Heritage Sites

Italy Postcard

Following the visit to Puglia in Southern Italy I thought it was probably time to review my performance in visiting the Country’s World Heritage Sites.

The World Heritage list has been around for over forty years as a consequence of events in 1954 when the government of Egypt announced that it was to build the Aswan Dam, a project that proposed to flood a valley containing priceless treasures of ancient civilizations.  Despite opposition from Egypt and neighbouring Sudan, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign, over fifty countries contributed and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were taken apart, moved to a higher location, and put back together piece by piece.  At last the World was collectively protecting its treasures.

Ostuni White City Puglia Italy

Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most Word Heritage Sites, it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites.  I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter and in this whole fortnight in Puglia I had added only one – the Trulli houses of Alberobello.  I was genuinely surprised to find that Lecce, the Florence of the south was missing from the list and to find it marooned on the tentative list where it has been languishing since June 2006.

Venice The Gondoliers Gilbert and Sullivan

In terms of cities on the list I have been to Rome several times but my first visit in 1976 was four years before it became the first Italian site to be added to the list.  As for other cities on the list I have been to Naples, also in 1976, Florence, Pisa and Siena in 2006, Verona and Padova in 2012 and Venice in 2002, 2003, 2005 and most recently in 2012 because you can never go to Venice too many times.

Which brings me to the final two sites that I have visited, both of them for the first time in 1976 before they were even admitted to the list and which was in actual fact was  before there was any sort of list at all! WOW, I feel suddenly old.

The first of these is the Amalfi coastline and its famous death defying drive described so accurately by John Steinbeck: “Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.”    

The second is a joint listing for the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption in 79 A.D. of the volcano Mount Vesuvius which is surprisingly not included on the list even though Mount Etna in Sicily is.

Well, eleven out of forty-nine is not a good score so it means one of two things are needed to correct this rather poor performance, either I have to spend more time in Italy in the future or UNESCO needs to hurry up and include some of the places that I have already been.  They could start with Lecce and Lucca, both on the tentative list, and also Palermo that once applied but after rejection subsequently withdrew its nomination.

96 Rome

A Life in Ruins – Herculaneum, Italy

Herculaneum Roman City

There are eight hundred and seventy-eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and what is not altogether surprising is that Italy with forty-three of them is the single country with the most and that of course includes the archaeological area of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

If I had known just how easy it was to use the train to get around then I would have made my own cheaper arrangements to go to Herculaneum but the trip was paid for so along with everyone else we assembled outside the hotel and waited for the coach that was going to take us there.  The coach headed out of Sorrento back in the direction of Naples and went around the base of Vesuvius on the western side towards the modern town of Ercolano.  This was an untidy sort of town on the outskirts of the city and the drop off point seemed less than promising and left us with a long walk to the entrance to the site.

After the eruption the town of Herculaneum was buried under approximately twenty metres of lava, mud and ash and it lay hidden and nearly intact until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709.  From there, the excavation process began but is still incomplete and today and the untidy Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of old Herculaneum which prevents its complete excavation.

Sigmund Freud once compared the human mind to the city of Rome but he could also just as easily have used Herculaneum. He was talking about its intriguing series of layers and just as the human psyche has a build-up of memories,  Herculaneum has a history that goes down and down, deeper and deeper: every modern building is on top of a renaissance one, and under that there are medieval buildings, and then a footprint of ancient Rome itself.

Actually the excavation has now been suspended indefinitely to help preserve the ancient city.  The volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of preservation for over one thousand, six hundred years but once excavations began exposure to the elements began the slow process of deterioration. This was not helped by the methods of archaeology used earlier in the town’s excavation, which generally concentrated on recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the survival of everything.  Tourism, vandalism as well as inappropriate excavation methods has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from the modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the buildings. Consequently the archeologists have decided that what remains buried is best left buried until it can be excavated safely.

Roman City of Herculaneum

From the entrance we had to descend into what resembles a deep pit through the twenty metres of tufa and down to the site itself and it became immediately apparent that Herculaneum is most unlike the remains at the site at Pompeii.  The people of Pompeii died from the effects of the poisonous fumes but it was very different in Herculaneum.

Pompeii was destroyed by fumes and ash that was carried by the wind in a south-easterly direction but Herculaneum was on the other side of the mountain to the west.  During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius.  A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of gas, ash, and rock that had reached a temperature of five hundred degrees centigrade racing down toward Herculaneum at a hundred kilometres an hour.  When it reached the city it buried the citizens who had fled to boat houses and were trying to escape and the intense heat killed them instantly.

A pyroclastic flow is ‘a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano and the temperature within a flow may be so great that it is sufficient to burn and carbonise wood. Once deposited, because of the intense heat, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments deform and weld together.  Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.  Filling from the bottom in this way was important because at Pompeii most of the buildings were destroyed by the overhead weight of the ash being deposited on the buildings but this didn’t happen at Herculaneum.

Because this was an organised visit we enjoyed the company of an informative guide who took us around the main buildings and explained them to us and also an audio guide that filled in the details when afterwards we were left to wander about by ourselves through the houses and the streets of the old city.  No one knows for sure but visitors can only see about a fifth of the city which led me to speculate on what great treasures there must be waiting to be discovered in what remains perfectly preserved underneath the foundations of the modern town directly above.

Although the excavation site is much smaller than Pompeii, because of the state of preservation of the buildings I found Herculaneum to be more interesting.  The buildings are intact and the frescoes and the wall paintings are much more vivid and it is possible to visit the houses of important people (including Julius Ceaser’s father-in-law) and the shopping areas and public buildings and the boat houses where most of the inhabitants died as they tried to make their impossible escape from the approaching boiling lava flow.


Related Articles:

Spartacus the Gladiator


The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles


A Life in Ruins – Pompeii, Victim of Vesuvius

76 Pompeii

“Pompeii is no longer a buried city. It is a city of hundreds and hundreds of roofless houses, and a tangled maze of streets where one could easily get lost, without a guide, and have to sleep in some ghostly palace that had known no living tenant since that awful November night of eighteen centuries ago.”  Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

The next day we were back on the road, this time with a trip to the ancient city of Pompeii  so after breakfast and picking up our lovingly prepared packed lunches in their brown paper bags we waited for the coach to arrive to drive us there.

The site of Pompeii is a ruined and part buried Roman city near Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the commune of Pompeii.  It is part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO twenty years after our visit in 1997.  It is the most popular and most visited tourist attraction in Italy with two and a half million visitors a year and I have now been lucky enough to visit the famous excavation twice.  The first time was with dad on this visit to Italy and the second time was nearly thirty years later with my son Jonathan in 2004.

It was only a shortish drive to the historical site and we arrived in the late morning and after going through the entrance gates waited just inside by the souvenir shops to be joined by our guide for the day.  It was a warm day already and when she arrived she was under the shade of an umbrella, which she subsequently used as a means of group identification and we set off into the ruined city.

At the time of the eruption the city is estimated to have had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants but Pompeii, along with nearby Herculaneum, was completely buried and destroyed, during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two days beginning on 24th  August 79.  The volcano buried the City under a layer of ash and pumice many metres deep and it was lost for nearly one thousand seven hundred years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748.  Since then, its excavation has provided a detailed insight into the life of a city in an area in which many wealthy Romans had their holiday villas at the height of the Roman Empire.

  Pompeii Vesuvius Italy

At around one o’clock in the afternoon on August 24th, Vesuvius, which had been dormant for centuries, began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky.  When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who was observing from a safe distance across the Bay of Naples to describe it as resembling a stone pine tree.

For people in Pompeii, who had no idea what was about to happen, the bad news was that the prevailing winds were blowing towards the south-east which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city and the area surrounding it and the residents were covered in up to twelve different layers of ash, pumice and soil.

According to Pliny the volcano burst open with an ear splitting crack and then smoke, mud, flames and burning stones spewed from the summit of the mountain, sending a rain of ash and rock through the surrounding countryside.  The mud seeped down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas and basically anything else unfortunate enough to be in the way.  Adding to the destruction were poisonous vapours that accompanied the falling debris and it was these fumes that first caused deliriousness in their victims, and then suffocated them.

Pompeii victims plaster casts of the dead

There is no doubt that Pompeii is a fabulous place to visit with many marvellous houses and buildings and so big that it is impossible to do it all in one day and it is an interesting fact that today visitors can actually only see one third of the site that was open for viewing in 1976.

We saw the Roman Forum and the administrative buildings, the public baths, the brothels, the shopping centres and the outdoor theatres.  Most of the priceless exhibits have been removed of course to the museum in Naples but there were some copies of the most famous and there are still wall frescoes and paintings to admire.  In 1860 an archaeologist called Fontana found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, quickly reburied them in an early attempt at archaeological censorship in case anyone should be offended.

Even then there were some rooms that women visitors were not allowed to enter just in case the paintings caused offence but the men were allowed to go in and once inside the guide explained in more detail that this was actually because the impressively large penis on one particular statue had been broken off so many times by excitable female visitors that they had had to be prohibited from entering this building. I don’t know whether that was true or not!

“It was a quaint and curious pastime, wandering through this old silent city of the dead–lounging through utterly deserted streets where thousands and thousands of human beings once bought and sold, and walked and rode, and made the place resound with the noise and confusion of traffic and pleasure.”Mark Twain

For the first time ever in a foreign country this was a truly excellent experience and simply one of the best places possible to visit.  I had chosen Italy for the holiday because I had studied Italian history at University, written my thesis on the nineteenth century Piedmontese Prime Minister Massimo d’Azeglio and had taught myself to read Italian to study his autobiographical notes.  I had acquired a passion for the place and now at last I was here and Pompeii was just absolutely wonderful.