I have got a few gaps in the map, so I will have to get travelling…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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“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…
“At every ticket window customers were gesticulating wildly. They didn’t seem to be so much buying tickets as pouring out their troubles to the… weary looking men seated behind each window. It is amazing how much emotion the Italians invest in even the simplest transaction” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
The Circumvesuviana is an electrified narrow-gauge railway that runs from Naples to Sorrento and we enjoyed a cramped but scenic journey as the line passed through many tunnels and over several bridges. I first used it in 2004 and from memory it was clean and efficient but now it is gloriously chaotic, battle scarred and overcrowded with danger seeping out of every corner.
After half an hour we arrived at the station of Ercolani Scavi, which is barely half a mile away from the entrance to the excavations.
You have to hand it to the Romans, they thought of everything, even down to building this great city so close to a convenient railway line. Compare this to the French, for example, Calais station, if you have ever been there, is miles out away from the town!
For those short of time, Herculaneum is a good alternative visitor site to the more famous Pompeii. After the eruption the town was buried under approximately twenty metres of lava, mud and ash and it lay hidden and almost intact until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709 who dropped into an underground Roman Theatre. After a bit of inevitable plundering the excavation process began soon after but is still incomplete and today the untidy Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of old Herculaneum which prevents its complete excavation because you can’t just knock down a living town just to get to Ancient Rome.
Actually the excavation has now been indefinitely suspended 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 good preservation but once excavations began exposure to the elements began the rapid process of deterioration. This was not helped by previous methods of archaeology used earlier in the town’s excavation, sometimes rather crude which generally prioritised recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the safeguarding of the infrastructure.
Tourism, vandalism as well as inappropriate excavation methods has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the structures. Consequently the archeologists have decided that what remains buried is best left buried until it can be excavated safely.
So long as Vesuvius doesn’t erupt again these archeological endeavours can wait. No one knows absolutely for sure but it is estimated that visitors can only see only 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.
I had been to Herculaneum once before in 2004 with my son, Jonathan, this is him at an ancient fast food restaurant…
I tried to recapture the cool pose fourteen years later…
… and failed miserably on account of not having a hat.
From the entrance we had to descend into what resembles a deep quarry through the twenty metres or so 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.
Pompeii was destroyed and the citizens were killed by fumes and ash that were carried by the wind in a south-easterly direction from the volcano 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 rate of sixty miles an hour. No chance to outrun it, a Roman chariot could only achieve speeds of half that and only over a short distance. When the flow reached the city it buried the citizens who had fled to boat houses and were trying to escape to open sea and the intense heat killed them in an instant.
This is the scientific bit. 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 immediately upon impact. 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.
This process of 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 and they inevitably collapsed but this didn’t happen at Herculaneum. Good for us visitors two thousand years later but not so good for those living there at the time.
The excavation site is much smaller than Pompeii but because of the state of preservation of the buildings I found it 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.
Whereas Pompeii takes a full day to explore, Herculanem takes just a couple of hours so after we had walked the ancient streets we left and ran the gauntlet of the restaurants and bars with pushy waiters back to the railway station and a return to Naples.
Herculaneum also reveals that things don’t really change so much, this is a sign on a wall setting out prices two thousand years ago…
… and this is a modern day fast food shop in the city of Naples…
From literally anywhere in Naples Vesuvius stands threateningly close by, like a loaded gun pointed at the heart of the city…
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.
“…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
In 1976 I visited Sorrento in Italy. The currency was the Lira and the notes were so worthless (I seem to remember that the smallest denomination was 1,000) that it was normal practice for shops to give change in the form of a postcard.
One day I went to Mount Vesuvius and came back with these to add to my collection.
My personal favourite…
“See Naples and die. Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently”, Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad
A few weeks ago I suggested to some regular travelling pals that we should go to Naples in Italy for a few days. They were horrified by the suggestion because of the city’s reputation as being quite dangerous. They said that they would prefer to go to Barcelona in Spain even though I pointed out that the Spanish city is the pickpocket capital of Europe.
So we made plans to visit Naples, the third largest city in Italy (after Rome and Milan) by ourselves.
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Italy is ranked twenty-seventh which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.
The European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Italy’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only twentieth out of thirty which is some way behind the United Kingdom at thirteenth. Finland is the happiest and Albania the least jolly.
Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites; it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites in Europe. 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. The historical centre of Naples is on the list and although I have been there before it was a long time before it was added to the list.
Italy has a lot of coastline which stretch for four and a half thousand miles and along this coastline are three hundred and forty-two Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst participating countries. The Bay of Naples is not very famous for beaches and there are none at all along this particular stretch of coastline.
My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Italy has participated in the annual contest forty-three times since its debut in the very first contest in 1956. They have won the contest twice but the most famous Italian entry made only third place in 1958. “Nel blu dipinto di blu” or most popularly known as “Volare” by Domenico Modungo.
Despite its success the entry surprisingly only came third in the 1958 competition after France and Switzerland but was later translated into several languages and was covered by a wide range of international performers including Al Martino, David Bowie, Cliff Richard, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Luciano Pavarotti, The Gipsy Kings and my personal favourite Dean Martin. I might be wrong here but I don’t think any of these musical giants ever recorded cover versions of ‘Waterloo’?
Flying even short distances can be a tedious business, not much to see or do but there are one or two exceptions and flying south across the Alps is one of them. The aircraft seems to come across them so suddenly and even flying at thirty-seven thousand feet, the earth suddenly gets an awful lot closer and suddenly you are only twenty-thousand feet high. And the snow covered black granite peaks rise like soft meringue peaks below. It is a wonderful sight and I never tire of it but it doesn’t last long and just as dramatically as they rise in southern France they fall away rapidly in Northern Italy.
I always enjoy flying over the Alps, it reminds me of my very first flight and continental holiday in 1976 when I visited Sorrento just south of Naples.
We arrived in Naples around mid-morning and the only sensible way to reach the city and the hotel was by taxi. I hate taxis, I am a very nervous taxi passenger, I am petrified of the metre which seems to rack up charges at an alarming rate and I spend any taxi journey fixated upon the clock. I am almost as afraid of taxi drivers as I am of dogs, but that is another story.
My friend Dai Woosnam once challenged me on this point when he commented: “… there is a contradiction between someone who avoids taxis like the plague, but is happy to spend £100+ a night on a hotel !! It is such contradictions that make people interesting!” Well, here is my rationale: A fifteen minute, €30 taxi ride costs €2.25 a minute, a €120 hotel room for twenty-four hours costs .10 cents per minute so it is a simple question of economics and value for money. If I hired the taxi for twenty-four hours at these rates it would cost me €3,300!
I loathe spending money on taxis especially when the flight here cost only £20. Kim tells me that I should look at it in a different way – because we got the flight so cheap then we can easily afford a taxi.
As usual in Italy we managed to get a driver who looked like and drove like Bruce Willis in an action movie car chase, the type where the cars scatter dustbins and demolish vegetable stalls, and he rattled through the streets at break neck speed, occasionally using his mobile phone and cursing any two second hold up or inconvenient red light and I was thankful when the journey finally ended.
“do flights landing in Naples fly over Vesuvius?”
Now, this seems to me to be an especially stupid question. I am not an expert on aviation or air traffic control but it seems very unlikely to me that aeroplane carrying over three hundred passengers landing at an international airport in Italy would want to fly over the top of a 1,300 metre high active volcano because it sounds full of potential hazards to me especially as the Naples airport is only ten miles or so from the crater and at this point would have an altitude of barely higher than the top of the mountain.
The page they were directed to was probably my post about my visit to the mountain.
Another dumb historical question next – “how wealthy are the Romanovs?” and dumb because most people know that the entire Romanov family were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the Russian revolution.
There are some claimants to the titles of the Russian Tsars but even if they were confirmed to be true descendants they would be extremely unlikely to be wealthy because the Russian communist regime confiscated all their treasure, money and valuables.
I visited Russia in 2012 and posted about the fate of the Romanovs so I guess the enquirer might have ended up on my post about the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
Some time ago my favourite was “can pubic hair grow more with regain?” and rather disappointingly I have nothing to really compete with that ever again.
I think this may have drawn the person with the question to my post about “Health and Efficiency” magazine
Actually that was a good thing about Health and Efficiency because there were never any pubic detail on show because until the mid 1970s this was strictly censored in British publishing. In retrospect, the most striking thing about the models’ anatomy was that they were completely without pubic hair, or, for that matter, any other details associated with the genital area of the body.
They were as blank as an ancient Greek marble statue in that department, and in pre computer photo editing days, this was achieved by skilful use of an ‘air-brush’ applied directly to the photo before publication.
Bottoms however were ok it seems…
Being a student of history I am going to begin with a selection of wildly inaccurate historical searches.
The first one is “Why did Shakespeare bring starlings to Australia?” I think I am obliged to point out here straight away that William Shakespeare died in 1616 and Australia wasn’t settled by Europeans for another couple of hundred years or so after that and although there is much literary speculation concerning possible visits by the Bard to Italy I think it is safe to say that he never went as far as Australia!
I imagine that what the question referred to was really about starlings in the USA because here there is a connection. The introduction of the starling to USA is said to be the responsibility of a man called Eugene Schiefflein who belonged to a group dedicated to introducing into America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works on the basis that they thought it would be rather nice to hear the sound of Shakespeare’s birds warbling their old world songs on the tree branches of new world America.
Showing a similar lack of historical knowledge is my second search term, “Was El Cid a Muslim?” Now, El Cid was the great Spanish hero of the Catholic Reconquista which drove the African Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula so I imagine any suggestion that he was a secret Muslim will have poor Charlton Heston spinning in his grave.
Following a visit to Castilla-La Mancha in 2009 I wrote a number of posts about El Cid and I expect the enquirer was sign posted to one of these.
Next on my historical howlers list is “Napoleon Monument in Moscow”! What? In his periods of sanity Napoleon did some rather good things but most of the time he was a tyrant and a dictator and a warmonger and in 1812 he invaded Russia and did unspeakable things to the Russian people who were unfortunate enough to be in his way as he marched his army to Moscow. When he got there the Russian people burnt the city down and so with nowhere to stay for the winter he was obliged to march all the way back again during which his army did more unpleasant things to the Russian people.
I imagine that the chances of there being a memorial to Napoleon Bonaparte in Moscow are about just as likely as there will be a statue of Adolf Hitler.
Moving on now from history to science – “see through girls’ clothes” and once again if I had the answer to this one I would surely be a millionaire. It reminded me of my post about X-Ray Specs which seemed to suggest all sorts of peeking opportunities but in fact never actually worked (or so I am told!)
For this category of search terms I have saved my favourite until last and this is it – “things to do in Tossa de Marr Spain for clairvoyants”. Now, call me a sceptic if you like but if you can see into the future what on earth does a clairvoyant need with a website of advertised events – why don’t they just look in their crystal ball?
I have been to Tossa de Mar and I have to say that palm reader, soothsayer or clairvoyant that it is a very fine place to visit.
One of my most successful posts is about the day I attended a Buckingham Palace Garden Party and I get lots of odd Google referrals about this one. This year my favourite just has to be – “do I get expenses to attend royal garden party?”
Let me take a moment here to explain. Just to be invited to a Buckingham Palace Garden party is a bit special in itself and believe me there is going to be a lot of expense involved – new suit, new outfit, overnight stay in London, taxi fares etc. and most people would gladly deal with this just to be part of the occasion so I have to say that expecting the Queen to pick up the bill sounds rather republican to me and whoever asked this should not have had an invite in the first place.
Next up, I really like this one – “what did the captain wear on the Titanic?”
I visited Belfast recently and went to see the Titanic Exhibition and Museum. It was a super place and I recommend anyone to go there and I think what I learned on that visit may just well help here.
Around the exhibition there are lots of pictures of Captain Smith in his White Star Line uniform so I am forced to conclude that except when he went to bed and most likely put on a pair of pyjamas that this was his favourite form of dress. Another thing that I can be certain of is that Captain Smith didn’t wear a lifebelt because after the Titanic struck the iceberg he went down with his ship and drowned!
To finish with this is probably my biggest ever favourite…
What was General Franco’s favourite food?
I am sure that this is a question that only his personal chef could realistically be expected to answer with any authority but my suggestions are…
Some time ago I tried to visit General Franco’s tomb but the Spanish don’t like Franco any more and it was closed at the time on account of the fact that it was being demolished.
When General Franco met Führer Adolf Hitler I can only assume that either they couldn’t agree on the menu or they were both on a diet…
Regardless of food, this has to be one of the most awkward historical meetings ever – just look at their faces!
Got any odd Google enquiries – please share!