Saturday, May 23, 2015

Go Climb A Volcano


If you were to make a list of the top ten most famous volcanic eruptions in history, it is likely that most folks would put the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy at number one. Seriously. Could you even name ten? I'm not sure I could. What else are you going to put in the top spot? Washington state's Mount St. Helen's in 1980? Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull in 2010? Could you have even have come up with those two quickly if I hadn't written them down for you? I didn't think so. What else you got? I'm thinking nothing. Vesuvius is it. Number one!

On the morning of August 24, 79 something likely started to happen deep within Vesuvius which would result in a catastrophic eruption over the next two days or so. According to the only eyewitness who left any written document, Pliny the Younger, who was about 30 kilometers from the mountain in the town of Misenium, the real fireworks started at around 1 p.m. that afternoon. The initial eruption kicked up a massive amount of molten rock, stones and ash. By the time the eruption had ended, the energy released by Mount Vesuvius is estimated to be 100,000 times the energy of the atom bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August of 1945. For a population living at that time, it must have seemed like the world was ending.

Apparently, the wind that day was blowing to the south and east pretty fiercely so the ash cloud that was released when the volcano initially exploded did not fall back to Earth right where it exited the cone but was instead carried some distance away from its point of origin. One of the places the ash landed and immediately destroyed was Pompeii, a Roman town probably founded between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C. This was no dusting of ash; there were meters of this stuff falling all at once, collapsing buildings and burying people in the town instantly.

The next day, August 25, saw the second phase of destruction caused by Vesuvius as the mountain released a series of pyroclastic flows, which is essentially fast moving molten rock and gas. Think about how hot rock has to get to be molten then imagine it moving at potentially more than 400 miles per hour and you get the picture. Anyone and anything in its way that is combustable or made of flesh is done for. The eruption those two days was so severe that pyroclastic flows reached as far away as Pompeii (about 15 kilometers or 9.3 miles from the top of the mountain)  which preserved everything pretty much perfectly that hadn't been destroyed by the ash the previous day. This same molten rock reached other towns at the base of the volcano, most notably Herculaneum to the west.

Ultimately what makes Vesuvius' eruption so famous is not necessarily how powerful it was but how it was recorded and what it left behind. I mean if nobody saw it and nobody was killed by it, we likely never would have understood how deadly it was and it wouldn't make anyone's top ten list. But we have Pliny the Younger's account of the event and five towns have been partially excavated that were both destroyed and preserved in the eruption, including Stabiae, Oplontis, Boscoreale and most famously, Pompeii and Herculaneum. Today all five sites, but especially the last two, are both significant active archeological sites and major tourist attractions that provide unique views of Roman life almost two millennia ago.

The Bay of Naples on a foggy day from near the top of Mount Vesuvius.
When I first told people I know that I had booked a trip to Italy, I got a ton of advice (either solicited or unsolicited) about what to see. Apparently just about everyone I know or talked to had been there and they all had their own list of must sees and hidden gems. Of all the people I talked with, very few told me to go to either Pompeii or Herculaneum and nobody told me to go to Mount Vesuvius. One guy I worked with actually told me NOT to go to Pompeii and told me it was a complete waste of time.

I like to think that I consider the advice of others sometimes but I have to tell you, there was no way I was setting foot in Rome without taking a couple of hours train ride south to Naples and from there visiting both the volcano and at least one of the most famous towns it destroyed. No way, no how! So on Easter Monday (our first full day in country), we got up early and headed down to Roma Termini station and boarded a train for Napoli.

In making a decision as to whether to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum, we considered a number of factors and read a ton of guidebooks. Ultimately, we decided to visit Herculaneum and not Pompeii for a few reasons. First, we had read that Herculaneum was better preserved due to the manner in which it was buried; I guess a molten rock and mud mixture works better for keeping stuff intact than does falling ash followed by molten rock and mud. Second, we had just one day to visit both the mountain and a town; Herculaneum is smaller so we figured that would lend itself better to a half day experience than the bigger Pompeii. And finally, Vesuvius is closer to and more accessible from Herculaneum. I don't know for certain we made the right decision here, but I know we made a good one.

To get to Herculaneum from Rome, you need to take two trains. After you arrive on the train from Rome at Napoli Centrale, you need to head downstairs and catch the local Circumvesuviana train which, as its name suggests, pretty much runs around the base of Mount Vesuvius. The ride to Herculaneum from Naples takes just a bit more than 15 minutes. From there, you can either walk downhill to the old town buried by Vesuvius or take a bus to fairly close to the top of the volcano. We elected to visit the volcano first, since it is sometimes closed due to weather. We figured if it was open when we got to the town, we'd take the bus straight up the mountain. After all, they are not going to close the excavation site.

Vesuvius viewed through our bus window. Note the good luck charms hanging from the rear view mirror.
Our choice of bus operators to Vesuvius was Vesuvio's Express, which as it turned out, was anything but an express way to get to the summit. It was our first taste of the Italian sense of urgency, which doesn't seem to be anything like the rest of the world. At least not like most places I've been. When we bought our ticket from the ticket office, we were told there was a 9:45 bus. That was awesome because that was about 20 minutes to a half an hour after we got to Herculaneum, just enough time for a quick bite to eat which turned out to be one of the most amazing things I've ever eaten. After that, we hopped on the bus.

And sat. Then we sat some more. Then a dude got on the bus and sat in the driver's seat and started taking tickets. But he wasn't the driver; he was just collecting tickets. Finally after about 20 minutes of sitting, the driver got on the bus, let some passengers off the bus to go get some food and go to the bathroom and when everyone was back on the bus, we left. At 10:10. I'm guessing the Vesuvio's Express bus really doesn't have much of a schedule. I am sure that when the bus is full, we go. If there's space left on the bus, we sit. Whatever. It's not like we didn't have the time.

The ride up to Vesuvius was one of those typical European bus experiences where we ended up on a form of transportation barely big enough to fit on the roads it was traversing. And I don't mean barely big enough to fit in the assigned lane on our side of the road; I mean barely big enough to fit on the entire road. We had the same sort of experience heading down to the Via Appia Antica in Rome but our Vesuvio's Express driver made this trip even more exhilarating.

Now, I am sure our bus driver makes the drive up and down Mount Vesuvius every day and I'm sure he knows what he's doing. I mean after all, he's a professional, right? Understandably the streets of Herculaneum are not built to serve a bus and the road up to the volcano twists and turns as roads up the sides of mountains tend to do. This drive is no doubt challenging. Right after we started our trip, we almost crushed an old woman in a car barely bigger than a Smart Car. Of course our driver used his horn to warn her off. Although we didn't know it at this point in time, the bus had two horns: one for normal beeping and one that repeated some sort of siren pattern for times when our driver was really stressed. He used the normal horn here.

After the almost crash on the first traffic circle, our driver took a couple of calls on his cell phone. Yes, the bus was a manual transmission; didn't matter. They seemed to be business related so I'm sure it's ok right? We got stuck behind some kind of small Italian car that was turning left at a stop sign and wouldn't move that produced the first use of the secondary horn then headed up the mountain for real. At one point there was a guy walking on the side of the road who seemed reluctant to stand on the curb. Our driver seemed intent to get him there even though it looked to me like there was plenty of room (normal horn for this one). As you get closer to the drop off point on the mountain, the roads get tighter as traffic gets heavier. At one point, our driver had to get out of the bus so he could tell the other drivers what to do so we could get through (no horn required here).

I guess on some level I appreciated this. I mean all I wanted to do was get there as quickly as possible safely, which we ultimately did. I'm not sure if the rosary beads and the horseshoe hanging from the rear view mirror protected us or emboldened our driver. Or maybe he only drives that way uphill when gravity is working against him. The ride down seemed to be much less stressful.

The start of the climb.
Once our driver dropped us off, the climb to the summit began in earnest. Now, before you start imagining mountaineering equipment and ropes, let me just say that there were families pushing strollers up to the top of the mountain. That's not to say that climb was a piece of cake, but it was nothing generally more stressful than walking up a steep hill.

I haven't spent a lot of time climbing mountains. In fact, I'd say I've spent relatively little time doing that but I've walked around a little bit of one or two of them and I've seen a whole lot more up close from a car. It seems to me that Vesuvius was way more barren than the other mountains I've visited recently, a list which includes Mount Rainier; the Cascade mountains separating Idaho from Washington state; and the Alps in southern Germany. There is way more rock than anything living on the side of the volcano, although a tree or two managed to find its way to survival and there were huge parts of the mountain covered with a pale greenish type of lichen.

At the top (or mostly there) of Vesuvius.
The path that leads to the top of Vesuvius is paved with volcanic gravel and is bounded on the drop off side of the path by a wood fence at the bottom of the path and by a wood post and rope fence towards the top of the mountain. That is where the fence is still intact. There were one or two spots where the fence had collapsed. In fact there were one or two spots where the path had collapsed. We made sure we steered clear of those parts where both had happened.

The color of the volcano is almost universally a reddish brown, unless it is covered with greenish or yellow brown plants which grow no higher than three or four inches. While the climb is not that steep in most places, the one thing that made the ascent really difficult was the wind. I'm not sure I've felt wind this strong anywhere I've been, including Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland which may have been a close second. I honestly had to hold on to my glasses at one point. The gusts are incredible and it seems like every time you walk out from behind the relative shelter of a rocky outcrop, the wind is blowing full force just to see if you can remain on your feet. It's not surprising some of the fencing is no longer in place.

It's also extremely cold. We visited on April 6 and when we were walking up, it was snowing. I'm glad I wore boots for the climb and I'm thankful I was smart enough to bring my storm shell. I packed a fleece expressly because guidebooks I had read cautioned how cold it was at the top of the mountain, then kidded myself into thinking that just because it was 65 degrees or so in Naples, that the top of Vesuvius wouldn't be that much different. I'm not sure why I thought this; Vesuvius is after all 4,000 feet above sea level. I thought it was appropriate that the only real inhospitable weather we encountered was climbing and descending Vesuvius. It was if the mountain wanted to remind us of the power it has and the destruction it has wrought in the past. It is, after all, still an active volcano.

Looking into the crater of Vesuvius.
Some of the places I go on vacation almost become check the box exercises which add little to my understanding of where I've been. Although what we did a couple of days later in Rome was awesome, I think standing on the Via Appia Antica might fall into this category; I got no real superior understanding of Roman road making by standing on the actual ancient road. Climbing Vesuvius was different. There is real value to being there in the about one hour and 45 minutes that Vesuvio's Express allows you. This is just enough time to get up and down the mountain at a good pace (like all the way to the last fenced in part) with about 20 minutes to spare.

First of all, you can't truly understand Vesuvius from afar; it takes getting up there and looking at it up close and seeing the steam come off the rocks to get a hint of this mountain's capabilities. Second, looking into the crater itself and understanding where everything comes out from is valuable (at least it was to me). Vesuvius hasn't erupted for 71 years and you can only see debris and rock in the cone today. And finally, I think you can't really understand how close Vesuvius is to Herculaneum, Naples and the rest of the towns surrounding the mountain without being up there. Naples is just nine kilometers away (about 5.5 miles) from the base of the mountain; Herculaneum is maybe one or two kilometers. Sure, you can see the volcano from the towns but judging distance for something that massive is difficult. It's easier when you've been to the top. This thing is really close to where a ton of people are living.


A morning and early afternoon climb up and down a volcano deserves some food, so before we hit the ruins of the old town of Herculaneum, a quick lunch was on the agenda. Luckily we found an excellent pizza place (Pizzeria Luna Capreso) on the right side of the street as we walked down towards the coast. 3.5 Euros and one margherita pizza later each, we completed our journey to the remains of the old town.

While there is no definitive written history of Herculaneum available, it is thought that the town was founded towards the end of the 6th century B.C. but acquired its current name when it fell under the control of the Greeks soon after its establishment. The Greeks renamed the town Herculaneum after (big surprise here) the hero Hercules. By the time Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the town, like the rest of modern day Italy, was under Roman control. While no sort of population count is available, it is thought that approximately 4,000 people were living at Herculaneum when it was buried and almost perfectly preserved by the pyroclastic flow that engulfed it in August of 79.

Excavation at Herculaneum began in 1738, which surprised me. I would have thought digging the town out would have begun pretty much as soon as it happened but I guess people back then didn't have enough leisure time on their hands to start digging out a town buried under hardened volcanic flow. I mean by the time anyone would have reached the location of the old town, it would have been encased in solid rock. Over the last almost three hundred years, the town has slowly been unearthed. Some archaeological work in still ongoing today but the limits of what can be uncovered are getting smaller and smaller. After all, the modern day town of Herculaneum is on top of some of the unexcavated old town. They'd have to start knocking down buildings to continue their work at some point.


The first thing we noticed when we reached the south end of Via IV Novembre and arrived at the site was that the ruins of the old town were sunken. The current town of Herculaneum is located about 40 feet vertically above the old street level. We also noticed that for a seaside town, the sea was nowhere near the town; it's about half a mile to the south and west from the old wall of the town. The reason for both of these is the same, of course. When Vesuvius erupted, it added about a half a mile and 40 feet to the coast of the continent. Until you actually get to the ruins, you don't quite comprehend the magnitude of the material expelled by the volcano. It's no wonder that the eruption was as powerful as 100,000 atom bombs. I can imagine adding a half a mile to the land mass of Italy from a source over two miles away would do that.

The experience of walking around Herculaneum is really pretty eerie. You are seeing the buildings and streets of a 2,000 year old place preserved pretty well intact. Sure, there are a good number of ruins and many buildings are partially collapsed, but spending a couple of hours walking the Roman streets gives you a great picture of what life might have been like at that time.

Casa del Solane Nero, Herculaneum.
You enter the excavation site from the water side of the town. There are a series of storage rooms facing what would have been the beach for holding goods received or ready to ship. Those rooms flank a single entrance to the town. There is a modest wall, certainly not something that is going to keep the town from being taken by force, which tops the storage rooms. Today, these barrel vaulted storage areas contain skeletons, the remains of those we imagine decided they weren't leaving town based on the volcano's eruption. They are today preserved for posterity.

Climb the steps from the beach area and you come to a second level of the town, one with a bath house behind a ceremonial courtyard on the right and a couple of temples with plazas in front of them on the left. These areas are separated from the rest of the town by another wall, one a little higher than the wall above the storage areas but still nothing that is going to keep hostile folks out for very long. Once you have visited the rooms and spaces closest to the sea, the last climb takes you to the town proper.

Grande Taberna, Herculaneum.
From our perspective and I don't really know if this is right or wrong, the town was a summer resort town for the rich. Much of what we saw in our time at the site were houses and shops. Some of the houses were of a significant size, with gardens and interior courtyards. There was clearly some money here. Just like today, the best houses seemed to have ocean views whereas the smaller properties were confined to the center of town. The brochure we picked up at the visitors center generally filled in any gaps in the narrative that what's left behind starts.

The level of preservation is really pretty remarkable. I can't imagine how difficult it was to carefully excavate the town or how much they lost when they made a mistake. Pieces of pretty much everything that wasn't made of wood is still there for us to see right down to jars holding food and wine (like the picture above) to frescoes and tile work in some of the more ornate buildings to a bronze bust of the owner of one of the houses. You can understand what it was like to walk along the same roads and sidewalks as people just after the time of Christ. I don't know how many other places that you are going to experience an environment like this almost untouched by progress. Imagine things are still intact and its easy to envision what a day in the life of this town, either as a wealthy homeowner or merchant preparing lunch for those same people, was like.

The town is not just a collection of homes and stores, however. There are some public or community use buildings. I've already mentioned the temples built along the coast of the town. In addition to those, we visited the men's and women's public baths (separate buildings) and an inn and there's a sporting arena along the southwest edge of the town which is partially uncovered. The majority of the sporting arena is buried beneath other parts of present day Herculaneum, including the main visitors center for the site.

The edge of the sporting arena in Herculaneum.
All in all, the excavation site at Herculaneum is worth a couple of hours. There aren't that many different types of buildings to see but I'd definitely recommend walking around the entire site. It's very easy to cover it fairly comprehensively and you never know what you are going to see that will interest you more than some other places. The condition of some of the artwork, whether painted or assembled out of tiny pieces of ceramic tile, is absolutely amazing. To think this stuff survived a river of molten rock and then managed to stay intact while an archeological team slowly chipped it out of solid rock is astonishing. I've been to a number of historical sites, whether as excavations or reconstructions, and none has been as impressive as the afternoon I spent in Herculaneum.

I think it helps seeing both the town and the volcano in the same trip. There's a clear connection between these two and visiting both is important. Setting foot in significant points near the old shore and near the cone that emitted everything that destroyed the town made me understand a little of what might have happened in 79 A.D. The skeletons near the entrance to the town also did a pretty good job of reinforcing the message. 

I mentioned towards the beginning of this post that I think we made a good choice in visiting Herculaneum rather than Pompeii. I can't imagine that I would need to see more, meaning either a larger town or more types of buildings. The couple of hours spent here was enough for us and if Herculaneum is truly better preserved than Pompeii then I know we made the right choice. This is a good day trip from Rome. Get up early and hop on a train before 8 a.m. and you can make it there and back (we took a 7:30 p.m. train back to Rome) easily as a long day trip. I think you'll find it very enlightening if you do. After all, these tell the story of the number one volcanic eruption of all time, right?

Preserved frescoes, Sede degli Augustali, Herculaneum.
Mosaic tile artwork, Herculaneum.

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