Herculaneum may be lesser known than its famous neighbour, Pompeii, but in many ways it’s a fantastic alternative to visit. It’s smaller, with fewer crowds and some would say that it is better preserved.
Although Herculaneum suffered the same volcanic eruption of Vesuvius as Pompeii in AD 79, it was covered in compact layers of volcanic material that solidified into rock, at depths of up to 25 metres. Pompeii on the other hand was buried in ash and pumice pebbles up to 10 metres deep. That’s why Herculaneum has features such as wooden beams and furniture that are comparatively well preserved.
Having said that, the ancient city is in danger of disintegration due to erosion, weathering and water damage. Since 2001, the Herculaneum Conservation Project has striven to improve infrastructural issues, focusing on drains and roofing. Along the way they have made new archaeological discoveries and uncovered fascinating details about the history of the city.
Ercolano, as it is known in Italy, is UNESCO World Heritage Site located close to Naples and Pompeii in the district of Campania. Wealthier than Pompeii, the city had numerous fine houses with elaborate decoration. Today it’s a modern town with a population of 55,000, overlooking the ancient site. Inside, you have a bird’s eye view of the site and the entrance bridge. Despite it being a sunny September day, there were relatively few visitors.
Walking through Herculaneum’s cobbled streets lined by columns, you certainly get a sense of what life must have been like for the inhabitants. Excavation has uncovered around 25% of the original site, with three quarters still waiting to be rescued from the volcanic ash. The town was rediscovered in 1709 when the Duke of Elbeuf, who was having a house built nearby, heard of ancient marbles and columns being found in the nearby town of Resina. The duke bought the land and decorated his residence with the excavated items. News of the find soon reached King Charles VII of Naples who in turn bought it from the duke and began a concerted campaign to uncover the archaeological marvels that we know today.
Some of the buildings have remnants of their upper floor, which is quite unusual, and Herculaneum had a central bathhouse or thermae with sections for both men and women. The men’s baths had two entrances opening onto the paelestra, which was a recreational area and meeting place. which served not only as a
The thermopolia really surprised me – these were places that sold hot food, stored in terracotta pots that were heated below a marble counter. This could then be taken away to eat at home. Evidence of over fifty have been found in Herculaneum.
The College of the Augustales is an impressive building that had entrances on two streets. The Augustales were members of an order made up of freedmen. The main room is divided by four central columns supporting a flat roof and at the back there are wall paintings showing Hercules and Mount Olympus.
Sadly, the well-known House of the Deer was closed for renovation when we visited, but it contains copies of two intricate marble statues of deer being attacked by dogs, the originals of which were found in the garden.
The House of the Relief of Telephus is a colourful structure with an attractive atrium bordered by columns. One of the largest structures in the excavated area, it had several dozen rooms.
The town was thriving until it suffered significant damage from an earthquake in AD 62. Repairs were still being carried out on 24 August AD 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying Herculaneum under layers of mud and volcanic matter.
The inhabitants died of thermal shock, unlike in Pompeii where they were buried under ashes. Descending the stairway towards the boathouses, you come across this statue of Marco Nonio Balbo. He was a Senator and proconsul who constructed a large villa here and was cremated in the same spot.
The most tragic part of the visit for me was at the end, when you find a macabre surprise in the former boathouses. Originally located on the shore in 79 AD, the waterline has since moved further back due to the eruption. When the volcano erupted, Herculaneums’ residents fled to the beach, hoping that rescue boats would arrive, and yet they never came. 300 people perished, a sad reminder of this chapter of Italy’s history. Herculaneum is well worth a visit and nearby, there are many other unmissable places to visit on the Amalfi Coast.
- By car – from the A3 motorway, take the exit for Ercolano and then look for the brown road signs to Ercolano Scavi. There is a paying car park located a minute’s walk away from the entrance.
- By train – make sure to alight at Ercolano Scavi rather than Ercolano Miglio D’Oro, from where it’s a ten minute walk downhill.
- It is possible to visit both Herculaneum and Pompeii as the Circumvesuviana train runs between both, although a little tiring! Allow a couple of hours to visit Herculaneum.
- Opening hours – 8.30 am to 7.30 pm from 1 April to 31 October, last entrance at 6 pm. Rest of the year – 8.30 am to 5 pm with last entrance at 3.30 pm
- Tickets can be purchased for each individual site, or as a combined ticket, the Campania ArteCard, valid for three consecutive days, giving you entrance to two places free including Herculaneum and Pompeii, plus a 50% discount on all others and unlimited use of public transport.
- Refreshments – there is a self service machine dispensing fresh drinks and snacks
- An audio-guide can be hired at the entrance and is well worth it as there is little information in the site itself