The cruise excursion we took whilst in Naples was to the excavation site of Herculaneum, a town completely engulfed by volcanic pyroclastic flows in 79 CE when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Pompeii is more famously associated with its destruction and the eruption of the volcano but Herculaneum was a wealthier town and is the better preserved site, and it was for this reason and because we knew it would be less popular for tours departing the ship that we elected to visit it.
A long, sloping walk initially takes you along one side of Herculaneum, affording views down to the uncovered parts of the town as well as further up to the modern buildings. This gives you a good feel for just how much ash was dumped during the volcano’s eruption, although you get a better understanding when you get into the streets of the town itself, obviously. A bridge over a moat-like structure then takes you into Herculaneum.
During the eruption of Vesuvius Pompeii had been in downwind so most of the initial debris falling from the sky destroyed the town. Herculaneum lay to the west of the volcano so was only initially coated with a little ash and the place was mostly evacuated. Overnight, however, the pyroclastic surges hit the town which had been on the shore; waves of heat killed people who were left instantly while leaving much of the material such as wood, roofs, bedding, etc. intact, albeit buried. So much ash fell on the town (twenty metres as opposed to Pompeii’s four) that the shoreline advanced considerably and the place was all but forgotten to history until the digging of a well in the 18th century led to the beginning of extensive archaeology. Only a fraction of Herculaneum has been uncovered due to the nearby city buildings and the need to preserve what is there.
There were lots of preserved details of tiles, mosaics, wall decorations, etc. Herculaneum was a truly fantastic place with some truly jaw dropping moments as you stood in the streets looking up to where the ash had settled or looking out to where the sea used to be. It’s one of those places where you frequently find yourself realising just how scarily powerful nature can be. You also get a great feel for just how impressive the town would have been to live in.
Although it looks overcast from the photos of Herculaneum it never rained while we visited. The excavation, being within a recess in the ground, acted as a heat trap, though, so the combination of heat and humidity made the visit a little tiring but definitely worth it. Walking around was never a problem, the size of the site was just about right for the time we had there, and it wasn’t packed; we heard a few stories back on the Royal Princess about the excursions to visit Pompeii being more hectic, crowded, and fleeting so if you’re only in the city of Naples for a day and looking to see a site covered by volcanic ash almost two thousand years ago then I’d recommend Herculaneum as probably the better option.