With only two days in Naples, I wanted to make the most of my time. Having already had the best pizza in Italy, I set my sights on greater targets. Pompeii!
The previous night, under stars and pizza slices, at least half of the hostel was out on the terrace getting to know one another. This is how I met Hannah, a girl from New Zealand. She had been traveling through Italy the last few days with a fellow New Zealander she had met at a summer camp they both worked at a few months prior. Hannah and Ben were planning on going to Pompeii and Vesuvius the next day, so we thought it would be fun if we all rode the train together.
However, when the next day came, Ben unfortunately was not feeling up to it. Of course Hannah was disappointed but there wasn’t much she could do. Although I had originally planned on just going to Pompeii, Hannah persuaded me to accompany her to Vesuvius as well. Even though this meant less time exploring Naples, it also meant that I was visiting the sight of one of the biggest eruptions in the world. I think it was a fair trade.
Giovanni outlined everything on how to get there, even the down-to-the-minute time schedule of the trains. And, he had somehow worked a deal to get discounts on the transportation to and from Vesuvius. We were rip raring and ready to go!
Getting to Vesuvius, or Pompeii for that matter, is simple. From Naples you go to whatever metro station is nearest you and head to the Garibaldi station. Getting off there, you walk up to street level and across the road to the main station, Napoli Central. Then you have to go back down the stairs to the underground where you will see blue signs saying Circumvesuviana. Follow these signs to the ticket booth. Here is where you buy tickets to whatever destination you choose. The fare is calculated based on how many travel zones you go through, so it will be more or less, depending on where you go. For example, going from Naples to Mount Vesuvius is a U2 ticket whereas going form Naples to Pompeii is a U3. When we went, we bought tickets at each station to avoid the confusion like that of the the transportation debacle I had in Portugal. For us that meant buying a ticket from Naples to Ercolano, the station where you will find transport to Vesuvius (as well as Herculaneum). From there we bought another ticket from Ercolano to Pompeii. Finally, from Pompeii, we bought our ticket back to Naples. Very cheap, very easy, very convenient. Trains run fairly often, sometimes even every 30 minutes, but it doesn’t hurt to know what time the next train is coming.
I’m not a huge history buff, and I hadn’t planned on visiting Pompeii at all when I had first started my planning, so I had never heard of Herculaneum but it is another ruin city like Pompeii. When Giovanni gave us the information on transport to Pompeii, he mentioned that you can do all three (Vesuvius, Ercolano, and Pompeii) in the same day, but that it would take all day. Though I had been persuaded to see Vesuvius since it was on the way, I was less interested in cramming Herculaneum into the itinerary as well. But, it does sound like a very interesting place if you love the idea of Pompeii and have time to pay it a visit. Giovanni showed us pictures of Herculaneum and it looks to be a well preserved version of Pompeii. Apparently, the wind was blowing just right so that Pompeii was destroyed and Herculanum was only mildly affected. It sounds very interesting, but it’s something I will save for my next trip.
After getting off at the Ercolano station, Vesuvio Express was not hard to find. Right to the left of the exit. Saving €1 in our fare, we were quite excited about how little this trip was costing us. The ticket up to Vesuvius also includes your entry to the “park” (which is really a trail of rubble climbing to the crater) so for €19, we were up, down, and in Vesuvius. The road up to the crater is both extremely windy and narrow, so be prepared for the feeling of being run off the road by other tour buses going to opposite direction. But, if you sit on the right side of the bus, you will get incredible views of the whole southern coast of Italy. Absolutely stunning! Unfortunately we chose the wrong side of the bus, twice, but my mental pictures are much clearer than any of those I could have taken from the wrong side of the bus.
Once at the carpark at the entrance to Vesuvius, the driver told us that we had an hour to explore, but needed to be back at the bus promptly on time. Or else, we would be left behind. At the time, I felt an hour was a bit much. It’s a crater. You walk up, see it, turn around, and go back down. But, once I started the climb up the hill, I realized we might be scrambling to make it back in time. It’s not an advanced hike or anything, but it is uphill which unfortunately puts you at a bit of a slower pace than desired. Once you have plateaued, it’s smooth sailing.
There isn’t a whole lot of information around the crater. Essentially, you just walk around, taking pictures from all angles and then turn around. But it is really cool and totally worth seeing; if not for the lack of historical placards, definitely for the sake of saying you climbed a volcano! It is an easy climb, but you don’t have to tell anyone that part.
Thinking we had all kinds of time, we took turns snapping photos of one another, collecting a few small keepsake rocks, and watching as a few eery wafts of smoke erupted from the crater. By the time we were ready to go, we had 15 minutes to be at the bus! Even though it was all going to be downhill from here, it was still quite a bit of hill to tackle. Not to mention, we had to go back around the crater! We picked up the pace and once at the trailhead, we barreled down the path. Not wanting to miss the bus, we frantically flailed our way back to the carpark just as the bus was turning around the last sharp corner (thankfully, all four wheels were still firmly planted).
Once back in the town of Ercolano, we decided to walk around a bit before getting on the train to Pompeii. It was only about 2 o’clock and the next train wasn’t due for another forty-five minutes, so we walked the streets to get the feel of this historically important place. Also, there was a small flea market a few blocks over that was supposedly full of bargains. Once we found it, it was actually just full of junk. We bought a few snacks and continued our journey to Pompeii.
After we arrived, we were both feeling a little twinge of hunger. The fruit we bought at the market was not nearly enough to sustain us for the following three hours we would spend in Pompeii. Predictably, however, on the way to the entrance, we passed an array of souvenir shops, cafes, and tour company booths; all luring us into their tourist trap web. But, escaping our novice tourist status, we haggled with a sandwich shop owner for a cheap lunch and enough sustenance to get us back on track.
Entrance to Pompeii is not as much as I thought it would be. For €11 you gain entrance for the entire day and don’t have to exit until they start closing up shop. There are audio guides available for purchase, but Hannah and I were more interested in saving the extra euros for pizza that night, so we guided ourselves. Had I been alone, I might have spring for the guide because it is a very interesting sight and it would be nice to hear a little more in-depth about what happened to Pompeii during the eruption. Also, with the guide, you get a map which is very handy. We picked up a free map just outside, but the numbers on our map did not correspond with those used for the audio guide, so we had no idea where we were going most of the time. So, instead of spending two hours there like we originally thought, it was more like three and a half. But again, totally worth it!
The first site and entrance to the ruins is this huge structure with two small tunnels side by side. Going to the tunnel on the left, you will walk in a sort of circle through the rooms of what used to be some sort of large house or gathering place for many of the villagers of Pompeii. Behind us, we noticed a lady giving a private tour to an English-speaking couple, so we walked a bit slower, wanting to catch what she was saying about the function of many of the things inside the ruin.
The most fascinating thing to me was how intact some of the mosaics and mural work still was after being around for thousands of years. I mean, we were walking on mosaics! Being a bit inquisitive (and cheap), I asked the tour guide how these tiles had remained in such fantastic shape after all this time and foot traffic. Turns out, as I thought, there had to be restoration to the site; not only in order to keep it safe, but also functional. But even with the little touch-ups here and there, Pompeii is such an interesting and engaging place. Walking around and seeing the remnants of the houses of villagers, the old basilica, amphitheater, and more, you feel as though you are in some sort of time portal, transcending the constrictions of modern day life and seeing a reflection of what civilization was like thousands of years ago.
After walking around for a couple hours, we finally reached the piéce de résistance: the amphitheater. Amazingly well maintained in it’s original form, this grand arcade really showed you how advanced this society really was. At the time of the eruption, we had only recently entered the A.D. age, and yet, they had modernized in a way not so unfamiliar from our own societies now; having great theaters, basilicas, and colosseum-like structures. Although the amphitheater itself is marvelous, it pales in comparison to the exhibition within its walls. Here you find a modern wooden building sitting in the middle of the arena. Inside it contains casts of a few of the victims of the Vesuvius eruption. Not only that, but it also illustrates the excavation that took place here during the 18th century, as well as explanations about the method in which these bodies came to be so well preserved. Should anyone be looking for more information about the people of Pompeii and their treacherous fate, the amphitheater should be the first place you look.
In all honesty, when people told me they spent four or five hours there, I thought they were nuts! It’s just a bunch of old buildings and houses, right? Wrong was I indeed. We spent nearly four hours wandering around, walking down the streets of Pompeii, and imagining what life must have been like in the B.C. age. I can’t say enough about how humbling of an experience Pompeii is and I’m even more grateful that my impromptu journey took me here. Having been there now, I would’ve immensely regretted the lost opportunity of visiting both Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, if my trip had gone according to plan.
They say everything happens for a reason. I have no choice but to believe “they” are right.