- I took a 7-hour walking tour of the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum during Europe’s deadly heatwave in June.
- While both towns were buried by the same volcanic eruption, visiting them in the 21st century couldn’t have been a more contrasting experience.
- Despite the sweltering heat, Pompeii was abuzz with tourists, while Herculaneum was like an oasis of calm in comparison.
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Despite its population’s annihilation almost 2,000 years ago, Pompeii’s streets still swell and hum with life every day of the year.
Instead of Roman citizens, Pompeii now plays host to a constant flow of camera-snapping tourists from all corners of the globe. The ancient ruins welcome some 15,000 visitors a day, but archaeologists are worried about the strain tourism is placing on this fragile site.
Pompeii is undoubtedly the most famous of Mt Vesuvius’ victims, but Herculaneum, located just 15 kilometers away, has all the appeals of antiquity that makes its larger relative so appealing.
While both towns were home to similar societies and got buried by the same volcanic eruption, in the 21st century, they couldn’t be more different from one another.
As an under-24 with a European passport, I got a massive and totally unexpected discount on my entry fee, paying €2 ($US2) instead of the standard €15 ($US17). As an under-24 with a European passport, I got a massive and totally unexpected discount on my entry fee, paying €2 ($US2) instead of the standard €15 ($US17).
I’d booked a tour through Airbnb Experiences with Michele (pictured), who was an archaeologist as well as a guide for Pompeii and Herculaneum. I would fully recommend booking a guide when visiting these sites as, frankly, they’re big, and Michele was able to efficiently take us around the most interesting areas and illuminate their significance in a way that a pamphlet never could.
It’s hard not to notice just how busy Pompeii is at the entrance. We crossed the first bridge into the ruins amid a cacophony of foreign languages, dodging selfie sticks and large backpacks.
On a good day (depending on how you want to look at it), the ancient ruins welcome some 15,000 visitors. While the city’s population boasted similar numbers in its prime, those residents weren’t all coming and going on the same day, crowding around one artifact or drinking from the same water fountain.
I would later be told that archaeologists were worried about the strain tourism was placing on this fragile site.
The first big stop inside the city walls is the forum, a vast piazza which was the center of social life in Pompeii.
Centuries after its inception, the forum is still the nucleus of Pompeii. When I visited, it was a hubbub of tourists waiting for their guides, taking photos, and sheltering in the shade.
The forum is also home to some artwork. That statue behind Michele is not a period artifact, but a piece of modern art designed by Polish-French artist Igor Mitoraj who passed away in 2014.
Ancient ruins provide very little shade, and I had the misfortune of visiting Pompeii in the midst of Europe’s deadly heatwave at the end of June, when temperatures were hitting close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Some prudent tourists had the foresight to bring umbrellas along with them …
… While others weren’t prepared to let the heat stop them from snapping the perfect photo.
Fortunately, Pompeii is dotted with water fountains where thirsty tourists can line up to refill their depleted bottles for the umpteenth time.
Despite the oppressive heat, Pompeii was jam-packed with tourists. I couldn’t believe how many people had decided to brave the sweltering temperatures in the name of culture. If I wasn’t working, I certainly would have taken the day to hit the beach.
Michele told us that many animals were able to sense the eruption before the humans and thus escaped. However, some animals, like this dog, were not so fortunate, as they were kept by Pompeiians. You can still see the evidence of a collar around the neck of the dog, meaning it was chained up at the time of its death.
While as many as 17,000 Pompeiians may have managed to escape the eruption, around 3,000 were either not able to or decided to try and stick it out. This man was evidently a slave due to the belt visible around his waist.
Pompeii was conquered by the Romans in 89 BC and, as far as conquerors go, the Romans were pretty popular ones. That’s because living conditions usually vastly improved under Roman rule, Michele told us. For instance, the Romans introduced public baths like the one below, which had separate areas for men and women …
… And these thermopoliums, which are basically ancient fast food stalls where workers or those who could not afford private kitchens could stop for a quick fix.
The Romans also made Pompeii a lot cleaner via the introduction of a drainage and sewage disposal system. These stepping stones from one footpath to another allowed Pompeiians to cross the streets without stepping in the sewage below.
Not all Roman innovations had a positive influence on the city. There was at least one brothel or Lupanar, meaning wolf den, which you can still see today.
Michele told us that the beds were designed to be uncomfortable so that clients wouldn’t overstay their welcome.
Frescos depicting erotic scenes are still clearly visible on the walls.
Pompeii was a wealthy city in its heyday with plenty of large, stately houses. The largest is the House of the Faun, named after the statue in the front courtyard.
Mosaics were a great indicator of wealth back in Roman times, so it’s only fitting that the House of the Faun had one of the most impressive, depicting the Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia.
Some things haven’t changed much since the Roman era. This entrance mosaic depicts a fearsome dog with the inscription ‘Cave Canem’ — Latin for ‘beware of the dog.’
After 3 hours exploring Pompeii in the oppressive heat, it was time to break for lunch.
The restaurants near Pompeii’s exit were unsurprisingly crammed with tourists, many of whom were just sheltering from the sun. Despite the abundance of tourists, the restaurants were unexpectedly good value — I had a freshly-made pizza nearby for $US5 that easily surpassed some I could have bought back home for three times the price.
After lunch, it was finally time to make our way to the second destination on the itinerary: Herculaneum.
Herculaneum welcomes about a tenth of the visitors that Pompeii does every year — and the difference was immediately noticeable.
Source: The Local.
The quiet entrance was a stark contrast to the crowds queueing at its sister town.
I could have spent all afternoon in the cool, air-conditioned gift shop. The mosaic on the floor reading ‘have’ means welcome in Latin.
While Pompeii was a living, breathing metropolis, Herculaneum was a resort town for the Roman elite, Michele explained.
It was immediately obvious how much deeper Herculaneum had been buried than Pompeii.
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum had been buried under a vast mudslide caused by the eruption, not ash and lava, which was much more destructive. As a result, Herculaneum was much better preserved — just look at how vivid this fresco is …
… And this one depicting Neptune and Amphitrite.
Even some multi-story buildings like this one survived.
After more than 5 hours walking around in 105-degree heat, half of our tour group decided to call it a day, and I couldn’t blame them.
In contrast to the streets of Pompeii that bustled with tourists, Herculaneum’s streets were totally tranquil, with just a few people pottering around.
There were some similarities between Pompeii and Herculaneum. Herculaneum also boasted public bathhouses, divided by gender with stunning mosaics.
Our tour of Herculaneum ended on a dark note at the town’s boathouses.
Since Herculaneum was built on the sea, it was initially thought that almost all inhabitants had managed to escape, but this wasn’t the case. In the 1990s, more than 300 skeletons were found in the boathouses, seemingly awaiting a rescue that never came.
80% of Herculaneum still lies undiscovered, because modern-day Ercolano was built on top of it, and the government lacks the resources to buy residents out of their homes in order to continue excavations. There may be countless other lost treasures lying in wait beneath that town.
VERDICT: Herculaneum stood out as the better tourist experience, but there’s a reason Pompeii is so popular.
It’s hard to compare Herculaneum and Pompeii when the two were such different places – the former a resort town for the Roman elite and the latter a bustling metropolis with people from all walks of life.
On the day, Herculaneum was the better tourist experience. It was quiet, peaceful, and a much smaller area to cover in the sweltering heat. The superior preservation also brought you a tiny bit closer to feeling what life might have been like all those years ago than Pompeii did.
However, if I could choose to visit only one, I’d choose Pompeii. It may be crowded, but it’s crowded for good reason.
While Herculaneum shows you how a specific sector of Roman society liked to spend their vacations, Pompeii offers a full cross-section of society, from the slaves to the nobilis.
While it’s possible to visit both sites in a day, I wouldn’t recommend it, especially at the height of summer – I finished the day exhausted, dehydrated, and sunburned, though with considerably more knowledge of ancient civilizations than when I started.
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