Sun Bathing by a Volcano

Painting in HerculaneumThe seats on the Circumvesuviana hadn’t gotten any softer nor the ride smoother. The volcano’s ominous view once again filled the windows, seemingly proud of the devastation it inflicted nearly two thousand years earlier. Not just Pompeii, but several cities sitting along the base of the waterfront mountain were destroyed by that blast. Pompeii, the largest and most notable got pummeled with rocks and debris, while the seaside resort town of Herculaneum, was covered by a 35-foot wall of mud. Bad news for the residents, but good news for us, the mud ultimately served to preserve it.

The excavation site overwhelmed my senses. It looked like a square piece missing from a pan of cake. At the bottom sat the remains of a city. I wasn’t expecting it to be in such good shape.

Before climbing down to explore, we had to stop at the visitor’s center. The girl operating the ticket booth amazed me as well. She processed our payments, confiscated driver’s licenses, and distributed audio guides – all while chatting into her cell phone. We slipped on our headsets and learned that Herculaneum was discovered by seventeenth-century excavators.

It was hard to believe this place hadn’t seen the light of day for all those centuries. So much was still intact including lots of two story homes with wood beamed ceilings, furniture and walls painted with colorful frescos. Terra cotta drains ran along the streets. Our curious minds wanted to know more. Donna stopped a security guard, a grey haired man about Lee’s age and started asking questions.

“Follow me.” He instructed.

Our self-appointed guide led us to a tiled counter on the corner of two streets. Relying mostly on hand gestures and a few words of English, he pointed out the inlayed clay bowls of this neighborhood “Snack Bar” and explained how it was a popular meeting place.  Next door to that, he showed us a fresco depicting three bottles of wine, one red, one pink, and one white. He pretended to tip a glass to his mouth.  “Choice.”

Along the adjacent street, we saw signs above store fronts that advertised goods. He was describing one when he stopped – suddenly concerned with something behind us. He bolted toward a man and grabbed the plastic bag he carried. After a quick glance, he handed it back and pointed to the word “Security” embroidered on his sleeve. The man looked confused. The kids tried not to laugh.

Our next stop was a neighborhood of grand homes. At the entrance of one, our guide pointed down at a tile mosaic of a large angry dog. “Beware of dog!” he said.

He ushered us into an elaborate bath house where the feel of luxury was still prominent. I imagined the vacationing aristocrats sitting around drinking wine and discussing Empire-expanding strategies. One room offered another perfectly preserved and strikingly beautiful mosaic floor. Our guide moved the rope aside and motioned us inside. I felt like we should have removed our shoes or something. He motioned for us to sit along a stone bench then asked for Shari’s camera. After taking our photo, we began to stand up. “Stop” he said, pointing to my camera.

“A tour guide and a photographer” Lee said.

Just then some people walked by. “They’re not supposed to be in there.” A woman snarled in an English accent. Our guide remained fixed on my camera. “They’re not supposed to be in there!” she repeated, louder. “Talk to security about it.” Donna pointed to our illustrious guide, who was more concerned with finding my shutter button. The women stormed off.

As we filed out of the bath house, our guide tapped my shoulder and Lee’s shoulder to hold us back for a moment. When the coast was clear he pointed toward a slightly faded fresco, which depicted a woman “servicing” a man. He winked. We laughed.

Our new best friend had more energy than the seven of us combined. His ability to teach with limited English was uncanny. He spent two more hours walking us around the excavation and sharing his extensive knowledge, stopping only to check ticket stubs or chase visitors from closed off areas.

Our “tour” ended at the base of cliff. We stood at a place that used to be the beach. Instead of looking out toward the ocean, we faced a giant wall of mud. A row of boat houses sat behind us. It was surreal. For all those years, it was assumed that Herculaneum had little or no casualties, yet in this area, they’d recently found skeletons of over 300 people who’d been waiting to escape by boat and died from inhaling poison gas.

Metal staircases lead up a tunnel to the exit. It was time to say goodbye to our friend. Lee pulled out two 20-Euro notes, but he wouldn’t take the money. Instead, he got very serious look in his eyes. He raised his hands and locked his thumbs together.

“Italia…Americano…always” he said, and then walked away.

**To see pictures from our time in  Herculaneum check out our Facebook and Pinterest.

NEXT: Earthquakes or Volcanoes?

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