Cruising the Mediterranean aboard the elegant Viking Star, we investigate astonishing early civilizations from Greece to Italy. At Naples, most shipmates head for storied Pompeii; we visit neighbouring Herculaneum.
Gazing over the archaeological site from the viewpoint seems otherworldly. Residences look reasonably intact, as if just recently abandoned. The massive volcano that entombed this city for over 1700 years rises ominously in the distance. “Named for Hercules, this seaside town was smaller than Pompeii,” guide Sofia explains. “Though not as well known, Herculaneum is much better preserved and equally splendid.”
Located upwind from the volcano, the tons of falling ash and pumice that crushed Pompeii did little damage here. Instead, flowing volcanic mud rapidly engulfed her buildings, filling them from the bottom up, ultimately preventing their collapse. As well, the hot mud formed an airtight seal that preserved the town. Though excavations have been ongoing since 1738, most of Herculaneum remains buried.
We descend a long, dimly lit tunnel and cross a little bridge to the original dock. Bleached skeletons sit and sprawl under the archways of former boathouses. “Trading and fishing helped this seaport flourish. Archeologists believe most of its 20,000 residents escaped by sea,” recounts Sofia. “These stark remains may represent those awaiting rescue.”
Regrouping on an extensive terrace, Sophia tells us its namesake was Marcus Nonius Balbus, a prominent civic patron. His commanding marble figure stands on a high pedestal. Inscriptions on the adjacent marble memorial list his many accomplishments.
A steep ramped stairway leads us up into another public square. Sophia shepherds us along the main street, onto cobbled side streets and into compact, remarkably undamaged neighbourhoods. A public water fountain features a man’s worn bearded mouth as a spout; another displays the carved relief of a gowned woman. “Locals met daily at such fountains to get water, discuss politics and exchange gossip,” Sophia elaborates. “Some even flowed continuously, flushing the streets.”
Businesses intermingle with large villas and small. Conical basalt stones for grinding flour identify the bakery. Imagining aromas of freshly baked breads and honeyed cakes, we stroll to an ancient eatery. “That heated inlaid marble table kept pots of buffet foods hot. Perhaps the first fast food restaurant?” winks Sofia. “Large terra cotta jars likely held wines and olive oil. Nuts, figs, broad beans, chickpeas and olives filled smaller clay pots.”
Inside the public bathhouse, striking black and white tiles floors depict a sea goddess, porpoises and octopus amid ocean patterns. Traces of red, green and gold frescoes embellish walls. “Without home facilities, citizens used public bathhouses like these,” Sofia smiles. “Women and men used separate rooms heated by hot water circulating through wall cavities. Marble benches lined the lavish perimeters.” We delight in visualizing locals socializing here, playing knucklebone games or relaxing in hot and cold pools.
In some villas, vivid frescoes still decorate walls; original mosaics beautify floors. Rooms sometimes reveal intact beds, carbonized wooden beams and doorframes. One house encloses an open-air courtyard with marble ponds, fountains, a marble table with lion legs and collection pools for rainwater.
Several villa names highlight their notable history or distinctive décor. The town’s first human bones were found in House of the Skeleton, where a lovely cupid relief sits above a beautiful shrine for household gods. Built in the 2nd century BC, Samnite House sports red geometrics, the oldest paintings in town! At House of the Wooden Partition, unique sliding doors separated the rooms from the atrium.
Especially memorable, House of Neptune and Amphitrite bedazzles. A glass tile mosaic decorates the dining room’s back wall. Geometric designs frame exquisite figures of Neptune and Amphitrite. According to legend, this sea god spotted her dancing on the island of Naxos, swept her away and married her. In a magnificent niche opposite, shell and mother of pearl frame hunting scenes, expressive marble theatrical masks perch above.
Hall of the Augustales proves similarly outstanding. An illustrated panel describes how a wealthy college of citizens organized glittering imperial events here. Four thick columns divide one grand room into three large spaces. Only the pedestals for Augustus and Julius Caesar’s statues remain. In the foyer, pastel marble pieces create pleasing floor motifs around a rectangular pool. Mythically themed frescoes embellish opposing walls in one grand alcove. On one side, Hercules sits beside Juno, Queen of Gods and Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. On the other, he fiercely battles for Deianira’s love.
‘Traveling’ over 2000 years back in time at World Heritage Herculaneum inspires extraordinary insights into a sophisticated Roman culture.
PLAN TO GO:
• Visit www.vikingcruise.com for itinerary information
PHOTOS by Chris Millikan
#1 At a viewpoint above Herculaneum: Old Herculaneum archeological site below; new town locate above
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