Naples, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Sorrento – Italy 2017

Naples  22-26 July

The ferry from Palermo was due into Naples around 6:30am so it was an early rise and out to reception with our bags to watch the entry into port. As the boat cruised in under the gaze of Mount Vesuvius, the notorious volcano, we were amazed at just how small it looks compared to the gigantic Mount Etna in Sicily. Vesuvius has not erupted since 1944 but the scientists are somewhat concerned about mounting pressures, including some building under Naples itself. Hopefully, it can hang on for another four days.

The problem with arriving so early is finding somewhere to kill time with heavy bags before getting access to accommodation. Our apartment hosts had promised access at 9am so we had a few hours. There was not much open as we made our way along the via Nuovo Marina but we eventually found a little cafe-bar serving coffee and croissant. Christine was wearing her Aussie cricket shirt and the proprietor was from Pakistan so we were most welcome and he used his limited English to strike up a bit of a conversation.

We found our apartment block, a clean and neat looking block set in an area of tight narrow streets. The streets were absolutely filthy, as were most of the buildings. Naples is famous for being dirty but it is hard to imagine just how filthy the streets can be. Litter is everywhere, obviously just discarded without a care. Dog crap is also a continual problem when walking and the streets are sometimes easier to walk on than the broken sidewalks. I find it quite depressing to think that the people of one of Europe’s foremost countries can actually live in these conditions, beautiful apartments on the inside, top quality clothes and the best of fashion yet streets that are in worse condition than parts of South East Asia. People just seem to shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s what it’s like here.”

After a wait, our host arrived to let us in to a very comfortable apartment on the fourth floor of a six storey block. The owners have a number of apartments and have themed each one with a colour. Ours is a pink theme, very pink, pink is everywhere. It gets quite dazzling at times. However, the apartment is comfortable and very well located, right on the edge of the historic centre and a block away from Corso Umberto 1, the main shopping precinct, where shops sell high fashion goods at Perth K-Mart prices. We located a nearby supermarket and found a lovely little fruit and veg shop across the road. Around the corner is a fishmonger with a big range of fresh seafood. We are settled in and know where the rubbish bins are.

Around Naples, with Vesuvius at the top. Our street is at top right and the ferry from Palermo in the centre.

Further up the hill beyond Corso Umberto and along via Duomo there is a tangle of tiny streets and alleyways that are quite delightful to walk through. They contain hundreds of touristic shops selling a wide variety of goods, but most prominent are the miniature models depicting working life scenes from old Naples. There are doctors, weavers, laundry workers, gardeners and every conceivable occupation, all in beautiful little miniature and each beavering away at their task. The dentist was rather grizzly and one of the doctors was working hard on someone’s buttocks.

Many of the larger buildings are undergoing extensive repairs, and are shrouded in mesh netting and scaffolding. Thousands more are in urgent need of attention. A decent earthquake, not all that uncommon in Naples, would take its toll. The Metro underground is being expanded as well, also causing a lot of disruption around the central historical part of the city. This can only be a good thing because reducing the number of cars would have to be a top priority. Cars choke every street and footpath, making walking in some places very difficult. Around a quarter of these cars appear to be permanently parked, covered in a thick layer of grime and squeezed into space leaving mere centimetres between each one. Most have scratches and bumps around all sides and no car more than a year old looks untouched. Those that do make it into the traffic spend most of their time at idle, trapped in the endless snarls, then accelerating hard when a gap opens up only to slam on the brakes a few seconds later. Many other European cities have simply banned cars and motorbikes from the central areas and rigidly enforced parking rules.  If public transport is cheap and efficient, the need to own a car in a big city is lessened. All it needs is the will and determination to change, something I suspect is lacking in Naples. France and Germany already have a timeline for the end of petrol and diesel powered vehicles. Italy needs to catch up and Perth needs to start learning some lessons before it is too late. Naples is a vision of the future we can expect if we go on as we are.

Sorrento

Naples serves as a hub for excursions and there are too many choices of what to see and not enough time. We chose to catch a train to Sorrento to check out for ourselves whether the amazing reputation is warranted. We had a kilometre walk to the huge train station complex at Piazza Garibaldi, stopping along the way to walk through a side-street market that specialised in loud men shouting “Prego!” and piles of cheap odd fragments of clothing. The Piazza Garibaldi area is reputed to be the worst for pick pockets, in a city where petty theft is a major industry. We had gone prepared, with no credit cards, passports or excess cash and things stored in deep zipped pockets. I also had a “man bag” for other essentials for the day.

The train to Sorrento is the Circumvesuviana Line, a narrow gauge line that services Herculaneum, Pompeii  and Sorrento, as well as dozens of villages around the base of the volcano Mt Vesuvius. I declare it to be the worst railway I have ever travelled on. It does not run as part of the normal Trenitalia system. The tickets can only be purchased at two little windows and each transaction is carried out at a snail’s pace, resulting in ridiculously long lines. Pickpockets move through the heavy crowds relieving people of their belongings (not kidding). We eventually got two tickets and located platform 3, just missing a train and having 30 minutes to wait for the next one. The crowds swelled along a lengthy platform to near bursting point, made worse by the fact that many people had luggage, using the train as a way of getting to Sorrento to stay. We struck up a conversation with a Scottish/Norwegian couple and there was a group of four Americans next to us. Finally, a train arrived and stopped with the last carriage nearly ten metres beyond us. The crowd surged on and somehow we managed to push our way onto an ancient dilapidated old carriage and find a spot, standing shoulder to shoulder. One of the Americans felt a hand in his pocket and confronted the culprit, who raised his hands, said sorry and made for the door. He and a mate got off as the train pulled into the first stop, just as another of the Americans found they had lifted her purse from her handbag, complete with credit cards and around 400€. I know how she felt after the same experience in Rimini. It just destroys you but in this case there is almost no defence.

The train was impossibly hot, terribly rattly and ridiculously overcrowded. It must be making a huge amount of money through Pompeii, Herculaneum and Sorrento but little appears to be going back into rolling stock. Thankfully, after Pompeii, about two thirds of the way along, more than half the crowd alighted and things settled down for the rest of the trip. At least we got to be uncomfortable sitting down.

Once we got to Sorrento, we ran into the crowds again. There were tour groups everywhere, each following a guide holding up a stick with a grubby worn fluffy doll of some description. We wandered down through the streets, admiring the beauty (and cleanliness) of the town. A maze of tiny alleyways were filled with the usual souvenir and craft shops, many featuring some really pretty local porcelain pieces. In places, the crowds thinned out, only to recur around the next bend. Sorrento is built on top of a long high rock cliff overlooking a lovely bay containing several small harbours. We arrived at a small park that provides a perfect lookout situation to gaze down at the crowds of swimmers and sunbathing masses below. A steep path is cut into the cliff and winds down in four long zigzags. The pathway looked like hard work but fortunately, there are twin elevators cut into the rock and provide easy access at a Euro a trip, money well spent.

We looked at the menu of a restaurant overlooking the cliff and gagged at the prices so decided to hang back a couple of blocks away from the water and pay half the amount. We found a converted 16th Century monastery that was converted into a library of historic papers and books and served as an excellent restaurant.

Around Sorrento

The front of house spruiker was so entertaining and pretty successful at dragging people in. He like Australians and involved us in some of his banter. “Hey,“ he would call out to a passing couple, “How about a cold beer in a frosted mug? My friends here have had four (an exaggeration). They’re Australian.”

We shared a delicious prawn salad and an amazing spinach cannelloni, leaving feeling replenished but not full to bursting. That takes some doing in the restaurants in Italy because the serving sizes vary between enormous and gigantic.  We have even overeaten when ordering only an appetizer.

After another wander through the streets, we used the elevators to descend to the beach areas. From below, it is easy to really appreciate the wonder of Sorrento. The work that has gone into bricking up parts of the cliff and constructing ramparts and walls is staggering. Beautiful (and expensive) hotels line the cliff tops, some having their own elevators that run down through the cliff to service the beach area. In Roman times, Sorrento was the summer residence of the rich, with villas sitting on top of the cliffs to catch the cooling breezes. I imagine the wealthy were carried up the pathways to the top.

We caught a high speed ferry back to Naples, a lot more expensive than the train but infinitely more comfortable and quicker. The motion of the boat across the Bay of Naples was soothing and we both slept most of the way.

In hindsight, we would have been far better off staying in Sorrento instead of Naples, despite the high cost of accommodation in areas near the centre and beach. It would have served just as well as a hub to visit Pompeii and been far more pleasant.

Herculaneum

Herculaneum is lesser known than Pompeii and closer to Naples. The original Roman city suffered the same fate as Pompeii in 79AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted, raining millions of tonnes of volcanic ash over the town and cities on its slopes, covering them for nearly two thousand years. Herculaneum was later built over as the modern day town of Ercolano, and it was not until the 17th Century that knowledge of what lay beneath prompted the beginning of the extensive excavation program. Herculaneum (named after Hercules) was a port city, perched high on coastal cliffs. With the extensive infill from the volcanic ash and subsequent eruptions, the excavated city is nearly a kilometre inland and well below the current level of Ecolano.

To reach Herculaneum, we had to board the dreaded Circumvesuviana Line train again. We left it later in the day, hoping the crowds going through to Sorrento would have eased and we were right, the train being only filled to 90% capacity instead of 120%. The heat, sweat and odours of the previous day’s train were the same but this time we didn’t witness a pickpocket operation.  Once at Ercolano, we had to walk down the main street to Herculaneum. The taxi, bus, restaurant and tour guide touts were out in force and showed signs of being persistent. After the heat of the train I was lacking in patience and yelled at the first guy that tried to press his case. Another girl crossed the road to secure our business and she got snapped at as well. They really didn’t care less but it made me feel much better.

The first sight of the ruins is from above, allowing an incredible overview of the city uncovered to date. There is still a great deal lying under modern day Ecolano, including a huge amphitheatre and a number of large public buildings and temples. These have been partly explored by tunnelling in from the existing excavations.

We paid our 11€ entrance fee, secured a map and an excellent guide book then set off to explore the ruins. Many areas and buildings remain open for the public to explore and wander, while some more fragile or important buildings have restricted access. The guidebook gave a terrific insight into the various buildings, many of them family homes, as well as various shops, bars, restaurants, bakeries and blacksmiths. Many buildings were complete except for the roof, the hot ash having set fire to the timbers or the roof structure being unable to support the crushing weight of the ash and rock. Not all timber was totally destroyed though, with some remaining in a charred and blackened state. Down at the dock area, the foreshore warehouses were filled with skeletons, over 300 of them, presumably of people who were sheltering in the beachside overhangs from the ash fall. We wandered the streets of the city and through the buildings for over an hour, using the guidebook to add meaning to the sights. The heat was oppressive and I wondered what it would have been like in Roman times during summer, when the necessary use of fire and the smells of animals, sewerage and people would have made conditions in the narrow rock lined streets unbearable.

Herculaneum

We found  Herculaneum to be an amazing place and it demonstrates just how advanced the Romans were with their civic works and way of life. We have seen a lot of Roman ruins on this trip but to see them without the advanced state of decay that two thousand years of exposure brings is wonderful. A lot of people have told us that Herculaneum is a better experience than Pompeii itself. Tomorrow, we will find out. Unfortunately, it means another trip on the dreaded train.

Pompeii

Pompeii meant one last train trip, actually, two counting the return. We got a pleasant surprise when the train pulled in. It was a modern looking affair and actually had air-conditioning. Because we had waited until just after lunch, the crowds were also down so we had what almost amounted to a pleasant trip. We needed one because once at the Pompeii ticket area it was frustration plus. Two ticket windows serviced a line of at least two hundred people, probably more. The wait is often said to be over an hour so I guess we were lucky and managed tickets in a half hour. They are so inefficient! It is so bad that I can only assume it is deliberate and that they feel all foreigners on Italian soil need some form of punishment. I could ask a class of ten year old children to come up with a better system and they would produce at least five ways of selling tickets quicker. The line snakes down across an exposed concreted area under the full blare of the sun. A misting fan is thoughtfully supplied at one point, although I would have thought a patio roof or shade cloth would do a much better job. Finally, tickets in hand, we went through to pick up a map and guidebook. Sorry! No maps left. Tough luck about your 13€ payment but you can’t have all that you paid for. The ruins get 2.5 million visitors a year. I think the authorities can do better.

The entrance to the ancient town is through the Porta Marina, the gate that originally serviced the road to the coast, not very far away before the eruption. Once through the gate, a long straight road stretched out before us, bordered on each side by small buildings, similar in appearance to those of Herculaneum. But that is where the comparison ended. The road led to the Forum, the key part of all Roman cities, the place of government and worship. In only a short walk it appeared that Pompeii was a much more important and significant city than Herculaneum and the richness of the Forum and surrounding temples displayed its significance. However, this was not actually the case, Herculaneum being the richer of the two cities. The difference is that most of Pompeii had been uncovered whereas the majority of Herculaneum is still buried. At the time of the eruption in 79 AD, the city had a population of around 11,000 people. Founded by the Greeks in the 7th Century BC, it was already an ancient city when it was covered and the buildings that have been preserved by the ash build-up ranged in age from almost new to five hundred years old. Therefore, there is a wide variety of architectures and building techniques in evidence.

The cobbled roads seemed to be either vehicular roads or pedestrian only roads, the later being bared to vehicular traffic with large barrier stones like bollards.  The vehicular roads often bore the worn ruts of wheels worn over the centuries, further evidence that Pompeii was already a very old city when it was covered.

Pompeii

The whole area is enormous, covering around 68 hectares. Most of the city is a collection of houses, shops and workshops, much as any city. The Forum dominates, along with numerous large temples to various Gods and divinities. Further down the hill there is a large amphitheatre. Some of the houses are very large with private bathing facilities and magnificent reception courtyards. As with Herculaneum, most of the roofs were destroyed and many of the painted frescoes decorating the walls were damaged. Those that remain show the skill of the artists of the day.

What did surprise us both was the extent to which the Romans relied on brick to build. So many of the ruins that remain today feature stone and marble columns that I had assumed that these were the main materials used. Solid stone was in fact used in only the most important of buildings and most were actually built with brick columns and a cement plaster outer coating. In many other ruined cities, the brick structures have long since fallen and only the solid stone buildings remained over the centuries.

We were glad that we had deliberately left our tour of Pompeii to a day forecast as cooler and with a chance of rain. The rain did not eventuate, save a brief shower on the way home, but the clouds gave some relief from what would be a very hot and exposed environment amongst all the stone and brick buildings.

Eventually, the kilometres of walking and steady heat took its toll and we headed for the exit. We had looked forward to seeing the smaller items , the pottery, jewellery, weapons and so forth but there did not seem to be a display of these objects other than a small collection of pottery near the exit. There is a new rail station under construction one stop down from Pompeii called Antiquarian that I am assuming is part of a new project to house the smaller museum type pieces from Pompeii. It is difficult to really get information. Fortunately, we had both been to a magnificent exhibition of Pompeii relics at the WA Museum only a few years ago.

Which was better; Pompeii or Herculaneum? Pompeii won hands down in our opinion for the sheer size and scale of the city and the importance and grandeur of the large public buildings.

Summary

We came to Naples to use it as a hub to see Pompeii, Herculaneum and Sorrento. Naples itself did nothing for us, other than turn us off. It is a city that displays everything that is wrong and dysfunctional in Italy. It is dirty, crime ridden and crime controlled. The traffic is appalling and public infrastructure worse than many Third World countries we have visited. I acknowledge that we did not see all that Naples has to offer and that living in the area that is essentially the port side of the old town things may be more run-down than other areas but we did travel around a fair bit of the city and little that we saw really impressed.

We should have gone to Sorrento instead, paid a lot more for accommodation but been better placed to travel and enjoy the good parts of Campania. It would have made it more convenient to visit the Amalfi Coast, south of Sorrento, an area that time ruled out for us. Still, we wouldn’t know that unless we had been.

GALLERIES:

Naples

Sorrento

Pompeii

Herculaneum

  1. Hi Guys
    Naples sounds the same as when we were there in 2004. Our bus driver would not let us out to walk around the streets because of the crime.
    Love
    Ros

Leave A Comment?

Anti-Spam Quiz: