Our Big Family Road Trip: Mount Vesuvius and Herculaneum


Mount Vesuvius



As we were staying only an hour or so away, one of the main places we had hoped to visit during our stay in Caserta was the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum.

Herculaneum, or Ercolano as the modern locals call it, is situated southeast of Naples at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.  Vesuvius is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, due to the area around it being so densely populated.

Oh, that and the fact that it is still active.


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Standing in front of the devastated town of Herculaneum with Mount Vesuvius looming in the background


Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 and so another eruption is considered to be well overdue.  There are an estimated 600,000 people living within the 9-mile radius labelled the ‘red-zone’, made up of the 18 towns at its base.  Their survival would be nigh-on impossible.

The threat of Vesuvius erupting is not even a threat but a sure certainty.  The question isn’t if it will erupt, but when.  The Italian government are so concerned about the vast devastation and loss of life that it will cause that they have created a programme to relocate, offering people the sum of approximately €30,000 to vacate the area.  Very few have taken them up on their offer.


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We were in awe at how perfectly preserved the town was almost 2000 years after its burial by Vesuvius’s anger


Research is on-going into Mount Vesuvius and its activity is being closely monitored at all times.  The Vesuvius Observatory monitors a number of factors from seismic activity to gas emissions 24 hours a day, and any unusual activity or signs noted through this permanent observation is reported to the authorities.

Given the massive amount of magma that Vesuvius sits on which spreads more than 400km wide, along with the fact that it hasn’t erupted for so long, it is thought that the next eruption has the potential to be overwhelmingly devastating.  It would endanger more than 3 million people and would very possibly wipe out the whole of Naples.



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The new towns stand high above where the old town was buried so long ago.


The last time Mount Vesuvius erupted so violently was back in 79AD.  We know the details of what happened thanks to the letters of Pliny the Younger, which have been preserved through time.

There were signs beforehand that something was about to happen – a small earthquake had occurred and water supplied had dried up.   At 1pm on 24th August the eruption began, spewing up lava and magma and giving off noxious fumes.  It had been approximately 800 years since Mount Vesuvius had last erupted and consequently, this eruption proved to be terrifyingly fierce.


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People tried to flee for their lives, launching their boats from the arches of the boathouses.


Whilst many had already fled the town of Pompeii there were an estimated 2000 people left behind, meeting their fate after being buried alive by the falling ash and rocks.

Herculaneum is situated a short distance from Pompeii.  Many people had attempted to flee the town from the boathouses and most of them had managed to get out onto the sea successfully.  Approximately 300 of those that hadn’t made it away sought refuge in the chambers of what is thought to be the arches of the boathouses.


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Around 300 people desperately sought shelter and safety here. Sadly, there was no escape anywhere.


A pyroclastic surge formed by the hot gas and ash mixture swept over the town of Herculaneum at a rate of 100mph and with a temperature of approximately 500°C.  The speed and heat at which it covered the town resulted in the instant death of anyone remaining behind.


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You can see the height of the walls surrounding the town of Herculaneum in some of these photos. We wondered how much more lay undiscovered between Vesuvius and where we now stood.


There followed six surges and flows which pushed back anyone who had managed to sail out to sea.  The people who thought they had escaped Vesuvius’s furious attack on their town were plunged back to their death.


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Everything from houses to walls, roads to floors, even drain pipes were a source of fascination and discovery


The perfectly preserved skeletons, buildings and belongings which were uncovered almost 2000 years later was caused by the intense heat and speed at which they were covered.   The speedy extraction of water, along with the 75 feet of hot ash covering which blanketed the people and buildings resulted in immediate preservation.  This was then further protected by the volcanic tuff covering the town as a perfectly preserved, natural grave.



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The detailed floors held our gaze as we stared at the work put into them.


It wasn’t until the 1700s that a farmer was digging a shaft for a well and uncovered a collection of pristine marbles.  Digging of the area continued, though not in any archeological sense, but by looters and thieves keen to discover valuable treasures within the land.


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Millions of tiny tiles pieced together over great areas of floor, with no detail overlooked.


Excavations were soon taken over by King Charles of Bourbon who was keen to show off any precious, historical discoveries at the Royal Palace at Portici.  It wasn’t until 1927 that Amadeo Maiuri and his team began the first open air excavations of the site, uncovering most of what we see now.


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We wondered how long a floor like this might have taken. Who created it? Was it one person or was it a team?


Whilst Maiuri was present he had introduced a method of preserving and maintaining the site, but after he left it quickly began to fall into disrepair.

In 2001 a conservation project was launched to keep the town of Herculaneum maintained and preserved so that visitors can appreciate first-hand how the Romans lived… and also died here.


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Everything was a source of discovery and debate for everyone in the family


Of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Herculaneum is thought to have been the more prosperous of the two, with its fancier buildings and more elaborate frescoes and decorations.


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The anticipation of walking through a doorway or down another path to see what lay within never ended


It was absolutely fascinating to take this step back in time to a town the Romans painstakingly, sturdily built.  I had never realised how talented they were, nor how intelligent.  Of course, I’d read books and stuff but by stepping into this whole other world you were almost living it.


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The honour of being able to see, to feel, to touch the things the Romans built with their own hands which ended up so protected wasn’t lost on us


We were all completely fascinated.  The walls we could touch, the floors we walked on, even drainpipes were a source of deep engagement and thought.


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Artwork of sheer detail and brilliance could be found throughout the town


Every minute detail was significant.  The Romans overlooked nothing, it seemed.  They were smart, they were practical but they loved the good things too.  Decoration was a big factor in Roman life, we noticed.


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The House of the Skeleton – The first body to be discovered at Herculaneum was at this house.


We were all astonished at how well everything was preserved.  We’re not talking in terms of you just being able to make out what things are, or what they are supposed to be, but of seeing at a glance what you are looking at.


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Discoveries were fun yet, on reflection, provided time for sober thoughts and consideration of the people who died here


There are frescoes so perfectly salvaged that you can see every detail, and tiny tiles patiently put together to form magnificent pictures and floors.



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The Men’s Apodyterium. We were constantly amazed at how objects of such great beauty were hidden secretly in safe -keeping for so long. (Can you spot the ghostly face in this photo?)


You could envision people walking along the roads, going about their day-to-day lives before Vesuvius struck.


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You could imagine the locals gathering at the Thermopolium, drinks and food in hand as they chatted away.


The thermopolium stands now as it stood then.  They were the Roman equivalent of your fast-food joint or bar, serving up hot food and snacks from a central place in the town.   Vegetables, soups and beans would be cooked up and then stored in the huge terracotta pots to be kept warm, before serving them up to the locals at this popular meeting place.


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We had an appreciation for how well mapped out the town was with each different area set block by block throughout


Roman roads ran in straight lines – these guys wanted to get to where they wanted to go in the quickest, most simple way possible.  The roads were wide enough to allow animals to pull carts and heavy loads, and were often humped up slightly towards the centre in order to allow water to run off  into drainage ditches.


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The great stones which made up the rocks must have taken some brute force to move


Floors of buildings bucked due to the hot ash having been swept beneath them, then setting fast into their new structure.


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Some of the floors buckled due to the intensely hot ash being swept beneath them


Even wood had been perfectly preserved due to the rapid removal of water and subsequent immersion in hot ash, keeping them from being destroyed.


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And much of the wood within the buildings was also preserved


The Collegial Shrine of the Augustales was the place of worship for the first Roman Emperor.


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The College Of the Augustali


The frescoes within it are breathtaking.


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This building was a shrine to the Emperor Augustus.


The myth of Hercules is depicted in one of the frescoes.  The Greek hero was the inspiration for the town’s name.


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This fresco illustrates the myth of Hercules



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Just look at the colours and detail!


The Augustales were the order of Roman priests who Tiberius had instituted in order to maintain the worship of the emperor.


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Much of the floor was also preserved. The colours and elaborate tiling can still be clearly seen.


The names of the benefactors were inscribed on the wall…


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The benefactors of this collegium were inscribed on the wall


These inscriptions were usually placed on the walls of collegiums such as this…


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Paddy attempts to translate it for us…


Every now and then the realisation of the sheer terror and fear that these people felt would hit us.  How did they react when the volcano erupted?  How did they feel when they realised there was no escape?


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A moment of reflection and contemplation for Harry


There is some comfort in knowing that their deaths would have been so fast that they probably wouldn’t have realised their time had come.  Waiting for certain and imminent death though, must have been torturous.


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It was almost like taking a step back in time


You can see from some of these photographs just how deeply Herculaneum was covered.  The walls rising up to where the rebuilt town above now stands towers high above where you walk as the Romans walked.


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The knowledge that it was all real and not a reacreation was at times almost unbelievable


We wondered how much more lay undiscovered in perfectly preserved graves between where we stood and where Mount Vesuvius looms a short distance away.  There must be a whole other world we don’t yet know about, and perhaps never will.


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All around were examples of talent and intelligence, of diligence and brilliance


We left less ignorant to how much the Romans did, having learnt and experienced more than any book could ever have taught us.  We had a new appreciation for the people, and a humility towards those who suffered, whose belongings we see with admiring eyes and whose talents we marvel over, that we didn’t possess before.


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The awe and amazement at how perfectly this town stands, despite what it went through both then and now, was fascinating.


The realisation that history isn’t something we just learn about but is something that once happened hits home here.  How must the mother cradling her baby felt as she watched debris flying in the distance, wondering – maybe even knowing – that there was no escape if it chose to make their way to their town?


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This one was a trip we will never forget, and one we also hope to repeat again soon.


How desperately did they launch their boats, hopeful to escape to safety?


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The beauty and detail was stunning


The terror of how they felt was realised by us all.  This was no longer something we just read about.  It was real.


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Herculaneum: The most fascinating place





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9 thoughts on “Our Big Family Road Trip: Mount Vesuvius and Herculaneum

  1. What an amazing trip! There is nothing like visiting a place in person to experience exactly what it is/was like. I remember studying Mount Vesuvius at school and later Herculaneum & Pompeii with my degree but have never visited these amazing places. When I was younger we went abroad a lot and visited all the archaeological ruins/ancient sites and although some of them were a bit boring at the time I think this was a big reason for my interest in archaeology which I went on to study for my first degree 🙂 Such an amazing post, you’ve brought your holiday to life through your description and photos. Sounds like you had a wonderful time and I’m always impressed by how you get around with lots of kids. Thanks for linking up #MyFavouriteTrip Polly x

  2. We haven’t been to Pompeii but it seems a great deal bigger than Herculaneaum. Herculaneum was just the right size to get around in a day without feeling you missed seeing anything. I’d love to go back again – we all would! If you can get there for a day trip, do! And let me know what you think!

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