Otherwise Known As: Eating too much of a good thing is still a good thing.
Date of Travel: October 2012
Travel By: Plane, Public Transportation
Length of Trip: 4 days
Travellers: a Mom, a Dad, an OlderBoy (age 8), a YoungerBoy (age 4)
Itinerary: Day 1, evening in Naples; Day 2, Mt. Vesuvius and Herculaneum; Day 3, Pompeii; Day 4: Naples
Base Camp: We booked a flat for 4 nights through airbnb.com. The owner was so accommodating - he even sat with us on the first night we arrived and went through the map of Naples, showing us where to go, what metro was closest, and what to avoid. The apartment is in the Chiaia region of Naples, which was safe enough to walk around at night - with kids!
Trip Report: We arrived late in the evening to Naples, just enough time to settle into our apartment and then head out in search of pizza. Close to the apartment was one of the two famous Da Michele pizzaerias, but the less crowded one. We split 2 large pizzas between us (Margherita, of course!) and it was so delicious: thin, handmade crust; fresh mozzarella; piping hot from a wood-burning oven. (The 4 year old ate more pizza on this one night that he ever has in his entire life.)
Mt. Vesuvius and Herculaneum
We knew that we wanted to visit Vesuvius, Herculaneum and Pompeii, and I'm pretty sure we hit on exactly the right way to see them. Pompeii is large and you can spend an entire day there, if not more. Herculaneum is smaller and you can easily be satisfied with half an afternoon. Plus, it is much closer to Vesuvius then Pompeii ... so we combined a trip of Vesuvius and Herculaneum together and left Pompeii on it's own for another day. Yes, you can take buses from Pompeii to Vesuvius ... but why?
We took the Circumvesuviana train out of the main Naples station (in the direction of Sorrento) and got off at the Ercolano Scavi stop. (Ercolano == Herculaneum). Immediately coming out of the station, on your left is a group of stores and there is a Vesuvius tour company right there. They take you in a shuttle bus up a steep mountain to the base of the Vesuvius park, a 15 minute ride. From there, you walk up a steep hill for about 20-30 minutes until you can get to the point where you walk around a crater. It is a trek, but kids and adults of all ages were on that hill, determined to get to the top. It helped my family immensely that we were doing it on a gorgeous day. Plus, we were ON A VOLCANO.
At the top of the volcano, you can walk about half-way around the crater. There's a fence all the way around, so there's no danger of falling in - but keep an eye on the little ones who want to run around, or lean up against it. There's a gift shop/cafe up there if you need some refreshment once you've made the climb - including personal-sized wine bottles! We opted with water.
Little pockets of steam - not lava - rising up from the volcano. My kids informed me it would have been cooler with lava.
The shuttle bus gave us about an hour and a half to get up to the top, walk around, and get back down to head back. It's enough time, although we were running down the hill on our way back down so we wouldn't be late! The bus brings you right back to the station.
Once you get out of the station area, you end up on the main street and walk down. Herculaneum is about 8 blocks, straight ahead. We stopped at a cafe almost practically in the middle to have a lunch of pizza and paninis. Dare I say the pizza tasted even better than the famous Da Michele? Yes, I dare. (I don't actually remember the name of the cafe, but I feel like it had "Luna" in the name. We chose one that was mid-way between the station and Herculaneum because it had much less of a "touristy" feel.)
At the ticket office, we bought one of those combo tickets for Herculaneum and Pompeii. We also picked up some audio guides, as my 8 year old is very interested in the guides. However, the map was a bit confusing and we were never quite sure if were listening to the right number in the right section. We also took our Rick Steve's guide of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, which helped a bit.
The streets of Herculaneum.
We toured Herculaneum for almost four hours, just the right amount of time for my husband and myself, although the kids were probably ready to go after about 2 hours in. (Chocolate helps immensely to keep them going, as did a second wind once it got closer to closing time and people were filtering out - we let the kids run around a bit, they loved it.) With Vesuvius looming in the background, it is especially chilling to see how close the eruption would have been and how the people in Herculaneum would have been able to see it, even if they probably didn't know exactly what was happening. This town was hit in the second wave of the eruption and many of it's citizens were able to get to the water and flee. Once the eruption flowed towards Herculaneum - mostly ash and pumice, along with extreme heat - it filled in the city from the bottom up, filling in every crevice and preserving the site as it is found today. Many buildings are intact, including a domed roof of one of the baths. All the mosaic and frescoes that are found in Herculaneum are the originals, unlike in Pompeii (which are now found in the Archaelogical museum in Naples).
The next day, we headed back to the Circumvesuviana train, and took the same path (in the direction of Sorrento), passed the Ercolano Scavi stop and got off at the Pompeii Scavi stop. We had tried to book a guide that was well known, but she was unavailable on the day we were arriving. I had read ahead of time that some guides would offer private tours right outside of the site, but that they charged a lot and really didn't know more than your guidebook. However, there was a group tour being offered at a booth right outside the train station, and they were charging 12 euro per person and the kids were free - so we took it! (This did not include the admission into Pompeii. Since we had our passes from the day before, we just waited while the rest of our group bought their tickets.)
The tour, in English, lasted about an hour and a half. It was a good start to being filled in with some history (although we already knew approximately half of what she said from reading a guide book beforehand). The best part, however, was that she actually took you around the major points of Pompeii in a logical order. Given the confusion of Herculaneum the day before, this was so very welcome. It was nice to have a leader that actually could take you from Point A to Point B, and along the way, she even pointed out things we never would have been able to find on our own, like the carvings of male genitalia that showed the direction of the brothels (not in the guidebook).
Temple of Zeus, with Mt. Vesuvius in the background
After the tour, we exited Pompeii to have lunch in one of the cafes directly across from the site and had pretty much the worst meal I have ever eaten in my life. Of course, it's an incredibly touristy area so no one is actually concerned about the quality of food. Gelato made up for it. (You should maybe just consider gelato for lunch.) And then we went right back into the Pompeii site to explore on our own. (You should probably check with the guards at the gate that you will be able to get back in with your tickets - we did this with a guard at the back entrance and went directly to him again to get back in.)
My 8 year old was fascinated with the gated section off to the left of the Temple of Zeus in the Forum, were they had just stockpiled the excavated artifacts from Pompeii that they did not ship off to the museum. This included jugs of all sizes, broken pieces of columns and altars, and even some of the plaster casts of the citizens of Pompeii. When ash from the volcano filled over the city, it covered the bodies quickly before the skin had a chance to decay, creating a mold of how the people were posed when they died - many huddled or crouched. Archaeologists poured liquid plaster into the molds and were able to create body casts of the people of Pompeii in their final moments. Some of them are in this gated section, others are found inside buildings, under glass casing. You can even see the expressions on their faces - it is quite tragic.
A plaster made from the preserved impression of one of the victims of the volcano.
The brothels were fun to visit. I believe that my children were oblivious to it all, not questioning the tiny rooms that just held one stone bed, and not really noticing the lewd and hilarious dirty pictures on the wall. (The pictures are not the originals, those are in the museum in Naples.) The brothel rooms were very crowded though, so you are moving fairly quickly through them, and the pictures on the wall are high up, so I didn't at all feel bad about taking the kids through this section!
As the afternoon went on, the kids led us away from the crowds and the more famous sections of Pompeii to wander along quieter streets and houses. This was just a perfect way to explore Pompeii, we all really enjoyed being "alone" in the city. We also headed over to the Colosseum of Pompeii, where they did have gladiator fights - it's a bit farther from the main section of Pompeii, so our tour guide did not lead us here. But it is nicely preserved and if you walk around, you'll find a tunnel entrance that will lead you into the arena itself.
One of the best things we did before heading to Italy was to buy the children's book, You wouldn't want to live in Pompeii! It gives a history of the volcanic eruption and how it destroyed the city of Pompeii, done in away that is informative but still accessible to kids, and providing lots of pictures. Both my 8 year old and 4 year old LOVED this book and they carried it around with them the entire day in Pompeii.
We started off this day by heading to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples to look through all the lovely artifacts that were pulled from Pompeii (some from Herculaneum as well). The museum also houses some of the largest marble sculptures from Rome, including the actual largest marble sculpture, the Farnese Bull. Michelangelo himself even carved certain pieces of the statue - it is majestic.
Why yes, she is being strung up by her neck to be hanged from a bull.
You can get have a guide show you around the museum for a price, but we were content to wander on our own, first seeing the sculptures on the first floor, and then heading up to see the frescoes and mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Also from Pompeii are artifacts located in The Secret Room of the museum - where all those original "dirty" frescoes from the brothels are located, as well as some interesting sculptures. We definitely didn't let the kids go inside here, but my husband and I had a laugh looking around.
After the museum, we had lunch (pizza, and we STILL loved it!) and headed over to the street that sells Christmas ornaments year round, Via San Gregorio Armeno. We then went to see the Duomo and church of Santa Chiara, which had beautiful mosaic columns and a somewhat cartoonish nativity scene on display.
The most interesting church, in my opinion, was that of Cappella Sansevero. It was a church designed by Raimondo di Sangro, who was a Free Mason, and had some amazing sculptures commissioned for this place. The most impressive sculpture is that of The Veiled Christ, which depicts Christ under a shroud, all in marble. It is one the most beautiful pieces of art that I have ever seen in my life! I wish I could have taken pictures, but there was a strict policy and many guards stationed all over the chapel. Other works in the chapel are equally stunning, as well as the chapel itself. As if that wasn't enough, downstairs (and well out of the way if you want to avoid your children seeing this, which you should and we did) are two "anatomical models" of ... something clearly creepy. There are two models of what appears to be a human skull and then metal veins over bone, with the arteries and veins being so anatomically correct that some believed that these were real bodies that were injected with some kind of "metalizing" agent into the veins. But probably not ...
As the sun went down, the Younger Boy and I headed back to the flat while the Older Boy and my husband took a funicular to the top of Naples to enjoy the view. The both loved it - I pass down their high recommendation!