In contrast to Pompeii, we found Herculaneum – also buried when Mt Vesuvius erupted – beautifully cared for, well conserved. and with excellently presented information.
Apparently it wasn’t always the case – pre 2001 the town was in a dire state after years of mismanagement. Then the Packard Humanities Institute began the Herculaneum Conservation Project, a private-public partnership which over time provided not just funding but also resources and skilled experts. Now the project has joined with the British School in Rome to actively teach students how to maintain the site.
This external assistance really shows and today it is regarded as a textbook case of successful archeological conservation.
As you enter the site you look down over the ancient town which today sits at around four metres below sea level. While this causes all sorts of conservation headaches and the need for complex drainage systems, on the positive side it presents a very dramatic view as you arrive.
Gazing over the site we had an excellent view of the neat grid pattern of the streets. Our eyes were also drawn to the foreground where there is a small body of brackish water edged by around six cavern-like rooms carved out of the rock.
A walkway takes you down to that level and as we walked alongside what was once a beach we saw what looked like a heap of bones. As we got closer, we saw that they were indeed just that. In fact there were skeletons – the first of which were discovered only in 1981 and then hundreds more discovered in the 1990s.
Until then, archeologists thought nearly all of the inhabitants had managed to escape but this surprising discovery led to a change of view. Sadly the men, women and children were killed by the intense heat (500 degrees C) of the first surge while waiting to be rescued by boats.
There were copious memorable buildings, frescos and mosaics at Herculaneum. We spent many hours wandering through the ancient streets full of amazement that the town and some of its inhabitants had remained buried for so long under 20 metres of ash and Yet emerged with such grace and beauty. .
Unlike Pompeii, the volcanic material that covered Herculaneum carbonised thereby preserving wood in objects such as roofs, beds and doors as well as other organic-based materials such as food.
For us, one of the most intriguing discoveries was that of a boat overturned by the force of the eruption. The volcanic flow buried the boat and solidified – encasing and preserving the timber until it was discovered in 1982. All very fascinating.
On the way to Herculaneum we experienced some truly terrifying Italian driving. It is hard to describe but imagine driving where there are no rules of the road and everyone drives like a racing car driver but with total disregard for safety – no giving way at roundabouts, cars overtaking when others have stopped for a very good reason, motorbikes coming straight for you on your side of the road at top speed, parking on roundabouts and other places. It was total mayhem!
We were very relieved to get there in one piece!
After Herculaneum our next stop was Monte Cassino famous for the Second World War battle which destroyed much of the town of Cassino and the magnificent monastery perched on top of the “Monte”.
The monastery, the first of the Benedectine Order, was established in 529 by Saint Benedict and its buildings were rebuilt after the war with the new Basilica being consecrated on 24 October 1964.
Our first night in Cassino was spent in a camp site near the town which was hard to find and quite noisy as there was a railway line right next to where we were parked.
After looking round the Monastery we decided to stay up on top of the hill as there was a fabulous view and very quiet – or so we thought!
Just before 5 am we were woken up with a start by the sound of a huge bell booming out from the Monastery- announcing the start of the early morning service. More bells joined in and they clanged and they donged and they bonged and they rang for what seemed like a lifetime (it was actually about 15 minutes but still.)
What a relief when it stopped as the ringing was so loud it reverberated round the van. We were literally shaking in our bed. But no, it wasn’t over! The bells started again – this time there were more of them and they went on for another fifteen minutes.
Finally after about an hour of incessant ringing, the bells fell silent and we were at last able to get back to sleep again.