Italy’s high speed trains make almost anywhere an easy trip from Rome. While it is certainly possible to spend endless amounts of time in Rome, getting away for a day has numerous advantages. Just over an hour away, Naples is an excellent choice for ancient history buffs, pizza lovers and those who love all things Christmas. We arrived in Naples and it was a short drive with great views of the city and Mt. Vesuvius to Herculaneum, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Millions of visitors descend on Pompeii each year, while in many ways Herculaneum has much more to see due to the nature of its destruction. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was covered with deep pyroclastic material that actually preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as building structures and pottery.In fact, recent excavations unearthed 300 skeletons, casts of which can be seen in situ by the city’s former harbor.
Only a quarter of the ruins can be visited, as the modern city of Ercolano sits on top, but it is enough to get a very good idea of what life was like almost two millennia ago. Since most tourists opt to visit its more famous neighbor, we were able to wander the streets, relax in the tepidarium, and imagine ourselves as residents of this wealthy town without the teeming hordes.
The marble cladding, fountains and other decorations in the one and two story homes are impressive testaments to the former residents. The streets remain in (relatively) good condition, with the drainage systems and water features that made the city a pleasant place to live.
Soon it was time for lunch and back to Naples for the world-renowned pizza at Pizzeria Sorbillo. We arrived at 1:30 in the afternoon and waited for an hour along with many Napoletanos.
After devouring one fried pizza (house specialty) we worked our way another three.
A reviving caffé doppio offset the food coma and we visited Napoli Sorreterranea, or Naples Underground, an astounding complex of homes, markets, amphitheaters and religious buildings dating to 400 BCE. We spent an hour and barely scratched the surface, so to speak.
Then there was just enough time to explore shops specializing in Presepi (pl. Presepe), the traditional Napoletano Nativity scenes or cribs. Centered in and around Via San Gregorio Armeno, the market offers literally thousands of options starting with the structure, often made from cork; the Holy Family, Angels, the butcher, the baker, the shepherd and his sheep, as well as miniature versions of every imaginable household object, trees, and even waterfalls.
Every Napoletano home has its own which is passed down through the generations. The shops are open year round but the best time to see the artisans at work is September – November. The Presepe are brought out for display on December 8 and remain through the holiday season.
We were back in Rome in time for dinner and ready for our next adventure.