I have been to Pompeii a couple of times, simply because almost every tour I did out of Naples included a morning spend wandering around the remains of the city that was buried under volcanic ashes after one of Vesubius`most dramatic eruptions.
After one of the times I ended up seeing Pompeii again, one of my friends came back totally excited after visiting Herculaneum. She said it was so much more beautiful and less crowded. As I completely trusted my smart friend´s judgement, I made a mental note that I wouldn´t leave Italy this time without seeing Ercolano.
So it was that a couple of weeks later I was driving around Naples in a tour bus, on the way to Ercolano. Thank God we had a fantastic tour guide. I wish I could remember his name, or that I had been blogging at the time, so I could have saved those memories.
One thing I do remember was seeing how dirty the streets of Napoli looked, and the guide explaining to us about the trash that was sitting out there on the streets without getting picked up. By some mechanism he didn´t care to elaborate on, the mob threatened garbage men at gunpoint, so they wouldn´t pick up the trash.
Naples is a city full of life, but it is as dirty as they get. Some parts of it can be dangerous, and it is largely controlled by the mafia. I remember one tourist getting his Rolex ripped off his hand as he was waiting by a traffic light. Mental note for would-be travelers to Naples: leave your Rolex at home!
You can get the best pizza in Naples; it is after all the place where pizza is said to have been invented. In my case, you can also get the best capresse salad. There was this place two blocks right and one up from the harbor that served it with such fantastic olive oil that my beloved Hungarian friend Nelli just had to buy a bottle.
Months after visiting Ercolano and Naples, I saw the film GOMORRA, an internationally acclaimed and crude portrayal of the local mob. At around the same time, I read an article on a magazine about a theater performance that was being set in one of those Naples dumpsters, and how the City was trying to change its image. To the best of my knowledge dramatic changes are yet to occur.
Anyways, after this colorful ride, we were in Herculaneum. The differences with Pompeii are directly apparent on arrival. This is like looking at a whole city from above, only the roofs have been removed. Buildings here are much better preserved than in Pompeii, as Ercolano inhabitants were killed by the tremendous heat, and not by the ashes.
Herculaneum used to be a beach resort for rich Romans, so the ruins, located below ground level, are looking at an imaginary sea, as the water has long ago retired. Pompeii is huge, while Ercolano is rather manageable and, provided you have a good guide, you can get a pretty clear picture of it in one day.
The thing that I most remember about Ercolano is the mosaic at Neptune and Amphitrite´s house. In fact, I have a fridge magnet reproduction of it to prove my passion. I didn´t see anything even remotely as well preserved as this in Pompeii, where the biggest impression was made by the plaster casts reproducing the actual buried Pompeiians, in their gestures of agony and terror, or even quiet sleep.
I fell in love with Naples that day, with all their dirty streets and loud passers by, with their rich history and their untamed spirit. Looking back at the image of Neptune and Amphitrite, his wife (though the guy had a remarkable number of flings), I can´t really understand why, at that moment, this image appeared to me as the picture of sheer love. The lovers aren´t touching, and they are both in a position more like they are waiting to be worshiped than anything else. I guess there was something in the air that day in Ercolano, or maybe Italy is just the most romantic place on Earth. I think I have to go with the latter.