You’ve probably noticed that I’m a travel blogger and photographer, but if you’ve just found this site, you might not know that in my day job I work as a documentary producer-director. Last year I made a one-hour archaeology and science programme about the lost Roman town of Herculaneum for the Science Channel.
I spent six weeks researching every aspect of Herculaneum’s history and archaeology in great detail, wrote a 25-page script, and then spent a week filming in Italy. So you might say I’m kind of an expert now, and am more than qualified to write a helpful guide to Herculaneum for any traveller who might be planning to visit.
But you’d be wrong.
Because as usual when travelling for work, I learned almost nothing of any practical value. I can’t give you opening times or directions. I have no idea how much it costs to get in. I’m not even quite sure how to get there and I barely took any photos because I had my hands full of filming equipment. And although I can tell you a few fun things about pyroclastic flows and carbonisation (yeah, sexy, I know), none of it will help you in the slightest when it comes to researching your own trip as a tourist. At least, as long as Vesuvius remains dormant.
So instead of an informative top-10 article or fact-packed how-to post, here’s another one of my Unhelpful Guides, which won’t give you much practical information about planning a visit to Herculaneum, but might give you an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at life as a documentary producer on location.
Disclaimer: if you’ve read my other Unhelpful Guides you’ll know that what’s unique and special about them compared with most blogs (though by no means all) is that they contain absolutely no useful information whatsoever. But this one is a bit different because, having made a whole documentary about Herculaneum, it turns out that I do actually know a few things about it. That means a stray fact may slip in here or there. Sorry.
What is Herculaneum?
In case you didn’t know, Herculaneum is a Roman town near Naples in Italy which was destroyed by the famous eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79AD. If you haven’t heard of that, then I’m guessing you were the naughty kid in school. Maybe go away and read the Wikipedia page and then come back here to carry on.
If you have heard of Vesuvius, you’ll have heard of Pompeii, the famous town that was destroyed in the eruption. You might remember it from such greats as Romans history lessons, or maybe, if you were very lucky, Latin GCSE.
Herculaneum is just 10 miles from Pompeii and was also buried by Vesuvius, but for some reason Pompeii became super well-known and is now a major tourist destination while Herculaneum is still almost unheard of.
Why? You may well ask. One theory is that it’s because Pompeii is where they made all those grim casts of victims’ bodies entombed in volcanic ash, which even in the 18th century, in a time before social media and rolling news coverage, made headlines around the world and put Pompeii on the map. It could also be because Pompeii is much bigger and tourists like to feel they’re getting value for money when they buy an entry ticket.
My personal theory, however, is that it’s simply because no one is quite sure how to spell Herculaneum.
You can visit both on a day trip from Naples, but if you go to Pompeii but skip Herculaneum, you’re missing out. Bigger, as it turns out, does not equal better – well, not when it comes to Roman towns, anyway. Herculaneum may be small but it’s actually far better preserved than Pompeii – because science. If you want to know more about exactly why that is, you’ll need to watch the documentary.
Those of you who get the Science Channel can actually do that here. But in true Unhelpful Guides style this is obviously only marginally useful information for everyone else. If you don’t have a subscription, tough luck, you’ll just have to stick with Wikipedia instead. It’s probably more factually accurate than my documentary anyway, so you won’t be missing much.
Getting to Naples
And so it was that on a sunny morning in July, I set off for Naples with Fabio, my Assistant Producer-slash-Cameraman-slash-Sound Recordist-slash-Translator-slash-Driver (in factual TV they like to make everyone do five people’s jobs at once, it’s called Opportunity). Sadly the days when TV crews consisted of about eight people including a producer, a director, a cameraman, soundman, camera assistant, researcher and someone to make the tea are now long gone.
Which means that when you’ve got this much kit, and the airport is one of those places where you have to get a minibus to the car rental pickup, you’re in for a wild ride.
We had to miss the first bus because although there were seats available, the pathetically small luggage space was already full of other people’s suitcases. By the time the second one arrived about 15 minutes later, the queue had filled up with more holidaymakers dragging unnecessarily large bags, and we had to use all the pointy elbows and angry British stares at our disposal to make sure that WE could get all our stuff on before someone tried to jump the queue.
At least this meant we had the entire bus to ourselves, though I was more than a little sweaty by the time we’d got everything off at the other end.
And our physical challenges weren’t over. If you’ve ever been to Naples you may remember that many of the buildings are 100-year-old townhouses at least six storeys high, with narrow stone staircases and almost never a lift.
Sensibly, the office had managed to find us somewhere that did have one, but it looked like this. Terrifying.
Quite apart from the fact that it looks like a coffin on rails that could fall off and plunge us to our deaths at any time, it was only just about big enough to take two very skinny people. We had a hell of a job trying to squeeze all the kit in, and then we had to press the button and race up the stairs to meet it at the top.
How to get to Herculaneum
Herculaneum is about 30 minutes from Naples, so after spending the morning filming around the city we hit the road and headed southeast along the coast. If you don’t have a car there’s a train that will take you there too, but since we couldn’t possibly do that with kit, I have no idea how often it leaves or how much it costs. If you really want to know, Google it.
We aimed to get there a bit early so we could pop in and have a quick look round. Why? Because even though I was making a whole documentary on the place we didn’t have the budget for a recce day, and ruined Roman towns sadly don’t appear on Streetview.
What we also didn’t have the budget for, unfortunately, was more than a single day’s filming. It turns out the Italian archaeological authorities have twigged that they’re onto a money spinner, and merrily charge an arm and a leg and a pound of flesh for daily filming access. And can you blame them? It’s not like there’s another, cheaper Herculaneum just down the road. So why wouldn’t you cash in if you had the chance?
So we had just one day – ONE DAY! – to film all the scenes we needed. To help, the office had sent me a second crew – a crack team named Olly and Zara – whose job would be to race round the site picking up all the bits Fabio and I wouldn’t have time for. Like an archaeology version of Challenge Anneka, except with fewer jumpsuits.
Of course, if you’re not planning on filming a documentary, a day will be plenty for your visit to Herculaneum. More than enough. Aim for a couple of hours and you’ll be golden.
An early start at Herculaneum
If you want to avoid the crowds, it’s a good idea to get there nice and early. How about 5.30 am?
Ok, that might be just a touch early for you, as a tourist, but for us it was essential. Firstly, to make the most of our one day there, and secondly, because we needed to film some aerial shots and we didn’t want them to be full of people. There’s always a chance you might accidentally drop your drone on someone’s head, and that sort of thing is frowned upon. Plus a tourist attraction crowded with holidaymakers doesn’t exactly scream ‘abandoned Roman treasure’, does it?
So a 5.30 start it was, with a rushed breakfast of a sandwich and a can of diet coke because much to my great distress a decent cup of tea is almost impossible to find in Italy.
Still, the views were nice, and it was very peaceful.
Things to see at Herculaneum
Brace yourselves, here comes the fact part. If that’s not what you’re after, you should probably skip to one of my other Unhelpful Guides instead, like this one about Canterbury, which is much less useful.
After we’d finished our drone shots we went down into the town with our Very Knowledgeable Expert™ to interview him about some of the interesting stuff there is to see in Herculaneum. Because even though it’s all ruined, and there isn’t a McDonalds or a TKMaxx, it’s still a pretty cool place.
As you can see, the town sits in a hole 25 metres below street level. In Roman times, that WAS street level, but when the volcano erupted it chucked out shedloads of ash and rock and other scorching volcanic gubbins and completely buried the place. Over time people forgot it was there, and it stayed locked in its time capsule for nearly 2000 years until it was discovered by accident in the 18th century by a worker digging a well. The hole you can see in the photo above is what’s been carefully excavated by archaeologists – just imagine how much work it must have been to clear it all out!
What’s even more mind-boggling is that they’ve only cleared about 25% of the site. Three quarters of it is still buried under the modern town of Ercolano, which was built over the top before anyone remembered that there was actually a legendary Roman site underneath. Oops.
There’s still lots to see though – including villas, shops, and gorgeous mosaics. Herculaneum was a wealthy seaside resort where rich Romans had holiday homes – the French Riviera of the ancient world – so the houses here are all pretty impressive.
There’s plenty more finery on show in the small museum too, with loads of bling jewellery, statues, vases and more. Most of the really good stuff has been taken to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, but you still get a pretty good sense of what life was like for the people who lived here.
Sometimes when we film in museums they open the cases for us so we can get a bit closer to the objects, but they were very strict here. Shame really, it would have been nice to slip a jug or a headless nude into the camera bag to put on the mantelpiece back home. Instead I had to settle for a fridge magnet from the site shop.
What’s fascinating about Herculaneum compared with Pompeii is that they found very few victims here. When we interviewed our Very Knowledgeable Expert™, he explained that when Vesuvius first started erupting, it spewed this column of boiling ash into the air and the wind blew it all onto Pompeii. The people living in Herculaneum could see what was happening and had time to get their shit together and run away. Twelve hours later, the column collapsed and a pyroclastic flow of gases, ash and rocks rushed down from the volcano and smothered the town. It was so searingly hot and full of toxic gases that stuff didn’t burn (you need oxygen for that); instead the heat just made it instantly carbonise. You can still see objects around the place that are made of wood from 2000 years ago!
Where to eat when you visit Herculaneum
After spending an hour trying to avoid the tourists and get shots without anyone walking right in front of the camera, it was time for lunch. There isn’t a restaurant on site, but it’s only a short walk back to the main street where there are plenty of places to eat. I can’t recommend any of them though, because when you’re carting loads of filming equipment around, a Short Walk becomes rather a Long Walk. So we ordered pizzas (because Italy, obvs) and sent our helpful Italian fixer to pick them up for us.
As you can see, Fabio was very happy to be allowed to sit down for 20 minutes. Don’t worry, these aren’t all for him – we were being supervised by a couple of Stern Minders™ whose job was to make sure we didn’t break anything that hadn’t already been broken by a volcanic eruption, so we bought them lunch too in the hope that might make them like us. Not sure it worked.
How not to become a tourist attraction when you visit Herculaneum
So at this point some of you might be thinking, ‘Why would I want to go to Herculaneum when there are cool dead bodies at Pompeii? I’d much rather go there!’ But if that’s the case, don’t worry. I know I said most people escaped Herculaneum, but not all of them did. Oooo, interesting!
In the 1980s archaeologists excavated these boathouses, and inside they found about 300 skeletons. These were people who made a bit of schoolboy error, and instead of leaving town they came down here to shelter from the earthquakes and falling ash, thinking it’d all be over soon and then they could go home again. Doh!
To be fair to them, that’s not quite as stupid as it sounds. In 79AD the people who lived in the shadow of Vesuvius had no idea it was a volcano. They didn’t have scientists and seismographs back then, you see, so they just thought it was a pretty mountain. They knew about earthquakes, but those always just shook the ground a bit, a few buildings collapsed, and then everything went back to normal. So when the ground started shaking they just went to hide out in these nice solid bunkers to wait it out. Fatal error… literally.
Now you might think 300 skeletons is interesting enough, but when we were there, there seemed to be something even more interesting: us. As we were filming, a noisy herd of Italian school kids showed up, absolutely fascinated by what we were doing. Like the stars of the horror movie The Birds they seemed to multiply, chattering away, getting closer and closer like some terrifying swarm of bees. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to film an important interview about Death with a Very Knowledgeable Expert™ while being ogled by 50 overexcited 10-year-olds, but it’s somewhat offputting.
To keep them from getting too close, our Stern Minder™ put a rope across the walkway and directed his disapproving looks at them for a bit, but it didn’t help that much. Being behind a rope observed by a large tour party only made me feel even more like a museum exhibit.
So if you want to avoid becoming a tourist attraction yourself at Herculaneum, maybe leave the professional TV camera and the Very Knowledgeable Expert™ at home. Also, wear clothes.
Behind the scenes on a visit to Herculaneum
One of the cool things about being a documentary producer is that you’re sometimes given access to places normal people don’t get to go. At Herculaneum we were allowed to film in a part of the site that’s not usually open to the public: the Villa dei Papyri. It was one of the largest and most palatial villas in the whole of the Roman Empire and it’s thought to have belonged to Julius’ Caesar’s father-in-law.
The Villa gets its name from the huge collection of papyrus scrolls that were discovered inside, thought to be the only surviving library from antiquity. These things are all black and charred and look like lumps of wood, but due to the unique conditions during the eruption they didn’t burn, and scholars have spent centuries trying to unroll and read them. So far, most of what they’ve found has been the rather mediocre works of an obscure philosopher, but they’re still hoping to find something cool, like an unseen essay by Plato, or maybe some Roman porn (of which there was a LOT, by the way. There’s loads at Pompeii… possibly a good reason to go there after all.)
We wanted to see where the famous papyri were found, so we went inside the tunnels dug by 18th century excavators. To be allowed to do this I first had to write a lengthy risk assessment, designed to make sure that what we weren’t doing wasn’t going to get us killed. Would we get poisoned by trapped gases? Might we drown in an undiscovered underground lake? Could there be an earthquake while we were inside, bringing the entire tunnel collapsing down upon us (a truly terrifying thought)? I figured if these tunnels had survived since 1750, they were probably good for a few more months at least. So we took hard hats to prevent us from bumping our heads and… spoiler alert… we were fine.
Here’s a genuinely helpful fact: if you are going to Herculaneum, you can actually book tours of the Villa dei Papyri by appointment. Not sure exactly how, mind you, but if that’s something that interests you, maybe give it a quick google. You won’t be allowed in the tunnels though.
Other things to do around Herculaneum
Once you’ve finished your visit to Herculaneum, here are a few other things you can do in the area, as personally tested and approved by me.
1/ Get stuck for 20 minutes behind an articulated lorry trying to do a 392-point turn to reverse into a tiny alleyway only marginally wider than the load itself.
2. Be the designated driver and take the team, the Very Knowledgeable Expert™, and a couple of his Italian archaeology friends out for dinner at a nice restaurant. Watch everyone else get drunk and blow the production budget while you fall asleep at the table due to having been up since 5 am.
3. Drive around the Bay of Naples looking for a spot to get a good shot of Actual Vesuvius. Fail to find one but find a nice place to take rather pleasing photos of Naples instead.
4. Eventually find a reasonable view of the volcano from a handy cafe where they say you can only come in and film if you buy something. Be forced to stop for half an hour and have a drink (oh no!) while you run a timelapse shot.
5. Head into the centre of Naples to do a bit more filming; find a director’s chair that seems just about within budget. And while you’re sitting in the inevitable traffic, read my posts about Naples.
6. Make a documentary, and then enjoy seeing your name in the credits 🙂
Further reading and watching
If all this has whetted your appetite and you’d like to find out more about Herculaneum, you can watch clips of the programme on the Science Channel’s Facebook page.
If you want to see the whole thing, you can watch it here: Unearthed: Vesuvius’s Secret Victim.
You’ll either need the Science Channel included in your subscription package, or a VPN like Hola (but you didn’t hear that last part from me!)
And if you enjoyed this post and want more behind-the-scenes stories, head over to my Unhelpful Guides.