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Italyís Pompeii and Herculaneum

Travel back more than 2000 years by touring Pompeii and Herculaneum, ancient sites easily reachable from Naples. When the Mt. Vesuvius volcano erupted on August 24, 79 A.D, it froze both towns in time, but did so differently. Hereís how cruisers and day trippers can choose which lost world to enter.

Situated in the fertile valleys of whatís now Italyís Campania region, Pompeii and Herculaneum together rank as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Both suffered damage during the 62 A.D. earthquake, rebuilt afterward and gained improved streets and enlarged public baths during Roman rule. Although the stone streets and buildings in each evoke life eons ago, the visitor experience is distinct.

Celebrated Pompeii, located 15 miles southeast of Naples, attracts more than 2.5 million people annually, making it one of Italyís top archeological sites.
With 120 of its 165 acres excavated, Pompeii is big. It thrived as a prosperous metropolis with a population estimated at nearly 20,000.

We paced streets where centuries of chariot wheels cut tracks in the stone. We saw public baths, shops, temple pillars and places of prostitution whose doorway frescoes detailed each working womanís specialty. The newly roofed House of Menander showcased a prominent citizenís home, one wealthy enough to have frescoes, floor mosaics and wall niches for decorations in main rooms.

To mitigate elbowing through throngs and lining up to peer into once occupied bedrooms, we arrivedwhen Pompeii first opened and we avoided the main gate, Porta Marina. Instead, we entered through the less busy Porta Stabia and worked our way back to exit through Porta Marina.

Smaller and lesser-known than Pompeii, Herculaneum draws fewer visitors, a bonus for many time travelers. Situated 6 miles south of Naples, Herculaneum once housed 4,000- 5,000 people. Because modern-day Ercolano sits on top of sections of Herculaneum, only about half the ancient site has been revealed.

When Vesuvius erupted, it buried Pompeii in 20-feet of ash and pumice stone, collapsing roofs. In Herculaneum located west of the volcano, boiling mud rose up from the ground. Seeping into crevices and encasing objects, the mud better preserved details than the fiery ash than rained down on Pompeii.

The mud spared roofs and carbonized wood so some buildings contain shelves and beams. More mosaics remain than in Pompeii. Donít miss the vivid, tiled designs in the Terme Femminili (Womenís Baths) and the Casa del Nettuno ed Anfitrite ( House of Neptune and Amphitrite).

As a result Herculaneum afforded us a visceral sense of a common day minutes before a deadly catastrophe struck. The streets with their taverns, baths and temples seemed like stage sets, ready for townspeople to enter on cue.

In both towns, falling buildings crushed people, but most died from the noxious gases released by the volcano. The casts of people and animals caught in their last agonizing moments of life are some of Pompeiiís and Herculaneumís most powerful icons.

Over time flesh decomposed, leaving just a mud or ash covered skeleton. Excavators preserved the shape of the dead by injecting plaster to fill the empty spaces, creating a carapace or mold. What you see varies as these items rotate on exhibit in Naplesí archeological museum and other facilities.

The sculptural softness of the objects belies the captured terror. Among the casts: a man curled hopelessly in a fetal position, a pregnant woman, forever big with child; and a dog on his back, feet in the air as if wriggling to get free of a tether.

See both Pompeii and Herculaneum if you can. If not, whichever you choose will take you on an amazing journey to a long-ago world.

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