233 – Surprise Day Trip To Herculaneum

Lora and Laurie said that they would really like to go to see Naples and visit Herculaneum. So one morning we set off early and caught the train to Naples and then took the Circumvesuvia to get to the ancient Roman town. The train carriages were absolutely full to bursting. Every time we stopped at the next station more and more people tried to push and squeeze their way on board. It was really quite disconcerting. We wondered if it was always like this on the Circumvesuvia. One lady explained that because of the gale force winds that were blowing that day some of the railway’s electric cables had been brought down causing major delays and disruption to the service.

We ended up standing up all the way to Herculaneum whilst desperately trying to keep our balance. We had never felt so claustrophobic in all our lives. Therefore we were mightily relieved when we eventually arrived at our stop “Ercolano Scavi” and managed to push, elbow and squeeze our way through the other passengers and extricate ourselves onto the open platform.

From the station it was about a 15 minute walk to the excavation site of Herculaneum, so we first revived ourselves in a little cafe along the way before venturing on. The weather was clear and bright, but also really quite cold as there was a strong blustery wind blowing in off the sea. How I wished that I’d dressed in something warmer. We battled on and having purchased our entrance ticket we descended into the excavations  where we were relieved to at last be out of the worst of the wind.

Herculaneum in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.


The settlement of Herculaneum is believed to have been founded by the Greeks in around 600 BC. It was situated about 12 miles from Pompeii. In Roman times it developed into a prosperous seaside resort and trading port in the Bay of Naples.  The Roman town had many luxurious and spacious villas, bath houses for both men and women, a large sports complex, a theater, a temple, shops and bars. It also had a seafront and beach.

For the Romans there had possibly been portent signs that all was not well, when a few years before the major eruption of Mount Vesuvius, an earthquake had occurred in the area. The legendary catastrophic eruption began on the 24th August 79 AD. A few days before the people had noticed that mysteriously the local wells had began to run dry.  The first phase of the eruption thrust molten rock, ash and fumes into the sky. A huge toxic cloud rose up above the mountain until it reached a height of approximately 20½ miles.


This frightening spectacle was documented by Pliny the younger who was just 17 years old at that time. He observed and wrote of the frightful scene from the far side of the Bay of Naples, 15 miles from Mount Vesuvius. The eruption had caused a huge mushroom cloud to rise and tower above the mountain. It was reported that day seemed to have turned into night. Eventually as the cloud cooled the weight of it began to collapse forming a high speed scorching  pyroclastic surge of hot gases and ash which suddenly engulfed Herculaneum. The Romans who had remained in the town would have become overwhelmed and died instantaneously.

The town of Herculaneum lay for many centuries buried under 20 feet of volcanic debris, ash and solidified mud. This thick hard covering preserved the town beneath for many centuries. until excavations began to reveal its hidden secrets. Only a quarter of the Roman town has been excavated. The modern day Ercolano was built above it, and modern buildings overlook the ruins. Mount Vesuvius  still broods menacing in the background.

The Roman town was located right beside the sea however the eruption dramatically changed the geography of the local landscape,  leaving the site of the old town now positioned further inland.








The Roman equivalent of a take-away, café or snack bar that sold hot and cold food.


The College of the Augustales


2,000 year old wall decorations in Herculaneum.







A sign for a Roman wine shop.



Detail of a Roman shrine decorated with seashells.






Statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus.



Many of the Herculaneum’s Roman citizens had sought to abandon the town when they saw the volcanic eruption, however some were unable to to make their escape and found themselves stranded on the beach or huddled together in the vaulted storerooms or boat houses along the shore. As the surge of hot gases engulfed the town there was no means of escape. Approximately 300 bodies have since been unearthed along the seafront.





Does Lora have a Roman nose?



We went on to have supper in Sorrento.  Cin Cin !!!



This was my second visit to Herculaneum this Autumn, as when our dear Australian friend Diana visited us in September we organised a daytrip to visit the ruins accompanied by Melinda and Pat. Pat is very knowledgeable about Roman history and archaeology, thus we learned a great deal on that visit.

Here a couple of photos of Diana’s day in Herculaneum.


.A Roman flour mill.


Pat and Diana

Melinda and a hug pot.


All photos by me © Louise Shapcott

#herculaneum #ercolano #naples #roman #ruins #archaeology #italy



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217 – Naples – An Exhibition of Neapolitan Nativity Scenes

Whilst visiting the Spaccanapoli district of Naples we stumbled across an exhibition of  traditional Neapolitan “presepi”, or Christmas Nativity Scenes. This was being held by the Associazione Italiana Amici del Presepio in the church of San Vitale in Santa Marta, in Via San Sebastiano. This association, founded in 1953, strives to keep alive the tradition of the Nativity scene.

The “presepio” became very popular in Naples during the 18th century, when the Bourbon King Charles III commissioned famous artists and craftsmen to create elaborate Baroque nativity scenes for his court. Influenced by the King’s patronage, it was not long before it became fashionable for wealthy families of Naples to be seen to be following suit. This gave rise to an increased rivalry regarding who could create the finest display. It is said that the King himself would come to view the one selected to be the most excellent. There were also such scenes created for church displays.

Many of the artisans that create these figures come from families who have been carrying out this specialised skilled work for many generations. In Italian they are known as “presepari”.

In the exhibition there were some nativity tableaux with the usual characters of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the ox, the donkey, shepherds and angels.




Inside each figurine there is a wire framework with padding wound around it. This enables the figure’s limbs to be re-positioned. The heads, hands and legs are normally created from terracotta. The eyes are made of glass. Particular attention is taken when sculpting the expressions on the faces of the mannequins so that each model seems to take on a unique personality.

The same precise attention to detail is taken when clothing the figurines, together with the general backdrop and scenery of the staged scene,  and also the array of props.


Some of the characters, such as the Magi, are robed in fine embroidered fabrics with beads and opulent trimmings.



Some of the presepi include typical scenes of village life. Once again attention to detail is key, for example below note the miniature bunches of grapes on the vine, the tiny terracotta bricks and tiles, the wine-press and barrels.




These scenes of stalls displaying fruit, vegetables, meat, salamis, cured hams, cheeses, eggs, fish and shellfish are meticulously fashioned in coloured wax.








Other scenes depict various characters and professions such as musicians and dancers. Note the miniature ceramic tiles, the bench and the mandolin.



An elegant lady taking her dogs for a stroll.


A shepherd carrying a basket of porcini mushrooms and a lady with a basket of grapes.


A hunter with his dogs and catch of the day.


A fisherman, draped with nets, with a bucket containing an octopus.


Here’s a scene depicting Neapolitan townsfolk viewing a nativity scene !


And finally, a maestro “preseparo” at his work.


How outstanding these nativity scenes are !!!

The Naples Museum of San Martino, located next to Castel Sant’Elmo,  houses a famous collection of Neapolitan nativity scenes amongst many other interesting artefacts.

All photos © me Louise Shapcott

Do please take a look at some more of my photos on Flickr


#trecancelle #italy #naples  #napoli #presepe #nativityscenes #cribs



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216 – Exploring Spaccanapoli – The Historic Centre of Naples

Next on my destination list was Spaccanapoli. This is an ancient district which takes its name from the long narrow street that runs as straight as a die through the historic centre, cutting the city of Naples into two halves.

Spaccanapoli, Naples, Historical Centre, Lanes


Here is a network of narrow cobbled streets and passageways, arranged in a regular grid system. This neighbourhood contains over 30 churches.

As dusk was about to fall we made our way through the busy streets towards Piazza del Gesù Nuovo. On one side of the square stands the Church and Franciscan Convent of Santa Chiara and its Belltower.



On the opposite side is the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo which has an ornate doorway and a rather unusual and imposing facade.


The spacious interior of the basilica, however, is decorated in an opulent baroque style and contains many noteworthy works of art.






In the square stands an ornate monument, the Obelisco dell’Immacolata.


At this point Paul had to go back to our car to buy more parking tickets, so meanwhile I took the opportunity to do some people watching and absorb some of the unique local cultural atmosphere.  Naples has had a long colourful history and has always been a melting pot of different cultures and influences – Greek, French, German, Spanish and  North African.

The square was buzzing as tourists rubbed shoulders with street vendors and locals alike. Cars and vespas beeped, brakes screeched and squealed, music blared, dogs barked, canaries tweeted, people shouted, church bells tolled. Small bands of boisterous young boys kicked footballs between parked cars. Proud parents pushed their babies in rattling buggies. Elegantly dressed ladies tottered over the cobblestones in their stilettos. Courting couples passionately held hands and embraced, students gathered in groups and chatted, teenagers giggled and flirted. A couple of old men argued vociferously whilst madly gesticulating. An old lady in black yelled down from her balcony, which was draped with washing lines, to her neighbour below. Yes the streets were filled with the daily vibrant cacophony of Neapolitan life.

When Paul eventually returned we continued our wander through Spaccanapoli. The streets were lined with many small individual shops with apartments above, standing side by side with bars, cafés and some private houses.


Interspersed were churches and grand palazzos of a forgotten era, with ornate gateways leading to concealed courtyards.





Blank walls were liberally adorned with graffiti.

We came across several groups of street musicians as we strolled along.


There was a myriad of shops selling everything under the sun, crafts, antiques, prints, posters, books, clothes, shoes, ceramics and musical instruments. Naturally there were also retailers selling souvenirs and trinkets.



The “corno” is an amulet that resembles a red horn or chilli pepper. Superstitious Neapolitans believe it can ward of the “malocchio” or “evil eye”, and protect against bad luck.


The figure of the “Pulcinella” has become adopted as a symbol of Naples and Southern Italy.  He is one of the clown characters from the “Commedia dell’Arte”, dating back to the 16th century.  The name “Pulcinella” was Anglicised to “Punchinella” who became better known in English as “Mr Punch”.




The bowler hatted figurines below represent Totò, a celebrated Italian comic actor who was born in Naples. You can also purchase little statuettes of many current celebrities such as the Pope, Berlusconi, famous football players, Batman, Obama, Prince William and his wife Catherine.


Naples is famous for its pizzas, or course, especially the “Margherita”. There are numerous pizzerias to choose from, some are sit down restaurants, others serve tasty pizzas and snacks to enjoy on the hoof.


However Naples is also renowned for its ice cream and wonderful cakes and pastries. There are some of the very best “pasticcerie” in Spaccanapoli that have a tempting range of decedent delectable offerings such as: “Sfogliatelle” – a crumbly puff pastry with a filling of sweet ricotta cheese. “Pastiera” –  an orange-flavoured tart made ricotta, eggs and with wheat grains, especially popular at Easter-time. “Babà au Rhum” – a soft spongy cake soaked with syrup and rum.




There are also many food stores selling meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and emporiums with an array of other Italian gastronomic delights.



The street of San Gregorio Armeno is well known for its countless little shops and workshops making and selling  figurines and decorative items to embellish Christmas nativity scenes or “presepi”.  It has become known as “Nativity Alley”.

La via dei pastori - particolare di un banco- Napoli.jpg


Finally we came across a church which had an interesting exhibition of nativity scenes.

Please see our next post – 217 – Exhibition of Neapolitan Nativity Scenes.

* public domain image

** photo CC BY-SA 2.0   by Raffaella – flickr

All other photos by me © Louise Shapcott

(except where photos have been rightfully accredited to the photographer / owner)


#trecancelle #naples #napoli #spaccanapoli #italy


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215 – Naples Archaeological Museum

My birthday falls just before Christmas and as my special treat I chose to go to Naples. Despite having explored Pompeii on more than one occasion, and also Herculaneum, I had never had the opportunity of seeing central Napoli. An Italian friend recommended that it would be better to drive to Naples, although I had been contemplating taking the train from Formia Station.

We set off, having entered the details of Naples Archaeological Museum into our SatNav. As we entered the centre of the city we got a real taste of driving in this metropolis. We found it difficult to follow some of the SatNav’s directions and ended up getting a little lost which was somewhat disconcerting. Whilst trying to find our way, Paul found that he had to keep his wits about him, due to the volume and frenetic pace of the traffic. Of course Napolitan drivers rarely use their indicators to forewarn others of their intentions and Vespas zip chaotically amidst the surging flow. It was basically a free for all – indeed driving in Naples is definitely not for the faint hearted.

Eventually we managed to get back onto the right track and we finally succeeded in finding our way to the Museum. The gods must have been smiling on us, as we were very fortunate to find a parking spot just opposite the museum.


Museo Archeologico Nazionale is one of the most noteworthy archaeological museums in the world.  The building itself, was originally constructed as a cavalry barracks, before being converted to house the centre of the University of Naples in 1612. The Bourbon Spanish King, Charles III, established the museum in the 18th century and subsequently the building was extended to accommodate a prize collection of Roman statues, that he had inherited from the Farnese family of Parma. These are now known as the Farnese Collection.

The museum is of a considerable size, so we opted to concentrate on viewing the Roman section which contains a multitude of interesting artifacts that were buried by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  We commenced on the first floor, a section which houses frescoes that once adorned the homes of wealthy Romans who lived under the shadow of the volcano.


Fresco of Bacchus Wearing a Bunch of Grapes and Mount Vesuvius


Fresco of Lares and Genius – Scene of a Sacrifice


Fresco of Mars and Venus – found at Pompeii


Fresco of Io being watched by Argo – from the House of Meleager, Pompeii


Fresco of Onfale and Hercules – from Pompeii


Detail of a fresco of Iphigenia in Tauris – House of L. Caecilius Giocondus, Pompeii


Fresco of Hercules carrying his son Hyllus and the Centaur Nessus

Then we moved on to the mezzanine floor, to a section housing many fine Roman Mosaics.  I was astounded by their intricate detail and the artistic skill of the  mosaicists. Here are some of my favourites …


Mosaic of a Cockfight – from Pompeii


Mosaic of Choirmasters and Actors – from Pompeii


Mosaic of Musicians – from Pompeii


Mosaic of Doves – from Pompeii


Mosaic of a Cat with a Partridge, Ducks, Fish and Shellfish – From the House of the Faun, Pompeii


Fish Mosaic – from the House of the Faun, Pompeii


Mosaic Memento Mori – from Pompeii


Mosaic of a Tragic Mask – from the House of the Faun, Pompeii

Also located on this floor is what has become known as the “Secret Room”. Here there is a collection of Roman erotic or sexual items mostly excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Next we moved to the ground floor which holds the Farnese Collection of statues. There is a long room which contains busts and statues of several of the Roman Emperors.



Emperor Hadrian


Emperor Julius Caesar


Emperor Marcus Aurelius


Emperor Domitian


Emperor Tiberius


Emperor Claudius


Julius Caesar

The Farnese Collection also contains many wonderful marble statues of mythological characters. Many of these magnificent works of art are in fact Roman copies of classical Greek sculptures. Some are colossal in size.


Atlas carrying the globe




Apollo seated with a lyre


Hercules from the thermal baths of Caracalla, Rome


Statue of Pomona or Flor Minor



Paul standing next to the statue of Lare Farnese – from the baths of Caracalla, Rome


The magnificent statue of the Farnese Bull, carved out of a single piece of marble – from the thermal baths at Caracalla, Rome


A detail of the statue of the Farnese Bull

Being a lover of canines,  I absolutely adored these Roman statues of dogs dating from 1st / 2nd century AD.





A carved lion next to the museum’s grand staircase


Detail of an equestrian statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus, patron of the city of Herculaneum

The museum also contains an array of other Roman artifacts such as bronze statutes, ceramics, glassware, vases, engraved copper and  gems, parchments, tools and implements, coins, and sarcophagi to name but a few.  The basement holds the Borgia Collection of Egyptian relics and epigraphs.

The museum is open 9 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. everyday, except Tuesday. Ticket information

All photos by me © Louise Shapcott

You can see more of my photos of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli here on Flickr


#trecancelle #naples #napoli #museum #archeaology #museo #roman #mosaics #frescoes #farnesecollection


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