A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A majestic Romanesque cathedral perched on a bluff, high above the long stretch of arches of a medieval bridge spanning a tranquil river – this is what most visitors to southwestern France are likely to remember of Beziers. This low-keyed town of 75,000, located just a few kilometers inland from the Mediterranean shore rarely rates more than a passing glance from tourists. Yet, founded in 36 BC as a Roman colony, Beziers quickly developed into an important staging post and trading center along the Via Domitia, the major trade route which traversed the coastal plain of Languedoc on its way from Rome to southern Spain.

From Roman Colony to Cathar Stronghold

Little remains of the original Roman amphitheater.

Unfortunately, with most of the stones from its early amphitheater repurposed as early as the 3rd century AD to construct the city walls, architectural remains of the Roman era are scarce. Nonetheless, an extensive collection of Roman artefacts discovered locally, including statuary, inscribed stones, glassware and amphorae can be seen at the Musée du Bitterois. The museum also traces the history of the city from the middle ages to contemporary times. However, the best way to explore the history of Beziers is to take a couple of hours to wander the cobbled streets of the old town.

The St. Nazaire Cathedral has retained its Romanesque facade.

Perched high above the river Orb in the heart of the medieval town, the St. Nazaire Cathedral is the foremost site of Beziers, both for its panoramic view of the plain below and for the tragic history steeped within its ancient stones. The grand Romanesque cathedral built in the 10th century was badly damaged and its interior completely destroyed in 1209 during the infamous seizure of the city by Catholic crusaders at the behest of Pope Innocent III.

Bezier-Cathedral St Nazaire

The cathedral’s interior was rebuilt iin Gothic style.

At that time, Béziers was a major stronghold of Catharism, a breakaway movement that opposed the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the corruption of the clergy. This alternative, more ascetic Christian religion had become widespread in southwestern France, then under the control of local princes. Unsurprisingly, the Pope called for a crusade to eliminate the Cathars – with the tacit understanding of the French King Phillipe II. On July 21, 1209, an army consisting of knights (mainly from northern France) with their retinue and mercenaries overran the fortified city where some twenty thousand men, women and children, local Catholics and Cathars alike, had taken refuge. The Crusaders indiscriminately slaughtered the population and ransacked the city before setting the cathedral set ablaze.

A Gothic rose window was added at the far end of the nave.

Although most of the exterior walls remained, the interior was entirely destroyed except for the chancel with its Romanesque carved capitals. Repairs began on the remains of the building in 1215 and continued until the 15th century, giving the interior a Gothic appearance, including a 10-meter (33 foot) rose window at the far end of the nave. A few notable frescoes of the same period remain, protected for posterity by having been whitewashed after the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century.

A Mural Chronicle

A mural memorializes the Vintners Revolt of 1907.

More recently, following the lead of Lyon and other French cities, Beziers has turned 14 of its blank walls into building-size murals that chronicle major milestones of its history. Most notable is the Vintners Revolt of 1907, ignited when government regulators allowed the import of low quality (and low-priced) wines from North Africa, driving local growers into penury. The National Assembly sent a military force to suppress the rebellion. But confronted by over 160 000 protesters, this time the solders refused to draw their weapons on the crowd. Thus prompting law-makers to reverse their import decision.  Another mural memorializes a local engineer, Jean Marie Cordier, who in 1827 developed a steam device to pump water from the River Orb to supply the residents of the old town.

A Masterpiece of 17th Century Engineering

The terraced concourse offers panoramic views of the countryside and the Fonseranes Locks.

At the side of the cathedral, a terraced concourse offers magnificent views that include the 13th century Pont-Vieux (Old Bridge), and the amazing 17th century engineering masterpiece of the Écluses de Fonseranes (Fonseranes Locks), a flight of 9 staircase locks marking the eastern end of the Canal du Midi. The 240 kilometer (150 mile) long canal connects the Garonne to the West – and from there city of Bordeaux and the Atlantic Ocean – to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean. Although many elements have since been updated, the canal as a whole is considered one of the greatest construction works of its era, and is still in use today.

Underwater Treasures

The late Hellenistic bronze Ephèbe is believe to be Alexander the Great.

It’s midday by the time we leave Beziers and its tumultuous past for Cap d’Adge, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) east on the Mediterranean shore.  Once a settlement at the mouth of the river Hérault, originally founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, the area is little more than an over-built resort destination today, with one striking exception: it is home to the only underwater archeological museum in France. Open in 1987, the museum consists of a series of modern galleries surrounding a traditional farm house overlooking the harbor. Its collection is a treasure-trove of pieces recovered from the millennia of shipwrecks that clutter the seabed, including a number of important antique bronzes statues.

Ultimately, the museum owes it very existence to one single piece now known as l’Ephèbe d’Adge, a late Hellenistic period bronze of a young man, believed to be Alexander the Great. Recovered in 1964 from in the alluvial sands at the mouth of the Herault, it is the only work of its kind ever found in French waters. It was joined in 2001 by two Early Imperial Roman bronzes, of a royal child and of Eros. From the details of his attire – royal mantle, scepter and jewelry, the child is thought to be one of Cleopatra’s sons, either Caesarion (son of Julius Ceasar) or Ptolemy (son of Mark Anthony).

The collection includes a number of remarkable bronze household objects, from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC.

In addition to other remarkable Hellenic and Roman bronzes objects, the museum also hosts antique marine transport amphorae and household goods, as well a number to cannons and other weapons of the French Royal Navy spanning several centuries. Overall, the rich underwater discoveries of the past 50 years reflect the commercial history of the area through the centuries, and make the Ephèbe Museum well worth a stop in Adge.

From here we continue 150 kilometers (90 miles)  down  the coastal branch of the Via Domitia to Collioure, another Phoenician settlement turned fishing village and 17th century military fortress. The town, however owes its contemporary fame to Fauvist painters Henri Matisse and André Derain. Although the small historic town and waterfront make are exceptionally picturesque, we found the mapped walk through the old town, punctuated by reproductions of the famous Fauvist works, right on the spot where they were painted to be a highpoint of our visit.

The museum hosts a large collection of marine transport amphorae recovered from ancient shipwrecks.

 

Good to Know

Visiting –Musee du Bitterois, Caserne Saint-Jacques – Rampe du 96° Régiment d’Infanterie, 34500 Béziers. Opening hours vary throughout the week/year. For latest informations, contact: e-mail, or tel: +33 (0) 4 67 36 81 61. Musée de l’Ephèbe, Mas de la Clape, 34300 Le Cap d’Adge. Open from January through June, Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm and weekends from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. July and August, open every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact:  e-mail, tel: +33 (0)4 67 94 69 60.

 

Location, location, location!

Beziers

Adge

A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

A Languedoc road trip – Hidden Treasures Along the Via Domitia

Leaving behind the monumental Roman vestiges of the southern French city of Nîmes, we head down the coastal plain of the western Mediterranean. Here, with the coastline a string of lagoons and saltmarshes, the main road is some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland, following the route of the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to its province of Hispania.

The Villa was a large viticuture facility for over six centuries.

Although a modern roadway now covers the original works in many places, sections of the original paved roadbed, mileposts and bridges have survived. They can occasionally be spotted close to the highway as we drive through a verdant landscape of agricultural land and vineyards. But more than these passing landmarks, the Via Domitia also left us the remains of Roman Villas. These were both rural residences and large-scale farming domains that benefited from the proximity to the road to export their products. One of them, a mere one-hour drive away from Nîmes, is our first destination of the day.

The Roman Villa of Loupian

Over the past five decades, a three-hectare (eight-acre) excavation site south of the village of Loupian has revealed the ruins of one such villas and told the story of an estate that was active for more than 600 years.

The entire ground floor of the excavated villa is covered with intricately decorated mosaics.

Originally a hillside farmstead overlooking the Bassin de Thau, the largest of the area’s lagoons, a short distance south of the Via Domitia, the Villa of Loupian rapidly prospered. By the time of the High Empire (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) it had become a large patrician residence with its own thermal springs and an abundance of Gallo-Roman mosaics. Its main agricultural activity was viticulture, for which a vast storage facility capable of holding 1500 hectoliters (40, 000 U.S. gallons) of wine was constructed. This period also marked the development of pottery workshops producing amphorae for the transportation of wine, and the creation of a small shipping port on the north side of the Bassin de Thau.

Pottery workshops produced amphorae used to transport wine,

In the 5th century, the villa was completely rebuilt. The owner’s home became a small mansion, the floor of the thirteen ground floor rooms covered with highly decorated mosaics. Relatively well preserved, these are particularly intriguing in that they show influences of two geographically separated and culturally diverse countries as Gaul and Syria. There is no other known villa anywhere in which the such remarkable combination of styles has been found.

The Abbey of Valmagne

The chapter house opens onto a cloister with a tall fountain nestled within a domed pergola.

It’s a mere ten-minute drive through a countryside streaked with vineyards from Loupian to the Abbey of Valmagne. Founded in the 12th century, and built of peach-colored local limestone, this grand Cistercian abbey is one of the loveliest in the country, as well as one of the oldest vineyards in Languedoc. The church, begun in 1257 and inspired by the great gothic cathedrals of northern France, is an imposing 83-meter (272-foot) long and 24-meter (79-foot) high. Its adjoining chapter house opens onto a vast square cloister surrounding a light-filled garden and a remarkable octagonal fountain enclosed within a domed pergola.

The abbey has retained its medieval atmosphere.

In its heydays, it was one of the richest abbeys in southern France, before it suffered the effects of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), followed by the Religious Wars (1559-1598). But it was the French Revolution (1789) that finally sealed its demise as a religious institution. Rebellious peasants ransacked the abbey and destroyed all its stain-glass windows.

 

 

 

The Cathedral of the Vineyards

The nave became a wine cellar during the French Revolution.

It did escape further destruction, however, by being confiscated as a national property and subsequently sold to a local vintner in 1791. The new owner converted the magnificent gothic church into a wine cellar. He installed the huge storage casks that still sit in the apse and side chapels, earning the church its moniker of “Cathedral of the Vineyards.” Upon this original owner’s death in 1838, Valmagne and its vineyards were acquired by Count Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne. It has remained in possession of his descendants ever since, each generation consistently working to restore the abbey to its original splendor.

 

The Vigneron Restaurant

The restaurant sits at the edge of the vineyards.

One of the old farm buildings adjoining the abbey is also getting a new life as an attractive rustic restaurant offering authentic local cuisine based on the vegetables and aromatic plants from the abbey’s organic kitchen gardens, complemented by meats and cheeses from nearby producers.

Our meal is paired with some of the elegant wines of the estate (also certified as organic since 1999). These can likewise be sampled and purchased in the stately tasting room with its soaring vaulted ceiling and grand medieval fireplace. The modern estate consists of 70 hectares of vineyard, more than half of it was classified since 1985 with the coveted “Appellation d’Origine Controlée” (a.k.a, AOC). With one more destination on our itinerary for the day, we regretfully forgo  the wine tasting.

A Medieval Gem – Pezenas

Pézénas is an exceptionally well preserved medieval town.

Twenty minutes later, we reach Pézénas, a lively small town of about 9,000 that was the seat of of the Governors of Languedoc in the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, visitors have a rare opportunity to experience a complete city as it was in the middles ages. Many of the Renaissance buildings along its narrow alleys remain intact, as does its ancient ghetto complete with walls and gates. This small medieval gem is one of the first cities in France to have been declared a secteur sauvegardé (protected area) in 1965 by the Ministry of Culture, with more than 30 of its buildings classified as historical monuments.

The Hôtel de Lacoste has maintained its superb Gothic galleries.

A number of artists and craftsmen have made it their home, often with a workshop or gallery open to the street, adding a creative flair to the rough cobbled streets lined with notable mansions. Among those, the Hôtel de Lacoste, built in the early 16th century, stand out for its central courtyard surrounded by a grand square staircase and exceptional second floor Gothic arched galleries. Another magnificent 17th century residence is the Hôtel d’Alfonce. Over time, it was home to a succession of town notables who contributed their own additions to the property. Behind an unassuming façade, four wings are distributed around two courtyards and a garden. In the covered loggia gallery of the entrance courtyard, five monolithic twisted columns support the sloping roof. The rear wing features three levels of arched galleries opening onto the second courtyard and the garden.

The rear courtyard of the Hôtel d’Alfonce opens onto a garden.

We end up on the town square dominated by the consular house where the States of Languedoc held their meetings.  Behind an 18th century façade enhanced with remarkable ironworks, the body of the building dates back to the mid-16th century. Today it houses the House of Crafts, a venue for temporary exhibitions by local artists.

While there are a number of welcoming boutique hotels and guest houses in Pézénas, we opt to continue on to the nearby city Beziers for the night, to be on site for the next morning ‘s visit on our itinerary.

 

In the Villa of Loupian, some of the mosaics designs show intriguing Syrian influences,

Good to Know

  • VisitingThe Loupian Roman Villa is open daily from 10:am to 12 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm, with variable extended closing time during the summer season. It is closed through December and January, on May 1st, May 8th  and November 1st. The site is enclosed into a 1,000 square meter (10,750 square foot) building that protects the remains of the villa and its mosaics. It includes a small museum that shows artifacts found by the excavations and traces the history of the site. Contact:  tel.  +33 4 67 18 68 18. The Valmagne Abbey, Route de Montagnac, 34560 Villeveyrac, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, from April 15th to September 30th , and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. It is closed on Monday, except July through September. The restaurant is open daily for lunch April 15th through September 30th and weekends only for the remainder of the year. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 67 78 06 09. The Pézénas Tourist Office, Place des Etats du Languedoc, 34120, Pézénas, offers a complimentary map for a walking tour of the most notable sites of the city. Contact:  tel.  +33 (0) 4 67 98 36 40.

Location, location, location!

Loupian Roman Villa

Abbey of Valmagne

Pézénas

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

To most would-be travelers, the mere mention of “the South of France” conjures up images of Provence with its much photographed back-country hilltop villages, lavender fields and colorful weekly markets. Then there are the sundrenched beaches of the Côte d’Azur (a.k.a. French Riviera) that reach all the way to the Italian border. But this wildly popular, traffic-clogged southeastern corner the country is only half of the South of France story. West of the Rhone Valley, from Nîmes to the Spanish border, the ancient province of  Languedoc  with its rugged landscapes dotted with prehistoric sites, Romanesque abbeys and medieval villages beckons to an exciting road trip back in time.

Follow the Via Domitia

The Roman Tour Magne (Great Tower) is built on the site of an earlier Celtic lookout.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland from the western Mediterranean coast, the modern A-9 highway follows the route the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to Hispania. Actually, by the time proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus came around to pave it and give it his name, the road was already ancient. Old enough that it may have been followed by Hannibal and his famous elephants on their way to the Alps in 218 B.C..

The Amphitheater in now a venue for bullfights.

While the legendary Carthaginian conqueror left no concrete signs of his passage, the Roman left us spectacular proofs of theirs. Starting with Nîmes, often hailed as the most Roman city outside of Italy for its spectacular and remarkably well preserved monuments dating back to the Roman Empire. Although the hill that overlooks the city had been the site of the Celtic settlement of Nemausus since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., it didn’t develop into Nîmes until it became a Roman colony sometimes around 28 B.C., and Augustus made it a regional capital. Before long the city was home to some 50,000 people and the usual Roman construction boom was underway.

The Amphitheater

The vast interior passages of the Amphitheater are designed to accommodate crowds of spectators.

Built in the latter part of the 1st century A.D. the Nîmes Amphitheater is a remarkable example of the level of sophistication achieved by Roman engineers in the design and construction of this type of complex monumental buildings. Started shortly after the colossal Rome Coliseum, the Amphitheater is a perfectly symmetrical oval with a footprint of 133 meters (436 feet) by 101 meters (331 feet) and an exterior height of 21 meters (69 feet). The façade consists of two levels of 60 superimposed arches topped by a cornice. In Roman times, it could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas. Each was accessed via a web of short stairwells and passages designed leading to a main gallery. This alleviated the risk of bottlenecks as the crowds flowed in and out. While massive, this amphitheater is far from the largest of the ones that remain of the Roman world, but it is the best preserved of them all.

For several decades now, following extensive restorations, the venue is once again used for musical events as well as bullfights.

La Maison Carrée

The colonnade of La Maison Carrée borders the vestibule.

A few minutes’ walk from the Amphitheater, the Maison Carrée (Square House) was built between 20 and 12 B.C. Dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, the heirs of Emperor Augustus, its architecture and decoration were inspired by the temple of Apollo and Mars Ultor in Rome. At the time, it dominated the Forum (the administrative and economic heart of the city). The facade is surrounded by Corinthian columns, six in the front and eleven on each side. Inside, the sanctuary would have housed the divinities – in this case Augustus and heirs.

Over the centuries, the building remained in use, serving successively as consular house, ecclesiastic residence, stable, seat of the departmental statehouse and finally the local archive before it was painstakingly restored in 2006-2008. Today its small interior includes a projection room continuously showing a film tracing the evolution of Nîmes from Celtic settlement to Roman city.

Le Jardin de la Fontaine

A formal 18th century French garden sits on the site of an ancient sacred spring.

The Temple of Diana is believed  to have once been a library.

One of the first public parks in Europe, the Jardin de la Fontaine was created in the mid-18th century in the classical French style of the time, at the site of an ancient sacred spring honoring Nimes the Celtic goddess Nemausus. The work carried out to dig the vast pond and construct the monumental stairway uncovered vestiges of a Roman temple devoted to Augustus, with a whole ensemble including baths and a theatre.

Set in the far left corner against a densely wooded backdrop, the garden also holds the remains of a gracefully vaulted Roman edifice known as the Temple of Diana, although nothing indicates that it was ever a temple, nor that it was dedicated to Diana. Rather, while its purpose remains unclear, it is supposed it may have been a library.

The upper part of the garden is dominated by the Tour Magne (or Great Tower). Standing at the highest point in the city, it is the only remnant of the ancient Augustan fortifications. It is a steep climb up the hill, but the reward is a superb view over the city and surrounding countryside.

 

Le Musée de la Romanité

After holding  pride of place in the city for two millennia, the Amphitheater must now share the limelight with its new neighbor, the spectacular recentely opened Musée de la Romanité

The rear of the Musée de la Romanité opens onto a vast  archeological garden.

Designed by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc and inaugurated in June 2018, this new Museum of Roman Times bridges the past and the present with its ultra modern design and expansive green spaces. Within its rippling façade made of nearly 7000 shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into the 25 centuries of history of the city. Of the museum’s rich archeological collection of some 25,000 artefacts, the curators have selected 5,000 pieces to be displayed in their own context for the current “permanent” exhibit, which includes a domus (Roman home), and two exceptionally well preserved room-size mosaics, known as Achilles and Penthus, They were discovered during nearby excavations in 2006-2007, their discovery becoming a major motivating factor in the creation of the museum.

The archeological garden at the rear of the museum is structured in three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.

The Roman home features a display of household pottery unhearthed during local excavations.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Nîmes is located approximately 725 kilometers (450 miles) south of Paris, and 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of Marseille. By train:there are multiple TGV (high speed train) daily connections between Paris and Nîmes (3 hours travel time), and regular intercity links with Marseille and most main cities in southern France. By car: Nîmes is easily accessible through the French highway system, via Autoroutes A9 or A54.
  • Staying –For this first stop of our Languedoc road trip, we stayed at Antichambre 11 Rue Bigot, 30900 Nîmes, a lovely three-bedrooms boutique guesthouse ideally located within easy walking distance for all the sites of interest. The ultra-comfortable, well appointed rooms open onto a private courtyard. Free Wifi and a gargantuan breakfast are included. Caution – do book well ahead as this tiny charmer fills fast. Contact : Tel.+33 (0) 4 66 64 13 43, e-mail.
  • Visiting –  The Amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne are open daily. However, opening hours vary with the seasons. Details can be found on their website.The Jardin de la Fontaine, Avenue Jean Jaures, Nîmes, is open daily from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm from April through August and 7:30 am to 6:30 pm for the remainder of the year. The Musée de la Romanité 16, boulevard des Arènes, Nîmes, is open Wednesday through Monday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from April through August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. Closed Tuesday, December 25th and January 1st.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Nimes

A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

While ruins left by the inveterate builders of the Roman Empire abound throughout the Mediterranean basin, what makes the archeological site of Herculaneum unique is the swiftness of its total disappearance. Buried under 50 feet of lava for 1,700 years, Herculaneum, just 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, became a time capsule of the daily life of a typical Roman city of its time.

Darkness at Noon

Herculanum-Ercolano_Vesuvius..

Herculaneum with the contemporary town of Ercolano and Mount Vesuvius in the background.

For people living around the bay of Naples two millennia ago, Mount Vesuvius was just a fertile mountain of olive groves and vineyards. Although it had been an active volcano some eight centuries before, it had remained dormant ever since. In spite of violent earthquakes around 63 AD, which we now understand to have been caused by gases building within the cone and trying to force their way out, the local population still entertained a false sense of security.

Herculaneum-Excavation.

Herculaneum is an archeological excavation site in progress.

By late August 79 AD, the pressure had built to a point where the thick layer of hardened lava that was plugging the crater could no longer contain it. There were several days of earth tremors, which nobody recognized as a warning of imminent danger. Finally, one day around midday the volcano exploded, sending an “umbrella pine” cloud of overheated gases and rocks some 20 kilometers (65,000 feet) into the sky and plunging the area into darkness.

Pompeii-Temple of Jupiter.

The Temple of Jupiter in the central plaza of Pompeii.

The eruption was the first ever to be documented in detail by an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), who observed the entire chain of events from his mother’s villa high on Cape Misenum (now Cape Miseno), some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest across the bay of Naples. The prevailing winds at the time blew this first wave of poisonous gases and debris toward Pompeii, 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of the crater. Over the next eight hours, ashes and pumice stones rained down on the city. Roofs began to collapse under the weight. The process was gradual, allowing a relatively large number of its estimated population of 12,000 to 15,000 to escape. But eventually people were trapped as the city became buried under 4 to 6 meters (12 to 20 feet) of volcanic materials.

The Vanished City

Herculanum-frescoed room and patio.

The richly frescoed walls and vaulted ceiling this private home open onto an interior patio.

Since Herculaneum lay on the shoreline, 7 kilometers (4 miles) to the west of Mount Vesuvius, it was little affected by the first phase of the eruption. Only a few centimeters of ash fell on the city, causing only minor damage but nonetheless prompting a majority of its 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants to flee. During the following night, however, a succession of pyroclastic surges (mixtures of intensely hot gases and ashes) and lava flow overran the entire city. The extreme heat of the first surge instantly reduced any remaining people to skeletons and carbonized all organic matters. By morning the thriving coastal town had vanished, fossilized under 25 meters (80 feet) of volcanic material that gradually cooled into solid rock. And there it remained until the 18th century.

Herculaneum-Marcus Nonius

Central square with the marble statue of Marcus Nonius, a benefactor of the city.

By then, all memory of Herculaneum has been lost, the only indication of its existence and fate coming from antique records, without any information as to its exact location. Settlements had developed on top of the volcanic crust. It was not until 1709 that traces of the antique city were accidentally revealed. During the digging of a well, a wall was discovered that was later found to be part of the stage of the Herculaneum theater. Treasure hunters started tunneling the site and a number of artifacts disappeared before official excavation began in 1738 under the patronage of the King of Naples. The work continued intermitently until 1874, with the finds documented and carted off to museums, most notably the National Archeological Museum in Naples but also to Rome, London and Paris.

Herculaneum-Nymphaeum.

Alcove in the nymphaeum of the House of Neptune.

Serious archeological work began again in 1874 and continues to this day. But with much of the ancient site abutting or still buried under the modern town of Ercolano, excavation is a slow process. To date, only a quarter of the ancient city has been brought to light. However, the unique conditions of its instantaneous extinction make it a fascinating site for archeologists and visitors alike. By allowing the conservation of the wooden framework of houses, furniture, writing tablets, fruit, bread and even the content of sewers, it offers a detailed snapshot of everyday life far more intimate than has been achieved in other antique centers.

Herculaneum Highlights

Richly colored detail of fresco in an opulent private home.

Visitors enter via an elevated boardwalk that offers a bird’s eye view of the entire excavated area and gives a clear idea of how deep it was buried. Herculaneum, which was known in its time not only as a fishing town but also a seaside resort where wealthy Romans built their summer villas, is laid out in a standard grid and easy to explore. The streets are lined with a mix of businesses, apartments and fine private homes where it is possible to wander at will. Many of the grander homes have shops built into their façade, so that the exterior doesn’t always announce the refined atriums graced with central pools, exquisite walls frescoes and ornate mosaics within.

Because this is a working excavation site, some buildings may occasionally be closed to the public. The highlights of my visit include:

Herculaneum-Black screens.

House of the Wooden Screens.

The House of the Wooden Screen – This superb villa boasts a soaring atrium and a central marble pool that catches rainwater falling through an oculus in the ceiling. Its vast reception area could be screened off from the remainder of the residence by a set of sliding wooden panels that have survived to this day. The walls are decorated with frescoes of architectural fantasies enhanced with grapevines and birds. It gives an interesting insight into life of affluent society of the time.

Herculaneum-Black salon.

House of the Black Salon.

The House of the Black Salon – This luxurious house features a small courtyard garden, interesting mosaic flooring and unusual frescoes with a black background covering the walls and barrel ceiling of its main hall. Said to have been the home of a former slave who had achieved the status of Roman citizen, it is also singled out as out as an example of the social mobility that could occasionally be possible in Roman society.

Herculaneum-Augustales frescoes.

The frescoes in the Hall of the Augustales relate the final scenes of the Herculean myths.

The Hall of the Augustales – Dedicated to the cult of Augustus, the College of the Augustales was an organization offering training, services and support to its members, freed slaves who were making their way as full citizens. Although they were not allowed to hold traditional political offices or become Roman priests, the members were able through this association to contribute to and impact the society and culture of the city. The hall is located in the center of College building.

Herculaneum-Neptune_Amphitirite.

Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite.

The House of Neptune and Amphitrite – Located behind a wine shop with a wooden balcony and a rack for the storage of amphorae, the dining room of the residence is decorated with stunning mosaics including the famous image of Neptune and the nymph Amphitrite.

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – It’s a 20-minute train ride on the Circumvesuviano line from the Naples Garibaldi central station to Ercolano Scavi stop,then a 15-minute walk down to the bottom of Via IV Novembre to the archway entrance to the Herculaneum Archeological Site. Trains run every 30 minutes from 6:00 am to 9:30 pm.
  • Visiting – In theory, a map of the site and an information pamphlet should be available at the ticket desk. However, there were no pamphlets when I visited and maps were only handed out with the audio guide, which could be rented for €6.50 in addition to the €11 entrance fee, and came with the requirement to leave an ID at the desk as guarantee until return of the device. This extra cost and hassle may be avoided by downloading the map and the pamphlet free of charge from the official site prior to the visit.
  • UNESCO designation – The archeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the nearby villa of Torre Annunziata were collectively declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Herculaneum