So this huge cloud of scalding steam, which reached temperatures of around 600 degrees centigrade and contained toxic gases, caused people’s brains to basically boil and explode through their skulls, after which their skin began to melt off,” says historian Dr Francesca Del Vecchio to her frankly horrified audience, who are hanging on her every gory word.
No, she’s not discussing the latest, inventive torture methods employed by the malevolent Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones (though to be honest I wouldn’t put it past him), but describing the agonising ways in which the populations of the small, seaside cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum died as a result of the cataclysmic eruption of super-volcano Vesuvius in August of 79AD.
“I only hope it was quick,” she says of their demise, somewhat superfluously.
My tour group is standing in front of what used to be the warehouses in which the citizens of Herculaneum – a chic resort for overpaid and underworked senators to escape from sweaty Naples in the summer – kept their boats.
Inside are rows upon rows of skeletons, some clutching poignantly onto each other, some pulling terrified grimaces, as millions of tonnes of rock, mud and burning ash crashed down onto what, until shortly beforehand, had been the posh, Italian equivalent of Eastbourne.
Today you wouldn’t even know it had been a seaside town, as most of the volcano ended up creating a vast new stretch of coastline, leaving Herculaneum situated two kilometres inland.
If you get off on facts and figures (and, er, horrific death), a weekend break to the Sorrento Coast combines this fascinating history with a stunningly attractive medieval town. Sorrento itself, an irresistible, lemon and orange grove studded, clifftop municipality, is only a 50 minute drive from Herculaneum and Pompeii, and sits directly across the bay from what is – for now – the dormant destructor that is Vesuvius. The volcano’s conelike shape looms over Naples and dozens of other small towns and villages, many of which sit in what is unsettlingly known as the ‘red zone’, and whose inhabitants have had to grow up with an evacuation plan, just in case it ever goes off again.
Back in 79AD, it went off spectacularly, with a force 100,000 times greater than the atom bomb that flattened Hiroshima. So much spewed out of its innards that it sent a column of rocks, earth and gases 33km into the sky, before it all came crashing back down, burying Herculaneum almost instantly in a tide of debris more than 20 metres deep. The mountain is now only two thirds of its original height as a result.
The residents of Pompeii, situated a little further away from the slopes of what they’d only ever believed to be a harmless mountain, had slightly more time to react. They managed to dodge the boiling hot
death cloud, but even so, scorching ash rained down on them. Those who locked themselves in their homes and hunkered down, praying that the two day eruption would eventually pass, were either buried in burning volcanic ash or poisoned by the toxic gases.
Eerily, as the ash hardened on people’s bodies, and their skin and bones deteriorated, their final poses were preserved, so you can still see plaster cast reconstructions of citizens curled up in the foetal position, sitting hopelessly with their head in their hands or crawling in agony.
Hideous tragedy aside, since both sites started to be excavated in the 18th century, they’ve become a fascinating snapshot of how the ancient Romans used to live.
Herculaneum is better preserved. Dr Del Vecchio shows us round the town’s spa – nobody had an indoor bathroom – paved with ornate mosaics depicting all things sea and water related (dolphins, squid, a kraken). She points out the early precursors to fast food: street stalls which would have served soups and stews, surrounded on all sides by gloriously technicoloured frescoes of nudes, and other things holidaying politicians of the era seemed to enjoy.
At Pompeii, six “new” dwellings have recently been opened after extensive preservation work. Casa di Casca Longus was a wealthy man’s home in which you can still see the remnants of his belongings, which include a marble table decorated with still detailed lion’s claw feet.
Meanwhile the Casa dell’ Efebo contains a dining area recessed into the floor. This room would have been covered in cushions so lazy Romans could eat while lying down, as slaves cut their food up for them.
It’s a compelling insight, but I am, all the same, quite glad to get back to my Sorrento hotel. The Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria comprises three magnificent connecting mansions dating back to 1834, its most impressive feature a vast terrace that overlooks the Gulf of Naples.
There are few better places in all of Italy to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail, and afterwards I make my way to the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Terrazza Bosquet, which features delights such as smoked sea bream and risotto with clams.
A stroll round central Sorrento the next day is punctuated by several shots of limoncello from local cafes. The lemons in this area are famous. Juicy and almost freakishly massive, they produce an especially delicious booze, and the surrounding back streets all quietly celebrate this citrus Italian liqueur. Souvenir stalls sell ceramic shot glasses, lemon flavoured pasta, and lemon flavoured everything.
After a brief visit to the cool interior of the city’s Cathedral, hewn from marble and inset with marquetry (the town’s traditional craft of inlaid wood), I take a final stroll to the pretty public gardens of the Villa Communale, which overlook the turquoise sea. In the distance looms mighty Vesuvius, still a monolithic presence, and still a defining feature of this beautiful landscape.