Start your trip out of Rome as early as possible: the earlier your start the better your day will be. For me it is always best to get the car as you are heading out of Rome but try to pick it up at a location that opens early and if possible close to where you are staying. The best time to arrive in Herculeum is early in the morning it is usually about a two to three-hour drive. I have never been able to make the time frame in Google Maps, perhaps because I am an especially cautious driver when in Southern Italy.
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We are bound for Ercolano (aka Herculaneum) in Campania to see the ruined Roman city that was destroyed by the Mt Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD. The same eruption destroyed the better-known Pompeii. Herculaneum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the smaller of the two sites, it is better preserved and more condensed with a more well-conserved ruins of houses, frescos, mosaics and marble. It was buried under heaps of ash which hardened into tuff which maintained integrity of the city until excavation began in 1748. If—like me—you avoid long periods in the bright sun, the more intimate Herculaneum is a better site to explore than sprawling Pompeii. Many of Herculaneum’s best treasures have been re-located, along with pieces from Pompeii, to the National Archaeologic Museum in Naples. There, the doomed city’s artwork, sculpture and jewelry are protected from the elements. A self-guided tour of Heracleum will take about 1½ to 2 hours, and independent tour guides at the entrance in case you want a more detailed, personalized description.
After Heracleum, if you want more Roman ruins, you can head to Pompeii. It is 17 km away, usually about a 30-minute drive.
You can park at Camping Zeus near the train station then head to the site. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Some of the highpoints of this famous architectural site are:
The Forum: the sociological heart of the city where most important religious or community events were held.
The Lupanar was Pompeii’s premier brothel, known for its erotic wall paintings.
House of Faun, Pompeii’s largest home, covers an entire city block. There is a graceful reproduction of the original bronze Faun statue at the front of the house. The original is in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
One of the most arresting sites is the view of the bodies of the residents which were covered in ash from the eruption. This preserved them forever as the ash turned to stone over time. They look like muddy statues in their final agonizing moments.
The Theater and the Amphitheater are also work a look.
You can also go to the summit of the still-active Vesuvius (which last erupted in 1944) on a separate tour.
Herculaneum-Pompeii-Vesuvius is a full day of sightseeing. I usually only do one of them, and then head onto the Amalfi Coast, to stay for a few nights in Atrani. Herculaneum to Atrani is a short distance, but at least an hour’s drive due to winding, mountainous, cliffside roads that you will encounter in Amalfi. The smaller your car the better to navigate the roads. Do not be surprised if on the winding, narrow, hair-pin lanes you encounter an oncoming bus, and must negotiate who proceeds and who backs up (that will be you!).
From Atrani, you can make daytrips to see the archaeological sites that you passed on, as well as to see Naples, a fascinating city where driving is NOT recommended. When I day-trip to Naples, I park near the coast at the ferry terminals—where there is always plenty of parking—and then walk into the city. The double-decker tour bus leaves from near the terminals, and is a fine way to see the city. One of my favorite stops on the tour is at the catacombs of San Gennaro.
For me “Amalfitana”—the Amalfi Coast—a UNESCO world Heritage Site, is the most stimulating part of Italy. The coastal road through this land is strewn with intoxicating panoramic vistas of small cliff hanging villages. Some of my most cherished memories in Italy are driving the treacherous, twisting, turning road as you approach the most ruggedly beautiful visions of the craggy cliffs and the shifting colors of the Tyrrhenian sea. You can get hooked by the energy of this area. Every chance I get, I return to this region and discover something I have missed before.
I choose Atrani as a base for seeing this region for a lot of reasons. It is a tiny, quiet fishing village nestled between the cliffs above the Sea that seems untouched by time or tourists. The historic town center is surrounded above by tiers of charming colorful houses. I love the honeycomb-type structure of the buildings where each layer or home melts into the next, and all are connected by mazelike alleys and staircases. Below is the main square, Piazza Umberto, with café type restaurants, serving delicious fresh catch of the day and handmade pasta dishes. The views from the flowered balconies of many the houses are of the old town and the vividly blue sea. One of my favorite places to stay has an elevator, a private parking garage and has the most incredible sea views from every room. See a room with a view.
Contemplative walks upwards through Atranis maze-like walkways lead to the small, quiet village square. The walk in the evening hours is bewitching. It is full of rocky inclines and well-tended terraced gardens with small lemon and olive groves. There are 13th Century churches with lively fountains. You can see tiny dimly lit chapels in the distance, clinging to cliffs above. Atrani is blissfully idyllic. Its immediate neighbor is the more-lively Amalfi. The villages are on either side of a large parking garage cut into the hillside.
The most important sight in Amalfi is the Cathedral of Saint Andrew, located in the main square, Piazza Duomo. On the square, is the hub of activity: a fountain, also named for Amalfi’s patron Saint Andrew. I have been there during the saint’s feast day on November 30. Plenty of feasting, fireworks and festivities all day and night. The Cathedral is a Byzantine-Moorish blend built between 1000-1300. The façade is 19th Century. The Duomo includes the crypt of St Andrew. Adjoining the Cathedral is the 9th Century Basilica of the Crucifix.
Also in Amalfi is a 13th Century paper mill which is now a museum, and it is a pleasant walk to the less traveled part of town. There is also the Arsenal Museum; an underground cavernous space where ships were built over 1,000 years ago.
Near Atrani is Ravello, famous for its musical events, cliffside terraced gardens containing livestock alongside lemon trees and spectacular views to the sea. This region is the land of Limoncello. A delectable fresh tasting lemon liqueur. The view alone is worth the drive, but Ravello also boasts fine cafes and restaurants. The drive to Ravello is uphill, and you may encounter caravans of roaming goats in or along the roadside.
Other interesting stops along the coast are Positano, a vividly scenic town with lots of opportunities for shopping and dining. It is dramatically perched on the hillside with houses spilling down to the sea. The streets are narrow and steep and parking is scarce, even in the off season. I park near the main road at the top and walk down in the town. I return to my car on the frequently passing shuttle bus marked Interno Positano.
Paestum or Posidonia—home to what may be the best-preserved temples of ancient Greece—is definitely worth a daytrip. The ruins stand majestically in a lush pastoral setting. There is also a museum full of artefacts from this time period including ceramics, frescos and everyday items.
This whole section of Italy is full of unforgettable sights that are definitely worth a short road trip out of Rome, or even better- a few nights in Amalfitana.