Italy by train can be quite easy for travel between cities (Naples-Rome-Florence-Venice-Milan) as well as local travel to towns and villages along the way if you do a bit of research and don’t get distracted. I was interested in a day trip via train from Naples to Herculaneum, a town affected by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I decided to skip the pricey bus tour and do it myself via the Circumvesuviana train which has five train routes around Vesuvius (each marked by a specific color) and in about 20-30 minutes would transport me from Naples Garibaldi station to Ercolano Scavi in nine stops on two of the five train options. Herculaneum is an easy day tour from Naples if you arrive by cruise ship. I was thrown off my solo traveler game by a few American tourists – there’s a story to tell, a lesson to be learned and a free lunch!
Bus N151 from the Waterfront (or Cruise Terminal) to Naples Train Station
I was staying along the waterfront at Partenope Relais and many local busses were frequently flying around the corner to all parts of the city. Bus N151, would transport me to the Naples Garibaldi Train Station. I want to say the cost was about €1.20 vs. €15 taxi so I decided to experience the local bus. I’m accustomed to standing on the bus so didn’t mind standing with space around me but when we stopped at the ferry/cruise port and folks crammed in with suitcases and I was packed like a sardine did I start to wonder about the ROI on the bus vs. taxi conundrum. Luckily, I’m tall and had the upper window for air as it was a humid morning. With many of the Italians standing or sitting around me eye to boob height, I was a bit uncomfortable so I looked out the window at the local life passing by. With each stop, I hoped people would leave but they didn’t spill out until the last stop at the Naples Garibaldi Train Station.
The Naples Train Station (Naples Garibaldi)
Never one to look lost or wander aimlessly in a foreign train station, I had done a bit of online research and found my way underground (down the stairs from the main floor) to the local Circumvesuviana ticket windows (look for blue signs that say Biglietteria which is the ticket office). Quickly, I learned what I called the “Italian way”. The “Italian way” involves me picking one of three lines (always the wrong line), waiting until it was my turn and then the man behind the window puts up the “closed” sign as I approach. I, and the others, shifted to the other lines because this is apparently how it works, of course I was grumbling about “inefficiencies of the lines”, “poor customer service”, “fairness”, etc. I was not happy nor was I really surprised as I was learning about daily life in Italy.
Again I waited and when it was my turn, a guy tried to cut ahead of me and without me speaking any Italian, I said a forceful “no” with a look of indignation mixed with Philly street that said it all as he made his way to the back of the line. The agent didn’t speak English but I had written Herculaneum/Ercolano on a piece of paper to show him (I find this is an easy way to avoid problems) and had cash ready (no credit cards, only cash). With my day ticket in hand, I had the obligatory “pee before you flee” visit to the restroom before making my way to the tracks.
The Bathrooms at the Naples Train Station
Unlike the Amtrak bathrooms in the U.S. which frankly are abysmal/disgusting (our tax dollars not at work) the Italian train station bathrooms are pretty nice and very clean. They should be as you need to pay to pee (budget this line item folks). I’m not keen to pay for a basic need but this is commonplace, good or bad, in Italy.
The signs are easily marked to find the bathroom but the signs are missing the €€€. Unlike the other bathrooms with cover charges of 50 euro cents, the Naples train station bathroom charges 1 Euro!! (about $1.15 at the time).
Don’t worry if you just have bills, there is a convenient coin machine to break the bills so you can put the coins in the slots to gain entry to the bathroom.
Circumvesuviana Train from Naples to Herculaneum
After the gouging at the bathrooms, I made my way to the train track and looked around. You could be anywhere in the world standing at the train platform however, this being Naples, the graffiti covered train cars approached. You might think it was the 70’s or 80’s in NYC with the vision of vandalism but it wasn’t, this was Naples – chaotic and gritty.
The track had three options – Red to Sarno (wrong), Green to Poggiomarino (good for Herculaneum and Pompeii) or Blue to Sorrento (good for Herculaneum). Two of the three trains would stop at Ercolano Scavi (yes, you already know what happened). The trains from Naples to Sorrento are notorious (right or wrong) for pickpockets and thieves as it is filled with tourists with too many bags, easy cash and distracted on their way to the luxe Amalfi Coast via Sorrento. An American couple approached me to ask about the train as they were going to Herculaneum too. Then a few more folks gathered around (funny how I collect clueless Americans).
We made a group decision to board the train (I didn’t see the train name or color when it arrived as the couple was talking to me) with everyone else on the platform and almost immediately a young man told us in Italian, “No Sorrento” and we nodded and said “Si” as we weren’t going to Sorrento. He kept at us for many stops (I should have whipped out my TripLingo app to converse with him but he was talking to the couple away from me as I watched the stops along the map) and all of us were skeptical based on what we had heard so just said in English “we aren’t going to Sorrento”. And then the train made a left after Barra and I knew that “No Sorrento” meant I had boarded the Red (wrong) train that wasn’t going to Ercolano Scavi. I was that typical distracted tourist! It’s been awhile since I made a rookie mistake. (Lesson Learned – Americans are distracting! and There’s always another train!)
Time to Go Back to Barra
I told my new American friends that the train diverted and I was getting off at the next stop, Ponticelli, to turn around. They weren’t sure about my plan but I showed them the map and they reluctantly agreed to follow me. So the young Italian “No Sorrento” guy had been right we weren’t going to Sorrento and I think may have had an Italian version of that big knowing smile that says “I told you so in Italian” as we left the train.
As it was Sunday, the trains weren’t running on a normal weekly schedule so we crossed the tracks to the other side surrounded by trees and homes in the background waiting for the next train. The upside was that we got to talk about our travels for the half hour or so. One couple was going to Herculaneum like me, the other two couples were going to Pompeii. We were all in various stages of travel – beginning, middle, and end with different ways to traverse Italy but all with great food and wine memories thus far.
Going back one stop to Barra, we switched to the other side of the platform to resume our journey toward Ercolano Scavi (Pompeii and Sorrento). My view was of more graffiti on the walls that bordered the train tracks with apartment buildings in the background filled with laundry drying on lines in the sun (I’m not sure what Europe has against clothes dryers).
Ercolano Scavi Train Station
The stop at Ercolano Scavi is unremarkable as it would be in most suburbs but there are two Ercolano stops so make sure you get off at the Ercolano Scavi for Herculaneum. The difference was that we were asked if we needed a taxi to Herculaneum, a quick ten minute walk downhill.
Unless you have mobility issues, the downhill walk (about 1/4 of a mile at 400m) is easy so bypass the taxi line. We passed the normal market shops, cafes, bars and restaurants as you would expect near a train station. The sun was bright and beating strong as we approached the ruins (thankfully I had bottled water and a power bar). My new friends asked me to join them to discover the ruins and later for a late lunch (upside to solo travel is being adopted for the day).
So how will Herculaneum measure up to Pompeii?