Travelogue Italy 6: Pompeii & Vesuvius

22 June 2017

Even though Mount Vesuvius is only a few miles out of Naples, we had decided upfront in the itinerary planning to rather double-bill it with Pompeii on the Sorrento leg of our journey.

We’d done little research from home, thinking it would be an easy one to arrange from our homebase when we arrived, but the receptionist at our hotel pipped it on check-in when she said (unprompted) that we needn’t book a tour as the local train service delivers you to the entrance to the ruins, where you can join a tour or get an audio guide.

This corresponded with what our friends from home – who had been there only a few weeks earlier – had told us, adding that the Rick Steves audio guide app was essential, so we’d already downloaded it in prep for our self-guided tour.

The hardest part of the whole plan was getting out of bed (it had been a very busy holiday with the very taxing Amalfi cruise the day before) and tearing ourselves away from the buffet – although Continental, it was a good spread of cheeses, cold meats and cakes, with a stunning view over a little orchard next door (lemons of course; there lemon trees on every inch of uninhabited land in this neck of the woods!)

We compromised and caught a later train, jumping on the 10.20 Express train, which had us in Pompeii in just over half an hour.

True to form on what we’d read, touts were hanging about at the gate, “helping” tourists to make the most of their visit; to access things that they wouldn’t get in normal tickets, to avoid the hours of standing in the queues at the gate, to save them loads of money with added-value packages. You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true.

We deftly sidestepped them all and headed straight for the gate – which couldn’t have been more than 50m away – booking tickets online as we moved in order to avoid the “hours-long queue” we’d be warned about.

There were no such queues but, with our shrewd last-minute purchase, we did go to the front of the Online Booking queue and were in the main gate minutes later.

We switched on the audio tour and let Rick Steves and his sidekick Lisa tell us all about Pompeii and how it had come to be.

Now inland, Pompeii (established in about 600BC by the Greeks) had previously (prior to the Vesuvius eruptions) been a coastal town, and a busy port in the early ADs since Rome controlled the Mediterranean so it was essentially one big trade zone. It was a strongly middle class town, that epitomised Roman life in its time.

We walked through the town, marvelling at the simple genius that the Romans applied so very long ago. Basic things like using broken pottery to make pavements that not only hid the plumbing that lay beneath and was functional recycling, but was also studded with chips of white marble that reflected like cats’ eyes at night to light the way.

They had stepping stone crosswalks so that pedestrians didn’t have to walk on the wet roads after they were flushed clean with running water each day (can you imagine that kind of municipal service now??) and the number of stepping stones also indicated the classification of the road with 1, 2 and 3 signifying one-way, dual carriageway and major road respectively. So practical!

Moving onto the Forum – the central town square – was the first real immersion into the fact that this was a town, living and breathing in the shadow of Vesuvius, the backdrop only 5 miles away.

Vesuvius had erupted in August 79AD, to the utter astonishment of a town that had no idea they were living on a volcano since it hadn’t erupted in 1200 years!

There must have been pandemonium as the volcano shot smoke, rocks and dust 12 miles into the air and the wind swept ash right over the town, falling like rain or snowflakes until it buried the whole place, with 2,000 of its 20,000 population along with it.

Oddly, it was the fact that the city was covered in ash that helped to preserve it, saving it from the various plunderers that ravaged the region as battles were had and empires rose and fell around it.

The tour was eerily “everyday life” and took us through a couple of homes, a bakery, a brothel and even a take-away outlet. Life didn’t seem quite so bad back then, especially the steam baths, with their heated floors and the aquaduct and pumps to ensure they had satisfactory  a water pressure. The Romans were very clever engineers and seemed to focus a lot of their energy on convenience and creature comforts!

The tour ended off with the set of amphitheatres – a small intimate one and another grander one that had a stage and scaffolding set up so is clearly still in use.

The Pompeii complex of ruins, being an entire town, can take as long as you want it to. We’d really enjoyed the commentary on the audio guide – we fully intended to use Rick Steves’ relevant chapters for our Rome sightseeing! – and found it quite comprehensive in covering all the things we wanted to see in a couple of hours.

This left us the afternoon for Vesuvius.

Easier said than done. The Pompeii tour had ejected us into (the modern) Pompeii town, so we were at a loss as to next steps. Googling didn’t help as the info we got all seemed quite contraditory, so we picked a side and headed off in the direction that corresponded with the McDonald’s golden arches signs, figuring that if we got lost, we could have a tactical burger and a regroup.

We didn’t get that far. We spotted an info desk a few blocks down and when we asked the chap for directions, he pointed at his van that was about to leave for Vesuvius and, since he had 3 seats left and it was about to leave, he lobbed off €5 each, which sealed the deal and we were packed in with the other 10 or so people headed on the same adventure.

Arriving at the park, we were set free and given time to climb the path alongside the crater to get to its peak to peer inside and get panoramic views outwards. There are a few pitstop points along the way, where you can catch free guides that talk you through what you’re seeing. When we got to the first pitstop, the Italian group was just leaving and a German group was being gathered. Too impatient to wait, we started up the trail ourselves.

It’s quite a trek, but just because it’s unrelenting uphill, not requiring any skill or abnormal level of fitness. We managed to catch up with an English tour and the guide was a wealth of knowledge.

He told us that Vesuvius is said to be the most dangerous volcano in the world because it’s so close to so many people – with a couple of million people in Naples which is only 9km away and more than 600,000 people living in the 18 towns in the Red Zone (within 12km) of the volcano that will certainly be destroyed in the next eruption.

The threat is not just the volcanic ash, as was the cause of the devastation in Pompeii, but also the lava, heat and gasses that could have catastrophic consequences. The day after the Pompeii disaster the volcano erupted again, this time creating a cloud of ash, pumice and gas, which sped down the hillside so fast that nothing in its way stood any chance of escape. It was when this flow reached water and exploded that it decimated the people of neighbouring Herculaneum, and the resultant hot mudslide buried the town, turning to stone as it cooled.

Scientists watch everything very closely, checking temperatures, gasses, seismic activity, all the indicators and early warning signs so that they can give as much advance notice for evacuation, which is estimated at 72 hours (not accounting for the inevitable hysteria).

Fortunately though, Vesuvius didn’t erupt the day we were there. We were able to climb to the full 1200m tip and peer into the crater, where you don’t see the swirling cauldron of molten lava you might expect in movie. It’s a massive hole, with grey and black streaks where lava has solidified and, most scarily, steam coming out of crevasses to remind you that Vesuvius is still alive, well and will inevitably erupt again.

Also bear in mind that the cone of the volcano as we know it today is only a fraction of the original. From Pompeii we’d seen more clearly how mammoth the original volcano was; when it erupted it literally blew its top and left behind the active cone we were now standing on as well as a smaller one to the right hand side that is part of the caldera (the large cauldron-like depression formed  by the collapse of the volcano). Following the escalation of the outsides of the two to complete the full cone, you got a rough idea of how enormous that volcano was – and how scary that eruption must have been for all those people in 79AD!

Not that that was its last show. It’s erupted dozens of times since then, and had a handful of notable episodes in the last century, including a spectacular display in 1944 in full view of the Allied armies who had taken Naples a few months earlier and whose bomber planes were rendered useless. Mother Nature pulling rank, no doubt.

Our session with the guide had really brought the experience to life, but it was only when he gave specific instructions to rest of his audience that we realised we’d unwittingly joined a paid tour!

Nobody seemed to mind though, so we were on our merry way (in the opposite direction to the group) and headed down the trail to get back to our bus.

It turned out to be a good thing that we had the tour bus as the driver was good enough to take us all the way to the train station after he’d dropped off the full-price planned group at their respective hotels. It saved us another “where in the world are we? And where do we need to be??” situation!

The train we caught back was clearly not the Express as it stopped many times along the way and, although it did seem intent on attempting a landspeed record in the tunnels, took over an hour. Which was OK really as we had seats and we didn’t have to drive so after a long day’s trekking it was kinda nice to just sit for a bit.

And book dinner.

There was no way we could wait until Italy-o-clock to eat an elegant late-night Mediterranean dinner, so we threw caution to the wind and booked a 7pm at the lovely resturant we’d designated as our last hurrah.

A flash through the shower and a fresh set of clothes and we were ready for action again.

A bit too ready possibly, as we jetted down the Corsa Italia (the main road that ran in front of our hotel, the length of town and which our restaurant was at the end of) so hastily that, in fact, we were running early for our super-early dinner.

Fortunately, when life throws you lemons, you’re likely to be in Sorrento where lemons are plentiful. There was a little lemon orchard just before our restaurant and it was not only open for a looksee, but also offering limoncello tasting.

The orchard was, as you’d expect, rows and rows of lemon trees and a few mandarin trees for good measure. Not a blade of grass though. It was weird; Sorrento had been much greener than any of the other places we’d been that were paved end-to-end, but it was all lemon trees on sandy patches. But the trees were full of fruit and the lemons grow HUGE so maybe they’ve got it right with doing the one thing properly.

The tasting was a little less successful with a mouthful of very strong limoncello, mandarincello and a nasty strong liquorish liqueur. All those on an empty stomach (yes, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast!) was enough to make me a trifle giddy!

By now it was dinnertime and we were relieved to see that another couple had beaten us to the restaurant so they were ready and serving. The pizza oven wasn’t hot yet though so we switched up our usual and had our pasta first and the pizza to follow. This was no time to be stuck on pomp and ceremony – we were starving.

Having eaten, we couldn’t help but stop in at the pub across the road… And Irish Pub called Shannon’s, to log our Guinness Index and review our day and plan the next.

En route home, we detoured past the market for Christian to buy the Italian leather work shoes we’d seen on the first night. I should have put money on it – he bought all 3 pairs!!