The cloud was rising from a mountain … I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long trunk from which spread some branches.
It appeared sometimes bright, and sometimes dark and spotted with patches of dirt and ash … Broad sheets of flame shone out in several places … made brighter and clearer for the darkness of the night.
The houses … rocked from side to side … as though shaken from their very foundations. It was now day everywhere else, but there, a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night.Pliny the Younger in his letter to Cornelius Tacitus
A ripple of excitement shuddered through me as I caught my first glimpse of Mount Vesuvius.
Since I was a child, the legend of the eruption in 79 AD and the mysterious plaster-casts of bodies preserved in ash had fascinated me. The serene reddish-brown double peak was an unmistakable landmark, towering above the Bay of Naples, with the terracotta-coloured extremities of the city creeping up the green skirt surrounding her lower flanks.
So beautiful and so deadly; Vesuvius is the only active volcano on Europe’s mainland – and because of her location, is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
She sits in the most densely populated volcanic region on the globe. After Rome and Milan, Naples is Italy’s third largest city. The composition of her andesite magma makes her unpredictable, and prone to explosive eruptions. If she blows again, which she most definitely will, more than half a million people live in the ‘red’ zone. Up to three million more who live within twenty miles of the crater could have no time to escape. The speed of evacuation is of sufficient concern to the Italian government for it to limit development around Vesuvius, and offer financial incentives for residents to move away.
Although Mark finally achieved mastery over the satnav and successfully updated its maps, it dogged our journey once again with an attempt to guide us over a bridge with a 3.5 tonne limit. Within an instant of our hesitation to cross, a queue of traffic had cosied up to our bumper. To facilitate our sixteen-tonne U-turn, I clambered down from the cab and, in my best Italian, negotiated a synchronised reverse.
A retrace of our route treated us to a second drive-by viewing of a long stone aqueduct, so well preserved it could have been built yesterday. Elsewhere, such a complete relic of the ancient world would be an attraction in itself. Yet, like a minor celebrity in a Hollywood suburb, the Aqueduct Vespasiano was just another beautiful and talented wannabe, seeking a glimpse of the limelight while so eclipsed by the A-list that I can’t even find it on the internet!
“Is he a good driver?”, the campsite owner, Giuliana, asked as she regarded us suspiciously at the gate.
It reminded me of my shortest ever job interview. Andy, my future CEO, assessed my scientific knowledge and marketing prowess with one single question: “Are you good?”
Part of me wishes I’d replied, “No,” and followed up with, “I’m AMAZING!” although such blatant arrogance could have conjured a different result. Like Andy, Giuliana took me at my word when I responded with a simple, “Yes…” – and both offered much the same reply,
“Okay. You’re in!”
Since he is a good driver, Mark is not cowed by an audience watching him manoeuvre in a tight spot. This is just as well because, once again, the entire campsite mobilised. A league of nations poured out of campervan doors to bag their front-row seats to watch the action.
Careful pacing revealed The Beast would fit in only one space. Her length required her backside to tuck into a corner at a forty-five-degree angle. The approach was a perilous reverse between two campers, with centimetres to spare. A Dutchman moved his car, ostensibly to give Mark more space to swing, although I think there was the added self-interest of avoiding NATO green scratches or dents. The French and Italian owners of the vehicles flanking our target were both absent, so there was no chance to bag any extra wriggle room.
Everyone held their breath as Mark positioned The Beast with pinpoint accuracy in one single fluid reverse, as though he were on rails. The onlookers offered a spontaneous round of applause. As he dismounted from the cab, Giuliana’s husband clapped him on the shoulder and declared him worthy of, “Doppio Limoncello – Double Limoncello!” – on the house!
That made me chuckle. The Beast’s history is irrevocably linked with Limoncello. A month after we decided to drive to Mongolia, we naturally wanted to celebrate putting down a deposit on an enormous truck we’d seen on the internet. A fumble around our depleted cocktail cabinet caused me to exclaim,
“I’m not toasting The Beast with Limoncello!”
Thankfully, in the deepest recesses of the cupboard, the part usually reserved for fondue sets, chicken bricks and the pan to make pancakes in the shape of a dachshund, I uncovered a dusty bottle containing a dribble of single malt. Whiskey seemed much more macho and in keeping with the purchase of a 24.5-tonne army truck, although I was not giving this apparently innocuous lemon liqueur its due.
Here, in the Land of Limoncello, I discovered ‘The Golden Yellow Rascal’ is renowned for the brutality of its hangovers, so it’s not for the faint of heart!
Limoncello says a lot about the nature of the Italians. When life gives you lemons…
Our view from bed was Mount Vesuvius. It doesn’t come more iconic than that! But our first night in the shadow of the world’s most famous volcano was not the most restful. We were treated to a continuous cacophony of barking dogs and, for some reason, even at 3 a.m., passing cars felt obliged to serenade campers by hooting their horns as they passed. And then, there were the gunshots…
We’d been anxious about the safety of visiting the notorious den of iniquity that is Naples. Besides being close enough to Sicily to have a strong Mafia presence, its other underworld claim to fame is that it spawned the Camorra, Italy’s oldest and largest criminal organisation, which is still going strong.
Organised criminals tend to have bigger fish to fry than the odd hapless tourist. In the Crime Index, many American cities and in the UK, Bradford, Coventry and Birmingham rank considerably higher than Naples. Nevertheless, with the noted prevalence of petty theft, we certainly had no intention of wild camping or leaving The Beast anywhere other than in the security of a bona fide campsite to go sightseeing. The city’s reputation clearly spooked Isabella and Lucas, our Northern Italian neighbours. When we asked about what we considered the best-case scenario for the gunshots, they shrugged and said,
“It could be hunters, but anything is possible in Napoli…”
Italy’s North/South divide is very apparent. Mark and I are much more familiar with the north. This was our first foray so far south, and it seemed like a different country. The north’s flawless toll roads had morphed into a series of rectum rattling motorways, and our morning stroll into ‘New’ Pompeii revived further memories of trips to the third world.
Trash littered the streets and clogged up gaps between the filthy dilapidated facades of once-grand buildings that lined them. Grubby shopfronts and bakeries with faded plastic signs offered little encouragement to sample their wares. The trademark aroma of the place combined a choking miasma of traffic fumes, festering drains, and TCP (Tom Cat P***), with the occasional sweet note of orange blossom or scented wisteria, borne on a breeze that felt like the opening blast from a pizza oven.
We had arisen early to visit the ancient city of Pompeii, which was a half-hour walk from the campsite. Giuliana had given us a map showing how to get there, but when I asked Mark,
“Do you have the map?”
Obviously, he’d lost it!
We reached the nearest of the site’s three entrances at 10.30 a.m. and it was nowhere near early enough. Already, the queue snaked across the courtyard in front of the ticket booth and out of the gate. On our way there, we’d run the gauntlet of local tourist touts vying for our business. One accosted us outside his office and said,
“I have space on a tour to the top of Vesuvius at 12.30!”
“Can we bring the dogs?”
He sealed his preferred supplier status amid stiff competition when he smiled at The Fab Four and answered, “Of course!”
On eying the queue for Pompeii, we immediately decided Vesuvius was a better option. We spent the intervening hours wandering around the new town, and stopped for coffee at a street café on the shaded side of the cathedral square. It was already too hot to be in the full force of the morning sun. Feet from us, an endless carousel of traffic crawled past the green oasis that fronted the church. Drivers who were tired of queuing mounted the pavement next to us at speeds more in keeping with a ram raid. The rear ends of their abandoned vehicles poking into the queues did nothing to ease the gridlock.
In competition with the constant roar of traffic, the barista’s radio blared out an endless medley of electronic Euro pop, before granting air time to a curious Italian comedy routine. From what I understood, it centred around some particularly hilarious fagioli – beans. Not your standard ingredient for comedy gold, yet every mention had the audience in stitches.
Back at the tourist office, a bonus awaited us. Isabella and Lucas were there with their pooch – we had reserved the same trip!
At €25 each, an organised tour alleviated a number of worries. The thought of driving The Beast up to the crater left me riddled with angst. To control congestion on the narrow switchbacks that ascended the volcano, vehicles were allocated a pre-booked half-hour slot. In a behemoth with a maximum straight-and-level velocity of 45 mph, accurate timings for a hill climb are a big ask. My overarching concern, however, was that negotiating the four thousand feet of hairpins required to return us from summit to sea level would incinerate our brakes as surely as one of Vesuvio’s pyroclastic flows.
My fascination with volcanoes has been lifelong. Eruptions epitomise the raw power of nature in a way that no other natural phenomenon can equal. Discounting general volcanic areas such as New Zealand, the Galápagos or Scotland, Vesuvio was my fourth volcanic peak on my third continent.
On our honeymoon, Mark and I sat in hot springs one evening, sipping a fine Cabernet Sauvignon while we watched the greatest firework show on earth. Volcanic bombs the size of cars spewed out of Costa Rica’s Volcán Arenal. As they tumbled down the sides of the mountain, their livid fiery glow dimmed and faded to black as they cooled, or reignited in jagged cracks when bouncing impacts re-exposed their superheated interiors to oxygen.
I spent my 50th birthday at 10,023 feet (3,055 metres) on the summit of Haleakalā – ‘The House of the Sun’, on Maui, and windsurfed beneath West Maui Mountains, Mauna Kahālāwa – ‘The Holding House of Water’. These two long-dormant (but not extinct) volcanoes make up most of the island.
A few years before that, in the Philippines, we witnessed first-hand the devastation of a more recent eruption when we visited Mount Pinatubo. A desert of pale ash, the colour of powdered bone, blanketed the landscape like a thick layer of snow. Nothing was visible, other than the occasional tree top or the corner of somebody’s roof, peeking out to remind onlookers that this apocalyptic scene had once been teeming with life.
Why do people live near volcanos? Friedrich Nietzsche tells us,
Although Pliny notes that earthquakes were common in the area, in 79 AD, Vesuvius had lain dormant for seven centuries. The residents of Pompeii viewed her as a deity, and dedicated her to Hercules, which is maybe where the name of Herculaneum originates. They had no idea they were living dangerously.
As we snaked up the switchbacks in our air-conditioned minibus, Vesuvius supplied the answer. Lush vineyards and shady orchards whizzed past our tinted windows, growing like triffids on fertile slopes of rich volcanic soil.
In ancient Pompeii, amphorae of wine often bore the marque Vesuvinum, which is such a hipster title, I’m surprised it’s not still in use.
Today, they continue to brew Vesuvian wine from the same strains of indigenous grapes, from vineyards first mentioned by Aristotle in 500 BC. It is known as Lacrima Christi, which is Latin for ‘Tears of Christ’. The mythology states that as he descended into Hell, fallen angel Lucifer stole a piece of Heaven. When Christ looked down, He recognised the Bay of Naples and lamented His paradise lost. When His tears fell on the slopes of Vesuvius, they miraculously brought forth the Lacrima Christi vines.
Chemical analysis of residues from the taps of casks uncovered by archaeologists reveals that Lacrima Christi is as close as you’ll get to a true taste of ancient Rome.
Excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum have uncovered artwork, which depicts Vesuvius as a classic volcanic cone, but volcanos are mutable. Their outline and height change with each eruption.
Mount Vesuvius sits in the caldera of an earlier and much larger volcano. Known as Mount Somma, its remains partially encircle the current active cone, which gives the appearance of a double peak. This ridge, still called Mount Somma, is 3,714 feet (1,132 metres) high. The Valle del Gigante (Valley of the Giants) separates Mount Somma from Mount Vesuvius, which stands around 4,203 feet (1,281 metres). According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, while performing his labours, this is where Hercules passed through and pacified the giant ‘sons of the Earth’.
The last major eruption in 1944 shaped the present peak. It destroyed the funicular cable car which had carried visitors to the summit since 1880 and also disrupted Allied landings in Italy during WWII. The US Army Air Force’s ‘Unlucky’ 340th Bombardment Group, mentioned in former member Joseph Heller’s famous novel Catch-22, lost its base and 88 B-25 Mitchell bombers – worth $25-million – to Vesuvius. Streams of magma also wiped out several villages, such as San Sebastiano al Vesuvio and Massa di Somma. 26 people died, mostly because of roofs collapsing, and 12,000 were displaced. In contrast to the fecund lower slopes, scrubby grey ‘pioneer’ vegetation was only just beginning to take hold on the 1944 lava flows.
Christ certainly extracts a heavy price from those who choose to settle in his stolen piece of paradise, sitting as it does on the brink that divides Eden and the fiery infernos of Lucifer’s lair.
In history, Vesuvius is inextricably associated with the destruction of Pompeii, but did you know that Spartacus used her slopes as a hideout? After escaping from gladiatorial training in Capua, he sought refuge on Mount Somma with around seventy of his compatriots. Praetor Gaius Claudius Glaber besieged him on the mountain, blocking the only means of descent. However, Spartacus and his men escaped, Tarzan-like, down cliffs and fissures using ropes made from the twisted stems of wild vines. This surprise tactic allowed Spartacus to attack Glaber’s unguarded camp from behind and wipe out his militia.
Further military successes encouraged other fugitives to join Spartacus until, with a rebel army of nearly 100,000, Spartacus launched the largest slave revolt Rome had ever seen.
He defeated the legions and overran southern Italy, before battling his way as far north as the Alps. From there, his rebels could have dispersed across the mountains to freedom, but he turned back. Possibly, he had designs on Rome and wanted to free all slaves. Possibly, his followers chose looting over liberty. However, his days of victory were numbered.
Unable to tolerate such an insurgency, Rome unleashed its full fury in the shape of Marcus Licinius Crassus at the head of eight legions.
When pirates reneged on a deal to transport the rebels to Sicily, Crassus surrounded Spartacus, defeated his armies and killed him in battle, although historians such as Plutarch state that his body was never recovered. Pompey’s legions, returning from a campaign in Hispania put to death slaves escaping northwards. Famously, Crassus crucified six-thousand captives along the length of the Appian Way.
“I’ll collect you here at 3.30.” Having dropped us off, our driver was leaving to ship in his next cargo of tourists.
I tried to memorise his face, clothing, and any distinguishing features that might help me pick out our minibus from the clone army of others. We joined our fellow passengers in a game of dodgems through the melee of coaches and minibuses that circled the car park like a bait ball of herrings trying to escape a killer whale. We tagged on to the tail of the human crocodile making its final breathless and sweat-soaked ascent up the reddish-grey cinder zigzag that led to the summit.
Vesuvius has had eight major eruptions in the 17,000 years since it grew from within Mount Somma. After 79 AD, it has erupted dozens of times, although not usually with quite as much ferocity. The last major eruption, with an equivalent VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index) of 5 was in 1631. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was a VEI-5. The VEI scale is logarithmic, so each increasing number denotes an erution ten times more powerful than the last. The maximum is VEI-8, which applies to supervolcanoes like Yellowstone and Taupō in New Zealand. You might laugh at my earlier mention of Scotland, but Glencoe is a collapsed caldera from 420 million years ago that loosed a VEI-8 eruption.
Vesuvio’s current crater is approximately 2,000 feet (about 610 metres) wide and 1,000 feet (305 metres) deep. Flowers graced its rim, which showed the volcano had been quiescent for some time.
I’m sorry to say that while a trip to Vesuvius had to be done, I found it a bit underwhelming. The coach-loads of visitors chomping crisps and buying drinks from kiosks around the crater shattered the atmosphere. Crowds removed every vestige of the transcendence I normally feel as I gaze down from a mountaintop as if I were a goddess surveying bejewelled creation.
A mob of unruly adolescents amused themselves by taunting our dogs. When we asked them to stop, they returned to terrorising a pale angular German lady of advancing years, who seemed to be alone.
Their persistent and over-familiar presence around her led Mark to ask,
“Are they with you?”
When she said, “No,” he intervened to prevent them shouting in her face, and repeatedly whipping her pastel floral Bill and Ben bush hat off her head. Her lacklustre response to his chivalry amazed us both.
“Ah, they are just kids!” she said.
She was considerably more tolerant than us!
I was disappointed that we couldn’t walk around the entire rim, although we wouldn’t have had time to do so anyway. We tried to tune out the white noise of tourists and their tick lists as we absorbed the sweeping panorama across Lucifer’s stolen piece of Heaven, from Sorrento to the island of Capri.
On the way back, our driver delivered us into the clutches of a tourist tat shop, whose shelves burgeoned with Magma, a range of volcano-themed shampoos and aftershaves. For €32, a roughly shaped clod of volcanic rock decorated with a clumsy daub of red paint ‘lava’ could have been mine. Its naïve design and rough paint job reminded me of a model volcano John McInerny fashioned on the clay table when we were both in kindergarten. The owner gave us slices of sharp Amalfi lemons to taste. The size of footballs, these are the magic ingredient in Limoncello.
Rather more agreeable was a creamy liqueur made from rum and buffalo milk. I bought a bottle, figuring it might do us for sundowners. Although it was not The Golden Yellow Rascal, we still vowed not have too much.
The following day, we planned to attempt a proper early start to go Up Pompeii!
Lack of internet thwarted my attempt to publish this post on 24th August, the 1,943-year anniversary of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. However, as we will find out in my next post, Pliny the Younger, our only eye witness to have recorded the eruption, might have got the date wrong…
VEI Index of Notable Volcanic Eruptions
- Glencoe, Western Scotland, 420 million years ago
- Yellowstone, USA, 640,000 years ago
- Taupō, New Zealand, 25,600 years ago
- Mount Tamborra, Indonesia, 1815
- Krakatoa, Indonesia, 1883
- Mount Pinatubo, Philippines, 1991
- Vesuvius, Italy, 79 and 1631
- Mount St. Helens, USA, 1980
- Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, 2010
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Photo credit for cover photo: Mount Vesuvius at Dawn, Keirth Pomakis, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons