After viewing one example of Vesuvius' destructive power earlier this week (Pompeii) the time has come to pay a visit to the volcano itself. We leave Sorrento behind, riding the Cirumvesuviana train toward Ercolano Scavi (the Herculaneum excavations). The train takes about an hour, grinding up the coast toward Naples. As we near the big city we find that the graffiti monkeys have thoughtfully taken to painting over the blue and white train station signs. It makes it much more difficult to judge our position without this useful information,
Our luck runs good this morning and enough letters of the Ercola Scavi sign show through the paint to signal that we've reached our destination. We pile off the train, onto a paint-splodged train platform. I would call those morons who deface public property “apes with spray cans,” but I fear that would be insulting to apes. I suppose it is only because I am becoming a cranky old git, but for the life of me I cannot fathom the desire to shoot spray cans of paint in random directions over all useful structures. But I rant.
As we leave the train station, we are directed by a helpful tout toward the shuttle bus for Vesuvius. I know we are in good hands when, in the bus company's office, I see framed and autographed pictures of Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. Rocky wrote a very handsome testimonial to the Vesuvius Express Bus company, so I have nothing but confidence for the journey ahead. We book our tickets and thirty minutes later are rolling up the side of Mount Vesuvius.
With the recent history of car sickness among the younger members of the crew, I am a trifle nervous about how their stomachs will hold upon this trip. The road to Vesuvius' crater is a vicious snake up the stony cliffs. The lower reaches are verdant; the rich volcanic soil nourishes a luxurious overgrowth. The upper half, on the other hand, is bare stone. We pass along the south face, staying close to the bare gray path of the 1944 lava flow, Pompeii's last kick up.
The bus unloads us in a lava-faced parking lot. Crater's rim stands another 130 meters above us, requiring a walk of 860 meters along a trail climbing along a 14% grade. These handy facts are provided by an information board at the head of the trail. We marshal our strength, and with tears in our eyes, begin to climb.
Like nearly every hike taken during the Euro2008 expedition, the trail either switchbacks or side stitches up the side of the mountain (I must find some new cliches or make our 2009 tour a trip through Kansas). This is a short walk, however, so we aren't weeping long. The trail flattens out along the crater rim, where we are able to brace our bellies against the wooden fence and stare into the maw of Vesuvius.
The walls of the crater are steep, as if God had pressed the tip of an ice cream cone into the soil and then pulled it away. Loose gray rock and rubble line the lower zones of the cone, looking like a sand castle that had collapsed. Below the lip of the southern rim, wisps of smoke drift out of the rock face. The mountain sleeps but she isn't dead.
Vesuvius is a disaster waiting to happen. Nearly 3,000,000 people live within range of the volcano, and it will be a nightmare to evacuate the danger zone when she comes back to life. The Italian government has been buying the property around the mountain, making it into a national park that will provide a buffer zone between volcano and habitation. Nevertheless, she will undoubtedly explode again, and it may prove catastrophic. The last eruption was in 1944. By some measures she is now overdue for her next display of fireworks.
We should be able to see Sorrento from the top of the mountain, but our view is occluded by a blanket of smog. To the north we have a good view of the 1944 lava flow, winding its way toward Naples. The city itself, however, is also seen through a yellow smudge. The coast could definitely use a brisk wind to clear the air.
Back on the bus for the return to sea level. Next on our tour is the lost village of Herculaneum. Closer to the mouth of Vesuvius than Pompeii, this Roman village bore the main impact of the volcano's pyroclastic flows. By the time Vesuvius relapsed into her uneasy slumber, Herculaneum had been buried under more than 20 meters of ash and molten rock.
Today the site is partially excavated, and what has been exposed is much smaller than Pompeii. An elevated walkway leads from the main road to the visitor center. Walking along it we can see the dusty brown skeletons of the villas and shops. After purchasing our tickets, we hike down a long ramp and enter the site.
I know that many visitors prefer Herculaneum to Pompeii. It is certainly much smaller and more manageable. Usually I prefer smaller to larger (especially in the case of museums) but I am undecided in this instance. We were able to see just about everything that was open to visitors in Herculaneum, but in many ways it didn't feel quite as impressive or interesting to me. Part of the problem, undoubtedly, was that we lacked a guidebook to the site. Bereft of information and background, our appreciation of the site sunk to a low common denominator: interesting ruin.
I think, in the end, we might have been better off coming to Herculaneum when we were fresh (instead of climbing Vesuvius first), and perhaps before visiting Pompeii. It was hard to see what Herculaneum added to our understanding of life in an ancient Roman village. Pompeii seemed better and more fascinating in nearly every way.
We caught the evening Cirumvesuviana train back to Sorrento, riding through the sunset and early twilight that glimmered in the staked up olive trees and lemon groves.