“Ah Vesuvius! What would Naples be without its volcano?” My happy question is rhetorical, but Marco looks at me aghast and sputters “Nothing! It would be nothing!” Grinning, we turn our gaze back to the dark mountain standing in the distance beyond the terrace of Marco’s café. Today, I’m going to climb to the top of it.
Rising more than four thousand feet into the sky, the totemic black bulk of Vesuvius forms an ever-present backdrop to life in the Bay of Naples region. It’s responsible for the area’s rampant fertility, and its stupendous foodstuffs. Without those world-beating tomatoes fed on volcanic soil, Neapolitans might never have bothered to invent pizza. Without their luscious fruits, they might not have been inspired to dream up the dish we know as ‘ice cream’. Eating aside, Vesuvius also prompts the Neapolitan area’s famously exuberant outlook on life. “We live urgently,” Marco had explained to me earlier. “We live day by day because Vesuvius could kill us at any moment.” So the people round here sing and shout, and seize the day, and laugh in the face of death. The next time you’re overtaken by a lunatic driver in Naples, blame the volcano.
On top of everything else, Naples owes the start of its tourist industry to Mount Vesuvius. If the capricious volcano hadn’t buried Pompeii and Herculaneum on that fateful day in 79AD, the Grand Tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries would never have flocked to Naples to see the then newly-discovered remains of these ancient towns and set a fashion eagerly followed by future generations.
For all Vesuvius’s arguable generosity, it nonetheless remains one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes. It may only go off infrequently, but then it can really, really go off. More crucially, Vesuvius sits in one of the most densely-populated areas in Europe. Any eruption today would immediately threaten the safety of about three million people – more people than live right beside a volcano anywhere else on earth. Evacuation plans are hazy, while the potential for disaster is all too clear.
However deadly this mountain, like the millions living near it I can’t help but sneakily love the thing. Its graceful, distinctive silhouette had always made me sigh admiringly whenever I was in the Naples area. I never imagined for a moment that you could actually climb to the top of it. Then one day I asked a young Neapolitan woman, “What’s the best thing to see in Naples?” And her reply was instant: “You must go to the top of Vesuvius!”
My journey starts with a fat jeep, a minibus on steroids, painted army green to ensure you take it seriously. It’s part of an unusual public transport route, the ‘Busvia del Vesuvio’, which runs from Pompeii to a gravel car-park halfway up the volcano. From there it’s a half-hour hike to the summit. Our über-bus rumbles through Vesuvius’s pine-clad lower slopes, on a road which gives new meaning to ‘weatherbeaten’. Dramatic holes and gashes in the surface attest to a long history of sudden rain-torrents dragging uprooted trees in their wake. The giant wheels lumber heroically across foot-deep trenches, lurching us wildly from side to side. Apparently this road is newly re-opened after a twenty-year closure. How bad was it before?
The forest of umbrella pines gradually thins out to reveal sudden jaw-dropping vistas of landscape below – the wide, flat Sarno Valley backed by distant mountains and flanked by the long, high mass of the Sorrento Peninsula which plunges into the sea before the dreamy limestone chunk of Cápri. At the ‘base-camp’ car park, 3,400 feet up, I stumble out agog to drink in the scene. It forms only a quarter of the view I’ll have from the summit, where everything on the other side of the volcano is also on show.
The hike to the top had been billed as a mountain trek, requiring stout shoes, warm clothes and all that. But in fact it’s on a tame little path – a neat, flat walkway with a rope fence on one side. This is no hike; it’s a walk. You could do it in flip-flops. A pair of cagoule-wearing hikers with serious boots and carbon-fibre trekking poles labour past me on their way down the mountain. I hide my smile. When they’re safely out of sight, I scramble off-piste to seek, ahem, relief behind some worryingly thin bushes. (No one warns you about this, but it turns out they can’t put plumbing up a volcano.) As I clamber furtively up the grey slope, fine volcanic grit cascades into my trainers, where I’ll leave it for many hours as a memento. It’s not every day you can say you’ve got bits of Vesuvius in your shoes.
I begin to understand that, while this hike may seem an easy stroll today, it would be dangerous, even impossible, in hostile weather. I cross a wooden bridge spanning a plunging grey landslide, a sort of natural gutter for the mountain during flash floods. Embedded in the dull matte volcanic mud are the remnants of the last bridge, clearly washed away during a particularly violent rainstorm. I realize there needn’t even be rain to ruin your hike. When the top of Vesuvius is obscured by clouds, what would you be able to see from here? Leaden grey underfoot, misty grey all around, it would feel like being on another, very monochrome, planet.
The otherwise clear high-altitude air smells faintly of sulphur. The ominous breath of this living mountain. As I climb higher and slowly inch round Vesuvius’s flank, an almighty view unfurls. The distant islands of Procida and Ischia appear in the west, with all of teeming Naples filling the wide valley before them. I can just about see the oft-shaken town of Pozzuoli – the most seismically-active spot on Earth – and the strange, crater-riddled Campi Flegrei area beyond it. Far, far inland, soft green mountains rise and undulate deep into Campania.
As the climb suddenly levels out at the top, and I’m excitedly primed for my first glimpse of the volcano’s crater, the path forces me through the middle of a ramshackle tourist shop. It’s one of three they’ve built up here along the crater rim. Each one flogs amusingly awful tat wrought from black lava rock and hematite – fussy Gothic sculptures of dragons and skulls, clunky ashtrays and pots, madcap figurines of Vesuvius spewing fat, steam-train-chimney billows coated in red glitter. Even snow-shakers in which the volcano apocalyptically rains black ash over Naples. I am enchanted. There are drinks for sale. Even espresso. How charmingly Italian. You need not go without coffee just because you’re on top of a volcano! (But you must continue to go without toilets.)
I finally confront the crater. My God. Beyond a flimsy wooden fence yawns a vast quarry-like cavern, ringed by walls of rock and fallen slides of dull grey grit. To my amazement, I can see smoke wisping up from rough outcrops inside. Apparently I’m lucky to see this, as on a hotter or sunnier day it’s invisible. But now it rises and drifts like a smouldering fire, bringing home the fact that this is a living, breathing volcano, just biding its time until its next eruption. Quietly brooding and steaming, waiting till the moment’s right.
It’s a smoking gun. Proof of guilt. These rising white wisps are the lingering evidence of Vesuvius’s last eruption, in 1944. They weren’t a feature before then. The plunging crater itself, in fact, attests to Vesuvius’s last two dozen eruptions. The summit of the volcano had completely filled in and grown over with scrubby vegetation during an unusually inactive period from the 13th to 17th centuries. Volcanoes are protean mountains, and Vesuvius has often changed its shape and appearance. Prior to the Pompeii cataclysm, this mountain had the classic pointy volcano outline when viewed from afar, like Mount Fuji in Japan. Its cone rose perhaps 7,000 feet above the landscape. Today, Vesuvius’s distinctive silhouette, with the wide broken bowl of its 4,000-foot summit, enables you to visualise with appalling clarity just how much matter was blasted out in the eruptions that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. All that once-pointy mountaintop, vaporized and raining down for miles around. An avalanche from the sky. (And let’s not forget, of course, the deadly ‘pyroclastic flow’ – that murderous express-train of lung-meltingly hot gas.)
What future shapes might Vesuvius assume? The volcano hasn’t erupted for seventy years. Is it building up pressure for a real biggie? Or has it contentedly settled down into another deep, centuries-long sleep? No one knows. The mountain is very carefully monitored, and there are no signs yet of unrest. Until Vesuvius wakes and strikes again, it will surely continue to inspire affection and awe in all who live within its sight. How can you not revere a thing of such might and majesty, especially while its merciful slumbers allow you to hold onto life for yet another day?
©Fleur Kinson 2012