Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius

You know those times when you build up your expectations about something for a very long time and when it finally happens the reality doesn’t quite match to what you were hoping for?

I have been wanting to see Pompeii ever since I was a kid and I saw this movie. I think it was made in the ’70 which would make it a classic but since I’m no movie buff, I couldn’t tell you the title. I do remember vividly a love story, the huge volcano eruption and the impressive (for my mind at least) waves of ashes that covered the entire city and its people. My mom had told me that this happened in real life and I remember sitting on the couch, praying fervently the heroes would survive. They didn’t. As I grew older, I read more about Pompeii and Herculaneum history, including the Pliny records of the Vesuvius eruptions in the 62-79 AD. You can imagine that one of the most important things I wanted to do while in Italy was to visit the ancient site of Pompeii and climb Mount Vesuvius.

I am not going to go into too many details regarding the eruption; there are many historical and scientific accounts of what happened and you can read more about it here. Suffice to say that, at the time of its destruction in 79 AD, Pompeii was a flourishing Roman holiday resort situated in the gulf of Naples. It had approximately 11000 people, a complex water system, an amphitheater, a gymnasium and a port. The inhabitants were accustomed to tremors as they were pretty frequent in the region of Campania but in 62 AD, records show a strong quake took place and caused severe damage to the city structures. Fast forward to 79 AD when, just one day after the celebration of Vulcanalia (the festival for the Roman god of fire: yes, including volcano fire), a large earthquake froze Pompeii in time. The city and surrounding towns were covered in approximately 25 meters of lava and volcanic ashes and this helped preserve two of them (Pompeii and Herculaneum) to this day.

I entered the archaeological site with mixed feelings, just like I did when I visited Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. On one hand I was so curious to finally see with my own eyes everything I read about since childhood, on the other there was this shyness that kept nagging me: my footsteps were trotting over other people suffering even if their pain was very short and they were long gone.

It is estimated that when the volcanic ash covered the city, all living creatures instantly died from the heat. One study reveals that the temperature must have reached approximately 250C! The bodies were wrapped in the ashes which hardened and formed a protective shell like layer that preserved even the facial expressions. Nowadays, the bodies exhibited are the exact replica made out of plaster.

The streets are narrow and most of the time full of tourists. In the distance, the still active Vesuvius helps me understand why people chose to stay in this bucolic valley despite its numerous warnings.

The exhibits are placed exactly where the bodies have originally been discovered. In this image, this person must have been very rich because the house belonged to a noble family.

It doesn’t take long for me to see a pomegranate tree: first time I saw one. The heat was so terrible that day, I really wanted to pick a fruit, sit on the pavement and eat it while looking at the tourists.

One of the most visited houses in Pompeii is Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries). It is famous for the series of frescoes which are thought to show the initiation of a young woman into some sort of a mystery cult. Others say it could be a wedding rite. Whichever it is, these are now probably the best known of the relatively rare survivals of ancient Roman paintings.

Even when walking one has to pay attention: there are some inscriptions and drawings on the pavement that could make even a guy blush.

This (slightly childish/slightly disturbing) centaur statue is dominating the main square.

While we walk, I joke with my friend all the time, stupid jokes to shake off the nagging feeling that I’m an intruder trotting my hiking boots in what were once people’s houses. I think about the mercantilism of this world, about the many tourists that are loud, noisy and curious “where the real bodies are”. I briefly wonder if the Pompeians know what’s going on today in their former city then banish the thoughts and try to think about the pomegranate again. I can’t wait to get out of there and climb Vesuvius! 

Near the exit, I find this statue gazing over the mountains with its back turned away from the city. It’s ancient view has now been replaced with the one of newly built villas and a crowded road where many more tourists are queuing up to enter the site.

I can’t quite tell if he’s either curious of who’s gonna come visit next or really tired of the crowds of tourists that are loudly roaming around the streets of its city. For me it’s the latter so I walk away briskly towards the exit hoping that climbing the mountain that originated this will bring me closure.

On our way to Vesuvius, I get a chance to study it better. It used to be much taller but it lost its cap in a violent eruption. It has erupted many times since 79 AD and is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years. Today, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to its tendency towards violent, explosive eruptions and because of the population of 3,000,000 people living nearby.

This will not be the first volcano I’ll ever climb. In fact, it’s my forth one. I started easy with Nea Kameni in Santorini, then moved to Cotopaxi in Ecuador (5.000 meters by foot and climbed down by bicycle) and the now extinct Pululahua in Ecuador as well (horseback riding there is a must!). It will be however the easiest since the hike is very short and not technical at all. More like a walk in the park,: a very-very arid park.

Shortly after we reach the base, we get a glimpse at the arid soil. Don’t get excited: this is not volcanic ash; those are the scars of a fire that happened recently. There were a lot of fires this summer on Amalfi coast as well due in part to the unbearable heat and in part to the recklessness of people.

Climbing straight up: its steep! However there is a trail that has to be followed and that leads you straight to the refreshments kiosk … I mean the crater.

This is the famous crater. This is where the lava, volcanic ash and clouds of stones were ejected from 33 km in the air in 79 AD. This crater is far bigger than the Nea Kameni one which was as big as my head but was constantly emanating gases. Vesuvius seems to be asleep today and I’m certainly happy about that. It gives me the chance to have a lemon granita and snap some photographs.

I study the gulf of Naples: it’s nice, but I like better the Amalfi views.

It took me approximately 30 mins to reach the top (pictures stop pits included!) but I climb fast; the time on the map shows that the hike can be done in 1.5 hrs (probably this is if you stop a lot to sleep on the side of the road). I recommend the Gran Cono route which is a circular trail that offers spectacular views of the gulf of Naples, the mountain and it’s crater. The hike is not difficult at all although it has a short steep portion at the beginning of the trail. I do recommend shoes that have a good sole not sandals or flip flops, a sun cap and a bottle of water as there is no shade and the heat is … I said it before: unbearable. This comes from a Romanian that is used to spending her summers at 40C.

The signs of the recent fire can be clearly seen on the way down.

On the way back, I take another look at the Vesuvius trying to decide and clearly shelve the day into one of my two boxes: “I loved it” / “I didn’t” but it’s hard. Even now -3 months after the trip- and I’m still trying to figure out my feelings about it. Would I recommend it? Sure: for the history lesson, for the physical exercise and for the good views that can be seen from the top of the mountain. Would people fall in love with this experience? Most probably not if you are like me and avidly research everything about something before visiting: in this case you might build your expectations too high. Don’t get me wrong, you would definitely love it if you are the archaeologist type but if you’re not, once you have seen a couple of buildings in Pompeii, you have seen them all and after tempering your curiosity regarding the exhibits, all you’re left with is a bitter feeling in your gut about the frailty and transience of life.

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