Over the years we have fallen in love with southern Italy. Life is exuberant and loud. Neapolitans are brash, grabbing life as it comes and squeezing tight, as evidenced by the antics of twosomes on scooters or in passionate embraces whenever the mood strikes. Neapolitans have ruled and been ruled, many times. They know in the course of human events, cultures are fleeting. The sea lies in front of them, with Vesuvius behind.
We go annually to the island of Ischia, and must pass through Naples. Often we linger there, exploring the wonderful archeological museums in the city and nearby sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. We savor the Neapolitan pizza “pie” (the best in the world!) and walk the narrow alleys that pass for streets in the Centro, never at night and never with a purse or jewelry worth stealing. We have taken on the native bravado only in moderation.
Which makes me wonder why we decided to hike to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius.
Here are some facts about 4,200-foot Mt. Vesuvius, the icon of southern Italy:
- The devastation wrought by the volcano of 79 AD on Pompeii and Herculaneum (killing 10,000-25,000 in ash, poisonous gases in a surge cloud, and/or lava) was not an isolated incident.
- Among the 100 eruptions since 79 AD were those in 1631, killing 6,000, and in 1794, 1908, and the 1920’s.
- The last eruption was during World War II in 1944, when lava devastated the town of San Sebastian and others within two miles of the volcano. A plume of ash rose 4,000 feet in the air.
- Naples, with 3,000,000 inhabitants in the metropolitan area, sits 5.6 miles from Vesuvius. There is one major highway in and out.
- It is estimated the caldarium of poisonous gases that swept through Pompeii travelled at 30-40 mph. Lava, heated to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, moved three feet a minute in 1944.
- Scientists warn that Vesuvius is no less dangerous today, and is merely napping. The Osservatorio Vesuviano (institute) monitors all activity.
There are almost 200,000 visitors a year who trek up to the rim of the cone. We were not alone.
There is a staging area at which we had to leave our vehicle (1000-car quota). We paid 10 Euros each to walk and obtained walking sticks for an additional fee. We didn’t hire a guide, but picked up a brochure describing the views from the summit. We wore hiking shoes (definitely no flip-flops!), because the trail upward was ash, with many small stones and larger rocks to circumnavigate. Hairpin turns provided occasional benches for rest.
It was hot as an inferno at the summit. Wear sunscreen and a hat.
An indescribable view of the Bay awaited us, with the city of Naples sprawled below and the Amalfi coast visible for fifteen miles. We could even see Capri in the distance. Toward the rear was the valley decimated in ’44. Even more astounding was the view from the rim down into the volcano (700 feet deep and 1970 feet in diameter). Inside was a perfect cylinder of black at the top of the cone, with stratified deposits downward that resembled the turnings of a screw. Plants have begun to take root and with them bird species.
We saw tour guides leading groups around the opposite side of the rim, where they could watch the steaming fumaroles. Scientists still report bursts of smoke creeping through the cracks from the magma chamber, five miles deep. With the main fissure plugged by rock, geologists agree any eruption will be explosive.
Which made me realize I wanted down-and-away as quickly as possible! Easier said than done…the climb down made my legs wobble and my knees lock, braking all the way. Or maybe it was just my nerves!
PAMELA CAREY is the author of Minor League Mom, A Mother’s Journey Through the Red Sox Farm Teams (2009) and Elderly Parents with All Their Marbles: A Survival Guide for the Kids (2014). The mother of Red Sox farm team veterans Tim and Todd Carey, Pamela holds a B.A. from Colby College and an M.A. from Columbia University Teachers College.
A former information director for the Delaware Dept. of Education, she taught in Connecticut, Georgia and Maine. Later, she earned an advanced degree in interior design, and opened Interiors by Pamela in Cumberland, R.I. There, she taught adult education and served in many civic capacities. Pamela and her husband, Charley, are “snowbirds,” residing in Delray Beach, Fla., in the winter and Westport, Mass., in the summer.