Good climbing, and good cheer, on Vesuvius

May 29, 2009 at 8:05 pm (Italian journey, Italy, Travel)

When we first arrived in Italy, as our bus left the airport and drove into Naples, we could clearly see from the windows  a mountain in the distance. I say in the distance, but actually it seemed startlingly close. We asked our guide Linda if it was Vesuvius. She answered in the affirmative. I think we were all wonder struck, seeing this fabled peak for the first time.



From many angles, many places, Vesuvius can be discerned, brooding over Naples like a mother over her fractious child – an unstable,  dangerous mother, liable to blow her top at any moment…

And yet – a loving and generous mother as well. Three days after our arrival in Italy, we began our ascent of the mountain, initially via bus. Linda explained that the people of the Bay of Naples have a complex relationship with the volcano. Despite its potential for raining down death and destruction, Vesuvius is nevertheless the object of respect, one could almost say veneration, by Neapolitans and their near neighbors.  Volcanic ash, it seems, contains all manner of useful minerals and accounts for the exceptionally fertile soil that characterizes the region. Now, as in ancient times, gardens and vineyards can be found on the slopes of the mountain. Linda further informed us, without a trace of irony, that the name of the wine produced from the grapes grown in this region is Lacryma Christi – the Tears of Christ.


(Add to this the fact that that the road up the mountainside was narrow and tortuous, with increasingly heavy traffic. I was momentarily mesmerized by the crucifix that swung crazily from the bus’s rear view mirror.)

As we reached the foothills of Vesuvius, I was surprised to see numerous houses and apartment complexes. These were lovely neighborhoods, gracefully landscaped. Yet they were in squarely in what is known as the Red Zone, a five-mile radius surrounding the volcano where the danger from an eruption is greatest and most immediate. (I was reminded of California, not for the first or last time.)

Vesuvius National Park was created in 1995. Since that time, it has become a popular excursion, especially on a sunny, mild Sunday. This is exactly when our tour group fetched up there. Armed with walking sticks – mine actually doubled as a monopod for use with my Canon Powershot – we  followed the trail up the mountain, along with many other trekkers. Although we were assailed by swarms of tiny insects, the mood remained festive.

As we neared the trail’s end, we were met by our guide, Pasquale. He filled us in on the history and geology of Vesuvius.

pasqualeThe enormous caldera in the background was actually the result of the last major eruption, which occurred in 1944. Pasquale had us all shout across it in unison; our voices echoed eerily. He then explained to us that guides used to take people down into the caldera until an American serviceman, tossing a rock in order to hear the sound it would make as it hurtled downward, lost his balance and hurtled downward himself, to his death. (Not fifteen minutes after I heard this harrowing tale, a man walked by me, stopped at the railing, and threw a rock over the edge into the caldera!)

In a small gift shop near by, you could buy a postcard and have it stamped as proof that you had climbed the mountain.

Vesuvio Postcard Front & Back

I was filled with pride and exhilaration – I did it!

Due to the friable soil under foot, the walk back down was a bit tricky – I was deeply grateful for my monopod/walking stick. We made it back safely – well, relatively safely. By the time we completed our descent,  the parking lot was crammed full of cars and tour buses. In an effort to stay clear of oncoming traffic, one of our tour members fell, banging up her hands and knees. Once we were settled on the bus, she coped bravely. (Hers was the first of several falls experienced by both tour members and our guide.) We then headed away from that extraordinary experience and toward an even more astounding one: Pompeii.

In between these two momentous encounters, we stopped in  Torre del Greco. Famous in its day for the production of cameo jewelry, this town whose name literally means “Tower of the Greek” houses but a few establishments that still practice this ancient craft. Linda told us that until recently, cameos were handed down from mothers to daughters to granddaughters, and so on. Like so many traditions of old, this one is, alas, dying out.

One of the premier jewelers still making cameos in Torre del Greco is Giovanni Apa. We stopped at this fine establishment, where we were shown the art of making cameos, and – naturally! – given the opportunity to shop. The cameo I purchased bears a close resemblance to this one:

cameoInstantly, it became a treasured keepsake. I look at it, touch it, and recall the magic of this journey.


  1. Kate said,

    I just wanted to stop by your blog to let you know I enjoyed it!

  2. Beryl Bainbridge « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] serves to remind me that a little over a year ago, I was in a tour  bus riding up the slopes of Vesuvius. I and my fellow travelers then got out and hiked a further way up the mountain. Was I fearful? No […]

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