The Biggest Bang in Europe

Monday 27th October 2014

Steam is rising in gentle plumes from the rock face. It’s evidence of the heat that’s present several kilometres below, gradually building in intensity. We’re standing on top of the release valve of a gigantic pressure cooker, and one day it’s going to blow. When it does, the results will be spectacular and lethal. This is Vesuvius, Europe’s biggest active volcano.

It last went off in 1944, but notable as that eruption was, it was a mere fizzle compared with the most famous bang in the year 79. Apparently on that occasion 1.5 million tons of rocks, earth and ash spewed out every second for days, reaching over 20 miles high before it started falling to earth. There was enough material to cover the whole surrounding area to a depth of many metres, including the complete town of Pompeii which would remain buried for another one and a half millennia.

It’s probably appropriate that we’re here a week before Guy Fawkes night, because that must have been the firework display to end all firework displays. And we’re standing right on its top lip, looking down at the blue touch paper.

We’ve come up the lower slopes by 4×4 bus, feeling as though we’re in an Indiana Jones adventure as we bounce and lurch from pothole to pothole along the rough mountain track as we climb the peak, often inches from a sudden rapid descent as we peer down to the valley below. Our last few minutes are on foot, kicking through the grey ash that this mountain seems to be made of. We reach the summit to find the inevitable wooden shack selling volcanic gifts, postcards and Coke before we meet our guide who explains in heavily-accented English the main features of the volcano.

There are two adjacent peaks that are part of the mountain, he explains, Vesuvio (as the Italians know it) and Monte Somme sit alongside each other. Volcanologists now believe that instead of forming two separate channels with Vesuvio being the source of the AD 79 eruption, they are instead both what’s left of a much bigger, single peak that was massively reduced in size by the scale of the explosion. Considering the amount of material that was launched skyward it’s a theory that’s easy to believe.

What strikes me as we gaze down into the huge caldera is the perpendicular nature of the rock face. It’s clear that this is the visible end of a huge pipe, and I get a sense of the massive pressure behind the eruption as it forced upwards and outwards from its start point many, many miles below.

Caldera posing

Caldera posing

The views from the top are magnificent, with the panorama of the Bay of Napoli stretching away to the west, and the Monti Lattari – the Milk Mountains – to the south-east. It’s a lovely sunny day and our guide points out Pompeii, 8 kilometres away. Despite being impressed by its scale when we visited a couple of days ago, it looks insignificant now, swallowed into the heavily built up landscape.

Adding to the beauty of the vista is the heavily wooded National Park land adorning Vesuvio’s slopes. This, we learn, is a deliberate ploy to limit the number of people within the volcano’s immediate vicinity, part of the evacuation master plan in case the numerous sensors and monitors strategically placed around the caldera start to give their warning signals.

Sorrento coast from Vesuvius

Sorrento coast from Vesuvius

On the return journey we stop for lunch at a winery located on the lower slopes, in the mountain’s shadow. They proudly tell us the history of their wine, a family business since it began in the1940’s. They’ve obviously grown up living with the threat of possible annihilation and don’t seem concerned by it. This is their home, just as it’s home for another million+ people within the bay area. Judging by the density of development just a mile or two away, when the next big bang finally comes – as it inevitably will – that evacuation plan is going to have to be pretty slick.

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to be tested in our lifetimes.



The Empty Streets of Pompeii

Saturday, 25th October 2014

It’s a man, stretched out on the ground. His hands are to his mouth, fighting for breath. He’s been in this pose for nearly 2,000 years, since the day in 79AD when the sky fell in.

The sight leaves us with mixed feelings. We’re fascinated by the antiquity, and by the drama of the story of life suddenly cut short for thousands of people as a result of this most famous of natural disasters, but at the same time we feel like interlopers, voyeurs on the moment when a whole town was obliterated in minutes. Pompeii is a grand mausoleum, a monument to its residents who died that day. It’s a huge site and amazingly preserved, but it’s sterile and curiously silent, with grey walls and fragments of Roman tiles where there were once people, smells and noise.

Pompeii street

Pompeii street

Our experience of Pompeii stands in contrast to our journey to find it. We weave through the vibrant streets of Sorrento, dodging people, cars and the ubiquitous scooters thronging the roads like noisy insects. We negotiate the hordes to buy our tickets and catch the train, arriving early to a half empty carriage that gradually fills with young people as the departure time nears. We guess they are just out of school – it’s early afternoon – and like most young teenagers they are boisterous. The volume rises as the babble grows.

We set off towards Naples past busy apartment blocks, washing lines full to overflowing. One false move with a clothes peg means certain loss of lingerie as it plummets to earth several floors below. The impression is of life being lived, in all it’s daily grime and glory.

The train speeds us on its way, making numerous stops at which teenagers leave and enter, along with men in suits, men in overalls, women with designer bags and designer children, and old people with walking sticks, all off to who knows where. By the time we reach Pompeii it’s standing room only. It reminds me of London Underground, especially when we go through the numerous tunnels that line the route.

The entrance to Pompeii is a short walk from the ‘Stazione’, and the approach road is lined with alfresco restaurants. “Come in to our garden,” pleads the swarthy sentry outside one of them, “bring your…. money!” He grins widely and we accept, admiring his honesty. The garden is indeed pleasant, with a lovely herb garden at the rear making for a delightful feature on this pleasant late October afternoon.

So the contrast once we enter the impressive walled city is stark. We’ve been told that Pompeii is huge, but we didn’t begin to appreciate it’s scale until we experienced it for ourselves. The streets go on for what seems like miles, the buildings are overwhelming in their number as well as their state of preservation, and there are high points including the amazing amphitheatre and the two-millennia-old frescoes. We’re glad we came.

Pompeii amphitheatre

Pompeii amphitheatre

But comparing notes afterwards, we both had a real sense of being intruders, as though we shouldn’t really be disturbing these ancient stones. We realise that we needed to visit to understand it, and reading about it later we appreciate the huge wealth of knowledge that this place has revealed about daily life in an important Roman town at the time of Christ. But neither of us feels especially drawn to return.

In the evening we find a family restaurant in a side street of Sorrento where the host again pulls us in with his enthusiasm. As we enjoy our meal whilst he entertains his guests with his version of ‘My Way’ accompanied by his friend on the guitar, we reflect that life is for the living. And perhaps Pompeii should be left to the historians.