Beauty And The Beasts

As our plane gains height above Naples we get a fantastic view of the lights of the city spreading out before us, the dark shadow of Vesuvius just visible in the background. The last night-time takeoff we experienced was at Los Angeles, and we remember being impressed by the clearly laid out grid structure, each ‘block’ in sharp definition. Here perhaps it’s no coincidence that the city from the air resembles a plate of spaghetti, with the sodium lamps even adding the hue of tomato sauce.

So what are my impressions of Italy after our first visit?

It’s tempting to continue the American comparison, not least because the place is full with Yanks. I’m sure that Sorrento, our home for the last week, is no more representative of Italy than L.A. is of the States, but it’s all I’ve got. I’m sure you’ll draw your own conclusions if you’re familiar with the country.

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are very lovely to behold. Yesterday we took the boat to the island of Capri, probably the jewel in the area’s glittering crown. Riding the chairlift to the highest point on the island was an amazing experience, and the views from the top were stunning, not least the near 2,000 foot sheer drop to the sea below. The limestone cliffs, the sun reflecting off the azure sea, the multicolored buildings below – if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean, and also agree that words can’t do it justice.

Capri View

Capri View

One reason that the Americans come here in droves is clearly because of the antiquity of the place. In San Diego, California, our bus driver proudly showed us the City’s oldest building, dating back to 1850. Here, our walking tour of Sorrento included a visit to a pub proudly displaying a portion of original 2,000 year-old Roman wall in its basement along with a number of earthenware pots discovered during renovations. It could easily have been part of the pub run by the landlords’ ancestors.

Of course, many Americans have Italian roots, their own ancestors moving continents only a generation or two ago. No wonder they want to explore their past.

It’s no wonder either that Americans are so entrepreneurial given our experience in Sorrento. Every restaurant, it seems, has a staffer stationed outside ready to explain why you should visit their establishment, pushing a menu into your hand whilst pointing out the chef’s recommendations. Every shop beckons you inside, and they all have their sales pitch. Capitalism is in full swing here.

So why is Italy apparently in such economic trouble whilst it’s sons and daughters in the US are racing ahead?

I don’t know the answer to that one, although I suspect it is to do with a combination of politics, Eurozone austerity and demographics. However one factor that I’m sure is a contributor is the absence of the large corporation.

In America the streets are dominated by the big chains, from McDonalds’ to Applebee’s, from Days Inn to Marriott, and from Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts. Here there is no sign of any of them. On the contrary, every establishment we visit seems to be owned and run by a family, anxious to please and committed to great service. It’s one of the features that makes a visit here so enjoyable.

We order some bottles of Limoncello, the delicious local liqueur speciality. We are served by Roberto, who proudly tells us that he is the sixth and youngest child in his family. His parents run the farm that supplies produce to the shop, whilst his sister manages the fashion store across the road that is another family venture. He seems very happy, with no plans for world domination. This is a family business, not a corporation.

I’m intrigued by this so I look up the statistics. According to a report from PwC, in 2014 American companies accounted for 47 of the top 100 firms in the world. Italy had 1, Eni Spa whose oil and gas business was ranked 92nd (the UK had 6). I’m not at all surprised.

Now I’m a fan of business, and I understand that they need to grow to survive. But I have to say that it would be a real shame if Italy – or at least the bit of Italy we got to see – got taken over by mega-corporations. It’s happened elsewhere, not least in the States where many people lament the loss of the ‘mom and pop’ stores that used to be the backbone of small town retailing across America, squeezed out by the Wal-Mart’s and the Safeway’s.

Ultimately it will be the consumer who chooses where and with whom they want to shop, and times of austerity make it easier for the retail big guns to attract business, so who knows what the future may bring.

But I suspect that, so far as Sorrento and the Amalfi coast area is concerned, it will be business as usual for a while yet. So if you haven’t yet discovered this lovely area, come and visit Roberto and friends. I’m sure that, like us, you’ll get a very warm welcome.

 

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.