The Solfatara had given me a taste for things volcanic and so I thought I might give Vesuvius a try on the following Saturday. It seemed from what people had said that you could do Vesuvius and Herculaneum quite comfortably in one day, so I set off bright and early, intending to climb the volcano before lunch, and then spend the afternoon idling around the ruins of Herculaneum. To get there, you have to take the Circumvesuviana train for 15-20 minutes in the direction of Sorrento. There were two stops for Herculaneum and, as I had already discovered on several occasions, if you ask two Neapolitans the same question, you will get two, often conflicting answers. And this is what happened to me now. “Excuse me, which of the two stops do I need for Vesuvius?” “You need the next one.” Nice and simple so far, but then my interlocutor’s neighbour joined in the conversation. “No, no. The next stop is for the ruins of Herculaneum. If you want Vesuvius, you need to get off at Miglio d’Oro, the one after that.” “Nonsense,” chimed in a third. “The next stop is for both the ruins and the volcano.”
Before long, the whole carriage was at it, mucking in with all sorts of noisy ejaculations and possessed arm-waving that had me more confused than I had been before. I jumped off at the first stop, hoping for the best, and left them to it. Fortunately, it was the right one and I strode straight past the “unofficial” taxi drivers towards the official blue bus and took a seat. It was due to leave at 11 o’clock and, amazingly enough, it did. When we were about halfway up the slopes of the volcano, the bus pulled into a car park which had a shop attached, and a white-haired old man climbed aboard. Sadly I no longer remember his name, but I do remember that he gave a fascinating personal account of his relationship with Vesuvius in five different languages. He lived right in the line of fire and had witnessed the 1944 eruption first hand. He had written a book on the subject which we could, of course, buy in the shop, and he would be more than happy to sign it for us. I regretted not having brought more money, as I had no doubt that this knowledgeable old chap’s book would be a stonking read.
As with just about everything else, no two Neapolitans I had spoken to were in agreement on Vesuvius’ current state of activity. Some claimed that it was dormant and had been so since the famous AD79 eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Others insisted that it was active but gave only an occasional cough, every 50 years or so, and did not pose much of a threat to life or limb. One or two even told me that it was extinct.
The truth, as I found out from doing my own modest research into the matter, is far more terrifying in that many experts believe Vesuvius to be preparing for a colossal eruption that would wipe out hundreds of thousands of lives in just a few minutes. What is particularly heart-stopping is the knowledge that there is a huge rock plug jammed in the volcano’s conduit, rather like a cork in a champagne bottle. When the cork finally pops, Vesuvius will, experts say, release a cloud of extremely hot ash, along with poisonous gases, straight up into the stratosphere. When the heat of the roaring volcano is no longer intense enough to keep the cloud aloft, it will collapse and shoot down the slopes of the mountain at breakneck speed, scorching, smashing and destroying everything in its path.
To make matters worse, the area around the base of the volcano is now densely populated, the result of illegal Camorra-built housing. In 1995, a commission set up by the government to cobble together an emergency plan, presented its ideas with typical Italian pomp. The plan would basically involve the attempted evacuation of 700 000 people over a seven day period. Cynics among informed Neapolitans do not believe that Vesuvius will give a week’s warning and that, besides, the Neapolitans’ lacking sense of civic responsibility would mean that the plan was doomed to failure. And the more cynical still claim that this is precisely what the government wants. After all, these are people who are living illegally in housing that shouldn’t be there in the first place, working for cash in hand in the black economy …; a timely eruption, the government no doubt feels, might provide the solution to many a problem. On that little theory, I couldn’t possibly comment.
The bus dropped us at about 30 minutes’ walk from the crater. I was given a walking stick and followed the others, tramping in a spiral around the perimeter of the mountain until we were within spitting distance of the crater. There, a woman was waiting to take my money and allow me to proceed to the crater itself. It’s hard to reconcile the peace and tranquillity of this sleeping giant with the cataclysmic, large-scale destruction that you know it is capable of wreaking. There’s no smoke, no rumbling or any other noise other than that of laughing children playing improvised baseball with sticks and stones. The Solfatara is far more spectacular, and this contrast is probably what makes Vesuvius the more sinister of the two in my book. Around the rim of the crater were stalls selling tourist tat and one man was selling red and white wine by the plastic cup for 500 lire.
I took a glass of red and drank it while looking back inland. When you are down in Naples, the volcano seems miles away. But from up here, the city looked as though it had been built right on the slopes. If the volcano decided to get stroppy again anytime soon, a whole lot of people down there would be toast. I shuddered. The wine was sulphuric in taste; not at all what I would be happy to find in my glass at the dinner table, but more than appropriate for my present surroundings. An hour or so passed before I made my way back down. As I got to the bottom where the bus was waiting, the man who had given me the stick took it back and held out his other hand for his recompense. I pressed a tattered 1000 lire note into his grubby hand and he gave me a toothless grin. Back on the bus, I stared back up at the volcano intensely, not taking my eye off it until we were all the way down, back in Herculaneum.
If Vesuvius’ apparent docility has lulled Neapolitans into a false sense of security, they would do well to take a walk around Herculaneum and reflect deeply on what they see. The hawkers surrounding the entrance had run out of English guide books when I arrived, and so I bought an Italian one instead. I had, after all, decided to make a concerted effort to learn the language and it was about time I did so in earnest.
Many consider Herculaneum to give a more accurate idea of what a Roman town actually looked like than Pompeii does, as the buildings, grand Roman baths and opulent villas, are generally much better preserved, as are the works of art. Indeed, the wall mosaics from the House of Neptune and Amphitrite are as splendid as anything I have seen in Italy. There is a bucolic peace about Herculaneum, perhaps because it is far greener and more appealing than the uninviting modern town of Ercolano, and I decided to linger, to wander the decumani, enjoy the calm of the gardens and find a quiet spot to sit and try to decipher my guide book. I was pleased to discover that I could actually understand quite a lot.
For a long time, it had been believed that the citizens of Herculaneum had mostly escaped the devastation of the eruption as, although it was known that about 5000 people had lived in the city, only six skeletons had been found by the early 1980s. But in 1982, hundreds of skeletons, some partially burnt black, were unearthed in a beach-front chamber. These people had been spared the early violence of the eruption by a westerly wind, but as Vesuvius’ energy waned and the cloud of superhot material could no longer be held up in the air, it came crashing down the western slopes of the volcano, bringing a truly horrible death to the population of this little paradise. As I drifted off back up the hill towards the railway station, I wondered what on earth would possess anybody to live in such a place. Were they unaware of the risks, or did they put submissive faith in the powers-that-be and their over-ambitious evacuation plan? Whatever the reason, I felt I had learned something that day about why Neapolitans are so famously fatalistic.