Vesuvius stretched its arms out to the sea and allowed our little tour bus to climb up to its shoulder before we had to park and hike the rest on foot. You may want to rent a hiking stick at the entrance. The ground is pebbled, steep and treacherous, black and barren. What scrub grows on Vesuvius clings in hope. There is nothing there large enough to throw shade on a hot day.
Lava flow can be easily traced In wide ravines and slopes. Large shelves of strata sit broken beside the path, tapering sharply downhill on the other side. Once you reach the crater’s lip, it’s a fascinating sight. Smooth as glass sides descend to what must be a singular sharp point at the bottom. Perfect drifts of rubble sit here or there, where they settled with a sigh at the end of it all, the last dregs in the cup of desolation.
When you tour Vesuvius in the morning and Pompeii in the afternoon, you risk the already milky sky turning to cloud and marring your view of the Mediterranean. But you also enjoy some semblance of coolness on an active volcano top and we were thankful for it. The view was a little hazy but balanced with a bright sun. Bring a hat, a water bottle, a granola bar, and your euros…because at the end of the trail, they have a souvenir shop that quite one-ups the Vatican’s rooftop hangout. It may be a tiny open shack but they serve up the local wine (from Christs’ Tears no less) and shots of limoncello. Hubby hastened to get in line. Lemons are a fruit and fruit is part of a balanced breakfast. I secured five postcards and five volcano stamps, wondering whether the Italian salesman was as enthusiastic about delivering the mail as he was about his provincial wares.
Four weeks later, those postcards have yet to be delivered.
On the walk back to our bus, we noticed seismologists equipment set up in strategic locations. We passed the remains of the funicular. Built in 1880, 1909, 1911…after being repeatedly taken out by Vesuvius, the Italians gave up. The last eruption was in 1944. We walked a little faster to our bus.
Our tour guide, Amanda, introduced us to the city of Pompeii, a world destroyed in AD79, that at once is both ancient and modern, barbaric and civilized. If Pompeii told me anything, it’s that people are the same, regardless of whether you place a stone or a computer into their hands.
The excavations are extensive.You can spend a day here, wandering the streets. They are Roman streets, though, so you have straight lines, orderly apartments, tidy rows of engineered brickwork. The streets are grooved from the wheels of traffic and the sidewalks are raised above it to avoid the runoff of rain plus horse manure plus whatever other offal will flow down the slightly tilted roads, out and away to the edge of the city. To cross the street, there are large crossing stones.
“And now, my dear groupa,” says Amanda, “What do you need to know about the take-away food stalls? Here you see the bowls formed into the counter, some held meat or honey or olive oil. The stove you see here in the back. The shops you see, over here, can be immediately known by the deep grooves in the threshold, where they pulled heavy gates closed at the end of the day.”
We walked along, hopping from side to side seeking shade as we went.
“Notice the water troughs at intersections,” continued Amanda, “These streets were not named. If you gave your address to someone, you told them “Three houses east of the Lion Fountain” or perhaps the Priestess Fountain. Each is unique and provided the public water.”
We went inside the House of Menander and photographed beautifully preserved columns, elegant courtyards, deeply colored wall murals, bedrooms, bathrooms, cooking areas. The floors set with mosaics.
We went into the baths, very modern, with a locker room, changing areas, lounging areas, sauna, different pools at different temperatures. We went into the brothel, exactly as you would imagine it, no space wasted, with full color menus along the ceiling. The theaters are cozy and the raised stage is just right for plays or a night of music. And this is how I will imagine it.
Athletic training grounds, barracks, a basilica, a mill and bakery, a forum complete with temples to Zeus, Isis/Venus, Apollo, and Jupiter, vineyard areas, garden plots, aqueduct making an appearance, it was all familiar. The space in the forum area was once lined with white marble, tall columns, graceful statues. It made a stark contrast to black Vesuvius, framed perfectly down the peristyle.
“And now, my dear groupa,” continued Amanda, “I will allow you some moments to wander this space and we will meet back here in 15 minutes.”
This space was personal. This space took more than 15 minutes. It punched you in the gut. Behind gates, were row upon row of excavated materials. Pots and wagons, anchors, birdbaths, step-stools. A large treasure chest. And under glass were plasters – not statues – of victims. A woman lying on her side, gasping for breath. A person hugging his knees to his chest, hands over his nose and mouth. An infant. A dog curling with convulsions.
Shortly after noon, on August 24, AD79, Vesuvius took them all by surprise. No one knew that it was a volcano. It hadn’t erupted in 1800 years. It was odd to see black volcanic rock used in some of the construction; that’s usually a sign. So was the massive earthquake they had had, 17 years prior.
There was no word for “volcano” before Vesuvius.
Erupting for over 24 hours, with the force of two atomic bombs, spewing 1.5 million tons of lava per second, Vesuvius took out Pompeii with pyroclastic surges. People asphyxiated from volcanic ash and gas or were flash-killed by thermal heat, depending on which scientist is speaking. Then ash and pumice began to fall, burying everything as deep as 14 to 23 feet.
And what do you need to know? That graffiti can be read, in great detail, 2000 plus years after you have etched it on the wall. Quite the way I see Facebook postings 2000 years from today.
You’ve been warned.
My dear groupa, if you don’t believe me, you also can take a two-hour walking tour of today’s Pompeii by clicking here. Or you can watch a truly cheesy and entertaining BBC documentary, casting Italians with British accents, here.