Mount Vesuvius dominates the otherwise apparently serene Bay of Naples, just as it has for centuries. And, just as it has for all those centuries, the massive, brooding brute remains a sinister, potentially deadly presence that could rain down molten death on the valleys and towns below at the merest whim. Vesuvius is rather like a petulant child with a chest full of lethal toys, any or all of which could be hurled out into the ether at any moment. It remains a singularly terrifying presence.
The basic problem is that Vesuvius was initially formed by the collision of two deadly tectonic plates; the African and the Eurasian. Down over the centuries, this hot headed. miasmic half breed has literally been storing up trouble. It was regularly blowing its top long before the gala performance for which it is most remembered and feared.
Today, it’s black, volcanic slopes are studded with seismic antennae, all attuned to the slightest rumble from the still active volcano. To be fair, Vesuvius has not erupted since 1944, shortly after the Allies had occupied Naples itself. There were two other eruptions in that same century. And the beast still smoulders for sure. Only an unwise man would turn his back on it.
While Vesuvius has taken life- and how- it also serves as a benign setting for scores of local vineyards. The vines thrive mightily in the volcanic, sun washed soil and, in places, the entire place has the stance of a huge, serene hill, swathed in fine summer greenery. But this really is window dressing; lipstick on a Rottweiler stuff for sure.
I hiked to the summit of Vesuvius a short while ago. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating trek that requires both stamina and extreme care, as well as the best non slip footwear you can spring for. The walk seems endless as you ascend some four thousand plus feet to the rump of the original summit.
The crater is a vast, yawning chasm in thirty shades of black and charcoal, still oozing gas and steam into the sky. The actual hike to the rim takes you above cloud level. Standing atop that jagged rim allows you some stunning, spectacular views out across the sparkling Bay of Naples itself. At this Olympian height, even the biggest of ships look like the toys of some vengeful god, scattered across the sparkling blue carpet of the Mediterranean with whimsical indifference.
The volcano itself sits some five and a half miles to the east of Naples. From here, it staged what has amounted to it’s star performance back in AD 79.
On a searing hot August day, Vesuvius quite literally blew it’s top. The upper portion of the volcano was blown clean away by a thermal force, estimated to be a hundred thousand times more excessive than the atom bomb that levelled Hiroshima.
A cloud of molten ash, rock and pumice was hurled more than twenty miles high into the summer Campanian sky. It descended with slow, awful majesty on the area around its slopes, burying Pompeii, Herculaneum and several smaller villages beneath a deadly, noxious shroud several metres deep. The debris spewed forth at a rate estimated at around one point five million tons per second. At the same time, it triggered a massive tsunami that sealed off the entire Bay of Naples. The thousands watching below in terrified silence stood no chance at all.
That was the signature for twenty thousand death warrants in Pompeii alone. Many refused to leave, staring in disbelief at the unfolding drama. Countless others vainly sought refuge in their cellars, where they died from asphyxiation by the thousands. The so called ‘pleasure city’ of the ancient Roman plutocracy died an agonising death, only to be rediscovered in the seventeenth century, and it has been extensively excavated since. Many of the soil samples found in the ruins have been vital in helping seismologists to ascertain patterns of potential eruption in and around Mount Vesuvius.
The volcano’s uneasy silence since 1944 should not be misread as an end to hostilities. Only a fool would take his eye off Vesuvius. It remains, quite simply, one of the most dangerous volcanoes anywhere in the world.
As sights go, it is a magnificent presence, especially when seen from the Bay of Naples. Vesuvius looks like a giant hump backed whale. The gap in the middle was where the original cone once stood before it blew up so spectacularly in AD 79.
But don’t be fooled by this somnolent stance. Vesuvius is serene in the same way that a bloated alligator is. Appearances- together with perceptions- could be altered in very little time indeed.
Just ask the uneasy ghosts of Pompeii. They know only too well.