April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
Visiting the Crater of Vesuvius
While the devastating Plinian eruption of 79 AD is the one that gives Vesuvius its reputation, it has had many more eruptions since then. In recent centuries, it has had roughly one eruption every thirty years. The last one, however, was in 1944, during the Allied invasion of Italy, when a lava flow destroyed a town on the flank of the mountain. That is over 60 years ago, and vulcanologists keep a very watchful eye on it so as to get the best possible warning of any new eruption, though it is very quiet at the moment.
Vesuvius is the northernmost of a north-south line of four active volcanos, the others being Stromboli (an island off the toe of Italy, which is known for producing dramatic night-time fireworks displays), Vulcano (an island off the north coast of Sicily, that gave its name to the whole class of volcanos), and Etna, the biggest, on the eastern coast of Sicily. When we were in Sicily, we overheard a tour guide telling his group that a new volcano was forming on the sea floor between Vesuvius and Stromboli. I don't know how true that is, but if it is true, perhaps it is taking some of the pressure off Vesuvius.
We had stayed in Sorrento for several reasons, partly because the price of our intended hotel in Capri dropped dramatically if we waited those two nights, partly just to se Sorrento, and partly because we wanted the opportunity to use it as a base for going up Vesuvius if the weather cooperated. The weather did cooperate, so we were able to follow the plan.
There is a train network from Naples to the Sorrento peninsula and neighbourhood, called the "Circumvesuviana", which is very convenient for visiting Pompeii (the station is at the entrance gate) and Herculaneum. The minibuses that go up Vesuvius if you don't want to drive yourself leave from the plaza of Ercolano (Herculaneum) station. I didn't want to drive, because on two previous occasions I hadn't been able to find the road, even though I had been following all the signs I could see. The minibus drivers at least know the route!
Going up Vesuvius, we started up exactly the same road as we had used to leave Ercolano the previous day. Soon we were on a narrow road between stone walls, but the driver knew exactly where there was room to squeeze by an oncoming car. However, after we crossed a main road, the real road up Vesuvius began. It was a nice wide road, but with many tight hairpins that made us hang on tightly (we were 10 in a bus with seats for 8). Going up, we began to get dramatic views of Naples and the surrounding plain, under the cloud that kept forming and dissipating around the peak of the mountain.
The minibus stopped at a large parking area equipped with a souvenir shop. We were allowed one hour before the bus would return. The walk up to the crater took about 20 minutes on a wide, well groomed track of lava cinders. The track gave a very good view of a ridge that must have been the remnant of the old Vesuvian crater after the Pompeii eruption. If so, the mountain that stood before the eruption must have really dwarfed the present one, which might be only half its height.
At the top, the walk goes around the crater rim. There is a steep drop-off to the outside, but into the crater is a high sheer cliff. it is much bigger and deeper than I had imagined. In the crater wall, one can see many bands, each of which must represent the crater height at the end of some earlier eruption. Here's a panorama and some pictures of the crater. In the full-sized version of the panorama, you can scroll across it to get an impression.
On the way back to Sorrento, we managed to get on a train that took the wrong branch, not knowing that such a train existed. So we had to get off and retrace our steps to Torre Annunziata, where the two branches made the split. The station at Torre Annunziata had been painted with a most extraordinary graffiti. I think it was quite beautiful, as were a lot of the graffiti in Italy. But this one was special.
The trains also are decorated with graffiti, often quite spectacular. We saw this one on the train that was about to leave Sorrento when we arrived there (after which we went to the Imperial Hotel Tramontano, for which the pictures are on the previous page).