We must have taken the most twisting and winding road there in existence before finally reaching the flattish area leading towards Naples. The temperature rose to 30 degrees, but on the other hand the price of water dropped to 1 euro (for a large bottle compared to 2 for a small further north). After a fairly long drive, we decided to take a break en route to the hotel, and stopped in to Herculaneum – the OTHER Pompeii.
I almost had 5 heart attacks between the highway and parking lot – driving in these parts is nothing short of madness (but more about that later), but soon we were there, walking up and down the ancient streets and through courtyards and houses.
For some strange reason, this town, which suffered the same fate of its far more famous neighbor in the year 79 AD, is visited by only 300,000 people every year compared to the 4 million that flock to Pompeii every year. This is despite the fact that it is closer to Naples, and more importantly is in a significantly better state of preservation.
It is particularly interesting, because it was home to wealthier people, which means that the preserved homes show a far greater richness of decoration and furnishings. How remarkable! Many of the walls are at least partly intact, showing the fairly lavish decorations that people 2000 years ago enjoyed.
It’s hard to imagine how a prosperous land was wiped out in mere minutes by the sheer force of nature. Unlike people in Pompeii, however, the citizens of Herculaneum died of thermal shock from the extremely hot pyroclastic surges, instead of being buried under heavy ash. My favourite aspect was the taverns or bars, with large pots built into the counter from which wine was served. There was one on every street, so I imagine the locals had a jolly good time in the evenings.
Also, they had proper sidewalks along all the streets, which is more than I can say for the majority of Italian towns nowadays. Barely ¼ of the town has been uncovered so far, and much of it remains under the existing Ercolano suburb of Naples. My personal view is that the more they dig out, the less opportunity there will be for maniac drivers to terrorise the streets above. Just my opinion though.
After another nerve-wracking but brief drive, we arrived at the hotel – a proper hotel this time, with a lobby, swimming pool and all the trimmings. And one of possibly hundreds in the town of Trecase at the foot of Vesuvius. Clearly, it is THE place Neapolitans get married, baptised, graduated and otherwise celebrated, because there is one “event resort” after another, some of which look positively grotesque. If you want a truly over-the-top kitsch wedding (with the possibility of world-class fireworks provided by a volcano), this is the place.
In the morning, we prepared to hike up Vesuvius. The original plan of going straight from the hotel was downgraded to departing from what looked to be the gates of the national park around the mountain. Upon arriving at said gates, the plan was downgraded to taking the mandatory tank-bus up the mountain with a group, walking to the edge of the crater and then walking all the way back down.
Upon reaching the upper parking lot and some discussion with the driver, this plan was downgraded to being given an additional hour to wander around the crater, and then take the tank-bus back down. We tried. We really did. On the other hand, having seen the road and the tank-buses roaring up and down it, I’m quite glad that things turned out as they did.
There were throngs of people at the top, mainly huge groups of French teenagers on school trips. Thankfully, there is no easier access to the top (e.g. a cable car), otherwise the four million people that go to Pompeii would subsequently ascend the volcano too. Vesuvius is a very fine volcano with a deep crater but… once you’ve seen Telica in Nicaragua, it will take a truly active volcano to overcome the experience.
To compensate for the lack of hiking in the morning, we decided to walk up to the Cantina del Vesuvio for lunch. I was expecting a long, leisurely lunch among the vineyards, and was somewhat horrified to find the terrace occupied by dozens of tourists. Our starter landed on the table within a minute after we sat down, and a single glance was enough to tell me that the bruschetta had probably been waiting for the next victim for at least 2 hours. One was completely soggy and the other was so hard that I was unable to bite through the bread. This was replaced after I complained, and the rest of the meal was tasty, especially the simple but magnificent spaghetti.
We sampled some of their wine production, the famous Lacryma Christi (or Tears of Christ) and a drop of apricot brandy, followed by a brief tour of the winery, learning some interesting facts. For instance, because of the volcanic rock under the surface soil, the vineyard requires no irrigation. During the wet months the porous rock soaks up the water and during the hot months it releases it again.
By walking back down to the hotel, we racked up a total of 7 km for the day. I was planning to spend some time by the pool, but the weather turned cool and cloudy. After all the activity of the past days and weeks, I felt entitled to a lazy afternoon watching Italian TV and getting a proper night’s sleep, with the assistance of ear plugs to obliterate the noise of hundreds of dogs barking and howling all night long. Again. There must have been a shelter somewhere nearby, as I can think of no other feasible explanation.