Derrick and I are screaming in terror. We each turn, look out the window, see another bus careening past, taking a sharp turn, tipping, tipping, righting itself and then continuing down the mountain road. We look back at each other in stunned silence and then begin screaming again. Our driver, Sergio, takes the next corner at high speeds and I can feel the whole van tilting over to the left side. Derrick crashes up against me, crushing me against the window. We speed around the next corner and Derrick is forced up against the window on the opposite side, I avoid falling against him only by holding on to the handle hanging down from my door. Never have I known the “oh shit” handles to be so aptly named. In the row of seats behind us Andy, Alex, and Matt are giggling like little children as they bustle and bump into each other. In the front passenger seat, sitting next to our driver Sergio, Jordan is pale and shaking. He turns back to me, his eyes wide with terror. “Chris,” he says, “how many miles are in a kilometer?” It’s one of those metric conversions I should really known but I don’t. “Well how fast is 85 kilometers per hour?” I do actually know the answer to that one and I tell him, “Way too fast!” [ed. It’s a little over 50 mph]
Somehow, against all logic and reason, our van makes it the top of Mt Vesuvius without any casualties. We actually lost a rearview mirror along the way when a tour bus passing by us on its way down tore it off our van, but other than that we made it through relatively unscathed. Shaken and disturbed, the six of us crawled out of the van and collapsed to the dusty ground, overjoyed at being alive and happy to be motionless for a few minutes.
As the excitement over surviving our precarious mountain drive began to wear off, it was slowly replaced by the realization of where exactly we were now. For we now stood atop the infamous Mt Vesuvius. Okay, we weren’t exactly on top of Mt Vesuvius but we were pretty close. There’s a little parking/drop off area near the top, with a little dirt trail up to the mouth of the volcano. The path only ran about a mile or two but it was enough to give travelers the feeling that they had actually accomplished something, rather than just sitting on a bus the whole way up. Nonetheless, we were now standing at the top (near the top) of Mt Vesuvius, gazing down through clouds at the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as the bustling port of Naples off in the distance.
But there wasn’t much time to stand there and gawk or to celebrate survival. Despite the heart-pounding race up the mountain we still had very little time before it closed for the night. Or forever. That part wasn’t entirely clear to me. Anyways, we still had quite the climb to go and not much time. We collected ourselves at the entrance and started up the path at a heavy run. Well it wasn’t long before we realized what a terrible, terrible idea this was. Now, Mt Vesuvius isn’t the tallest mountain in the world, but you have to realize we’ve just driven from the coast up to somewhere around 4,000 ft in elevation. And now we’re running as fast and as hard as we can. I think I made it about eleven steps before I was completely winded and had to stop. After that we decided maybe it would be best to take our time and just enjoy the view.
At the entrance to the volcano’s summit sat an old man on a stool, a wide smile on his withered old face. At his side lay a pile of long, wooden sticks and at his feet a small box littered with coins of various sizes. Smile still on his face, he handed each of us a walking stick and when I bent down to try and give him a couple euros from my pocket, he smiled even wider and said “No, no, no. When you get back.” Thanking him in turn we continued up the rocky path, glad to have the walking sticks for support in the thin air and in short notice we’d made it to the top. Though the view outward over the Bay of Naples and the surrounding cities was exceptionally beautiful, the view downward into the volcano itself was rather underwhelming.
I don’t recall if I was actually romantic enough in my expectations that I thought I would see some black pit filled with churning lava; spitting flames and noxious fumes into the air. I mean, it was my first volcano but still, they probably don’t let you climb up into volcanoes like that. It’s Mt Vesuvius not Mt Doom, for goodness sake. At any rate, the volcano’s crater was not what you’d call particularly interesting. A rather shallow pit, filled with little gray rocks and dotted with ugly little shrubs. In fact, it looked like little more than a rubble pit.
Although the site itself wasn’t as dramatic as I’d hoped, the six of us were still giddy from the experience and the lack of oxygen and Matt was quick to point out how we’d “Made Mt Vesuvius our bitch.” We took advantage of our short time at the summit by wandering around, cracking jokes, and throwing rocks into the crater. The two most exciting moments of the whole experience were when a low cloud passed through the mountain, engulfing us in a very cold, very wet fog for a few short moments. When it passed again we were blessed with our clearest view yet of the surrounding Italian landscape and for the first time I was actually struck by the dizzying height and majestic position of this mountain. Vesuvius stood above an otherwise flat coastal landscape like Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians. Standing atop the mountain now I imagined the power its sheer size must have held over the imaginations of the citizens of Pompeii living in its dreadful shadow.
The second exciting event, though less philosophical, occurred when we noticed a pile of rocks, jutting out from the wall of the crater begin to smoke. Finally, I thought, here was the kind of volcanic activity I had been hoping for! Sulfurous fumes billowing out of solid rock, poisoning the air and killing us all. Yes, this was the adventure I had been craving. Of course, we didn’t die, unfortunately. In fact, I would be very much surprised if the cloud we saw coming out of the crater was even remotely dangerous and not just condensed air or something equally mundane. Nonetheless, for a few short moments it enthralled us as the most exciting thing that the volcano had done.
While I had been peering over the lip of the crater, contemplating Gulliver’s Travels and the many ways that I wished this volcano could be more exciting, dangerous, and violent, Matt was next to me entertaining himself by throwing rocks into the air and hitting them with his walking stick, baseball style down into the crater. He’d been doing this for awhile to growing cheers from the other members of our travel party when I heard a loud crack and looked up to see Matt staring wide-eyed at the broken piece of wood in his hand. About two-thirds of the walking stick had flown off into the crater with the baseball rocks he’d been hitting, leaving him with nothing but a sad looking little bit of broken wood. Perhaps to rid himself of any evidence of wrong-doing he chucked this piece with all his might off the side of the volcano. It disappeared into the clouds and, hopefully, hit some unsuspecting bystander right in the head. Not that I wish death or bodily harm on some other poor tourist just trying to enjoy their time in southern Italy. It’s just that would be really funny. When we returned to the smiling old man who had rented us our walking sticks, the five of us returned them and dropped some change into the box at his feet. When Matt walked up sans stick, the old man’s face slipped from its broad grin to a look of tragic disappointment so heartbreaking I couldn’t bear to look at him. Matt, looking strangely unheartbroken, simply made a sheepish gesture, stammered something about not getting one, then changing his lie to something about losing his walking stick, then awkwardly gave the old man several euro coins and ran away.
Sergio, who had apparently spent the entire time of our Vesuvius adventure leaning casually against his van and chain smoking, literally greeted us with open arms. I’ll admit I half expected him to be gone when we got back but when he saw us coming down the mountain path towards him he emitted a loud, strangely high pitch laugh and then shouted at us in unintelligible but clearly friendly Italian. He waved us forward, asked us what we thought about the volcano without leaving us the slightest bit of time to answer and then hopped back into the van. On the drive up I had excused the reckless driving and casual endangerment of us and everyone around us to the fact that we were short on time. Yet on the way back down, with no rush whatsoever, I discovered that this was simply the way Sergio preferred to drive. Without any reasonable motive we still took the mountain turns at frightful speeds, we still passed other cars and tour buses on roads that hardly seemed wide enough to hold one vehicle, let alone two side by side, and still Sergio spent most of the drive looking back at his passengers and making casual conversation.
He now asked us what our plans were, specifically if we were staying here in Herculaneum for the night. I’ve often asked myself since this moment if we’d said yes if he would have offered to let us stay with him, it’s just always felt to me like that’s where the conversation was headed. At any rate, we weren’t staying. I’d booked us a couple of beds in a hostel in a small town outside Naples called Portici. Perhaps a bit of background before I go further in this vein:
Out of the six of us on this trip, I was the most experienced in international travel but even I had never travelled on my own like this before. Certainly none of us had ever stayed in a hostel before. In fact we weren’t entirely sure what the hell a hostel was. For most of us the only knowledge we had of European hostels came from the film Hostel which had been playing for some reason on the plane ride over from the United States. I’d found this particular hostel online from what I assumed was a reputable website. It was in a small town none of us had ever heard of before. And it was going to be well past dark by the time we arrived there. Needless to say, we were a little wary of the whole experience.
So it was not comforting that when I told Sergio about our plans for the night, he nearly crashed us into a wall. Looking back at me with terror in his eyes and shouting “Portici? Portici? No, no, no signore. You no go to Portici.” And now we were scared. “Why?” I asked, “What’s wrong with Portici?” He was talking rapidly in Italian now, utterly incomprehensible to any of us. The other guys kept looking at me and asking what he was saying but I couldn’t understand a word of his Italian ramblings. Finally, as he was struggling with the words he couldn’t find in English I caught the words, “terrible,” “dangerous,” and, most clear of all, he stared deep into my eyes and slowly drew a finger across his throat. Fantastic, I thought, Mt Vesuvius was a dud and now we’re all going to die in some stupid Italian slum.
Stay tuned for the gripping conclusion of our adventures in southern Italy on the next installment of Life, etc. But first one last view from the top of Mt Vesuvius:
As always, check out my shutterfly site to see all the photos from this trip at full resolution.