Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mount Vesuvius and Hiking Volcanoes--What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The Crater of Mount Vesuvius

"You know, hiking a live volcano probably isn't the smartest thing I've ever done," I said.
Dear Hubby replied, "I'm sure it's been waiting 2,000 years for you to get here."

It's really hard to get your over-active imagination in full-gear when you're married to an engineer. He always gets his logic up in there.

Last time Mount Vesuvius erupted was in AD 79. Word is it erupts in an ugly way about every 2,000 years. You do the math. When it blew its top last, that top landed on the ancient city of Pompeii. Even if it hadn't been waiting a couple thousand years for me to get there to explode, I couldn't help thinking about it.

My trip to Mount Vesuvius was a day trip out of Rome. It was quick because I took a tour bus, and every minute is timed on tours. It felt like that Chevy Chase Vacation movie. The one where they go to the Grand Canyon on their way to Wally World and just stop and look at it for about the count of three.

Getting to the hiking trail is part of the excitement. Riding in a bus along crowded and narrow Italian roads is an adventure in itself. But heading up the winding pavement toward the top of Vesuvius is hair-raising. Often the bus had to stop and backup along the narrow ledge so another bus could pass coming down. I don't know how that worked and I watched. The road looks barely wide enough for one bus. I'm pretty sure it was like the Harry Potter Knight bus where it squeezed itself thinner or they somehow passed through each other, because the logical explanation is that at least half of one bus dangled over the cliff and I don't want to think about that.

The Bus is Always Bigger Than the Road or You've Had No Fun

The biggest criticism I've heard from tourists going to Vesuvius is litter. There's a shocking amount of litter in the Pompeii area. It's also a little complicated figuring out where to buy your ticket. The booth for tickets is by the parking lot and not at the trail head. Fortunately if you're with a tour, someone else takes care of that part.

There's a scrum of buses, cars, and people at the bottom of the trail. There's one porta-potty there. It costs about .25 euro to use it. It's your only option, and there are attendants keeping it clean. You can rent a walking stick at the first gift shop area. You pay on the way out, after your hike. I'd recommend it--you'll need it if you're racing the clock to get to the top and back, which you will be doing if you're on a tour. The hiking trail is made of volcanic ash. It's soft to walk on, but can get deep, especially on the curves. People occasionally wipe out on the switchbacks where the ash is a bit unstable.

If the day is clear, the view of Naples below is breathtaking. It's a bit disconcerting to realize that there are now three million people living in the shadow of Vesuvius.

Naples below Mount Vesuvius

There are places along the mountain where lava flowed in 1944 during World War II. It wasn't a huge blast, but the lava did destroy local villages, and U.S. bombers stationed at nearby Pompeii airfield.

The grey spots are old lava flows

There are four gift shops along the path, selling oddities supposedly crafted from lava. Our tour guide recommended we nab a lava rock if we wanted a souvenir. She said it was free, legal, and they had plenty of them. Wisps of steam rise from the mouth of the crater. That's a good thing we were told. The locals said if the steam stops, run. There is equipment posted along the rim, and an evacuation plan for those living in the blast zone. It's believed that current technology could give residents a three-day notice of an impending eruption.

A Tall Thin R2D2 Stands Guard

The hike is moderately difficult. I'd say easy except for the unsure footing in spots, due to deep ash and scattered lava rock. It depends on your level of fitness. I do recommend using one of the rented walking sticks. The bulk of people didn't the day I hiked it, and many looked uncomfortable trying to maintain footing while slipping, especially on the downward hike.

It's worth the trip to see the volcano. If you're lucky enough to hike it on a clear day you'll want to factor in extra time to take pictures. I'd recommend wearing comfortable shoes, not sandals--they'll fill with ash and rock. I've heard it can get chilly and cold at the top on cloudy days. It was hot during my hike. Bring water, and coins to pay for your walking stick and the comfort facilities.

Even if Mount Vesuvius hasn't spent the past thousand years waiting for my visit, I've spent years waiting to see it. It's still probably not the smartest thing I've done, but that's mostly due to the harrowing bus drive up and the brief time I spent there. If I ever have the opportunity to go again, I'd prefer to take a day and hike trail number nine--Il fiume di lava. You can investigate trails at the Gran Cono website. Just remember if you decide not to opt for a bus tour there, the really scary part is driving a rental car around Italy.

If you're into hiking volcanoes, tell me about it in the comments section.

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