Viva Italia! Part IV: Mount Vesuvius

On our fourth day in Italy, we took a train to Naples, climbed Mount Vesuvius, and visited Pompeii, the ancient city that died in a day.

Here’s a song called “Midnight City” from M83’s new album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – this entire trip to Italy seemed like a dream, so it’s appropriate. And I will shamelessly listen to M83’s discography if I have enough hours in an afternoon, although a one- or two-album dose is also delicious. (I should admit that I remain ambivalent about the saxophone in some of the songs on this newest venture, though.) He used to be great company while I was in the midst of my thesicide.

Mink and I decided to go to Pompeii and climb Mount Vesuvius – yep, that’s an active volcano! – kind of on a whim. However, we bought our train tickets the day before because we wanted to take the earliest one possible. This entailed a very unsettling wake-up alarm at 4:30 a.m. to make our 5:30 a.m. train. It wasn’t too difficult to get up, though, because we were so excited! (The coffee provided by our B&B was also a life saver.) The sun rose over mist-shrouded valleys around 6 a.m., and we got to see some of the countryside, as well as the ocean, on the trip from Rome and Naples. It was a three-hour trip to the more southern city:

We were a little sketched out on the train to Naples, since it gradually filled up with souvenir-sellers on their way to the city from the smaller surrounding towns. They all had huge duffel bags full of their wares, or pieces of cardboard with cheap sunglasses already pinned onto them and ready to set up (or take down to avoid the cops) within the space of a minute. There were warnings not to fall asleep on trains because Naples can be a little unsavoury in some parts, especially around the train station and on the trains themselves, but we didn’t have any trouble.

We stopped in Naples very briefly, while we found the local train to take to Pompeii – it was only about half an hour away. By the time we got there, it was barely 9 in the morning, so we could take advantage of a full day of exploring the area. We decided to climb the volcano first, so we waited for a shuttle to take us to within 800 feet of the top of Mount Vesuvius. Once again, waiting for a tour group didn’t seem to be as much fun as trekking out on our own, so we skipped that. However, the shuttle service was great – we drove straight from the train station to our drop-off point, and we could see the volcano from the windows as we drove across town:

The shuttle driver dropped us off and told us when to come back to get picked up, and just like that, we were on our own (relatively speaking, that is, amongst the hundreds of other tourists). The top of Vesuvius loomed forebodingly in front of us. It reminded me a bit of this scary dude on his mountain in Fantasia, except in daylight:

I mean, jeepers, behold the chaos that has been wreaked by this pile of rocks!

We were given hand-whittled walking sticks to propel our bodies upwards, which ended up helping dramatically during the climb. Apparently they never stop you from climbing the volcano, but it is made clear that you do this at your own risk, since it’s still active. On some days there is even smoke/steam rising from the depths of the crater – Vesuvius was quiet for our trip, which was a little disappointing but mostly a relief.

I should also mention: I was wearing flip-flops. I don’t recommend this footwear, for obvious reasons, but I didn’t have much choice because I had only brought sandals to Italy. Although it didn’t make any difference for the difficulty of the climb itself, I had some very, very dirty feet by the end of the day, and I ended up throwing the flip-flops away because they were worn completely through. That’s a sign of a good trip, definitely!

Mink and I didn’t rush to get to the top, but we did keep up a good pace since we had a lot to see in the span of a few hours. About halfway up, I picked out a choice piece of igneous rock to take home to my dad as a souvenir, since he likes that kind of thing. The rocks were really cool, actually – they were very dense, purplish grey or brown for the most part, and had tiny holes all over. Before you go thinking, “That’s a shitty souvenir to get your dad!” just remember that he’s a geographer. He totally loved it.

When we got to the top, the view was stunning. As usual, my photos don’t do the place justice. It was a relatively clear day, and we could see most of the city below, but the photo captures the cloud cover/smog thing that was happening:

More mountains from across the water:

An American who was part of the English-speaking tour group that was there while we were commented that their cruise ship was in the port below us – and he could actually see it from the top of Mount Vesuvius! It was the last stop on their multi-city Mediterranean cruise (sounded like they had been to more than ten different cities). I don’t know if I would be down for a cruise normally, but this one sounded surreal.

A sign for the ancient city of Pompeii:

A thin white line was visible along the ground, which is the main road of Pompeii and quite far away from the volcano itself. It’s incredible to think that an entire thriving city could be completely wiped out by one eruption. It also made me skeptical to think that people would even consider living in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, and yet there were houses everywhere. I guess for a lot of people, home is home, no matter what the circumstances.

Part of the railing near the top of the volcano, looking in the direction of Pompeii:

Mink looking over the edge:

The crater itself is unfathomably massive. In this photo it looks like a dirt pile, really, but imagine a tiny blip of a person at the very crest at the top of the ridge, and you get an idea of how huge this thing is:

Here’s an aerial shot:

Nietszche may have been on to something when he said, “If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

A break in the side of the crater by the trail:


After we had explored the top of the volcano for a couple of hours, we walked back to the shuttle bus and got ready for our afternoon in one of the most amazing cities I have ever seen – the ancient city of Pompeii.


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