Naples & Pompei – Italy
Hungry for lunch, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed straight to the restaurant next-door which turned out to be an excellent decision regardless of the incredible heat of the day. Any restaurant that serves up a heap of freshly baked bread in a paper bag has my vote and this place turned out the most delicious pizza I’ve had in Italy (the best in the world is the Birdcage in Malmesbury, UK, of course). Italian pizza isn’t usually that extravagant when it comes to toppings with more focus on quality sauce, cheese, and dough which is great such as on this occasion where the base was so incredibly light and moreish there was no need for anything else. However, this is Naples where one would hope to find incredible pizza but as you may expect, it can be hit and miss. Also, it’s Naples, hardly the prettiest city in Europe and even with a quality pizza inside me I would suggest it may not be worth the visit. Nevertheless, the city is the gateway to several of Italy’s iconic tourist attractions and as the summer holidays were unleashed upon us like a tidal wave of misery, we joined a new tour group and went out to brave the heat and crowds once again.
The following rant by no way takes aim of Italy but humankind as a whole. Why on earth is Italy’s most densely populated area (Naples) sat at the foot of a reasonably destructive hill (Vesuvius)? Why does mankind continue to do stupid stuff regardless of history? I describe Vesuvius as a hill partly in jest but largely because that is all that remains after blowing the majority of itself away back in AD79 and creating the rather popular modern day tourist destination of Pompei. As we drove almost to the top of the new volcanic cone created by later, less catastrophic eruptions, I couldn’t work out how the cliff to my left had been formed. 45 minutes later, standing on the crater’s rim, our guide happily explained that the wall of rock I was looking at was the leftovers of the original volcano before AD79. From a distance it all makes sense and with a little imagination it is possible to create an image of how big the volcano was, helped by the fact that today’s volcano comfortably sits inside the remains of the one before. These days it’s doing nothing, not even dribbling a little smoke which is extremely concerning as it means there is no release of pressure and so after a wee while the whole place is likely to explode once again. Our guide appeared unmoved by this prospect claiming he will have long departed earth before the volcano concerns him, but in the same breath he had no hesitation to confirm that actually predicting volcanic eruptions is notoriously difficult. His description of evacuation plans was also incredibly sketchy although being in Italy this is hardly a surprise. With a short walk around Vesuvius complete, we headed to ground zero to see what happens on a bad day at the foot of a volcano, but first, lunch.
On the outskirts of one of the world’s great tourist attractions you take your chances when it comes to a bite to eat and although it will always be overpriced and barely edible, I have come to learn to just embrace it all. This at least would normally be the case yet being Italy I was once again forced to walk out of a restaurant. We had picked somewhere to eat and had been kindly seated before being politely asked to move to another table so they could create more space for a family. Not a problem. 15 minutes later, the whole menu memorised, we still hadn’t seen a waiter return and if they can’t be arsed with me than I can’t be arsed to demand they take money off me. With the clock ticking before we had to enter Pompei, we headed off around the corner to a place that had food in front of us within ten minutes. Never has eating in Europe been such a hit and miss affair. Pompei itself was an emotional rollercoaster. To begin with, we could hire a smart phone which was preloaded with an interactive map and endless recordings which told stories of what felt like every building ever built in Italy. For only €8 it was fantastic value for money considering it would take at least a day to make a dent in everything it had to offer. One of the problems was that many of the fancy houses that were described by the audio guide were in fact closed off to visitors for whatever balmy reason, although I suspect a relic of the pandemic. It also became confusing as to what was genuine and what had been replaced by a replica, for many stories told of how the original piece was now sitting in the museum in Naples. Also, being a grim member of society, I wanted to see the plaster casts of all the victims. I had grown up with pictures in school textbooks of people hiding from their imminent death and I was led to believe this was one of the things that made Pompei so Pompei. Admittedly this is down to a lack of research on my part and as I still haven’t tracked them down, I’d advise you to investigate should it be something you want to see. Pompei is impressively huge, so much so that the Allies accidentally bombed it during the Second World War, but this does make it fun to explore and especially if you stick to the tried and tested rule of walking that bit further than a standard tourist. My problem was that it was the beginning of August at 2pm and the heat was ruinous, not that I enjoy hearing complaints of people being hot in hot countries, but it does make getting enthusiastic about ancient ruins a little more difficult. However, even for a halfwit like myself it doesn’t take much to imagine how incredible the town would have been 2,000 years ago and the sheer number of buildings, their construction, and the way it is all laid out has to be admired. The amphitheatre is particularly impressive. Three hours of exploration was never going to be enough although I was more excited to be getting up into the surrounding mountains of the Amalfi coast and onto some hiking trails. With the cities behind us I foolishly thought our remaining week in Italy would be borderline delightful and where at times it was actually sublime, many more horrors awaited us.