Day Trip to Pompeii and Vesuvius from Sorrento
For our 3 week stay in Sorrento, our apartment high on the hill about Sorrento looked out at Pompeii and Vesuvius. At first the top of the volcano was shrouded in cloud but as the days passed (and the wind swung), the top of the volcano cleared. A tour of Pompeii and Vesuvius was one of the few things we had planned to do but the first two weeks in Sorrento passed without us booking.
After considering a few options we decided on the Syrene Tour group for our visit to Pompeii and Vesuvius mostly because they advertised hotel pickup and we had seen dozens of their smaller buses everywhere we looked. The first not so big surprise was that they would not climb our twisty road up to the apartment to get us. We had to walk down and get picked up at the “big tree”. This is apparently the common pickup point for many tours. The second surprise was when a full sized bus stopped to pick us up. It would not be a smaller intimate tour group! The biggest pleasant surprise was that our tour leader Lia was both well informed and quite amusing.
Lia provided ongoing commentary on most of the whole inbound trip. Her overview of Pompeii and Vesuvius covered all the information that the specialized guide at the crater top would also provide, allowing us to wander off when we reached the crater top and look rather than just listen.
A Stop Enroute At the Cameo Shop
The downside of going on an organized tour was the places they chose to stop along the way. Our bathroom stop was at a cameo shop and the restaurant they chose was a low rated 3 star restaurant. We would wander off on our own to find lunch!
While we were skeptical about the cameo shop stop, it was interesting to find out how cameos are made, to see the artist at work and to see the wide breadth of designs that can be carved. Real cameos are made from carving on one of three different types of shells – each a different colour. The outside of the shell is ground off and then the middle white layer is carved leaving the inside shell to form the coloured background. There was some beautiful jewellery that we looked at but we left without indulging in our “special” 20% discount.
Climbing Mt Vesuvius
As we drove we could see Mt Vesuvius getting bigger and bigger. Lia told us about the big eruption in 79AD that had buried Pompeii in 4m of ash and rock and Herculeum in 23m of mud and lava. She noted that Vesuvius had originally been 3 times as high as it now was. The eruption had left the two crater tops that are now the iconic picture of Mt Vesuvius we all instantly recognize.
The bus climbed the twisty road to the drop off point. Along the way we could see views of Naples laid out below us. We could clearly see the optimistic spirit of the Italians when we were told how many millions lived in the shadow of the volcano.
The “red zone” was clear marked, representing the high risk zone that would be evacuated when the sophisticated monitoring equipment at the volcano indicated an impending eruption. Not surprisingly, it is not possible to get volcano insurance! For the last eruption in 1944, there was almost 2 weeks notice provided and deaths were minimal. They expect to be able to provide about a month notice next time but the bigger problem will be finding a place for the population that has grown to over 5 times what was evacuated in 1944.
On the trip up we caught glimpses of modern art commissioned for the roadside. Many pieces reflected on the horror of being caught in an eruption.
The bus dropped us off at 1000m, leaving us to walk the crater at elevation 1280m, up a gravel quite steep walkway. For those few who chose not to walk to the top, there was a small cafe and the standard tourist junk stalls for amusement. I hoped they had planned for the 90 minute wait.
There was no rest for this billy goat. Up we went, very thankful for the 9 weeks of hill walking we had been doing since our arrival in Italy.
Arriving at the top, you had to fight your way through the shop to start the walk around the crater. At this time you could join a tour guide (various languages offered) to get a little more info. We stayed with the group long enough to know that Lia had done a good job of briefing us.
Looking over the crater rim we could see the 250m or so crater hole, filled with sharp lava rock and ash.
The last eruption in 1944 was a relatively minor eruption but it capped the volcano allowing the pressure inside of Vesuvius to build and build. It is expected that the next time that Vesuvius erupts will be a very major event. In spots we could see steam escaping through fissures. Lia told us to inhale the sulphur smell (holding your nose against the rotten egg smell), noting that the sulphur was apparently good for clearing your respiratory system. David claimed this stopped his snoring for 2 nights although I was real it skeptical that he had taken in that much sulphur steam!
On the walk up and along the rim, we could look out over first Naples and then out to the Sorrento peninsula. We were again up at the cloud level looking down on the vista below.
The trek back down was much easier, the biggest risk being the slippery gravel. At the entrance you could get a wooden stick for a “donation” (2€) and this helped to provide a little stability when the path down git steeper. We could see the Pompeii site way below us. What a great way to start our visit!
Wandering the Streets of Pompeii
The bus navigated back down the mountain and drop the group close to the Pompeii gate. Passing on the group lunch we wandered around to look at our lunch options. Lia was right about the prices being high at some places although we saw pizza at a great price up on the main road away from the site entrance. We settled for a light lunch and gelato.
When we re-joined the group we again lined up in slow Italian fashion for tickets. No Vesuvius / Pompeii tour included attraction tickets, so plan to pay 10€ to walk up Vesuvius and 11€ for Pompeii entrance. The guides did not even have tickets so we lined up with everyone else. It was a good thing we were visiting almost at the end of the season.
We entered along the Grande Progetto Pompeii , a gentle sloping path that slowly took you up and up to the excavation site on the hill. The steps back out were the old entrance. Walking along the path you got a view of the outside walls but it in no way prepared you for the 40 hectares of uncovered site (of 66 total) you found as you entered.
While we have visited ruins in Greece, Turkey, Spain and other parts of Italy, I was really not prepared for the complete city layout we would find. Walking along ancient rock roads, you could see the over 600 shops that lined the major street and alleys. Walls were largely intact while most roofs were gone (or had been recreated). In some ancient bars we could still see the marble bar tops.
We spent a fair amount of time wandering around a more recent restoration of a noble’s house. You could see all the rooms and understand how the house was used, complete with a garden at the back. In almost every room you could see restored frescoes and in a few of the rooms you could see remnants of mosaic floors. When the house was discovered they found a basement room with a complete set of silverware. It was hard to imagine that all of this had been buried under 4m of ash!
We were lucky to be there at the end of the season when the crowds were smaller. Some of the smaller roads and the inside sites would have been much harder to navigate with huge crowds. This also allowed us to get in to visit one of the infamous brothels. The frescoes on the walls depicted the “menu” of the various services available.
The site included the training arena for the gladiators, a small amphitheater and the massive main square with the various buildings and temples sitting with Vesuvius in the background. You could see the temples and alters dedicated to Apollo, Isis, and Jupiter still largely intact.
There was an area off of the main square storing some of the artifacts still on the site. There were shelves and shelves here but the vast majority of artifacts can be seen at the Architectural Museum in Naples. We had planned to visit but will leave that for another trip.
The storage areas also included the plaster casts made in cavities they found that had once held buried residents. While the bodies are all disintegrated in Pompeii, we were told that the material that covered Herculeum left bodies more intact that are still being recovered.
We spent a few hours walking the site of Pompeii, listening to the good narration provided by Lia. Because it was less crowded, we covered a lot of ground. But Lia said it would take 2 days or more to see all the buildings and artifacts. For this day, we were done. Quite overloaded with all we had learned.
On a return visit we might visit Herculeum to see the difference in the devastation and remnants on the other side of the volcano. We will also make a trip to Naples and the museum. It was a quiet trip back and we all were quite still when we finally hobbled off the bus.
Every night the last sight we would see from our patio outside Sorrento was Mt. Vesuvius calling to us across the Bay of Naples!