Southern Italy’s Natural Wonders
Along the switchback roads that ascend to Mount Vesuvius,
I contemplate the challenge of climbing one of the most famous volcanoes in the European mainland, that has produced some of the largest and most destructive eruptions on the continent. Since ancient times, this geological wonder has induced adventure seekers to trek to the top and view the smoke that still rises up from the crater. The volcano’s violent explosions first occurred with its eruption in 79 A.D., followed by other episodes. Its last eruption took place in 1944.
I came to Southern Italy to conquer the mountain, rising above the Bay of Naples and the Campania region. Just 6 miles from the city of Naples, this 4,000 ft. tall volcano is the most dramatic of the region’s volcanoes. Named after Zeus, the volcano is also associated with Hercules, son of Ves, while in the Greek Oscan language, the word, Vesusius, means ‘smoke’.
Apart from the rising smoke from the crater, its sheer size conjures up images of Odysseus defeating his adversary, the Cyclops, in Homer’s Odyssey. If all goes well, my plan is to summit this mighty beast within a few hours and enjoy the rest of the day at the Roman ruins of Pompeii.
In the region, Mount Vesuvius is the most accessible with shuttle service to the park entrance. From this vantage point, visitors can meander along the winding path and enjoy the scenic vistas of the sprawling city of Naples below. Taking time to view the beauty of the indigenous wildflowers on the rocky cliffs makes the passage more enjoyable while ascending 900 meters to the crater.
This occasion seems like a pilgrimage where I join other visitors to scale Mount Vesuvius – the Promised Land. No doubt for many, this is a rite of passage that evokes a sense of euphoria in hiking on the edge of brittle, rocky cliffs. Regardless, the sunny, cool conditions enhance the experience.
Just before reaching the crater, I meet Imma Sbrescie, a geologist, at the brim of the crater. Mount Vesuvius, she says, is in the ‘green zone’ – meaning that the volcano’s risk of erupting is low. She explains that the volcano has received this designation since there hasn’t been any significant seismic event since the last eruption in 1944. The use of improved tilt sensors and seismic network updates have facilitated Mount Vesuvius’s monitoring that keeps the public informed of any potential hazards.
Exploring Roman Ruins at Pompeii
My visit to Pompeii proved to be an astounding site tour of Roman antiquity. My tour began on the Via dell’Abbondanza, the main thoroughfare of this extraordinary archaeological site of first-century Pompeii. My tour guide leads the way through the maze of uneven cobblestones where he conjures up images of horse-drawn chariots traveling from the sea to this legendary city. We discover stone houses richly decorated with interior mosaics and frescoes depicting Roman life that was violently and abruptly destroyed when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. spewed pumice, ash, and gas that asphyxiated thousands of people and ultimately destroyed
This ghostly city still displays the remnants of the amphitheater where gladiators engaged in lethal combat, as well as a brothel decorated with frescoes, and bath buildings with a steam room where Roman frequented. In the main plaza, a statue of a Roman centaur stands guard overlooking the extensive ruins and Mount Vesuvius.
Undoubtedly, the legacy of the eruption lives on in the hearts of Romans, and has earned a distinguished place in history as the most powerful volcano of all time in the region. This catastrophic event that destroyed Pompeii is eternally linked to its demise that changed ancient Roman life and the course of history. The splendors of this ancient archaeological site continue to reveal new areas of exploration, while these ancient treasures provide extraordinary insight into the distant past.
Seaside Town of Sorrento
Long treated by travelers as a delightful beach town, Sorrento is the ideal spot to relax and enjoy La Doce Vita, Italian style. On a sunny morning, I take the one-hour Campania Express train ride from Naples to Sorrento to get a glimpse of the local scene by strolling in the historic center, full of palaces, churches, gardens. Throughout the town, local craftsmen are found making leather goods and other items. From the bustling side streets, there are narrow alleys that lead to the fishing harbor and beachfront where visitors often join locals for a dip in the azure sea.
Heading back to the town center to the Limoncello Botanical Garden, I find one of the more popular gathering places for celebrating weddings and other special occasions. In the luscious garden, I see trees full of lemons that are used for producing lemon-flavored liqueurs. In addition to tastings, the retail shop sells a variety of lemon-inspired gifts that are also available for purchase throughout town.
After shopping, I am ready to enjoy a leisurely lunch at Pepe Bianco Restaurant, situated in the town center. The bright white backdrop creates an elegant ambiance to savor local seafood dishes that are deliciously prepared. The sleek salon offers an intimate setting in the heart of Sorrento. Catering to a discriminating clientele, this restaurant seems to offer the very best of local cuisine.
Neapolitans claim that Naples provides a true taste of Italy, whether it is rambling on winding cobblestone streets, tasting authentic pizza with mozzarella cheese, or experiencing other specialties with real Italian flavor. The city has exciting nightlife and caters to a diverse and active lifestyle.
In La Pignasecca Market in Naples, find all kinds of food including fresh fish, cheeses and different homemade pizzas. Local favorites include Margherita Pizza and Parigina, a double-decker pizza layer with ham.
Fine dining options are widely available and a great choice is dining al fresco at the Borgo Antico Restaurant in the Santa Lucia District. Both locals and visitors enjoy the local cuisine at this restaurant since it offers a variety of authentic Neopolitan dishes and regional specialties in an elegant setting.
This district borders on the Bay of Naples and includes a number of sites including castles and forts on the waterfront.
An ideal place to stay near the waterfront is Casa Vittoria, which provides modern accommodations within a short walk to the historic, seaside castle, Castel dell’Ovo, on the Gulf of Naples.
There is plenty to see and do in Naples ranging from exploring the fine arts to tasting the delicious gelato and pizza at the restaurants and bars. This city is both interesting and diverse with a rich history, a magnificent coast, and delicious food that has its own identity. Naples is one of the most ancient cities in proximity to the UNESCO Heritage Sites of Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. Climbing one the most famous volcanoes and exploring some of the finest ancient ruins in the region are unforgettable experiences, all easily accessible from this historical city.