Pompeii & Vesuvius

A fascinating insight into Italy's most famous natural disaster

By Janice Fuscoe

With its wealth of ancient Roman sites and lovely 18th-century villas, set against the backdrop of a quiescent volcano, the Bay of Naples is unique.

The sight of Vesuvius towering over the bay, with the Sorrentine peninsula to the south and Naples to the north, has always held visitors spellbound. At ground level, though, the contrasts are stark. Ugly agglomerations bear all the hallmarks of 20th-century urban blight, with high unemployment, apocalyptic traffic and graffiti-daubed public spaces.

Yet the urban context of the comuni vesuviani (the towns around Vesuvius) serves to heighten the dramatic effect: sumptuous Roman villas in quiet countryside overlook demolition-ripe 1950s tower blocks, while lava fields from the 1944 eruption lie wild and deserted, just a few miles from the remains of ruined streets and houses buried in a much bigger blow two millennia before.

Pompei & Pompeii

To many Italians, Pompei (the town, as opposed to Pompeii, the architectural site) is a place of pilgrimage. People flock here from all over the south to pay their respects to the Madonna in the large, early 20th-century santuario on the main square, Piazza Bartolo Longo, praying for the kind of miracle that healed a girl suffering from epilepsy in 1876. Others bring their new cars to have them blessed and to secure divine protection; given local driving standards and roads, this seems a wise precaution.

The sheer volume of religious and cultural tourism caught modern Pompei by surprise. Having long reaped the benefits of mass tourism and given little in return, the town now has some nice surprises in store: once-seedy lodgings have given way to well-appointed hotels, and eating out is no longer hit and miss, especially if you leave the archaeological site for the centre.

About three kilometres to the north is the Antiquarium di Boscoreale (see below), opened in the 1990s as a permanent exhibition on Pompeii and its environment some 2,000 years ago. Reconstructions show idyllic scenes of wildlife along the River Sarno, now, regrettably, one of the most polluted waterways in Italy.

Sights

Antiquarium di Boscoreale
Set incongruously in the middle of a 1960s housing development – indeed, that’s how the villa here was originally discovered – the Antiquarium documents daily life, the environment and technology in Roman times. Disparate finds ranging from fishing tackle to ceramic cages for rearing dormice (a favourite Roman delicacy) are displayed alongside life-size photos of original mosaics and frescoes from other sites and museums. In the grounds of the museum is Villa Regina, an ancient farmstead with storage capacity for 10,000 litres (2,200 gallons) of wine. The villa’s vineyard has been replanted along ancient rows. The Porta Marina tourist office at Pompeii will direct you here, though it’s best approached via the Circumvesuviana station of Boscoreale, where a skeletal bus service is provided.

Villa Regina, Via Settetermini 15 (081 536 8796, www.pompeiisites.org). Open Apr-Oct 8.30am-7.30pm daily (ticket office closes 6pm). Nov-Mar 8.30am-5pm daily (ticket office closes 3.30pm). Admission €5.50 (also valid for Oplontis). No credit cards.

Scavi di Pompeii
Unlike Rome, where ancient monuments have suffered millennia of weathering, re-use and pillaging, Pompeii had the good fortune (for posterity at any rate) of being overwhelmed by the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius. The ancient street plan is intact, the town still has its full complement of civic buildings, the houses still have their frescoed walls, and – thanks to painstaking work by generations of archaeologists and vulcanologists – we have a fairly clear picture of what life was like here 2,000 years ago. The picture is still being completed: emergency digs during roadworks on the Naples–Salerno motorway have revealed the full extent of a frescoed leisure complex close to the Sarno river.

Unfortunately, the same attention is not lavished on visitor facilities. The site has only one restaurant-cum-cafeteria of dubious quality, and the maps – if you can get one from the information booth – are not up to date (you may have to backtrack where streets have been blocked off). The registered guides still ply visitors with doses of substandard English and misleading information (while also operating a closed shop to exclude a talented new generation of bilingual archaeologists). To cap it all, wildcat strikes by site guards can mean that entry to Pompeii is impossible. (In this eventuality, get on the first Naples-bound Circumvesuviana train and get off at Torre Annunziata to visit Oplontis – a wonderous archaeological site –, leaving Pompeii till later.)

Allow at least three hours for visiting Pompeii; it will take longer if you intend to see the amphitheatre and the Villa dei Misteri, a good 25 minutes’ hike apart. The audioguides offer two-, four- or six-hour itineraries – times that are probably underestimates if you choose to listen to the optional in-depth information supplied. From 10am until 1pm, the terme suburbane (suburban baths) near the Porta Marina are open. The Casa del Menandro (House of Menander) near the theatre can be visited at weekends from 2pm to 5pm, and the Casa degli Amorini Dorati (House of the Gilded Cupids) is open from 9am to 6pm daily in summer, closing at 4pm in winter. There is a free internet booking service (www.arethusa.net) for access to these buildings, and reservations must be made at least one day prior to the visit. Despite Pompeii’s international appeal, the website is in Italian only: click on ‘Prenotazioni’ to start the booking procedure for each house. When choosing time slots, allow 30 minutes to view the site and another 30 to reach the next one comfortably.

Ask for a site map and free information booklet from the information booth at Porta Marina or Piazza Amfiteatro. Afternoon visits to the site pay dividends, as the crowds start to thin out. The Circumvesuviana railway station Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri is opposite the main Porta Marina entrance to the site; just inside, the forum is a good place at which to get your bearings.

Porta Marina, Piazza Anfiteatro, Piazza Esedra (081 857 5347, www.pompeiisites.org). Open Apr-Oct 8.30am-7.30pm daily (ticket office closes 6pm). Nov-Mar 8.30am-5pm daily (ticket office closes 3.30pm). Admission €11. Audioguide €6.50; €10 for 2. No credit cards.

Where to stay & eat

Conveniently close to the amphitheatre entrance of the Pompeii archaeological zone, the four-star Hotel Forum (Via Roma 99, 081 850 1170, www.hotelforum.it, €100 double) is thankfully set back from the main road.

Il Principe (Piazza Bartolo Longo 1, 081 850 5566, www.ilprincipe.com, closed Mon & 3wks Jan, average €40) is one of Campania’s finest restaurants, serving ancient recipes gleaned from classical authors. If you make it to dessert, try the exquisite cassata Oplontis, with honey and goat’s milk ricotta. For reputedly the best pizza in town, head for the Ristorante Carlo Alberto, just opposite Il Principe (Via Carlo Alberto 15, 081 863 3231, average €20).

Vesuvius

Before Pompeii and Herculaneum were overwhelmed on 24 August AD 79, Vesuvius was a very different mountain. Possibly as high as 2,000 metres (6,600 feet), it was thickly vegetated; few people suspected they were living close to a major geological hazard.

Today’s residents – about 700,000 live in the 13 comuni vesuviani around the base and on the lower slopes of the 1,281-metre (4,203-foot) volcano – opt to be as blissfully unconcerned by this threat as their counterparts 2,000 years ago. They’re not about to abandon the fertile volcanic soil: the slopes produce wine (Lacryma Christi, which has shaken off its downmarket reputation thanks to some state-of-the-art wineries), and the area’s small pomodorini tomatoes (delightful on pasta) earn tidy profits for local farmers. Besides, there are few visible reminders of the danger. Vesuvius does not spew lava like Etna, or eject ash like Stromboli. It lost its pennacchio, or plume of smoke, in 1944, and the lava fields created by previous eruptions are gradually being colonised by vegetation, giving the volcano a deceptively benign appearance.

The authorities have abandoned the idea of mass resettlement, and the main focus now is on swift evacuation in the event of an eruption. Given the numbers of people involved and the current road network, early warning of any eruption is critical.

That’s where the Osservatorio Vesuviano steps in. The institute, which has monitored Vesuvius’ activity since 1841, has warned that the volcano could erupt any time between 20 and 200 years from now. The longer it lies dormant (the last eruption was in 1944), the greater the risk.

When the volcano does blow, scientists believe it will not be ash fallout or lava flow that pose the greatest danger to the locals and the landscape, but a surge cloud of the kind that rolled down the mountain in AD 79 at an estimated 65 to 80 kilometres per hour and produced the ultimate open-air calidarium. Reaching a temperature of 400°C, it caused the widespread devastation still evident today.

Vesuvius is now a national park and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But of the 400,000 visitors who trek up to the rim of its cone and peer down into the depths of the crater 200 metres (700 feet) below, few currently stay to enjoy the wilder side of the volcano. The park authority (www.parconazionaledelvesuvio.it) has begun to mark out footpaths; one of the best goes from the town of San Sebastiano al Vesuvio up to the Bourbon observatory. Much of the park, though, is fenced off for security reasons: forest fires (often started deliberately to free up land for building projects) have wrought considerable damage in recent years, and access to certain areas is now only granted for scientific purposes.

Vesuvius is at its best in the early summer, in particular in May or June, when the upper slopes are awash with colour (look out for the leggy Mount Etna broom and red valerian) and nightingales, whitethroats and blue rock thrushes are marking out their territory with prolific song. Start your visit first thing in the morning, and avoid windy days, when conditions on the exposed rim can be harsh.

By far the best approach is from the Circumvesuviana train station in Ercolano.

Just outside the station to the left is the Vesuvio Express office (see Getting there below), which organises an efficient collective taxi service up to the car park. For €10 per person, a minibus ferries you as far up as vehicles can go, allows about 80-90 minutes for the ascent and descent, then completes the return trip – which means a visit could take as little as three hours out of your day.

Once at the car park at Quota 1,000 (1,000 metres above sea level), the standard half-hour route to the cone zigzags along a well-kept path up the mountain’s western flank. Although the inside of the crater itself is off limits, there’s a good view of steaming fumaroles and stratified pyroclastic deposits on the other side of the crater rim. Fight your acrophobia and peer down into the crater; enterprising plants have moved in, joining several bird species.
Also on the road up the western slope of the volcano, the Museo dell’Osservatorio Vesuviano (see below) offers a broad overview of the geology of the volcano and the threats it poses, as well as some Heath-Robinson seismographs from the 19th century. It’s housed in the old Bourbon observatory, a distinctive Pompeiian-red building that has survived the ravages of at least seven eruptions.

Sights

Cratere del Vesuvio
(081 771 0939, www.parconazionaledelvesuvio.it/grancono). Open 9am-2hrs before sunset daily. Admission (including guide) €6.50. No credit cards.
Trips to the volcano’s crater are suspended during bad weather, or when fog descends.

Museo dell’Osservatorio Vesuviano
Via Osservatorio (081 610 8483, www.ov.ingv.it). Open 9am-2pm Mon-Fri by reservation only; 10am-2pm Sat, Sun. Closed Aug. Admission free. No credit cards.
Look for signs to the Osservatorio at 600m (2,000ft) above sea level, just behind the Eremo Hotel.

Tourist information

Azienda Autonoma di Cura, Soggiorno e Turismo
Via Sacra 1, Pompei (081 850 7255, www.pompeiturismo.it). Open Apr-Sept 8am-7pm Mon-Fri; 8am-2pm Sat. Nov-Mar 8am-3.30pm Mon-Fri; 8am-2pm Sat.

Ufficio di Informazione e di Accoglienza Turistica
Via IV Novembre 82, Ercolano (081 788 1243). Open Apr-Oct 8am-2.30pm Mon-Sat. Nov-Mar 8am-2pm Mon-Fri.
The Ercolano office can also provide information on neighbouring Portici.

Ufficio di Informazione e di Accoglienza Turistica
At the Porta Marina entrance to the archaeological site, by the main ticket office (081 857 5347, www.pompeiisites.org). Open Apr-Oct 8.30am-6pm daily. Nov-Mar 8.30am-3.30pm daily.
The tourist offices at Pompeii also offer information on Torre del Greco, Torre Annunziata and Castellammare di Stabia.

Getting there

By bus

Run by ANM (www.anm.it), Circumvesuviana runs frequent services from Porto Immacolatella in Naples to Pompei. But given the traffic hell and route complexities, the train is a far better bet.

Vesuvio Express (081 739 3666, www.vesuvioexpress.it) runs a minibus to the car park on Vesuvius from the Ercolano Circumvesuviana station (9am-close of Vesuvius, €10 return).

Alternatively, a local Trasporti Vesuvian bus (081 963 4420, 081 963 4418) starts from Piazza Anfiteatro in Pompei, stops at Piazza Esedra near the motorway toll booth and at Ercolano train station, then winds its way to the top (€8.60 return from Pompei). Check return times, and say if you need to stop at the Museo dell’Osservatorio.

By car

For Pompeii, if travelling from Naples take the Pompei Ovest exit from the A3 motorway (Pompeii is beside this exit). From Salerno, take the first Pompei exit.

For Vesuvius, from Torre del Greco or Ercolano, follow signs to Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio.

By train

The major sites are served by the Circumvesuviana railway (081 772 2444, www.vesuviana.it). If you’re travelling from Naples to Pompeii, take the Naples–Sorrento line and get off at Pompei Scavi–Villa dei Misteri. The other Pompei station lies on a different line and is closer to the amphitheatre entrance.

Boscoreale (Boscoreale station) requires a considerable amount of legwork and is very poorly signposted; for Stabiae (Via Nocera station, Castellammare), you need to take bus 1 Rosso from near the station.