Italy: Under the volcano

By Andreas Heimann

Naples is not exactly one of Italy's model cities when compared with Venice, Milan or Rome, Andreas Heimann writes - but there's much to find in the shadow of Mt Vesuvius.

Mt Vesuvius looms over the Gulf of Naples. Photo / Thinkstock
Mt Vesuvius looms over the Gulf of Naples. Photo / Thinkstock

Home to 1.5 million residents, Naples is a city which many foreigners tend to associate with the Mafia and mountains of uncollected garbage.

There is no overlooking the fact that the plaster is crumbling from many buildings, or that, on the edges of the city, huge, grim housing projects are concentrated, or that people here earn much less than those living in the wealthy north of Italy.

But Naples has one strong point - it is an ideal starting place for tours of the region.

In Pozzuoli, for example, right outside the gates of the city, there stands the Anfiteatro Maggiore.

With its diameter of nearly 150 metres, it is the largest amphitheatre in all of Italy and, likewise, the oldest. In its heyday, when the "bread and games'' entertainment was the stuff of everyday life, up to 45,000 people would jam in.

Anyone taking a stroll through Naples' streets does not give any heed to Mt Vesuvius - and certainly not as to how dangerous it could be.

Yet it is always visible on the horizon, especially on clear days.

Nonetheless, the volcano is not as dominant as in past times. When it had its gigantic eruption in the year 79 AD it was twice as high as today.

An excursion to the crater is a must for many tourists. Most people travel by car or bus to the Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio. Approaching by road, one sees giant, black lava rocks which have been lying there ever since that massive eruption almost 2000 years ago.

Some three million people live today in the region surrounding Mt Vesuvius. Apparently no one gets in a panic thinking that the dormant volcano might one day erupt again. Yet this is very well conceivable - and many people even consider it likely.

There's nowhere to see better what can happen in an eruption than in Pompeii. Today, the archaeological site is one of the most important tourism attractions in the Gulf of Naples, with millions of visitors arriving each year.

The classic among the day excursions on the Gulf of Naples is a sojourn to the island of Capri. In autumn, the skies are often just as blue as the Mediterranean, which can be viewed from many vantage points on the 10-square-kilometre island.

The first glimpse of Capri during the ferry ride to the island helps people understand how it became such a dream destination for travellers in the 19th century. Naples is suddenly far, far away - and Capri is a world unto itself, one where it is hard to imagine the Mafia and mounds of garbage.

On the contrary, those who take the Funicolare cable car from the beach up to the Piazzetta square, nearly 150 metres higher up, will gain the impression that everything here is chic and sophisticated. Some tourists restrict themselves to walking only a few hundred metres around the surrounding streets.

But Capri has completely different facets which are best discovered on walking tours. One rewarding destination is the terraces of the Giardini di Augusto, from which one has a fantastic view of the sea.

Another favourite is the "faraglioni," or pointed cliff formations of the coast, which are typical of Capri.

A further attraction is the Villa Jovis, the palace from which Roman Emperor Tiberius ruled his empire, far removed from Rome. The palace is situated directly on the steep coast high above the sea.

Those who have the time will stay overnight. However, the hotel room rates are not exactly a bargain, so most Capri visitors return to the mainland by ferry in the early evening.


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