Pompeii – On the Slopes of Vesuvius

Iggy the Hymer has finally left Pompeii and is once more sitting, nose to surf, with the shores of the Mediterranean.  We set off this morning, planning on doing a mad five hour drive straight to Villa San Giovanni, for the ferry to Messina in Sicily.  The great thing about motorhome travel though is that plans are flexible.  More an idea of a direction than a definite destination.  So, after an incredible four hour journey, that saw us paused above Salerno with a view of what was to come…

A view to travel for. The road ahead.

and twisting high through the mountains of the Parco Nazionale del Pollino..

Road in the sky.

we saw the sun setting into the sea far below, and made a spur of the moment decision to follow it down to the beach at Falerna Marina.  Sicily will still be there tomorrow.

It would be rude not to stop. It being free and all.

It has been a day full of unforgettable views, beginning with our goodbye to Giulliana, Pasquale and their boys at their lovely Sosta in Pompei. After three days shrouded in cloud Vesuvius put on a splendid farewell appearance for us behind the house.

Vesuvius pops out to see us on our way.

We had planned on staying in Pompei for one night only.  See what I was saying about plans and motorhomes?  The drive to Guilliana’s through Naples however, proved to be every bit as challenging as we’d feared it might.  That fine city of the south has a reputation for poverty that begins to prove itself well in advance of the city itself.  As we drove through the northern dormitory towns people began to appear on the roads.  Passing out “Please help…” photographs at traffic lights.  Or selling paper handkerchiefs.  Or – just standing – items for sale in hands – in the middle of the road.  Waiting for the traffic to stop.  Hoping for a sale, a coin, to make the price of another day.  It’s a hard, dangerous way to make a living.

As we drove past the outskirts of Naples, peeling flats sprawled up the slopes of the volcano.  Traffic grew heavier and as we passed into the suburban sprawl to the south the streets narrowed, and narrowed, and narrowed.  Where you think there is only room for Iggy an Italian car driver shows you there is also room for him.  Playing invisible lanes – a favourite game of many Italian motorists – a scooter somehow finds space to zoom between Iggy and the car.  Suddenly we know we’re in trouble.  A scooter stops when it reaches us.  Uh oh!  This is the ultimate signal in Italy that there is, literally, not an inch of space on either side of your vehicle.

Murals at the foot of the sleeping volcano in Naples.

It’s too much!  We’re in a warren.  Our TomTom, CoPilot and Google maps are all three telling us to go up a street clearly marked by a No Entry sign and a couple of barriers to boot.  We can’t see the sky.  The buildings are so tall and the streets so narrow.  Traffic is everywhere.  Everywhere.  I re-route the satnav for the toll road.  We’d passed a sign for it at the top of this hill.  Jay found a gap to do a 5 point turn in Iggy.  Helpful Italians stopped cars for us while we turned.  Oh no!  A van comes down the hill and doesn’t stop.  There’s no room!  Iggy is up and over the kerb, there’s a horrible burning smell.  We’re out!  Out of the warren.  Up the hill.  On to the autoroute.  Safe!

Pompei is now just a few minutes away and we happily sail back off the motorway for the last 2 miles to the Sosta.  But there’s a low bridge sign ahead.  Too low for Iggy.  What’s going on?  Co-Pilot has our measurements and is insisting this route is correct.  There’s a long line of cars behind us so we carry on, looking out for the low bridge – and how to avoid it.  Suddenly it’s right in front of us, the only alternative is a no entry sign road that a few cars are happily turning into.  Satnav wants us to go that way, so we turn in and stop.  The signs say it’s a dead end.  Satnav says it’s a safe route to the Sosta.  We explore on foot and find the high bridge we need just ahead…and completely sealed off with concrete blocks.  I go back to Iggy to get the maps out.  Jay carries on round the corner – just in case – and comes back a few minutes later with a serious limp!

Poor Jay had found a spot to turn Iggy round, but in his haste to run back to us in the dark had torn a muscle in his calf!  It was now, officially, a horrible day!

By now completely at the end of our wits, we finally found a route to the Sosta, where an angel we came to know as Giulliana guided us through the gates to a perfect spot.  We were so tired!  We could hardly think!  But we didn’t have to.  Giulliana brought a mat for the ground by our step.  Helped us hook up to the electricity.  Showed us the toilet, and the shower and the washing machine.  The bell to call her if there was anything at all that we needed.  And finally sat us down in two comfy chairs with a welcome glass of juice.  Our troubles were over.

Two days of Giulliana bringing us morning coffee later, Jay thought he might now be able to hobble round the ruins of Old Pompeii.  Worried about him managing with his injury, Giulliana called Pasquale, who came with his car and drove us to the entrance – promising to return for us when we were done.  This, finally, was what we were here for.

A chilling sight at the entrance to Pompeii.

The entrance perfectly sets the scene, with plaster casts of some of the bodies found in the excavations.  They’re so familiar from books and TV over the years…it is very surreal to actually be there and see them in person.  However as we walked though the amphitheatre, and along the first street we came to, I felt a distinct sense of anti-climax.  After Rome this seemed a bit of a let down.  There wasn’t much to see.  It felt horrible to think this way but it all seemed a bit boring.  A bit of a sham.  Boy did Pompeii have a few surprises in store for me!

Beautiful floors in the houses of old Pompeii.

As we continued we slowly, slowly, began to take in the scale of the city.  This isn’t just a few old ruins – it’s vast!  Street after long, street runs straight ahead.  Buildings stand all the way along on either side.  Two stories high.  The road is intact beneath our feet.  The same road that clattered with feet and cart wheels.  Echoed to shouts and laughter.  The air redolent with the smells of herbs, hot foods, wine, perfumes and spices.  Children shrieked and ran among the legs of the throngs of adults.  As Vesuvius watched silently, and then not so silently, from above.

This is not a simple ruin. It’s a whole city, frozen in time.

We walk through a beautifully painted house into a sumptuous garden.  Such a beautiful place to live.  How the master’s guests adored to sit with him on the terrace on summer evenings.  Music played and wine was drunk as their laughter gurgled above the running of the fountains.  Young lovers found a spot to kiss under a tree on the lawns.  This very spot where I’m standing now.

You can almost hear the laughter and the children’s footsteps.

The theatre.  The temples.  The shops and baths and laundry and gardens.  The places where the ground has been left right to the top of the houses.  Where the lava and ash covered them all for nearly two thousand years.  This city.  This whole, living, breathing, beautiful, wonderful city.  Uncovered once more on the slopes of the mountain that killed it so long ago.

What a heavenly place this must have been to live in.

The light is failing and Jay’s leg is done as we head back towards the exit to call Pasquale.  Suddenly everyone is gone and we find ourselves alone in the gloaming in a totally silent city of the dead.  Jay is tired and stumbles more and more on the uneven, unlit roads as the darkness deepens.  There are no signs and we’re struggling to find our way out.  If Jay was not having so much difficulty walking now,  it would be fine.  Funny even.  As it is Pompeii seems to find a presence now, in the silent dark, that is not so easily felt in the sunshine.  Our path out lies along a valley –  lined with tombs.  We stumble between them, and the knowledge that this whole city is one giant tomb encases us.

The falling sun returns the city to Vesuvius and the dead.

And then there is the gate.  Light.  A seat for Jay.  And Pasquale.  The living, breathing, ever helpful and smiling face of the modern Pompei, to carry us safely home to Iggy.

It is over.  I am full and overflowing.  Live… whisper Pompeii and Vesuvius.  Live…  For tomorrow you may be ash.

Fi. x



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