When I was in Ecuador last month I heard all about last year’s eruption on Cotopaxi. Although its last major eruption was in 1904, and there weren’t too many signs of activity when I peered down into the crater in 2010, there had been numerous warning signs.
In February it started smoking, and shortly afterwards the smell of sulphur became much stronger. By June the inside of the crater contained a great deal of water from the melting ice, and in August the volcano finally erupted. Debris belched three kilometres into the air, and a few days later fields and villages due west of Cotopaxi were coated in a fine carpet of ash which remained until the rain and the wind washed it away.
In 79 AD it’s likely the people of Pompeii, near what is now Naples in south-west Italy, had no such warnings. For a start there were no mountaineers climbing to the top of Vesuvius and peering into the crater or noting the much stronger eggy pong of sulphur.
People were slow to evacuate the area around Cotopaxi last year, but the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD was so cataclysmic that they didn’t really have chance to. According to one of the display boards in the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, the event was preceded by a minor earthquake the previous day. The first eruption on 24 August blew debris 20 kilometres into the sky, and by the end of the day Pompeii was covered in a three-metre coating of pumice. The second eruption the following day produced noxious vapours that suffocated anything living. By the end of the week there were no living creatures in Pompeii, and the town was caked in six metres of ash. It must have resembled a desert moonscape.
People like to say that the explosion from Vesuvius released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima bomb. But this is such a meaningless statement for most people that I feel like an idiot just repeating it. What was the Hiroshima bomb equivalent to then – 100,000 people farting at once, perhaps?
In any case, it’s not really important. The Vesuvius eruption of 79 was quite powerful; the Cotopaxi eruption of 2015 less so. Vesuvius has erupted over 40 times since 79 AD, but the last time was in 1944. At the moment it’s quite safe – which is lucky, because around three million people live in the city of Naples that sprawls at its base.
In January 2015 Edita and I discovered Abruzzo and the Apennines for the first time. We went back frequently throughout the year and it became our regular weekend getaway in Italy. But the weather didn’t look very promising this time last month, so we decided to explore the coastline south of Rome instead. Our visit to Ecuador had given us a taste for volcanoes, so a visit to Vesuvius was on the cards.
I’d been told that the Amalfi Coast, just south of Naples, is quite mountainous too. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. How mountainous can a coastline be? But people rave about the Amalfi Coast, and if we were visiting Vesuvius anyway, it would be easy to check it out and give ourselves a modest coastal walk at the very least.
A spot of Googling taught me about the Path of the Gods, a clifftop trail linking the villages of Agerola and Nocelle. It was so named because the gods used it to come down to the sea and meet the sirens who enticed Ulysses with their singing. This sounded exciting. It was a two to three-hour walk, so we could easily go there and back in a day, and if we were lucky we might see a deity, or even a mermaid.
This plan immediately changed when we picked up a hiking map at the tourist office in Agerola, and discovered that an official paint-marked trail climbed high above the Path of the Gods and returned to Agerola across the summits of a pair of 1100m peaks called Monte Calabrice and Monte Tre Calli. This would make a much more satisfying circular walk, though both the lady in the tourist office and the proprietor of the Hotel Gentile across the square expressed concern about completing the route in daylight at this time of year. I was relieved when Edita resisted the temptation to freak them out by giving her usual response: “It’s OK, we’ve both climbed Everest”.
The walk took us around five hours, and the return part was much the more satisfying. I enjoy the odd coastal walk along the South West Coast Path when I go to visit my father in Cornwall, but the Path of the Gods is on a different scale. The highest point in the whole of Cornwall is just 420m above sea level, while the Path of the Gods weaves in and out of coves and cliffs on average 500m above the sea. Most fields on the Cornish coast are suitable only for sheep, but many steep hillsides on the Amalfi Coast have been cut into terraces for cultivating vines. Centuries-old rock houses perch on unlikely promontories, and an even more unlikely road hugs the coastline hundreds of metres below. Cliff faces tower overhead, and the trail cuts into thick forest in places.
Most of the village of Nocelle is accessible only by foot, so precipitous is its location high above the sea. We were told the staircase leading down to the coast road contains 1700 steps, and if you want to go down there you’re better off catching a bus that zigzags back and forth along a narrow road from the car park at the top of the village.
At this point we left the Path of the Gods and took a trail straight up the hillside above. To begin with it climbed through forest, but every once in a while the trees thinned out and gave us picturesque glimpses of the coastline far below. It was a cold January day, but the trail was so steep and Edita’s pace so brisk, that I soon worked up a sweat. I even had to take my hat off and allow the cool winter air to freshen my shiny pate.
The gradient slackened and contoured parallel to the coast for a short while. We could see the ridge of Monte Tre Calli high above, a ridge that looked like it would provide magnificent views from its top. Soon the trail headed upwards once again. Although the sea was directly below us, this was no longer a coastal walk, but a proper hill walk. We rose above the trees and emerged onto rock terrain speckled with grassy tufts.
We reached the ridgeline at a col, Capo Muro, just 50m from the summit of Monte Calabrice. Here we had our first glimpse of Monte Catello rising even higher to the north. Monte Catello is the southernmost of three peaks that together form a massif known as Monte Sant’Angelo a Tre Pizzi which dominates the mountainous landscape of the Amalfi Coast.
As soon as she saw it Edita was all for climbing it, but I knew we didn’t have enough daylight on this occasion. As we worked our way along the ridgeline that linked Monte Calabrice and Monte Tre Calli, more and more of this amazing mountain was revealed to us. A frighteningly exposed ridge led up Monte Catello, dropping away to the south in sheer silver-grey cliffs. Behind it the second peak, Monte di Mezzo, peeped up like a rocky thumb. There didn’t look an obvious route from Monte Catello to Monte di Mezzo that was hikeable, though a clear path is marked on the map.
But these two peaks paled beside the third and highest one, Monte San Michele, a twin-summited tower that looked to be a rock climb on all sides. The map showed no path linking Monte di Mezzo with Monte San Michele, though there was a trail shown up Monte San Michele from the other side. The highest point on the whole massif is 1444m, and we were so entranced by the whole structure that we immediately agreed we must return to the Amalfi Coast sometime in the future and climb all three peaks. They are clearly going to be a bit of a scramble.
We continued along the ridge to the third and final peak of Monte Tre Calli, from where we looked 1120m down into the sea. Now I understood why people described the Amalfi Coast as mountainous. Here we were on top of a mountain higher than Snowdon which rose straight up from the sea, with an even higher and far more impressive mountain a short distance away – a mountain higher than any point in the whole of Britain.
We descended the far side of the ridge to a valley dappled with red rooftops, and were back in Agerola less than an hour later. We had combined a coast walk and a hill walk into a single day and were very pleased with it.
It would be wrong to visit Vesuvius without visiting Pompeii, the Roman ruins that are so entwined with the volcano’s history. Vesuvius looked unexceptional as we drove past it on the autostrada, so much so that we weren’t sure whether we were looking at it or not. One of the reasons is because it rises only 1281m, and Italy is full of peaks this size, including many surrounding Vesuvius on three sides.
It’s much more impressive from the south, and from Pompeii it looks particularly threatening (as indeed it was). There are actually two craters, the active one on top of the main summit, and a much bigger caldera (collapsed crater) separating the main summit from its subpeak Monte Somma. It’s not hard to see how even a modest eruption could have wiped out an entire town as close to its slopes as Pompeii. What a similar eruption could do to Naples can only make you shudder. By contrast the four and a half million people of Quito are comparatively safe from an eruption on Cotopaxi, shielded as they are by the extinct volcano Pasochoa.
We spent nearly three hours looking around Scavi di Pompei, the ancient ruins. The site is enormous, and even with a good section of it cordoned off for restoration, there was plenty to see.
It took us slightly longer than expected to get in. Edita was refused entry for carrying a backpack that was considered too big for site regulations. I was carrying only a camera, and wondered why she needed a pack ample enough for a camping weekend in the hills. But I was equally unable to explain how it might pose a danger to Pompeii. Perhaps they thought she might make off with a bagful of amphoras. I stood by quietly as she battled with the man on the desk and demanded her money back. Eventually she was allowed in with her pack as long as she carried it on her shoulder.
It was surprisingly cold and we walked around briskly. It took a long time to find the pornographic paintings Frankie Howerd had promised me Pompeii was famous for, but find them we did, and although they were a little tame by today’s standards, the rest of the site was impressive and well worth a visit.
It was well into the afternoon by the time we approached Vesuvius, and there wasn’t much daylight remaining, but we didn’t need long. Access to the summit of the mountain is tightly regulated. You can drive most of the way up, stopping at a car park at the top of the treeline, from where a dirt track spirals up the side of the scree-lined upper slopes to the summit crater. You have to buy a ticket at the cost of 10 euros per person, and when we showed ours to the man at the gate he told us they closed a four o’clock and we only had an hour to climb up to the crater, look around and come back down.
He also told us that it’s not possible to visit the summit. Only one half of the crater rim is open to the public, and the highest section, including the summit itself, is fenced off. But no matter. It was still worth a visit, even for 10 euros. We raced up the track and reached the crater rim in only fifteen minutes. I heard there are a network of walking routes around various parts of the mountain, and was determined to find a map. There were several souvenir shops, including on the crater rim itself, but although it was possible to buy a bottle of vino rosso, none of them sold carte turistiche. I think it’s the first mountain I’ve climbed where red wine is considered more useful than a map.
It wasn’t much of a climb, but Vesuvius is all about the crater. It’s possible to see right down into the bottom, and I estimated it to be around 200m deep. It is clearly still active; there are numerous small vents from which we could see steam rising, as well as the telltale whiff of sulphur. The crater rim is surprisingly narrow, only about 10m wide at the narrowest points, with wooden fences on either side. The outside gives way abruptly to 45 degree scree slopes, while the inside is more or less a sheer drop straight into the crater.
The public half of the crater rim is as much as 50m lower than the semicircle that is fenced off. It’s not clear why the whole circumference isn’t open to the public, though the upper half seems to be much steeper on the inside, so perhaps they are afraid of it eroding.
The views are magnificent. Naples has a reputation for being a bit of a dump. I didn’t see enough of it to comment on this, but it certainly has a lovely setting beside a beautiful azure Mediterranean bay. As well as being overlooked by a volcano, there are many other mountains all around, including those of the Amalfi Coast that we visited the previous day.
We returned to Rome well pleased with our weekend away. It was another recce – we only really scratched the surface, and both Vesuvius and the Amalfi Coast deserve a more thorough exploration.
It deepened my impression of what a fantastic country Italy is for those who love mountains.
You can see the rest of my photos of the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Vesuvius in my 2016 Italy album.