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Visiting Vesuvius

Ginda Simpson

I have a love for old travel journals. I like the way their descriptive passages take me back to the way things were, a place where I can pause in the moment that they have frozen for me with their pen. It is always intriguing to me to discover places where so little has changed, reinforcing my faith in the eternal pleasures of travel. The time and place that afforded past travelers a daydream still evokes a contentment that seeps into my soul, decades, and sometimes centuries later. At other times, it is shocking and disheartening to acknowledge that some of the old enchantment has gone forever. Times have changed.

Mt. Vesuvius, looking down to the Bay of Naples

Mt. Vesuvius, looking down to the Bay of Naples

We learn this today. Bernadette and I take the little Circumvesuviana train from Naples to Pompeii with the intention of traveling to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius and looking into the crater. We plan to travel by bus and then chair lift. Here is where old travel books can get me into trouble. At the bus ticket counter, we learn that the chair lift has not operated since 1984! Somewhat disappointed and somewhat relieved that we will not be dangling in a swaying chair over the slopes of Vesuvius, we board the bus. The narrow road snakes its way, ever upward, through an extraordinary variety of vegetation. The foothills are planted in orchards and vineyards, where vines have thrived since classical times in the rich volcanic soil. Lacrima Cristi, one of the region's most famous vineyards, produces both red and white wines. The name refers Christ's sorrow (tears) when he saw that Lucifer had stolen this patch of paradise. Our favorite is the white, a medium dry wine with an unforgettable bouquet - like the flowers that scent the mountain air. As we climb higher, the rolling hills are covered with oak and chestnuts trees, and patches of yellow broom.

Thanks to our very capable bus driver, we safely reach the old chair lift station, where we make a first stop, mostly for the purpose of buying water or souvenirs! We get to meet Andrea de Gregorio, a man who makes this stop worthwhile or at least I see it that way. Andrea has traveled from his home in Torre del Greco to this station every day for over fifty years. For thirty-nine of those years he operated the chair lift until it was struck by lightening and put out of service, never to be re-opened. He is proud of his stewardship of the slopes of Vesuvius and together with his daughter, Vanna, continues to operate this little station, where he takes the time to explain, quite expertly in several languages, the history of the volcano. Apparently, the environmentalists were opposed to the re-opening of the chair lift, but as Andrea and Vanna see it, there is more damage being done to the environment by the many motor coaches today that take tourists up the tightly coiled roads of the slopes to the last station. We are among those thousands of tourists.

Vesuvius, crater

By the time we reach the second station, the landscape has changed dramatically, now barren and rocky and black! From this point, one must go on foot. It takes about one hour and twenty minutes of climbing on hot black gravel with no shade to protect the hikers from the intense sunshine. I opt to sit on the veranda of the little souvenir shop/cafe and read. There is shade and a pleasant breeze. I have time to imagine what the ascent was like for earlier visitors who had to reach the summit exclusively on foot, on horseback or by being carried on sedan chairs! Then in 1880, the Vesuvius funicular was inaugurated, amid much celebration. The lively Neapolitan song "Funicul, Funicul" was written to commemorate this event. In 1888, the concession of the funicular was ceded to the Thomas Cook & Son Company, already famous in the world of travel. In 1906, eruptions destroyed the lower and upper stations, the restaurant and two of the funicular carriages. Damages were repaired, but on March 12, 1911, a new eruption destroyed the upper station a second time. It took one year to repair the damage. In the last eruption of 1944, the funicular, which was then under control of the Allies, was destroyed beyond repair, never to be rebuilt.

Seven years passed before the contract to build the new chair lift was granted. On July 8, 1953, the new chair lift of Mt. Vesuvius was inaugurated; the first twin-seated moving chair lift in Italy, built at a third of what it would have cost to rebuild the funicular. For the next three decades, Andrea operated the lift. Now, he looks back with nostalgia and, like the old traveler that resides in me, must acknowledge that some of the old enchantment has gone forever. Times have changed!

Mt. Vesuvius, old lava flow

Mt. Vesuvius, old lava flow


Travel Notes - Visiting Volcanoes in Italy: Notes about Mt. Vesuvius and Mt. Etna.

About the Author

Ginda Simpson is an American artist/writer now living in the Umbrian countryside. It has been said of her work, "her paintings tell stories, her stories paint pictures." For more information, please visit www.gindasimpson.com.

© Ginda Simpson, 2006

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