Monday, July 09, 2012

Pompeii: Roman city frozen in time

The ancient city of Pompeii — famously ruined in 79 AD when mighty Mount Vesuvius blew its top — is one of Italy's most popular tourist attractions. Few visitors make it to the top of the towering volcano, but those who do enjoy a commanding view.

You can get to Vesuvius with a train/bus/hike journey. You start by riding a rickety but reliable commuter train from Naples or Sorrento. From the Pompeii stop, a shuttle van takes you up the volcano to the end of the road. From there, it's a steep 30-minute hike to the desolate, lunar-like summit.

Belly up to the crater's edge. Steaming vents are a reminder that while Vesuvius is quiet today, it's just taking a geological nap. The last eruption was in 1944, and it's only a matter of when, not if, it will erupt again.

A hike around the crater's lip comes with spectacular vistas of Naples, its sweeping bay, and Pompeii. As you observe wisps of steam, imagine the scene nearly 2,000 years ago, when Vesuvius sent a mushroom cloud of ash, dust, and rocks 19 kilometres into the sky. For 18 hours straight, ash settled like a heavy snow on Pompeii. Most of the city's 20,000 residents fled.