You don’t ever seem to really leave Naples, the names just change. These names that were once distinct and separate towns and settlements have now melded into one, as if they are the mud and magma rivulets that flow down these slopes. You are heading up the mountain before the town drops away behind you. It’s a beautiful drive, if you’re lucky enough to have a reasonably restrained driver that allows you to relax rather than worry about the driving. The mountainside is heavily covered in bush and scrub, and we see a small fire in amongst it that we had mistaken as a smoking fissure.
Our first view of Vesuvius is from across the bay, from Naples itself – she is majestic, beautiful, the classic volcanic cone from some angles and a saddle shape from others. The water still, the air warm, the bay itself full of activity. A wonderful, ominous scene. I have a fear being in proximity to such power. It reminds me of when I was a boy, and my family used to holiday in a small town below a hydro-electric dam. I would wake up in the night, terrified that the dam was going to burst, and that the lake – millions of cubic metres of water – would inundate us, come crashing down on us. My fear being so close to the mountain is that it will detonate, explode under me. It does not prevent me from getting on the mountain itself, but it sits there in the background, dark.
You might get the warnings, but the thought never really crosses your mind to leave, not until someone says go, or someone gets killed. Tacitus tells the story of an earthquake occurring as the reviled Emperor Nero made his first absurd stage appearance in Naples. The accounts differ as to whether the audience stayed to watch the lunatic thespian complete his performance, or whether they scattered as the teatro collapsed underneath them. These people made a value judgement – risk the wrath of the emperor, or ride the collapsing theatre down to the ground. Then, as now, earthquakes were commonplace in that part of the world, and the cues to escape would need to be particularly strong to force such action.
As the bus pulls in to the parking area close to the top, there are people, buses and cars everywhere, canteens, ice-cream and souvenir shops. You have to run the gamut of these, to get to the entrance. The entrance? There is a gate through which one must pass and present a paid for ticket, before one can enter. Why must I pay to walk on a mountain? Who owns this? They can’t stop me walking on this mountain, surely – it belongs to no-one/everyone? Is there some cost to maintain the mountain? Some mountainous house-keeping that I don’t know about, even less conceive of? To impose a man-made absurdity like payment to get on to this, of all mountains. This volcano, that has so often swept humanity aside without thought or consideration. We, little people, fail to recognise our own folly.
It inspires a minimising kind of awe to walk up the side of the caldera, such innate power bubbling somewhere just beneath the surface. Look into the crater, and you realise you are staring at a plug – a plug which has the pressure building up underneath it, so that if the plug breeches it will release a torrent over us, rather than draining a torrent away. This mountain that helps the planet breathe, that recycles the planet by bringing the core to the surface and returning the surface to the core. We are talking planetary scales.
You feel connected with the core of the planet here, it’s cycles and processes. Look out across the Bay of Naples and you feel like you’re also at the planets rooftop, as if your head might skim the upper bounds. The bay stretches out into the distance, blue and curvaceous with the city dusted thickly on her shoreline. Thousands of years of human history lie down there, amongst the most compelling history that I know. All of this exists here because of the riches in the ocean, and the riches produced from the earth because of the mountain. The city diminishes in the haze. There are signs of movement down there, the boats and their wakes leaving temporary scars across the water’s surface. A helicopter circles around the brushfire. On the pathway up to the caldera, and back down in the car-park below, signs of activity and movement.
This mountain doesn’t know, it doesn’t care, who we are.