I’ve been fascinated by volcanoes ever since I learnt to read and started picking up books about them from the children’s section of the local library. For years I wanted to be a volcanologist when I grew up. This plan got waylaid by my inability to engage with science or other kinds of geology at school, but my interest never waned, and seeing as many active volcanoes as I can has been a major feature in my future travel plans ever since I started seeing the world a few years ago.
Given that Europe, where my travels thus far have mostly taken place, is not a hotspot for volcanic activity these days, I haven’t got very far through my list yet…however, I was able to make a start two years ago on a trip to Italy, which boasts several rumbling mountains (plus one “supervolcano” lying under the Bay of Naples).
After an awe-inspiring visit to the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcanic eruption 2000 years ago but so well preserved by the volcanic mud that the streets, statues and even some Latin graffiti remain, and some of the buildings are still recognisable, I couldn’t wait to climb the very beast responsible for this event; Mount Vesuvius, still “alive” although it hasn’t erupted for years, and an extremely dangerous volcano – another eruption like the one which wiped out Pompeii is possible, and would cause mass devastation in the modern day metropolis that is the city of Naples. So this is no mere mountain.
A minibus took us most of the way up, and then we had to climb the remainder of the way. I say climb, but it was just a walk – it was fairly steep but not too arduous, and quite a short journey, with spectacular views of the sea in the distance. At first it felt like any other hike…and then the whiff of rotten eggs began to fill the air, and I started to get excited – I grew up watching Dante’s Peak so I knew that that smell was the sulphur that signalled volcanic activity. The smell grew stronger as we reached the top, and I scurried to the edge of the crater to see my very first volcano in action…
There was one little wisp of steam floating up from the rocks below.
Everything else looked, well, normal. My parents had visited before I was born and my mum had told me many times about their horrible climb up here and how the hot ground destroyed her sandals, but, apart from the smell, it just felt like a regular rocky mountain top. It was hard to imagine that this was the volcano that had wrought such devastation, and possibly will do so again. It didn’t feel very dangerous, as we jostled for good photograph positions with the other tourists, milling around the stalls selling jewellery, water and other souvenirs lining the rim.
There was no time to contemplate the experience, however; our minibus driver had given us a tight time frame to return, so after a few photographs and a short wander around, we had to head back down to the car park.
So was Vesuvius a total disappointment? Not entirely. I learnt from this that on my travels, not everything will be amazing, and it’s OK to be underwhelmed! And sometimes you have to use your imagination; standing there atop the volcano that had caused such havoc, knowing that beneath my feet it was boiling away furiously, even if I couldn’t see or feel it, was still a great feeling. Plus, I’d made it. Growing up, we weren’t able to go abroad, and it had never really occured to me that as as adult I might actually be able to go to these places that I’d read about. I’d done it; I’d started on my volcano travel list, and there were many more still to come.
A few days later we had left the mainland and arrived on Sicily, where we climbed Mount Etna; now, that felt like a volcano. If you’re volcano-hunting in Italy, that’s the one I’d recommend!