Volcanic adventures in Italy and Sicily

This post was originally published on my first travel blog on 18 August 2013.

I am a bit obsessed with volcanoes, so I wanted to spend five days based in Naples, to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius, then three days on Sicily, primarily to climb Mount Etna, but also to lie around on the beach for a bit after all that culture and history. I had originally planned a solo trip as usual, but my friend B had always wanted to visit the excavations, so she came along with me.

We arrived in Naples late on a Sunday evening, after a flight delay of two hours which scuppered our plans to take the bus from the airport to the central train station, and from there to walk to our hotel in the historical quarter, next to the university; being as it was after dark and neither of us had visited the city before, we decided to take a taxi from the airport. This cost 35 euros for a trip of a few miles though; if I’d known we were going to arrive so late I would have prebooked a transfer or taxi which I suspect would have been cheaper. This was our first introduction to Italian driving…more to come on that!

We stayed at the Hotel Europeo for our five nights in Naples. This was cheap and cheerful; a small but decent room (although the frosted glass window on the bathroom door was a bit odd, especially for a twin room which one would presume is being shared by friends rather than partners!) with enough storage space (and plug sockets) for two people. I’d definitely recommend this place for a stay in Naples. The location was great for exploring both the city itself, and for getting the train out to the other places we wanted to visit. Breakfast is not included but there are plenty of cafes nearby; we generally turned left out of the hotel and headed up to the square – Piazza San Domenico – where you can take a seat in the sun and enjoy some Italian coffee and local speciality sfogliatelle or other pastries to start your day off nicely.

Sfogliatelle

Sfogliatelle

We spent Monday exploring the city. We both tend towards just wandering around discovering things, and the historical quarter is perfect for this; lots of little side streets to mooch through, covered in colourful graffiti. After some lunch we headed up to the Naples National Archaeological Museum, where you can find a number of artefacts from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other excavation sites in the area; definitely worth a visit, particularly if you’re also planning on visiting those sites, as we were. This was exciting preparation for seeing the sites themselves. It’s a bit of a gamble what you’ll get to see; on any day a number of rooms will be closed, and some artefacts will be on loan elsewhere (some are currently in the British Museum in London at the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition which is running until September 2013 – also worth a visit!) – but we managed to see plenty.

Naples graffiti

Naples graffiti

Naples

Naples

For our first evening meal in Naples, it had to be pizza! Having read in various places that a margherita is the only genuine Napoli pizza, I had to go for that, along with a bottle of local beer, and it was delicious! We ate at Lombardi a Santa Chiara as it was just up the road from our hotel. Great pizza, but we found our waiter a bit abrupt; when we asked politely (in Italian) if we could have milk with our coffee, we were told rather sharply that “this is a restaurant, not a bar”!

Pizza

Pizza!

On Tuesday, we took the train out to Pompeii. The train goes every half-hour from the Central station (also known as Garibaldi); follow the signs for the Circumvesuviana Railway which is under the main station, and purchase your ticket at the booth down there; if you try to buy from the machines in the main station you will only see an option for Pompei, which is the modern town; you want Pompei Scavi. Equally, make sure you get on the train heading for Sorrento. The journey took about 40 minutes and was on a crowded train with no air-conditioning, but had some fabulous views of Mount Vesuvius as we got nearer.

Pompeii is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit, along with Herculaneum, which we visited the next day. I’m told it’s starting to disintegrate (not surprising considering the number of people who were standing on the pillars in the basilica to pose for photos etc.) so I’d urge you to visit as soon as you can. I think my favourite section was the forum, which was intact enough to still look like the forum; with the volcano looming ahead, I could see how it would have looked back in Roman times, like all of the artist impressions. It was mindblowing to walk through streets that still looked like streets, following the footsteps of a whole city of people who last stepped there nearly 2000 years ago. Take a bottle of water if it’s hot, definitely take your camera, and allow plenty of time; we arrived late morning and stayed almost until closing time at 7.30pm – you essentially need a whole day to see Pompeii properly.

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

Pompeii

On Wednesday we took the same train, in the same direction, to visit Mount Vesuvius and Herculaneum. The trip to Ercolano Scavi took about 20 minutes. We decided to start with the volcano. If you’re wanting to go up, it’s best to do this from Herculaneum rather than Pompeii, firstly because it’s closer, but also because you’ll need a whole day for Pompeii, remember! We took the Vesuvio Express as it seemed like the only option to get up the mountain for those of us without a car; the ticket office is just outside of the station. They’ll sell you a ticket for twenty euros which includes transportation up and back down again in their minibus and entry to the crater. The climb from the car park to the crater is steep but not overly difficult. This was my first experience of an active volcano, and while it was brilliant to actually be up there, it wasn’t really doing much – just a small wisp of steam! It was also quite a rushed trip; we were given about 90 minutes to ascend, look around, and get back to the minibus. I think it took us about 40 minutes to get up, slightly less to get down, which meant we didn’t have much time up there. I’m glad we made the trip though; it was quite something to be stood on the mountain which has wrought so much havoc, and will do so again in the future.

Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius

Modern Herculaneum is a busy little town and there were plenty of places to have some lunch before heading down the excavations, which are about 15 minutes’ walk down from the train station. Like in Pompeii, it was amazing to stand in those streets. Herculaneum in some ways is more spectacular as it is much better-preserved; everywhere you turn, there’s another mosaic! Also, being much closer to the volcano, you get a real sense of the mountain looming over the town. It’s smaller than Pompeii so we only needed a few hours there; easily done in an afternoon.

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

Herculaneum

Thursday was our last day in Naples, and with our feet aching after all of the walking around the excavations in previous days (wear good shoes!), we had a slow day mooching around the city again. We explored the area down by the docks, went into the Castell d’Ovo (Castle of the Egg – so named as it’s said that the poet Virgil put an egg into the foundations, which, if broken, would mean the collapse of the castle and destruction of the city) which is worth the walk out to as, unlike the more prominent Castel Nuevo, it’s free to enter, and offers amazing views of the port and Vesuvius (unfortunately a bit misty that day!). We had lunch by the harbour, then headed back up to the historical quarter to do some souvenir shopping at the various local shops, before ending our time in Naples with another pizza!

Naples

Naples

Naples

Naples

Naples often gets bad press. Reactions to my saying we were going there were not always positive (note to well-meaning family and friends: if you tell me that a place is too dangerous for me to visit, I WILL go there!), and I was expecting to have to be extra-cautious about safety and to have to deal with harassment in the streets. In reality, we experienced no harassment whatsoever (unlike in my current town of Bedford where I get it almost daily), and felt completely safe – with the exception of crossing the road! Drivers in Naples don’t stop for pedestrians – they will try to nudge around you and get through before you – and the scooters appear out of nowhere, even on streets which you’d be convinced were pedestrianised. My advice is to follow someone who looks like a local, at least until you’ve built up your confidence in crossing the road without getting killed! Some say that Naples is dirty and chaotic, but I loved that about it. The historical quarter is vibrant and fun to explore. I would say don’t let the bad reputation that it has put you off – give it a try yourself. It won’t be for everyone, I’m sure, but if you’ve enjoyed your time in other large European cities, I think you’d find something to like in Naples too.

On Friday it was time to pack up and head to Sicily. We were going by train, as I wanted the experience of travelling on a train which gets shunted onto a boat to cross the sea! The journey takes all day, although I think there’s a sleeper train if you’d prefer to do it that way. We took the train leaving Naples Central station at 9.55am, and we arrived at our final destination at about 4.30pm. The train is an old-fashioned one with compartments of six people, and you’ll want to book a ticket in advance (I got ours from Rail Europe) to ensure you have a reserved seat, as our train was busy. The seats were spacious and comfortable and there was sufficient space in the overhead luggage storage for our suitcases. We were in a compartment with four Italians who didn’t speak much English, and we didn’t speak Italian, so communication was a bit tricky! It was amusing to watch these four strangers become friends with each other over the journey though; they were immediately chatting away. You might want to bring ear-plugs or something with headphones if you’re wanting a quiet journey! The route down through southern Italy took about four and a half hours I think, and we went through some mountain towns and saw some great scenery. I think there was a buffet car but the train was packed so we didn’t go and investigate; we’d bought a packed lunch along with us just in case, which I’d recommend doing as it’s so much easier.

When we got to the port at Calabria, right in the toe of Italy, it was just like getting onto a car ferry in a vehicle! Once we were on, we were able to leave the train and go up on deck. The crossing was only about 20 minutes but it was a beautiful afternoon, and good to get some fresh air and sun after being on the train for so long. At Messina, we all piled back onto the train and were shunted off to continue our journey; a little while later we got off at our destination of Taormina-Giardini, to take a short ride on the bus to our hostel in Giardini-Naxos, which would be our base for the next few days. I’m glad we experienced the train, but if I were to do the trip again, I would probably choose another option – I think there are boats from Naples to Messina – as it’s a long journey. It definitely needs to be done once though!

Boat crossing

Boat crossing

We stayed at Gianni House, in a private twin room (bunk beds) with our own bathroom. I can’t recommend this hostel enough; it was cheap and comfortable, in a brilliant location just five to ten minutes’ walk from the beach, friendly and welcoming, and had an awesome roof terrace with a view of Mount Etna!

View of Mount Etna

View of Mount Etna

Gianni was immensely helpful; in the weeks before we came, I had been trying to find an Etna tour departing from Taormina which would take us as far up the mountain as possible, and had been struggling to find anything. I emailed Gianni with our requirements and he booked us onto a suitable tour.

After checking in, we raced down to the beach to catch some evening sun, making the most of our short time there! We had dinner at the wonderful Lido de l’Aurora Celeste, which overlooked the sea. I tried the local speciality penne alla norma, which is pasta with aubergine, and we enjoyed some local wine, which was lovely – I wish I’d bought some to bring back. I definitely recommend this place for an evening meal by the sea while you’re here.

Food

Food

On Saturday it was an early start to catch our tour to Mount Etna, the volcano which had brought us here. SAT operated the tour, and the bus departed at 8am from the Recanati bus station which was ten minutes’ walk from the hostel. We paid for the full tour, as far as we were allowed to go, which involved a cable car and then a jeep after the bus. You can stay at 1900m if you wish, and there are dead craters to see there, but you will be missing out if you don’t take the full trip. I don’t have adequate words to describe it – look at my photos (links at the bottom of the page) to get the full impression! It was like nothing I’d ever seen before; an alien landscape, and steam everywhere. I struggled a bit to see the volcano in Vesuvius, but here there was no doubt that we were standing on volatile terrain. I buried my fingers into the black soil at various points, sometimes discovering heat, at other times finding ice. I also couldn’t resist sticking my hand into some of the smaller steam vents, which I probably shouldn’t be recommending as I suspect it’s dangerous! This was a much less hurried affair than Vesuvius had been; we were given plenty of time to explore. This was the highlight of the whole holiday for me; it was just a wonderful experience. The tour is pricey at 85 euros each, but completely worth it. I’m now even more determined than ever to cross some more active volcanoes off my list!

Excitedface!

Excitedface!

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

Mount Etna

Sunday was completely given over to lying on the beach in the sun, which was blissful! It was a clear day and, as we floated on our backs in the sea, we could see Etna gently smoking away; a brilliant view. The day ended pleasantly too, with Gianni cooking pasta for all of the hostel guests, which we ate on the roof terrace as we chatted with people from all over the world. Another reason to stay at this hostel!

We managed some gelato and a walk by the beach before leaving on Monday to catch a bus to Catania airport, from where we flew back to London, to recover from a busy and exhilarating eight days. I’d say that Etna is a must-see for volcano enthusiasts, and if you’re at all interested in history, get yourself to Pompeii and Herculaneum soon!

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