Our Insider Guide to Mt Vesuvius & Pozzuoli
Neapolitans call it ‘A Muntagna and it is the symbol of the city and, with its perfect form, closes the Gulf.
The majestic cone of Mt Vesuvius dominates a disquieting and evocative environment. The panorama from the top of the mountain extends from the Sorrentine Peninsula to Capo Posillipo and is especially breathtaking in the tenuous light of sunrise or with the intense one of sunset.
Mt Vesuvius is the only active volcano in continental Europe, and is also one of its most dangerous, as the land at its feet is densely populated. The summit to the left is that of Mount Somma (1133 mt), and to the right the cone of Vesuvius (1281 mt).
They are separated by a valley called Valle del Gigante (Valley of the Giant), in turn subdivided into Atria del Cavallo (Hall of the Horse, West) and Valle del Inferno (Valley of Hell, East).
Originally it was known for its excellent wines and for the thick vegetation that covered its summit. But it acquired a different fame, in 79 BC, when the volcano suddenly erupted. Entire cities, among which Pompeii and Herculaneum, were destroyed.
The last eruption, filmed by Allied troops, was in 1944. Since then the volcano has been dormant.
The Vesuvius National Park was established in 1991 and soon after UNESCO gave Mt Vesuvius the "World Biosphere Reserve" status. The Reserve includes all of the area around the volcano, the archaeological system of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and the so-called Miglio d'Oro (Golden Mile) with its splendid examples of 1700's and 1800's villas.
The flora of the Vesuvius varies from that of the Somma. The former is more arid and sunny, with typical Mediterranean vegetation and pine forests. The latter is moister, with chestnut, oak, maple and holm-oak trees. There are also many orchids, 23 species in all.
The Park has 9 different trails. The most popular climb takes people to the crater. Of medium difficulty, the trail leaves from Herculaneum, takes three hours and is four km long. It takes you to 1170 mt, where the view extends over the entire gulf on one side and into the abyss of the crater on the other.
The trail has been travelled by many writers: from Chekov (''What torture it is to climb Vesuvius! Walk, walk, walk, and the summit is still so distant!") to Chateaubriand ("Here I am on the top of Vesuvius. I am writing sitting on the mouth of the crater and am ready to descend into the depths of its crater!").
Today it is also possible to go up by car or bus.
The best roads leave from Herculaneum, Ottaviano and Somma Vesuviana.
The road that goes up from Herculaneum is the most interesting for its beautiful views of the gulf and for the evocative natural environment. After a first part that takes you through vineyards, one must proceed on foot over a path made of lava cinder that takes you to the edge of the crater.
Pozzuoli is one of the worlds' mast fascinating archaeological areas. An important port for the region in Roman times, the city revealed a surprising and unexpected "underground Pompeii" with the excavations in the Rione Terra.
Founded in 520 BC by Greek colonists with the name Dicearchia, or "Just Government", it was renamed Puteoli by the Romans (for the malodorous sulphur vapors that its wells emitted, since puteo means to stink), and became one of the main ports of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The so-called Temple of Serapis (1st or 2nd century BC) is proof of the active commerce conducted in Puteoli. The name is due to the discovery of a statue of an Egyptian divinity, but in reality, the so-called temple was a food market, or Macellum.
Macellum of Pozzuoli
The shops were lined up under the arches on the sides of the courtyard, and the apse was dedicated to the imperial cult and to the gods that protect the market (Serapis among them).
The columns of this hall are good measures of the force of the volcanic phenomenon of the Phlegrean area: you can see the small holes dug by marine shellfish when they were underwater.
The oldest part of town is Rione Terra, on the high part of the tufa rock that dominates the port.
Archaeological excavations revealed the fascinating texture of this Roman city, preserved intact underground, with its store lined streets.
Houses and fountains alternate with shops and restaurants. This was once the glorious acropolis of Puteoli, impermeable defense against the enemy.
The most significant monument of the area is the so-called Temple of Augustus, which was discovered after a fire in 1964 inside the baroque Cathedral of San Procolo, tha patron saint of Pozzuoli .
Duomo of Pozzuoli, columns of the ancient Temple of Augustus
It is now the Duomo di Pozzuoli, but in Ancient Romean times it was the Capitolium, or the temple of the Capitoline trinity cult.
The Amphitheater dates to Flavian times, and is the third largest in the world. Its functional architecture is an excellent example of the technological levels reached in that era: it has underground spaces, wide stairwells, corridors, a contraption to lift the wild beasts' cages and even a device to reenact naval battles.
Pozzuoli does not just offer archaeological remains. This lively town has a strong sense of identity: ingrained ties to an age-old maritime tradition (proven by the excellent cuisine) and a meeting place for young and old alike.
With its port (departure point of the ferryboats to the islands), its streets, small squares, lovely seafront and many bars, make this a lovely place to spend pleasant hours.
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