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One of the most romantic volcanoes in the world, Vesuvius is also one of the most dangerous; yet, people continue to live on its fertile slopes, in spite of the eruption in 1944, as they have since antiquity.

Named Vesvinum or Vesuvinum after its vineyards, which were famous for their excellent wine even millennia ago, the volcano's first known eruption was in A.D. 79. Others followed in 202, 472, 512, 1139, and 1306. A long period of quiet lulled the local inhabitants into a false sense of security which was violently shattered in 1631 when a particularly strong eruption caused widespread destruction. Further eruptions in 1794 (nicely timed for Goethe's visit, when a guide hauled him up through the poisonous smoke to look into the crater), 1871, 1906, and 1944 were less devastating. The most recent signs of activity were in 1999 -- some puffs of smoke, just to keep everybody on their toes. However, it is widely acknowledged that Vesuvius has lain dormant for long enough; it's now a question of when rather than if it will blow its top again and experts believe that the next eruption will be similar to that of A.D. 79.

The only volcano still active on mainland Europe, Mount Vesuvius is part of the Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio (tel. 081-8653911; www.parconazionaledelvesuvio.it). The car park and entrance to the park are at an altitude of 1,000m (3,281 ft.). Of its nine trails, the most popular is Gran Cono (path number 5) which ascends to the crater. Admission is by guided tour only (8€, free for children 7 and under). Tours are led by a volcanologist and are offered throughout the day (no reservation necessary). The climb traverses hardened lava to the rim, 170m (558 ft.) above the park entrance, and 1,170m (3,839 ft.) above sea level. The trail affords great views of the crater itself and the whole Gulf of Naples. The park is open daily (Nov-Mar 9am-3pm; Apr-May 9am-5pm; June-Aug 9am-6pm; Sept-Oct 9am-5pm). Note: The trail to the crater closes in extreme weather.

Below the park entrance, at 608m (1,995 ft.) is the Observatory (tel. 081-6108483; www.ov.ingv.it): Established in 1841 to monitor Mount Vesuvius's activity, it is the oldest and one of the most respected volcanology research centers in the world. You can visit its rich scientific library and Geological Museum, Via Osservatorio 14 (tel. 081-6108483), which holds a vast collection of minerals and scientific instruments from the 18th century onward (Mon-Fri 9am-noon; Sat-Sun 10am-noon; Mar-May also open daily 1:30-3pm; closed Jan 1 and 6, Easter and Easter Monday, Aug 1-31, Dec 8, 24-26, and 31; free admission).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.