Treading Lightly on Mount Vesuvius

Stand at the bottom of the great market-place of Pompeii, and look up at the silent streets . . . over the broken houses with their inmost sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright and snowy in the peaceful distance; and lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun.

-- Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy

A volcano that has struck terror in Campania, the towering Mount Vesuvius looms over the Bay of Naples. On August 24, A.D. 79 Vesuvius blew its top and buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae under a toxic, molten mixture of ash and volcanic mud. (Many of the finds fromt hese archaeological sites are on display in Boscoreale at the Antiquarium Nazionale Uomo e Ambeinte Territorio Vesuviano.) Vesuvius has erupted periodically ever since: thousands were killed in 1631, and in 1906 it blew the ring off its crater. The last spectacular eruption was on March 31, 1944.

The approach to the top of Vesuvius is dramatic, with the terrain growing increasingly foreboding. Along the way, you'll see villas rising on its slopes, and vineyards: the citizens of Pompeii enjoyed wine from grapes grown here. Today, the grapes produce an amber-colored wine, Lacrimae Christi (Tears of Christ).

It might sound like a dubious invitation, but it's possible to visit the rim of the crater's mouth. As you look down into its smoldering core, you might recall that Spartacus, a century before the eruption that buried Pompeii, hid in the hollow of the crater, which was then covered with vines.

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