Life in the Red Zone

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August 13th 2017
Published: August 14th 2017
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Today is an important day. Today we have booked a tour to climb Mount Vesuvius, which is the first of the three volcanoes we plan to climb on this trip. I have been keeping a close eye on the mountain from our balcony since we arrived. I haven't seen any smoke or noticed any earthquakes, so I think it should be safe to climb it today. It would be a bit inconvenient if it erupted while we were climbing it and interrupted our trip.

Issy is still feeling the after effects of her seasickness tablets so she tells me that she will not be going on today's tour, and will sit by the pool instead. I hope that she hasn't heard something about an impending eruption that she's not telling me about. I think that by now she's probably seen the pictures of the girls eating ice cream on the beach in Positano, so I think that maybe she's hoping that there will be an eruption today.

I get on the bus by myself and it sets off towards the volcano. Our guide's name is Rafaela and she provides commentary as we go. She says that we will go through some short tunnels on the way to the mountain. She says that longest of these is only five kilometres long. I think that there must some very impressive tunnels where she comes from. She says that people from the south of Italy have a reputation for being lazy, and that this applies to every aspect of their lives except for when they are driving. She says that as soon as they get in a car they can't wait for anything. She says that we will get to Mount Vesuvius quite quickly today, because we are in a bus. She says that cars tend to stay out of the way of buses because they know that if there is a crash "the bus will win".

I am sitting next to an English girl who is in Sorrento for a week with her boyfriend, who is sitting across the aisle. Her name is Sharna and she is from Leicester. We hear Rafaela's comments about the drivers and start chatting. I tell her that yesterday's experience on the bus to Positano was too much for Issy and she has decided to stay by the pool. Sharna says that she spent some time in Rome, where she says that the drivers were all mad. We watch as a man rides a bike along the busy road that we are on. He is not wearing a helmet and he is talking on his mobile phone.

I ask Sharna what it was like in Leicester when Leicester City won the English Premier League last year. She says that it was amazing. She says that the team was something like five thousand to one to win at the start of the season, so it is probably something that will never happen again. She says that there's not usually anything to do in Leicester, so it really put the city on the map.

Rafaela tells us a bit about Mount Vesuvius. She says that the most famous eruption was in 79 AD, but there have been lots of other eruptions as well. The most recent was in 1944, and produced a number of lava flows which destroyed whole villages. The crater was open before the 1944 eruption, so it was not particularly severe, but it then collapsed, so that the magma is now under an eight kilometre deep volcanic plug. The pressure required for the magma to break through the plug means that the mountain will explode the next time it erupts. I don't think that this will be good. It seems that they have lots of instruments in place to detect any signs of an imminent eruption. These include infrared cameras to sense changes in temperature, and sensors to detect swelling of the ground and any changes in the gases in the crater. Vulcanologists think that they will have about three days warning of an imminent eruption, and there is a comprehensive emergency management plan in place. There are 800,000 people in 25 villages in the so called Red Zone around the mountain, and they would all need to be evacuated in advance of an eruption. The main hazard isn't the lava which flows quite slowly; the real risk comes from the pyroclastic cloud of ash, gases and volcanic rock. Rafaela says that this would reach the coast, which is several kilometres away, in only five or at most six minutes.

The eruption in 79 AD went on for about a day and was in two distinct phases. The first phase sent rocks raining down on Pompeii and collapsed most of the buildings. The pyroclastic cloud came in the second phase. This covered Pompeii in eight metres of ash, and this ash and the toxic fumes in the cloud killed all the people who survived their homes collapsing.

It seems that we are very lucky to be able to climb the mountain today. There was a bad fire on the slopes of the mountain recently, and no one was allowed to climb it for three weeks. This is only the third day that it has been reopened. The fire was apparently deliberately lit, and the police have yet to identify the culprits. The damage caused by the fire is very evident all around us.

We arrive at a car park part of the way up the mountain, and Rafaela tells us that it is about a twenty minute walk from here to the top. The views from the trail over the Bay of Naples are excellent. The crater is massive, and photos don't do any justice to the scale of it. It has vertical sides around most of it, but we can see other places where there have been rockfalls. We are told that these happen quite frequently, and the vulcanologists then need to be lowered down into the crater to dig out any sensors that have become buried.

We walk back down to the bus and head towards Pompeii. As well as being an archaeological site, Pompeii is also a modern town. Sharna starts laughing. She points out a large bingo hall across the road from the entrance to the archaeological site. This looks ridiculously out of place.

We stop for lunch at a restaurant near the entrance to the site. There are about forty of us in the group and they have reserved six tables for us. I think that I am the only person who is on their own. I sit down at one of the empty tables, and a family of four sits down on the opposite side of the table to me. There is a mother and father, and their two teenage daughters. No one else comes to join us. There are now two seats separating me from one of the daughters on one side, and one seat separating me from the father on the other side. This is starting to feel very awkward. I tell them that I am feeling lonely over here by myself, so I move across one seat so that I am now sitting next to the father. I now feel like I am the fifth member of a family of four. I am sure they think that I must be a creepy old man if I am here by myself. The mother can sense the awkwardness and tries to make conversation. I tell them that I have an actual wife and that she is back at the hotel, but I don't think that they believe me. They tell me that they are from Falkirk in the north of Scotland. I try to talk to the father, but I am struggling to understand anything that he says. I think he's speaking English, but it's hard to be sure. I tell them that I am from Australia, and he responds that he likes Foster's Lager; at least I think that's what he says. The conversation lags again, and it is feeling more awkward than ever. I hope that something will happen so that I can find an excuse for leaving. I even start hoping that the mountain might erupt and put us all out of our misery. It is so awkward that the Scottish family have now even stopped talking to each other. The seconds drag on. Dessert arrives and I gobble it down. I now have a reasonable excuse for leaving. I browse through the books on sale at the entrance to the restaurant, while I wait for everyone else to finish their meals.

We enter Pompeii. Rafaela says that the site is massive, and to see it all would take at least three days. She says that we have only two hours so we will only be able to see the highlights. She says that they have still not excavated all of the site and they are finding new buildings and artefacts all the time. She says that they found a significant new artefact only a week ago. We start our tour at the amphitheatre, and then move onto a villa. There is very scary looking lady at the villa whose job it is to make sure that no one touches any of the frescoes or takes pictures of them using a flash. I think that she has a very difficult job. We move onto the brothel, which it seems is a very famous attraction. Rafaela explains that we will see a series of frescoes on the walls near the entrance which were effectively the brothel's menu. They show the different positions that the different prostitutes were best at, based on the ratings of the clients which were written on the walls. Apparently the ratings were written in a wide range of languages, as Pompeii was a port visited by sailors from all over the Mediterranean. I wonder if there's a modern day prostitute rating site on the internet. I really hope that there isn't. Our last stop is the forum, which is a large open area which served as the town square.

We drive back to Sorrento and I find Issy sitting by the pool.

We chose a different restaurant for dinner in one of the narrow alleyways in the town centre. We finish eating and order a round of limoncello followed quickly by another round. Issy is looking very happy again. She says that from now on she wants to be photographed with the waiter at every restaurant we go to. She says that she is very disappointed that we didn't get a photo with our Punjabi waiter last night. We warn tonight's waiter that we are writing a blog and that he might appear in it.

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