Two wonders on the bay of Naples
Tourist attractions come in two kinds: those that turn out to be far more impressive than you ever imagined, and those that look much better on the postcard than in real life. I always thought that the crater of Mount Vesuvius would fall firmly in the second category. But I was wrong.
Let me say straight away that, for the middle-aged, it’s not the gentle stroll that it's often made out to be. For this trip we had invested in the new edition of the Blue Guide to Southern Italy and the entry on Vesuvius was only one of many things it got wrong.
The Blue Guides used to be reassuringly boring: loads of close printed information, careful directions to the B. Daddi altarpiece in the second chapel on the left, and art gallery collections listed obsessively, but usefully, room by room. The new version has fewer “facts”, a smattering of sub-Dorling-Kindersley pictures and no obvious sign that those who have updated it have actually been to many of the places they talk about (always the benchmark of a good guidebook).
In the case of Vesuvius, it said that the crater was a ten minute walk from the car-park. Well maybe the athletic young can cover almost a kilometre at a 15% incline in ten minutes, but most of those making the trek on Sunday were taking a good half hour (even with the “free” walking sticks handed out at the start of the path).
Yet when you get to the top, there’s not only a great view, over Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the crater itself (il gran cono) is truly gob-smacking: vast, sulphur-smelling and ominously steaming through its fissures. It really did feel like coming face to face with the earth’s dangerous underbelly.
But if Vesuvius won a touristic star from me, so too – more surprisingly – did the Blue Grotto.
I had always avoided Capri’s Blue Grotto in a frankly rather snobbish way. I’d seen too many garish postcards and nasty souvenirs, and tut-tutted about the pollution that tourism was causing in the grotto, even though I’d never seen it.
Capri is a very strange place: owned by day trippers from Naples and Sorrento by day, by the local plutocracy and up market holiday-makers at night. It has no function other than tourism – and it never has had since the Roman empire, when the emperor Tiberius took up long term residence. It is one of the few places in Italy where bars charge 30 euros for 3 beers and a coke without apparently batting an eyelid.
There is no much to do there, apart from spend money or visit Tiberius’s “palace” (the not hugely impressive "Villa Iovis”). So the Blue Grotto comes near the top of the tourist list – all because when you get inside this seaside cavern, the sun coming in through the sea gives the water a weirdly translucent sheen.
Actually it turns out to be a rather well choreographed excursion. You can only enter the grotto in rowing boats which hold just four people (or actually, as the boatmen themselves insist, four “Westerners” or six Japanese – because they’re smaller and make up a good proportion of the visitors). We had been advised to take a cab to the water’s edge rather than arrive in one of the large boats that travel round the coast from the harbour. (If you go in one of those you can wait for ages while the whole boatload gets into the little boats, four or six at a time.).
We were quickly squashed into a rowing boat (four people was 36 euros, but somehow there didn’t seem to be any change from 50) and were told to lie down in order to get into the grotto – because the entrance is less than a metre high. It takes a very long 30 seconds or so to get inside, but once there the sight of the gleaming blue sea in the dark cavern is absolutely stunning. And the fat tip extracted from the change did seem to buy us a decent time inside.
A stern notice insisted that swimming was not allowed. A pity – especially as there were Roman (Tiberian?) remains which suggested that that was exactly what had happened in antiquity. Another example of the Romans’ exquisite good taste when it comes to water features.
What, you are now asking, was I doing indulging in these touristic activities, when I was supposed to have my nose to the grindstone at Pompeii? Well the second reason for my going to Naples was to look a bit more closely at nineteenth-century travel to the region. Two of the Victorian highspots here were the Grotto and the crater (yes, vulcanologists one and all, I know it was a different shape then!). So all this counted as work!