Long gone is the plume of grey smoke that once rose from the peak of Mount Vesuvius, the legendary volcano looming over the Bay of Naples. But still the eye is inevitably drawn to the mighty cone, the sprawling towns creeping up the foot of the mountain, the smooth and slightly forbidding lava flows, and the thick woods, farmland and golden vineyards blanketing the upper slopes. One look and you can really get a feel of its astonishing complexity and power. There’s more to Vesuvius than the landmark and the legend, the paintings and the poetry. It’s rich heritage is full of surprises just waiting to be discovered. Herculaneum, Torre del Greco, Torre Annunziata, the buried city of Pompeii – one of the world’s most famous and visited archaeological sites – and Castellammare di Stabia all have their own unique identity. Nowhere else will you find such a concentration of geological and natural features, historical and archaeological attractions, or talented artists and artisans living and working on the slopes of the volcano, from the master craftsmen of coral and cameos to the maestros of pasta-making. A trip through these fertile lands past fields of bright red tomatoes and fruit orchards, miraculous springs and old thermal spas is a voyage of discovery, a socio-economic and cultural revelation. As they say, watch this space.
From Naples, the old Via Reggia di Portici, known as the Golden Mile, leads to Herculaneum, gateway to the Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio (Vesuvius National Park). Up at the top of the volcano are several trails you can explore with the help of an expert guide. Apart from an incredible variety of Mediterranean trees and plants (there are 900 native species), you’ll also have the chance to see the old lava fields produced by a series of eruptions – from the devastating explosion of AD 79 described by Pliny which buried Herculaneum and Pompeii to later blasts in 1631, 1737, 1794, 1822 and 1906. The last time Vesuvius blew its top was in 1944. The drive up to the Gran Cono, the Large Cone, (1,282 metres above sea level, 700 metres in diameter and 230 metres deep) will take you through an area packed with history, myth and legend, spectacular scenery and lava flow landscapes. In 2005, Mount Vesuvius was transformed into an open-air museum with a permanent exhibition of giant lava stone sculptures by ten internationally acclaimed artists installed along the winding road up to the crater.
A fascinating place to visit in the modern town of Herculaneum is the market of Resina, specializing in vintage and second-hand clothes. It’s one of the largest in Italy. Meanwhile, standing along Corso Resina are some of the loveliest villas of the Golden Mile, so called because of the magnificent residences built here in the 18th century. There are in actual fact no fewer than 122 between San Giovanni a Teduccio and Torre del Greco. One of the most well known is Villa Campolieto. Herculaneum’s number one attraction is of course the archaeological site. The ancient town was buried under a sea of mud during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Excavations began in 1738, but its fame was soon outshone by Pompeii, just over 20 kilometres away. Of particular interest is the Villa dei Papiri (Villa of the Papyri), where over one thousand papyri belonging to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, were discovered. They are currently housed in the Herculaneum Papyri section of the Naples National Library.
The road to Pompeii passes through the densely populated Torre del Greco, known as Italy’s “Coral Town”. For centuries coral has played a vitally important role in the local history. To get an understanding of what coral means to this area, you should visit the underground museum built out of a lava cave by Basilio Liverino in 1986 (his collection of corals and cameos includes over a thousand pieces and is one of the most important in the world), or the museum housed in the historic Istituto Statale d’Arte. Coral fishing has been practised since antiquity, and sailors from Torre del Greco have intrepidly plied every route in the Mediterranean from Africa to Sardinia and Corsica. In the 16th century the town boasted a fleet of 400 specialized vessels. Coral fishing was encouraged by Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, who in 1790 founded the Reale Compagnia del Corallo (Royal Coral Company). The jurist Michele de Jorio was given the task of drawing up the Codice Corallino, governing the coral trade. Scholars maintain that the name of the town derives from Turris Octava, as a watchtower once stood eight Roman miles down the consular road. The name was changed during the Middle Ages, and a document in Latin dated 1324 refers to “Torre Octava commonly known as Torre del Greco”, probably because a variety of vine originally from Greece was grown here. Known to have been inhabited in very ancient times, Torre del Greco was badly hit by several devastating eruptions of Vesuvius. The most disastrous took place in 1794, at the height of a period of great economic prosperity begun in the 16th century. The lava flow destroyed much of the town and buried a large number of churches. Many historical buildings were rebuilt after this dramatic event.
This was the ancient town of Oplontis, whose luxurious residential complex dating from the I century BC – also destroyed by the eruption of AD 79 – is said to have belonged to Poppaea Sabina, second wife of the emperor Nero. The villa was discovered during a series of excavations begun in 1964. Following the eruption the area was abandoned for a thousand years and gradually became covered over with thick woods, until Charles I of Anjou decided to donate some of the woodland to Count Pandolfo of Saxony. It later came into the hands of the Abbey of Real Valle. During the reign of Charles II, some of the local inhabitants asked the king for a plot of land to build a church in honour of Our Lady of the Annunciation and a village. A tower, Torre dell’Annunciata, was built nearby, hence the name. Today, Torre Annunziata is famous for its pasta factories. The first bronze dies for making pasta were in fact used here as early as the 16th century.
One place well worth visiting is the Antiquarium di Boscoreale, an archaeological museum set up in 1991 by the Soprintendenza Archeologica (Archaeological Department) of Pompeii. As well as housing finds from Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae, Terzigno and Boscoreale, the museum provides a fascinating insight into the habits and customs of the Romans living in this area. You can also see the remains of a Roman farm.
Pompeii’s major attraction is obviously the ancient Roman city left buried under six metres of ash and pumice stones for many hundreds of years. But before you visit what is probably the world’s most fascinating archaeological site, don’t miss a trip to the Santuario della Madonna del Rosario (Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary), visited by over four million pilgrims every year. The basilica houses a much venerated painting of Our Lady of the Rosary (studded with precious stones and set in a bronze frame), attributed to the School of Luca Giordano. The shrine was built over a period of many years. The original building, with a Latin cross plan and a single nave, was erected between 1876 and 1891 following a design by Antonio Cua, and covered an area of 420 square metres. In order to receive the huge numbers of pilgrims, two further aisles were added between 1934 and 1939, based on a project by the architect and priest Monsignor Spirito Maria Chiapetta, who was also responsible for directing the works. The two side aisles, which have three altars on each side, continue up behind the apse in an ambulatory decorated with four small semi-circular chapels. The interior, measuring 2,000 square metres, can accommodate about 6,000 people.
The ancient city of Pompeii lies on a plateau 30 metres above sea level not far from the mouth of the river Sarno. The town prospered thanks to its coastal location, and was the port used by towns in inland Campania competing with Greek settlements along the coast. Previously under the influence of the Greeks and the Etruscans, Pompeii came under the control of Samnite peoples who conquered the whole of Campania in the 5th century BC, bringing about significant urban and architectural changes. In the 2nd century BC, with the dominion of Rome over the Mediterranean facilitating the movement of goods, the town experienced a period of robust economic growth, particularly as regards the production and exportation of wine and oil. This period saw the construction of many public and private buildings. During the Imperial Age new pro-Augustan families settled in Pompeii. Then, in AD 62, a devastating earthquake caused extensive damage, and major restoration work and rebuilding was still underway when Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD 79. At that time Pompeii covered an area of about 64 hectares (over 44 hectares of the ancient town, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, have so far been excavated), and had a population of twenty thousand. The layout of the city was influenced by the Greek architect and urban planner Hippodamus of Miletus. Although it does not conform exactly to the rigid right-angled grid pattern and regular size of the blocks typical of Hippodamus, Pompeii can be said to be the first example of systematic urban planning in Italy.
Many visitors are surprised by how narrow the roads are. Most are between just under two and a half metres and four metres wide, with the widest measuring just over seven meters. On each side of the main roads there are raised pavements with large stepping stones placed between them to allow pedestrians to cross. Another striking feature found at many crossroads are the carved stone fountains surmounted by a rectangular stone basin. The fountains were fed by lead pipes connected to large cisterns, in turn fed by the aqueduct from Serino. The city walls are one of the most important fortification systems of pre-Roman Italic cities that still survive. At least four different phases of construction are visible. During the 2nd century BC, the city’s defences were further strengthened and later, around 100 BC, twelve towers were added. Pompeii had seven gates, five of which communicated with major roads outside the town. Just outside the walls lay large open areas mainly used as cemeteries, since bodies could not be buried or cremated within the city walls. The relationship between the living and the dead was a very close one. Some of the larger tombs had a dining room and even a kitchen for annual banquets held according to the wishes of the people buried there.
What follows is a quick look at some of the highlights of the archaeological site. The Terme Suburbane (Suburban Baths) are one of the most fascinating stops. The rooms on the ground floor housing the covered hot-water pool and cold-water pool are finely decorated, with frescoed walls. There was also a fake grotto with a mosaic depicting Mars and cupids from which water cascaded down to a pool beneath. In the Forum area stands the impressive Basilica, centre of justice and commerce. To the north lies the Tempio di Apollo (Temple of Apollo), certainly the oldest and most important religious building. Experts believe that from AD 80 onwards, Juno and Minerva were also worshipped at the Tempio di Giove (Temple of Jupiter), making this the city’s Capitolium, dedicated to the cult of the Capitoline Triad symbolizing Imperial power. Via dei Sepolcri, reached through Porta Ercolano (Gate of Herculaneum), leads to the Villa di Diomede (House of Diomedes) and then to the famous Casa degli Amorini Dorati (House of the Golden Cupids), named after the cupids on gold leaf decorating part of the interior). The villa was owned by Poppaeus Habitus, a relative of Nero’s second wife, and has a typical peristyle and garden onto which the rooms opened. Another very popular stop is the Lupanare, one of ancient Pompeii’s many brothels and certainly the most important considering that it was specially built. Visiting Pompeii is a truly remarkable experience and with the help of a professional guide you can gain an insight into this unique and fascinating place.
Lying by the sea on the slopes of Monte Faito is Castellammare. The name is believed to derive from the Latin castrum ad mare, referring to the 9th-century fortress around which the little town grew (founded, so the legend goes, by Hercules, and also buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 along with Pompeii). Archaeologically, the most interesting area is the promontory of Varano, the most important town in the area from the 1st century BC until the fatal eruption. Here you would once have found numerous villas and bathing complexes.
Castellammare has several claims to fame. The shipyards, founded in 1783, are the oldest in Italy. Many glorious ships were built here, such as the Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian Navy’s training ship, as well as large cargo ships and ferries. Construction of the legendary bathyscaphe Trieste designed by Auguste Piccard was also completed here. More recently, a well-equipped marina development has helped boost the nautical tourism industry. However, Castellammare is famous above all for its natural springs and spas, which gave the town its nickname “City of the Waters”. The town’s rich water resources comprising 28 different types of mineral waters (classified as sulphates, calcium bicarbonates and medium mineral content) have made it a major spa destination. Since the mid-1800s, spa tourism has been a key contributor to the local economy and tourism in general. There are two spa establishments, one in the old town and the other up in the hills, where therapeutic treatments are also available. The Antiche Terme, designed by the architect Catello Troiano, were inaugurated in 1836 and became not only a place for “taking the waters” but also a cultural centre. The Nuove Terme, situated on the Solaro hill near the village of Scanzano, opened on 16 July 1964 and extend over an area of over 100,000 square metres. The complex includes gardens for hydroponics and a facility with state-of-the-art equipment offering physiotherapy, hyperbaric medicine, massages, mud treatments, sulphurous water inhalations and rehabilitation as well as dermatological, cosmetic and gynaecological treatments. Castellammare’s mineral waters are also bottled and sold all over the world. Two of the most well known are Acqua della Madonna and Acetosella. Even Pliny the elder was a fan, and particularly recommended their use for sufferers of calculosis.
For the first Greek settlers from Thessaly, grapes were obviously enormously important. Locally grown white grape varieties include Falanghina, Coda di Volpe, Caprettone and Verdesca, while the most common reds are Sciascinoso, Aglianico and Piedirosso. As the name suggests, Catalanesca (a table grape) was introduced by the Spanish. Everyone has heard of Lacryma Christi, which is produced from a blend of all the above varieties and now has its own DOC status. Currently underway is a highly unusual project under the patronage of the Soprintendenza ai Beni Archeologici (Department of Archaeological Heritage) aimed at producing wine from traditional, native vines grown in a 1-hectare vineyard actually located inside the archaeological site of Pompeii. As well as its fine wines, the Mount Vesuvius area has a lot to offer in the food stakes too, such as Schito artichokes, grown around Castellammare. From the same area come the thick, finger-shaped biscotti di Castellammare (still sold in their classic shiny blue paper wrapping) and anise-flavoured biscuits traditionally enjoyed with a glass of Acqua della Madonna water. Vesuvian apricots do particularly well here thanks to the volcanic soil, rich in minerals and potassium. The season goes from the end of May to the end of July. At the time of Nero, they appeared in Cocumella’s “De agrìcultura” under the Latin name armeniacum. There is clear documentary evidence that they have been cultivated in Campania since the 16th century. In 1583 Gian Battista Della Porta distinguished two different varieties: bericocche and crisomele (“golden fruit”). By the middle of the 19th century several varieties of apricots were widely grown. Today, the name “albicocca vesuviana” refers to over forty biotypes differing in size, smell and taste.
Pane e pomodoro (Bread and tomatoes)
This must be one of the simplest but tastiest dishes in culinary history. A perfect snack or a quick meal, it has the colour of the sun and the smell of natural goodness. Take a few cherry tomatoes and crush them gently on slices of bread, rubbing in the seeds and juice. Season with a pinch of salt and a generous drizzling of olive oil. You can add a little oregano if you like. The best tomatoes for this dish are the famous Mount Vesuvius cherry tomatoes typically used for preserving called “piennolo” or “spongillo”. After they’ve been harvested between July and August, before they’re completely ripe, the tomatoes are tied into bunches and hung in a well-ventilated place to keep for the winter.
The wonderful corals and cameos of Torre del Greco are skilfully handmade in specialist workshops by craftspeople who are keeping this extraordinary tradition alive. And the workmanship of master stone cutters who work the local lava stone with their chisels, mallets, points and bush hammers – the classical tools of the trade – is astonishing. The opportunities for buying “one-off pieces” from the Vesuvius area are endless: from classic coral jewellery to stylish lava stone artefacts (benches, tables and interior furnishings, and even designer costume jewellery made with coloured ceramic glazes) and stunning cameos. Foodies will be pleased to know this is the home of pasta. The first bronze dies were already being used in Torre Annunziata in the 16th century, but even more important to the success of the pasta industry was the mild, windy climate, perfect for allowing the pasta to dry naturally, hung out in the open air on long cane poles in courtyards and terraces. By the end of the 19th century, thanks partly to its proximity to the sea, there were dozens of mills and pasta factories operating in Torre Annunziata. It was Gragnano, however, that eventually branched out into industrial-scale production, maintaining the highest quality standards, of course. In some firms the legacy of traditional artisan pasta-making is still strong, even if the old-fashioned, intuitive methods of measuring ideal wind, humidity and temperature for the drying process are now trusted to state-of-the-art technologies.