Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Going Neopolitan

After a train ride bypassing Rome and heading further South to the Neopolitan coast, I'm excited to explore the famed Bay of Naples. Oh boy, am I in for a surprise. Yes, I'm on a spur-of-the-moment Eurotrip; no, I did not thoroughly research every stop before boarding my train (rookie error); yes, I've landed up in perhaps the dodgiest city in the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. I exaggerate, but only slightly: Naples is Hell on Earth. 

If the repeated voice over of "Please be aware of pick-pockets" in the train station isn't enough to send you right back on the next Trenitalia back to Roma Termini, perhaps the homeless people outside will do the trick. Or the fact that you can't cross the street without almost getting hit by a car because there are no stop streets and no robots! Phew. Good thing our hotel is about 100 paces from Napoli Centrale Stazzione. We hit the local 'pizza kebab' (read: chicken takeaway shop owned by immigrants from Pakistan) because if I see another gosh-damned pizza in my life I will hurl the thing moonwards quicker than you can say "that's amore". Adequately fed - and holding onto our handbags for dear life - we manage to dodge the throws of people trying to sell us a myriad of stolen items (iPads being the most plentiful) and make it onto a circumvesuviana train to Pompeii Scavi.

Yes, "scavi" is Italian for "ruins", which means I am on my way to the ruins of the actual city of Pompeii, destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius wayyyyy back in the first century AD. Goodness, gracious me. "If you close your eyes", that episode of Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi, and the ACTUAL CITY OF POMPEII. It's almost too much for my little brain to handle. The train ride there is pretty gross and goes past a million slums and poor fishing villages, plus when we reach the modern town of Pompei, everything is closed (it's afternoon), but we make it to the ruins around 2pm, and spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around, lost in the history, architecture, and the fact that these ancient human beings had pizza ovens. Some things never change. But Pompeii is truly something spectacular, there are no words to describe experiencing the remains of a city so ancient that parts of it were built before Jesus (whoever he might have been) even walked the Earth. Breathtaking, isn't it? 

But it's true what the guidebooks say, the maps aren't kept updated, and after walking towards an exit for a good 20 minutes in the 36 degree baking sun, we find it blocked and have to try to figure out another way to leave. It's not pleasant, but we persevere, and eventually make our way out. We stop on the way back to the train station for one of those lovely lemon-slush-drink things, and then make sure we catch a train which lands us back in Napoli long before the sun goes down. If the place is dodgy during the day, I'd hate to imagine it by night. But in stark contrast to the rest of the town, our hotel is the nicest I've seen the entire trip... plus there's a kettle. A kettle, I tell you! Luckily we still have some of that Irish tea with us. 

The next day dawns slightly overcast, but warm, and we know that it's the perfect day to tackle Mount Vesuvius. Now, I'm probably the least athletic person you will ever stumble upon, so it's a miracle that I even agreed to go near the Mountain, but hey, when in Naples, do as the tourists do, right? And so we head for the Circumvesuviana line again, this time stopping well before Pompeii, to catch the little tour bus up the side of the mountain. Tourists pay a fee, get dropped off halfway up the mountain, then have 90 minutes to reach the top, explore, and get back down before the bus leaves again. 

And so we're hustled into the front of the minivan with a large Italian driver, wearing a bright green t-shirt and a slightly menacing grin. It doesn't take long for me to absorb my surroundings, and take in the fact that the dashboard is covered in old photographs of the driver's presumably-dead relatives. Hmm. Before we know it, the bus goes racing off, driver speaking into his cellphone in rapid Italian, one hand pressing the device against his ear, and the other precariously balancing the steering wheel between its thumb and forefinger. I'm sure I'm going to die. Driving with an Italian is not the faint of heart, and the speed at which the bus hurtles around the corners on the twisty mountain road are enough to give me nightmares for the rest of my life. Eventually, we slow down behind a massive touring bus, and I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that at least now our driver has to stick to some kind of speed limit. I've never been more wrong in my life. All at once, there's an explosion of hooting (this is how drivers communicate that other cars should get out of the damned way) and we're flying past the tour bus, on the wrong side of the road, and narrowly avoiding being taken out by various cars zooming down the mountain. I decide that perhaps I should close my eyes for the rest of the ride. 

Finally, we're deposited in the parking lot, and dumped unceremoniously from the van. 90 minutes and we'd better be back, unless we really want to walk all the way back to the train station (though after this ride, perhaps that would be safer). And so we set to work, heading up the mountain. Young men in the parking lot hand out long wooden hiking sticks, and whether or not you think you'll need one to help you, the answer is yes, you do. The path is steep and full of loose stones, which make it difficult to get one's footing. But once we've gotten into a rhythm, we manage to make it up the mountain with no major problems. They key is to pace yourself, and not try to get up too fast. We take in the view, and that fact that we're in the midst of an actual volcano, and then take our time exploring the rim of the crater and buying souvenir postcards. I completely disregard the "No removing anything from this natural site" rule, and pocket a tiny piece of rock. What? I'm a former geology student, I'd be a complete disappointment if I didn't try! By the time we're finished wandering around, however, we realise that the bus is due to leave in 14 minutes, and we're still at the top of the volcano. Oh. Cue mad rush down, and the realisation that it is in fact impossible to do anything other than run down Vesuvius, due to the steep gradient. We try our hardest not to lose our footing and become casualties of the nearest hospital (*shudders*). 

The bus ride back down the mountain is even more terrifying, this time the smell of something burning is followed in quick succession by the driver furiously making the sign of the cross (Oh good lord, I am going to die, this is how it ends!), before launching his vehicle into second gear, where it was to stay for the duration of the ride. Yes, the fool had burned his clutch out. 

Invigorated - if slightly worse for the wear - we stumble back to the train feeling very impressed with ourselves. And although we immediately lock the doors and windows upon arrival back in our Naples hotel room, this dodgy city has been good to us. Tomorrow, Rome awaits. 

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