Monday, 22 March 2010

In search of sunshine and all things sulphurous

written 17th March 2010

We got woken up by the police this morning...

An uneventful drive south from Roma-Lido - only noteworthy thing was a stop in a supermarket where Easter is clearly already here, with the biggest easter eggs I have ever seen. 

What sort of easter bunny brings an egg weighing 5kgs and costing €40??? and how has this particular species of bunny not made it across the channel yet?? I guess it must be the quarantine restrictions (and the fact that the bunny must be the size of a small elephant!) :) -

found us in St Felice Cicero, for no better reason than it got dark and we thought there might be an aire there.  All the campsites (most of which with motorhome signs) seemed closed (or open gates with no-one around and no idea of charges - not gates you want to get stuck behind!) but there were no parking restrictions anywhere so we tucked ourselves into a quiet corner off the main front and settled in. 

We had been drowsily listening so some bin men or work men or something who had been unaccountably around since before dawn and were taking an extraordinarily long time to do whatever they were noisily doing when suddenly there was a banging on the window...  A bleary eyed peep out seemed to include blue uniforms - never good! - and when Will jumped out, it was with a yelp of surprise to see a full on market set up around us.  The policemen were very polite and completely unfazed by the sight of me, still in bed, through the open door - solemn yet courteous Buon Giorno - and politely asked us to move to any space along the front as the fish van needed our spot.  All very civilised.  So, we may not have succeeded in getting up to see a market wake up, but we have been woken up by a market waking up... Does that count Bill? :)

After a walk through the market, which just went on and on down this single street and with Will more interested in the completely automated mechanical awnings which convert lorry to stall with pterodactyl wing like unfolding manoeuvres at the touch of a button, we decided to capitalise on our early start and set off into the sunshine.

No plans for the day other than a target destination of Vesuvius, and a flick through the various books turned up the Campi Flegri (lit. Firey Fields, aka Phlegrean Fields,from the Greek flegraios or burning) which sounded exciting so we headed southwards in search of hot springs.

The Phlegrean fields are a national park area within one of the most volcanic regions in the world, of which vesuvius is also part.  From the aerial photos it is a land pockmarked with massive craters, testament to its firey past, and has been a fascination for visitors from Greek and Roman times and, thanks to the myths and legends of Homer and Virgil and the ruins left by the Romans, it was an obligatory stop on every educated young aristocrats Grand Tour.

Sadly, it seems the craterous nature of the landscape is best appreciated from the air, rather than stuck in closed roads, no diversion signs, steep narrow road chaos, but we eventually found Pozzuli tourist office and directions to the Solfatara, the area's most active spot, a crater described as 'the inside of a crater with boiling lava, full of its vapours and steaming mud', and promising pressurised geysers at 160C, hot, hollow sounding earth and sauna-like buildings - sounds like fun!

The Solfatara crater (lit. sulpherous earth), was once the center of the Campi Flegri and is now the most active remaining part. 

Walking inside the massive crater, is like walking on the surface of the moon and although there was no boiling lava - to be fair, didn't really expect there to be!

- there was a bubbly mud pool,

the earth was hot and sounded like the surface of a drum when you dropped a rock on it, there were several big, hissing fumeroles

and a brick cave like structure you could crawl inside - cool (or rather, the opposite of cool!). 

Due to the particular mineral composition of the earth in the area, it doesn't actually smell very suphurous.  According to the information panels, it smells of bitter lemons and the water is naturally slightly fizzy - perfect mixer for gin one would think - I thought it smelt more like slightly over cooked american bacon, and haven't tried the water so can't comment. 

The information panels also waxed lyrical about the excellent mineral qualities of the mud, in conjunction with steam room reatments, as a cure-all for all sorts of medical issues and skin complaints, it didn't mention that you could buy the mud for a mere €18 a pot in the gift shop, this you had to find out for yourself - cunning sublinimal marketing

It is also part of the same monitoring system as Vesuvius, coordinated by the observatory which is the oldest volcano observatory in the world and the one where vulcanology started.  Part of the monitoring system is done by satellite by means of bouncing signals off these coupled reflectors - not really sure how, hey just looked like perforated sheet steel to us, and even Will couldn't expain how these unpromising pyramid things might work!

All good fun!

Unfortunately there is no hot springs action to be had in the area, unless you want to join the v exclusive looking club.   We had hoped for some out of the way natural spring like the one we found in Big Bend National Park, TX, which was brilliant, a semi-natural hole in the ground just off the Rio Grande with a view of mexico during the day, and, after dark, other like minded people (they do exist in texas although to be completely honest, these particular ones had driven from Louisiana for the weekend - 1000 mile round trip for a weekend!!!) with beer :) - so we set off through the gridlock that was Naples in the early evening sun and our first view of Vesuvius, looming ominously in the distance.

Thanks to our hour in Naples, we now have new observations and empirical evidence to augment our body of knowledge regarding driving in Italy, namely:

If you are fed up with waiting in queues at traffic lights, use turn lanes to jump round them and squeeze back in when the lights change

No Overtaking signs are suggestions, not restrictions, and hatchings are perfect spots for overtaking (assuming no one is already parked in them).  Moreover, if someone is already overtaking, either on your side, or the other side, there is bound to still be space for you to squeeze past.

Whoever beeps first is in the right, regardless of which side of the road they are on, whose right of way it is or what stupid manouever they were trying to pull off either before or after they beeped.

In general, beeping means, 'I am about to do something'.  it can also mean; 'oi! watchit', 'ciao' (hello), 'ciao' (goodbye), ''geddoutatheway', 'whaddayadoing', 'would someone kindly tell me what the hold up is here please'.

Indicating does not mean, 'I would like to make this manoeuver when the prevailing traffic conditions allow' as it does in the UK.  Rather it means 'This is what I am about to do - you have been warned'

Hesitation is a sign of weakness and any evidence of such means you deserve to be cut up, over taken, pulled out in front of, or if really, absolutely, none of the above is possible, beeped at.

He who dares wins - just keep going regardless.   If it is dangerous/foolish for you to be doing something, the rest of the traffic will stop, if it isn't dangerous, they won't stop.  This is particularly true at junctions where to get out, you just keep edging forward until there finally is no space for people in the major road to squeeze round you at which point they will stop and you can pull out. unless of course a hesitant foreigner comes along first, in which case you can just pull straight out...

If you need to park, just stop.  No warning is required.  You might, if you think there might be a traffic cop around, stick your hazards on but this isn't usually necessary.

It is ok to reverse down the road at the speed of the traffic - you are at least going the right way.  It is also alright to reverse the wrong way down a one way street - you are at least facing the right way....

As a corollary of all of the above though, if you don't know where you are going, get in the wrong lane at a juction or roundabout, see a sign at the last minute, or have no idea who has right of way, it is perfectly acceptable to change lane, stop suddenly, change direction, fail to stop and keep going (or all of the above simultaneously) as everyone else will think this is perfectly normal - just takes some practice... :)  It also applies to crossing the road as a pedestrian....

I have also come to the conclusion that driving in cities is a bit like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and frogger.  You look for a space which exactly fits the size and shape of your vehicle - taking account of wing mirrors is optional - and you zigzag your way around in a generally forwards direction until you slot into it...

Whilst driving, we also heard a song on the radio that seems to be about Carla Brunei - what is it with foreign pop groups and their fascination with women in politics in deifferent countries??  Mrs Thatcher in France and Carla Brunei here - although I am sure it wasn't her politics they were singing about ;)

Anyhoo, we made it safely though and on to Ercolano - modern day Herculaneum  - and follwed signs up the mountain to see what was what.  Unfortunately, whilst sunny down below, the top was wreathed in cloud and it started to rain - been here before! - big splashy drops as we neared the top but the light was fantastic.  Here is a photo of which I am extraordinarily pleased with although it was taken completely by chance and with no photoshop!

We stopped for a cuppa and then, with it being dark and wet and us being in need of petrol, we headed back down, past car after car parked in laybys, at viewpoints or just at the side of the road, all of which had extremely steamed up windows... I guess on this particular make-out mountain, the last thing you want though, is to feel the earth move... ;)

Despite being better equipped than all the cars we passed - well we have a whole bed! - we decided against disturbing them again and parked at the bottom and resolved to drive up early in the morning to beat the crowds.

Which we did, unfortunately running into all the crowds, all set on beating the crowds - it seems the tourist advice is: spend the morning at Vesuvius and the afternoon at Herculaneum.  So we headed back down halfway to a little cafe we had seen the night before on the road to the chairlift - hasn't been in operation since 1985, but the signs are still nearly as new, we gather they are a bit fed up of people asking where the chairlift is... - and a happy morning was passed in the sunshine, catching up on daisy painting, something I haven't had a chance to do since a beach in Spain!

Daisies done, we decided to walk up the hill and were halfway up and feeling quite proud of our progress - although I have decided that the 'quest for inevitable fitness' shall henceforth be known as 'the inevitable quest for fitness', as I am reasonably sure that I am fitter (inspite of the cheese consumption!) but our quest is more inevitable now due to the parallel quest for free parking which, in Italy, leaves you much further away from places... - when a car pulled up and Carlo and Julia offered us a lift.  Brilliant!

Turns out, Carlo is local (relatively speaking) an italian from Salerno, whilst Julia is German, visiting Carlo whom she met when he spent some time in Germany a few years ago.  She is studying to be a translator so has also spent 6 months in England and fortunately they both spoke brilliant english.

In good company then, we hiked our way to the top, and thanks to them, actually got the guided tour that the ticket includes - as with all tourist places, they will not look like they are going to help you or offer anything to you don't ask for, and you have to interrupt their coffee and chat to do so which is off putting.  These guys were all sat just after the first tat shop, by a sign which said information but it was only the fact that we saw that the tickets said Guided Tour and Carlo asked them, that they actually did anything, and even then, it was a bit begrudgingly, and theye were insistent that for only four people, we would only get one language, despite our guide actually being german, so you wouldn't think that saying it once for us and once for either Julia or Carlo would be that taxing but there you go.  The only exception to this tourist ennui that we have come across was the girl in the tourist office in Rome station who, when we asked about walking tours, said, 'I shouldn't officially tell you about these because they're not on the approved list but if you promise not to take this as proper information, I will tell you - I am a tourist elsewhere and I would like someone to tell me'  which strikes me as exactly the right sort of approach for someone in a tourist office to adopt... but there you go.  I am compliling  list of 'Things all tourist Offices should do/have' although not quite sure what I will do with it...

anyway, the guided tour took us 50m up the path and told us some stuff then left us to it - not sure what all the fuss was about really!  Today, Vesuvius stands 1281m high but the original cone was much much bigger and higher before the big eruption blew the top off and took out all the surrounding cities.  Although there was a distinct lack of steam, suplphur or indeed anything to really indicate fire or danger of any kind, it is still the only active volcano in continental europe (apparently, I guess etna doesn't count as continental, being on an island) and there are something like 70,000 people living in 18 surrounding towns in the 'red zone' some as high up at 700m, and despite all the monitoring, they still can't really say when it might erupt again...  tricky stuff.  There is a plan though, provided they get the three days notice they need...  The last time it erupted was 1944 (60 years ago tomorrow as it happens) and at that time, a plug of lava 10km thick filled the crater, hence the lack of much visible activity today - I guess if it goes, it will go big...

Still, it was all impressive stuff and we saw both Herculaneum and Pompei, the roof of the observatory and a hazy view of Naples and the Sorrentine peninsula.

In terms of recommendations, it is a difficult one, Solfatara was definately better in terms of actual activity but you kinda have to go to Vesuvius if you are in the area - best just do both really :)

Bidding farewell to new friends, who kindly dropped us back at the van, we lazed on our sunny terrace, chatting to the cafe owners until the sun set over the bay of naples

and we are now parked by Pompei station, listening to the train announcements and hoping they stop running by the time we want to go to sleep...

Bing bong bing bong:  The van at platform 'road' is for Pompei.  Next stop: Scenes of destruction!

1 comment:

  1. Beeping here can mean anything from 'I've seen you and clearly think you are making a sensible move, but just letting you know I've seen you', to 'you mad lunatic, keeping going with that course of action and I will clearly run you over and it's your fault, because I have now beeped'. I think maybe when I've been here a few years I'll be able to spot the difference and the degress in between! Loving the pictures and updates. Cx