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Up Pompeii!

Pompeii, Italy

You wouldn’t have thought a ghost town would be one of the world’s most popular cruise destinations, but it is. Nothing much has been going on in the city of Pompeii, Italy, since 79AD, when the whole place was wiped out by an eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius.

Campagna BeachVesuvius smolders on above the modern city of Naples, where your cruise ship will likely dock. It is still classified as an active volcano, and, although the area hasn’t seen a major eruption since 1944, locals are well-accustomed to the odd threatening rumble and the smell of sulphurous emissions. Modern Neapolitans have very much less to worry about than did their Roman forebears, however. Although another eruption is considered a likelihood, modern geological and seismological techniques mean that there will be plenty of advance warning – several days, probably – of the next ‘big bang’.

Naples itself is an interesting town, though not necessarily the kind of place you’d want to spend a whole vacation. Although a little frenetic, and possibly a little rough around the edges too, it’s quite an interesting place. The prevailing atmosphere of hedonism has been ascribed, by some, to the proximity of Vesuvius and the precarious and uncertain existence which that proximity entailed. In actual fact, people have continued to live in the area because of the volcano. That may sound kind of perverse, but if you’re a farmer it makes perfect sense: the relatively frequent eruptions of the volcano have made the soil wonderfully fertile – even today this is one of the best farming regions in Italy.

Pompeii RuinsThe freshness of the local produce is evident in the richness of Neapolitan cuisine. You can, of course, sample the full range of pasta dishes in the restaurants of Naples, but a visit to the city would not be complete without having a pizza – this is where they were invented. Neapolitan pizzas remain about the best in world, and typically follow the ‘thin and crispy’ model – the original pizzas were made with unleavened bread dough by the wives of farm laborers who were too poor to afford yeast, and carried into the fields as a handy snack.

Pompeii RuinsThe city is Pompeii itself is one of the most eerie and beautiful places in the world. You can walk its streets and admire its buildings – the only population the ancient city has these days consists of site workers, tourists and a large number of feral cats. Prior to 79AD there were two cities on the lower slopes of Vesuvius – Pompeii and Herculaneum. Both were destroyed in the eruption – but Herculaneum much more comprehensively so than the slightly smaller city of Pompeii. The reason for this is simple: Pompeii was ‘only’ buried in ash that fell from the sky after the volcano erupted. Herculaneum, however, was right in the way of the main lava flow and was swamped in red hot molten rock. Pompeii, therefore, was preserved, and famously rediscovered by a shepherd-boy in the late eighteenth century. Subsequent excavations revealed the city to be almost perfectly preserved beneath its layer of ash.

The buildings weren’t the only things that were preserved. The bodies of many Pompeians were completely covered in ash. Over the centuries their flesh slowly leached away into the famously rich soil, leaving human-shaped hollows in the earth. Later archaeologists made plaster casts of the ancient Romans by pumping plaster of Paris into these voids – so we can see the very forms of the ancient Romans themselves. These weird statues are both moving and fascinating – it’s the only place in the world we can see people from such a distant time in the past being so recognizably modern and human.

Pompeii ArchIt’s well worth taking a guided tour around the streets of the city. English speaking guides abound, and they will be able to tell you a great deal about the ancient town and its inhabitants. If you’ve had enough of death and destruction, it’s likely that the next stop on your cruise itinerary will be the island of Capri – a few miles off the coast, more or less directly in line with the peninsula on which Vesuvius sits, marking the southern arm of the bay of Naples. Although it has been much affected by the depredations of modern tourism, Capri retains a rustic charm and is a great place for a walk along the cliff tops or a cheap yet filling meal of pasta or pizza. If your urge for historical exploration has not been sated by tramping around the streets of Pompeii, you can also explore the ruins of the vacation villa of the Roman emperor Tiberius, who ruled the Roman Empire during the life of Jesus Christ.

This part of Italy – the Campagna – offer a great deal to land-based tourist and cruiser alike: a taste of the past during a thoroughly modern shipboard vacation.

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