The Volcano in the Backyard (Salerno, Part I)

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My first view of Salerno, Italy:  a steep cliff face topped by a medieval castle.  “I would love to drive up there and see that,” my husband said.  I bet.  Today would be the day we all die, I thought.  We were renting a car and driving to Pompeii and if there was time, we would scoot down the Amalfi Coast.  Why didn’t I buy those rosary beads in Rome…

Before we went about the business of risking our lives on the Amalfi Drive, we drove our rental Volvo (sadly, the kids wouldn’t fit in the Ferrari) to Pompeii.  My husband has wanted to drive in Italy  since he was sixteen.  I’m sure he pictured it differently – the fantasy would be driving with a leggy blonde in a red Ferrari, expensive sunglasses on his tanned face, black hair whipping in the wind.  Instead, he flew down the Autostrada Napoli in a Volvo, with two children in the back and a decidedly un-leggy banshee in the front seat who, between screeches, attempted to co-pilot him out of Salerno.

We dodged an American family (fellow cruisers) who had clearly never seen a roundabout before and were cheerfully going around it the wrong way.  We squeezed the Volvo through narrow streets and onto the highway towards Naples.  It was a sunny day with hundreds of white puffy clouds skittering across the intense blue sky.  On the Autostrada, the Italians seem to be quite docile – we were by far the fastest car on the road.  Husband:  grinning; Wife: gripping side door handle.  Continue for 15-20 minutes.  Suddenly, a large, misshapen mountain loomed, the top partially obscured by clouds.  Could it be?  My daughter cringed visibly in the backseat (an elementary school project on volcanoes left her loathing  the very mention of them).  Vesuvius. 

I’d read about it all my life, heard about the destruction of both Pompeii and Herculaneum, even watched a rather bizarre mini-series on the Discovery Channel but nothing prepared me for the proximity and the ominous-ness of that mountain.  It filled the entire windscreen as we approached the exit for Pompeii.  We could clearly see the suburbs of Naples huddling at its flanks to the north.  Are they crazy?  I get the whole La Dolce Vita thing but living at the feet of a dragon that is not dead is sheer lunacy.  Still, being the perverse banshee that I am, I silently hoped for a little rumble, a little puff of smoke or a little ground shaking as we visited the ruins because…I just didn’t think I could take an entire petrified town without a little something extra, a little Universal Studios…

Vesuvius did not feel inclined to indulge me that day.  It stood silent vigil over our visit but I kept looking over my shoulder.  Every now and then though my son would look at it and yell, “Smoke!  Lava!  Run!”  Nobody did.  The stray dogs that live among the ruins yawned and rolled over, hoping for free belly rubs.  The remains of Pompeii were remarkable in structure and number- Pompeii looked like it must’ve been a great place to live, deadly volcano notwithstanding.    In fact, I saw my dream house there – a house with high beamed ceilings, spacious rooms, and windows or doors opening  on to an inner courtyard.  Lovely.  The town’s situation (again, deadly volcano nearby excepted) would’ve been ideal.  Pompeii sits rather high in places, other parts gently descend into a little valley.  From a high point overlooking vineyards and olive groves, we saw the blue waters of the Mediterranean in the distance.  I walked through its silent streets with a profound sense of sadness for its demise.  As we descended the hillside towards the exit flowering bushes and trees swayed in the warm breeze.  Pompeii must’ve been a lovely place, once.  I looked back up a wide boulevard rutted with the tracks of ancient chariots and shuddered.  Vesuvius, ever present.

We walked back to “New” Pompeii and snacked on  delicious chocolate croissants and even yummier cappuccinos.  Old men and cats sat enjoying the breezy day.  We sat outside and marveled at the way communities rebuild themselves.   Would New Pompeii, mere yards from the utter devastation of its predecessor, suffer the same fate some day?  Maybe.  Does it bother the residents?   Probably not.  I’d be looking over my shoulder all the time.

Scientists take the temperature of that mighty mountain 24/7.  There are hundreds of seismological sensors pricking the slopes, warning systems are in place should Vesuvius give the slightest hiccup.  New Pompeiians (and about 3 million Neapolitans) live in the shadow of Vesuvius; it’s worth the risk because it’s home.  So there’s a volcano in the backyard – what of it?  You can just see them shrug their shoulders and smile.  “Che sara…sara…” What will be will be.

As we headed towards our next destination, I sat in the backseat and stared at the volcano.  It receded slowly, its hillsides green and innocent-looking. We crossed the ridge of high hills that separated us from the coast and wound our way back into Salerno, searching for the Amalfi Drive…

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