One of my major regrets from my trip to Italy 15 years ago is that I never made it to Pompeii. As somewhat of an archaeology enthusiast, I think I made a terrible mistake. So this time, I decided to take a day trip from Rome to visit the city and nearby Vesuvius, the volcano which erupted and buried the town so many years ago. I took an early high-speed train (yay!) from Rome to Naples and listened to an impromptu Italian music playlist on my iPod. I soon remembered that I have next to no opera on my iPod as the playlist proceeded directly to my awesome Italo Disco Party mix. Say what you will about Eiffel 65 (yes, I am aware that they they wrote songs about blue aliens and PlayStation and that you think they’re “dated” or “cheesy” or “having no musical talent whatsoever”), but I like them, and I still listen to them on a somewhat regular basis. Embrace the cheese! I also will never get tired of Gigi D’Agostino.
I had a little bit of spare time in Naples before catching the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii, so I did a quick walk around the block of the train station in search of a grocery store to buy some inexpensive snacks and lunch to bring with me. However, this was easier said than done, as most of the area around the station was filled with rinky-dink souvenir shops, tobacco shops, and black market salesman. The streets appeared especially grimy and filled with garbage. I’m sure that there are other parts of Naples that are much nicer, but this area was pretty dingy and borderline creepy. Color me unimpressed.
I caught the Circumvesuviana, which was jam-packed with locals and tourists alike. Upon arriving in Pompeii, I realized that I had no plan. Again, I had failed to do much additional research on the site, and I had no guidebook with me, leaving myself at the mercy of the swarm of tour guides at the train station. I met a Scottish couple about my age, and they told me that they were taking a bus tour to climb Vesuvius. The staff at their hotel had recommended doing the climb first before entering the Pompeii ruins. “Eh, why not?” I said, and shilled out the €22 to join them on the bus. Now, a smart person would have turned her head slightly to the left before paying any admission fee, noticed that the peak of Vesuvius was shrouded in a thick veil of fog, and declined the offer. But as I am not a smart person, I went ahead, taking a comically turbulent bus ride up the side of the volcano to an unpaved parking lot, where we were released into the fog.
It took another 15-minute walk up a slippery gravel path to reach the summit of Vesuvius. Not that I could tell much of a difference between the view into and from the volcano. Fog to the left. Fog to the right. The views of the Amalfi coast are supposed to be spectacular on a clear day, but this was a no-go. The small summit cafe was selling overpriced drinks and weird knick-knacks made of volcanic rock. (Anyone want a glittery blue lava dragon? How about a turtle? I didn’t think so). I killed some time taking Monty Python-themed photos We were supposed to spend an hour up here? The wind whipped us around, and I was thankful that I had brought a long-sleeved shirt. I loitered near the top for as long as I could, but after about 20 minutes, I headed down to catch an earlier bus back into town.
The rest of the afternoon, I explored the Pompeii ruins, kicking myself for wasting so much time at Vesuvius when I could have been avoiding the bigger crowds at the ruins. I underestimated how much time it takes to see the ancient site, but I still was able to view a lot of it. My audioguide was a bit tricky to follow: the numbers at each point of interest did not always correspond with the directions given by the audioguide, so I found myself making a lot of wrong turns. Even so, the ruins were amazing.
I needed to catch the Circumvesuviana back to Naples in order to make it back to Rome that night, so by late afternoon, I started to head back to the train station. As I walked along the street to the station, my jaw dropped in disbelief when I saw a familiar face. “Spencer?” I asked. It was a classmate of mine from dental school! We had not seen each other in over eight years. He was currently on vacation with his entire family in Italy. What a small world to run into a schoolmate near some Roman ruins!
Back on the the train, I was dumbstruck by the beauty of the Amalfi coast. Tell me again why I decided to stay in a big city instead of on the beach? I enjoyed a slice of traditional Neopolitan pizza at the train station before returning to Rome, anxious to wash my dirty feet and sandals after a long, long day.