I stopped on a corner of the narrow incline to take breath. A woman trudged down the slope towards me and clutched a wooden post.
“It gets really steep at the top,” she said. “And when you get there it’s just a big muddy hole. It’s not worth the effort.”
Her husband came alongside, panting. “I didn’t make it. I didn’t see it,” he said.
I muttered consolatory words, smiled and carried on up the path. My feet were being sucked into the loose earth. There were posts on one side of the path and, strung between them, a thick rope, to shield walkers from the almost vertical drop. But in places, the posts had just disappeared in a slide of loose mud. Scrubby pines and bushes clung to the slope and provided some stability.
I kept close to the inside edge, at times a wall of rock and at others, consolidated mud. It seemed safer. I climbed higher. I took my time.
A mini cab had dropped me further down the mountain at the part where the road ended and the track began. We had woven round narrow roads past small hotels and umbrella pines, vineyards and lemon groves and then just rocky outcrops and sparse vegetation. “I’ll wait for 90 minutes,” the driver had said, as we spilled out of the cab.
I was getting tired now. I thought about the woman’s comments. Would it be worth the climb, I wondered. The sun blazed down and my boots filled with grit.
Finally I reached the top. A lizard balanced precariously on the rim. I peered down. Not just a big muddy hole after all but an arid cauldron of immense proportions; no fire, no smoke but a 650-foot slide into hell. This was the inside of the mighty volcano, Vesuvius, which had wiped out Pompei and Herculaneum. It now lay sleeping in the afternoon sun.
I continued to walk around the edge, staring down into the great hollow, imagining the fire and fury that had sprung from its depths. Earlier in the day I’d seen the devastation it had caused far below; the wall of mud and lava that had poured into Herculaneum and the hot ash and cinders that had showered down on the people of Pompei. I’d seen the long grey river of lava, solid on the slopes where it last spewed out its anger just 70 years ago.
After I had inspected the big muddy hole and, with my mind full of the horrors of the eruption and the latent power of the mighty volcano, I trudged back down the track. The driver was waiting patiently. I climbed back into the cab.
As I looked down over Naples I wondered about the next eruption. Was there an evacuation plan in place to avoid a repeat of the 79AD massacre? But what would happen if the great beast stirred and started rumbling now?
I need not have worried. My driver proved he could drive faster than any lava flow. He was obviously already in training. I hung on and held my breath.