My mind turned to Pliny the Elder as we sat in the car at teatime on All Saints day, gridlocked just south of Erculano on old Strada Statale 18. We were attempting to travel north along this narrow strip of coastal plan between the sea and Monte Vesuvio – along with what suddenly felt like most of the population of Naples’ southern suburbs
We had been to the Cantina del Vesuvio just north east of Trecase on the volcano’s slopes and we could (and should) have used the A3 motorway to travel the modest 15 km or so to our final destination, the Masseria Guida, also nestled on the volcano’s slopes, but to the north east of Erculano, and (theoretically at least) a metaphorical stone’s throw to the airport, the next day.
But I thought the motorway would be busy and a slow jaunt up the coastal plain with the sun setting in the west would be more interesting. Big mistake….
Pliny the Elder was last observed hurrying to the beach, on this same coastal strip, in the hope of escaping Vesuvio’s fury on that dreadful day in 79 CE. Some succeeded, and reported his sighting to his son Pliny the Younger, on their arrival in Naples across the bay. But no more was heard of the old man, and he no doubt was one of the thousands subsequently buried under four metres of volcanic ash as the volcano exploded. Volcanoes explode, as well as erupt, I learn. (This has been a very educational trip.) The ash, the heat, and the sheer force are far more destructive than slow-moving lava flows, as the poor people of Pompeii and Herculaneum discovered that day.
Well, we may have been stationary for what felt like hours, but as yet, pumice stones were not raining down on us. A relatively small crowd waving banners outside a church had succeeded in crippling the whole dilapidated road system south of Naples. Eventually, by slowly performing a multi-point turn, stopping again and again to avoid collision with one of the many youth still hurtling excitedly every which way on their versatile vespas, we inched our way from the main thoroughfares, down the narrowest of streets to achieve the Via Litoranea (literally Beach Road). Poor Pliny.
By travelling well south of our afternoon’s visit, we finally reached the motorway access at Torre Annunziata, and somewhat chastened, made it to our final stay.
Our day until the gridlock had been mixed. We had left Melfi and driven back to Atripalda to visit Mastroberadino, the family winery which put Campanian wines on the map. (A few days earlier we had been at Terradora di Paolo in Montefusco founded in 1993 by Walter, the younger brother of Antonio (the so-called Grape Archeologist) and his wife Dora). Here we learned to our dismay that our afternoon visit to a Vesuvian winery had been cancelled, but our hosts helpfully created a substitute visit. So far so good.
We ate lunch (again) at the legendary Valle Verde, known for its authentic Campanian cuisine and popular among every social stratum. The drive towards Vesuvio was breath-taking; the sight of the volcano as we drew closer and made our way around its southern flank was awesome. We climbed steadily higher, out of the suburban sprawl and onto the mountain.
Here we were greeted warmly. This small winery sells everything from its cellar door. It also entertains wine tours, cruise groups and hosts weddings and parties. If these volcanic Lachryma Christi wines really take off, Campania will have to work hard to accommodate the additional interest and traffic. I can’t imagine how much chaos fleets of coaches will create.
Our final night was spent at the Masseria Guida – originally a large farmstead – with spectacular views from the northwestern slopes of Vesuvio above Erculano across the whole sweep of Naples’ bay. It is now a wedding and events venue, with a very serious restaurant (closed this evening – it was not our day!) and yet only two rooms to let. An extraordinary vanity project for someone’s ‘sunken’ money? Whatever, the contrast between it and the chaotic, shabby, delapidated infrastructure which serves it couldn’t be sharper. We were grateful that the young man on duty was also staffing their small brasseria serving local, traditional food, including Rum Baba – which I ordered for breakfast!
The journey to the airport was straightforward. We were early, of course.
The hire car, whose very serious scratches on the offside (lower photo) had been pointed out as we collected it, had suffered further indignities while in our care… see the very small but deliberate ‘keying’ to the left of the door handle (upper photo)
To our relief the person with good english in the car pool declared it ‘non importa’ to the chagrin of the silent bureaucrat indoors.
We left them to it and headed to the check-in. Phew!