The Luck of Vesuvius

Posted: October 27, 2010 in Uncategorized

Oct 21st, 2009

It didn’t take me long to appreciate how glad I was that I was simply passing through Naples. I’d been warned against staying there by everyone I’d talked to about it, citing everything from disinterest in anything the city had to offer to vague horror stories of alley brawls and rampant but unsubstantiated mob corruption. As we wound our way through the train station and squeezed into a local commuter train that would take us the hour down the coast to Sorrento, Abby and I were clearly sharing the same relief we’d given it a miss. While the worst stories naturally showed no signs of being true, there was nonetheless a grimy despondence to the city that passed by outside the train windows, and a resigned weariness to the people who got on and off at each stop, while bent old women and small children playing cheap accordions made the rounds through the cars, carefully plying each and every passenger with finely crafted despair.

After some thirty minutes the car had cleared out of most of the local traffic, the few clumps of tourists got off at the station for Pompeii, and in the space of a couple stops we went from crowds and city sprawl to a half-empty car winding through quiet villages hugging the coastline. Chugging along, the train deposited schoolchildren and workers every so often until we reached our destination of Sant’ Agnello. Despite being late afternoon on a weekday, or perhaps because of it, there was barely a sign of life; even the shops were shut tight, and we imagined the owners steadfastly unconscious in the apartments above for their afternoon siesta. We headed off through the quiet streets until we finally found the unassuming front door of our hostel, and checked in.

For such a sleepy, unremarkable area, the hostel was, as Abby put it, “like a nightclub you’d expect to find doing very well in San Diego.” The place was clearly brand new, the walls still unstained by drunken backpackers, and the halls were tastefully decorated in modern art, designer furniture, and glossy travel magazines. And yet it was nearly deserted. We had the pick of beds, and running into a fellow traveler in the hallway was almost a relief, reassuring you that you hadn’t simply stumbled into some organized crime front.

Given we hadn’t yet got our bearings, Abby and I decided to make Pompeii our destination for the day, since it was the only place we knew how to get to. We rode the train back along the way we’d come, stepping off the train and out of the open-air station amid a row of fruit stalls, and happily discovered the entrance to the city was across the street. We were even elated enough by our luck so far to spring for audio guides, and took off into the ruins.

Two things in particular struck me about Pompeii. First, for a city that was buried and lost nearly two thousand years ago, it is absolutely immense. To walk the length of the main street takes at least fifteen minutes, and despite spending the entire afternoon wandering through the streets and buildings we saw only a fraction of the place. It’s no small wonder that it has been an active archaeological site for some four hundred years, the place still has no end of things yet to be uncovered or restored. The second was how obvious it was why people had lived there; as we wandered in the sunny afternoon, Vesuvius loomed quietly over the shoulders of houses, the sea glinted now and again in the distance, and the land sloped down in to a large valley still turning out rich fields. Even as a shell of what it was, it was still quite idyllic.

Returning to the hostel, we opted for one of the very few dinner menu options in the hostel restaurant, since we had no idea where else to eat, and tucked in. However as I made a trip to the bar, I immediately recognized the guy from Oregon in our apartment in Cinque Terra sitting at one of the booths. What was infinitely stranger however was that I also recognized the person sitting next to him, who he had met just the day before at the hostel. The person sitting next to him was the brother of my neighbor in Sydney, who I had last seen with a face full of pizza during a party in their back yard over a year before. If put to a measurement of probability, I would have had to rank the whole thing somewhere on par with a baboon in a tophat spontaneously appearing table-side to sell us roses. Naturally we decided drinking games were in order, and proceeded to empty several liter jugs of wine in the back room with any impressionable young women we could find.

As will happen in these cases, many fantastically good ideas for how to spend the next day were cast around, and we stumbled to our bunks steadfastly swearing we would all be up by nine in the morning to rent mopeds and careen through the countryside like Roman Holiday meets The Wild One. However by ten in the morning, those few who were able to move were doing so extremely slowly, and careening seemed to be the last thing they wanted to do. But due to Abby taking an early bedtime and my continued agreement with Italian wine banning mutual abuse, we found ourselves fit and ready. We packed up our bags, since we were due to check out that day, dropped them off at the front desk, and caught the train one stop over into Sorrento. Abby had her doubts about driving a moped, but with my experience with motorcycles she was happy to play passenger, so we wandered around until we could find a reasonably legitimate-looking rental shop, picked up a handsome little silver moped with a bit of power, and took off down the street, where we almost immediately went the wrong way down a one-way street and narrowly avoided getting sideswiped by a car.

Breaking free of the town streets, we took off up to the crest of the peninsula towards the infamous Amalfi Coast. Despite uncertain forecasts the weather had turned out immaculate blue skies and pleasantly cool breezes, and descending the other side we were immediately confronted by an incredible view of the rich green coastline and various offshore islands basking in the late summer sun. For the remainder of the day we wound casually along the incredibly windy and narrow roads, impossibly glad that we were neither in a car or, worse yet, riding in one of the nausea-inducing passenger buses that lumber and squeeze along the roads with a sort of patient masochism. We stopped in the shockingly picturesque Positano for a lunch of olives, bruschetta, and fresh sardines, then further on in Amalfi for gelato before turning around to make our way back to Sorrento. I felt supremely relaxed and incredibly indulgent.

At a certain point of the journey, the needle on the gas gauge had stopped moving at around the quarter tank mark. Having little experience with mopeds and operating under the understanding that they were supposed to get fantastic mileage, I only let it play across my mind as something to worry about briefly, but overall dismissed it. As we crested the middle of the peninsula again, still flushed with adventure and the wind in our faces, we decided to take the long way around, and took a detour. However no more than a hundred meters down the road, I suddenly felt a subtle but distinctive lurch as the engine missed and caught again. I’d felt it only a couple times before on my motorcycle, like a minor heart palpitation right before a full-on arrest. The hard truth immediately hit me that the needle was in fact stuck and we were almost completely out of gas, still a good five to ten miles from Sorrento.

The one thing I counted in our favor was that from this point, the rest of the return trip was almost entirely downhill. I turned around immediately, made it back to the main road and started down, trying to let the engine idle as much as possible. Sure enough, no more than a mile later the engine stuttered, faltered, and died, leaving us at the mercy of gravity and luck. As it happened, both were looking out for us that day, as traffic was light and the hill steep enough that we managed to coast the remaining miles straight into town, finally running out of hill a block away from an unmanned gas station with temperamental pumps, but a working gas station nonetheless. We paused to triumphantly celebrate our brush with disaster, then continued on our way. With time left to kill we explored the outer reaches of Sorrento and the waterfront before finally turning in the moped, passing on a warning to the owner who earnestly looked the gauge over, nodded in concern, and almost certainly ignored it once we left.

Basking in the afterglow that only a day of unhurried riding on two wheels can provide, we returned to the hostel, picked up our bags, and made it back to the station to start our journey to Rome. It would be the last stop on my trip, and the weather was appropriately forecasted for rain. Standing on the platform as twilight descended on the town, the breeze still warm from the day’s heat, I felt supremely sorry to be leaving so soon, especially knowing that the end was now truly in sight.


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