“You are sportsman?”
Our Italian taxi driver eyed us in the rear view mirror.
He assumed we were athletes competing in the World University Games currently underway in Naples, because what normal person would willingly run to the top of Mt Vesuvius.
“No, no, our brother…”
“Ah… OK… brother…”
The fact that we’re related to an athlete appeared to help him make sense of our insanity.
We caught the train from Naples to the Portici - Ercolano station and this guy picked us up, assuming we wanted to be dropped at the bus stop to catch the Vesuvio Express.
A fair assumption given hundreds of tourists are ferried up there daily.
But after some gesticulation and pointing at the map, we finally conveyed that we wanted to use our legs, and that threw him completely.
It is not common to run. That was clear by the absence of information online - just one blog post by a guy who ran all the way from the train station.
But we weren’t keen to tack on an extra 8km in temperatures just shy of 30 celsius with stifling humidity to boot, hence the taxi.
He shrugged and dropped us at the foot of the mountain road.
I handed him a fifty and he apologetically dumped twenty euros change in coins into my hand. “That’s more weight for me to carry!” I joked. He laughed, but I think he thought extra coins was the least of my worries.
We began plodding up the road, which was a mercifully mellow gradient.
The roadside was strewn with rubbish, I noted, not identifying the individual pieces until Jack remarked on the abundance of used condoms.
I guess whizzing by in the bus would’ve spared us that particular piece of local insight.
Halfway up and we could see Naples stretching along the coast in the haze.
We passed a gate to the national park (and presuambly much nicer trails) which is inexplicably closed. The undergrowth is scorched from what I later read were major, deliberately-lit fires in 2017.
We rounded a corner and a friendly park ranger told us it was “4km by car” to the top, I hoped it was also that distance on foot.
The mounds of red scoria and deep gourged-out valley to our left as we wound up the side of the crater are a reminder of the catastrophic forces this volcano is capable of.
A cyclist who passed us on the way up came flying down, shouting us a “GO GO GO” of encouragement.
With just one more kilometre to the top we hit the ticket office where I unsuccessfully tried to offload the coins.
Then it was onto the last stretch - grueling gravel underfoot and a lot of darting in between slow-trudging punters.
Finally at the summit, we gazed over the wooden barrier into the crater’s depths, which vanished and reappeared behind wisps of pleasantly cool mist. A nearby woman with an Australian accent scoffed to her partner of the obscured view - “What a waste! I want it to erupt now.” I edged away.
Steam puffed from vents in the crater’s steep sides. As we traversed its edge I read an article about how some scientists believe victims of the 79AD eruption suffered exploded skulls as a result of their brains being vaporised by the heat of the pyroclastic flow. The evidence was iron oxide residue on their bones, and star-shaped fractures on some of the skulls.
Other scientists rubbished the claim, saying the poor souls likely died from asphyxiation from the toxic gases and ash.
In the weeks and months preceding the eruption, the locals felt tremors and tasted sulphur in their drinking water. They’d had an earthquake 17 years earlier so these signs led many to flee the town.
That meant most of those who were killed were slaves, the poor or people with nowhere to go.
How odd now that the caldera of this menacing giant is lined with tourist shops peddling fizzy drink and postcards and polished stone eggs, while 3 million people live nearby - making it the most densely populated volcanic region in the world.
Vesuvius wasn’t the most scenic run, nor the tidiest, but it’s certainly the most steeped in fascinating, terrifying history.
But 10km was enough, we took the bus down.