Standing on the cliffs of Sorrento and looking across the beautiful Bay of Naples, it’s hard to imagine the destruction caused by Vesuvius all those years ago. It looks so harmless – just an ordinary mountain and not a very big one. I try to picture what it must have been like for the people of Pompeii when Vesuvius started breathing smoke and fire, killing some and forcing others to flee their homes, but I just can’t. Not when it looks so green and peaceful set against a calm, blue, sparkling sea.
24 hours later, standing in the ruined city of Pompeii, I am finding it much easier to imagine. When the ash settled it petrified the people and animals. As the bodies rotted it left a hollow inside the stone that could be used as a cast, so by pouring in plaster it was possible to capture in detail the shapes of real people who were caught in the eruption. One of these casts is of a man in a sitting position, knees drawn up to his chest, hands over his mouth. This is how he died. I had to fight back tears as I thought about him realising that there was nowhere left to run, sinking to the floor, covering his face desperately trying to keep from breathing in the poisonous gases, and finally dying of suffocation. This wasn’t just a story in a book in Latin class anymore. This was a real person and it was an extremely emotional experience seeing him.
A few hours after this I was standing amongst the ruins of Herculaneum. Vesuvius was much closer now and it suddenly seemed more menacing as it loomed over the town, dominating the skyline. From here it was clear that should the volcano choose this moment to erupt there would be no chance of survival, no time to escape.
I have wanted to visit these places ever since I was 13 and learnt about the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction/preservation of Pompeii. It was even more fascinating than I ever dreamt it would be, but the thing I brought away from the visit, more than anything else, was a feeling of sadness.