Trains, Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius & Napoli’s Erotic Secret
Leah Walker April 7, 2013

I don’t think you can truly say that you’ve “done” Italy unless you’ve ridden the rails. I’m not just talking about the fancy, high-speed trains that connect the major cities, but also the less glamorous regional trains like the one from Naples to Sorrento.

Getting from Rome to Naples was a snap. I’d already learned to deal with the swarms of gypsies in train stations that try to rob you blind or extort money. But getting from Naples to the Bellevue Syrene in Sorrento, well that’s another story. Loaded down with an over-stuffed backpack and a suitcase the size of a mini refrigerator is not conducive for European travel, especially when navigating through busy stations and traveling on smaller regional trains.

Train in Italy

“Once you get to Naples, go to the Circumvesuviana terminal, buy a ticket, and wait for the train. It will end in Sorrento.”

These were my instructions. Sounds easy enough, right? And it should have been had I been prepared for all the other things required to actually get on the train: Fight the gypsies and scam artists in Napoli Centrale on the way to Circumvesuviana terminal; fight the people cutting in the ticket line; fight to board the train; fight to find a place to put my mini refrigerator; and fight to get a seat. By the time I actually got settled on the train to Sorrento, I felt like I’d gone 10 rounds with Oscar De La Hoya.

Italian Train

The train was packed on that Saturday afternoon with all sorts of interesting characters. It was a far cry from the fancy trains I’d been riding. It would take 68 minutes and 36 stops to get from Naples to Sorrento. It must be said that the people watching on that train was far better entertainment than any summer Hollywood blockbuster. This was the Noah’s ark of trains; it took all kinds. When I wasn’t openly gawking at my fellow passengers, I noticed Mt. Vesuvius glaring at me from the east. With each stop, the cram-packed train became less so. Eventually I relaxed the death grip on my Mac and enjoyed the view on the other side of the windows.

Italian Train

I arrived to Sorrento just in time for school to be let out. Who knew Italians went to school on Saturday? That was news to me. After teaching ten years of high school, what was not news to me is the rudeness and inconsideration of most teenagers. I barged through the pack of miscreants trying to get on the train as I was attempting to get off. What the hell was their rush anyway? The train didn’t leave for another 15 minutes. These pimple-faced, uniform-wearing kids were worse than the gypsies, but I digress.

Amalfi Coast View

I grabbed a taxi to take me the five minutes to the Bellevue Syrene. My jaw almost hit the floor of the cab when we arrived. No, it wasn’t because of the hotel’s ideal location or the picturesque view. It was the 20 euros it cost to get there. Seriously? And I was worried about getting ripped off by the gypsies. {Yes, again with the gypsies.} I checked in, threw down the welcome cocktail, dropped my stuff off in the absolutely stunning ocean-front suite, and high-tailed it back to the train station. I had a date with Pompeii.

Pompeii

Perhaps due to the random train strikes, delays, lines, overcrowding, and other annoying things about Italian rail travel, stations and some trains sell booze. And after the few hours I’d had, I could use a drink. With a Peroni in hand and an empty train, I had myself a little fun.

Sorrento Train

With Swiss-like precision, the train left right on time. It was only 13 stops to Pompeii and realistically about 20 minutes. What I didn’t count on was the conductor stopping the train at some random location to yell at a father and son who were burning brush on the mountainside. Now, since I really don’t speak Italian, nor could I actually hear the conversation, I could only assume this was the situation. There certainly were lots of arms flailing about. This unscheduled stop was just par for the course. Normally I would have simply enjoyed the show, but I was meeting my guide and already running late. Again, par for the course.

I suppose the conductor realized that the man and his son couldn’t care less what he was saying and proceeded north towards Naples. Finally I arrived to Pompeii where I met Ilaria, my Walks of Italy guide. She was kind and didn’t show the least frustration at my late arrival. We walked the 50 or so yards from the train station to the Pompeii excavation site and picked up our tickets. This was the easiest thing I’d done all day, and I was grateful.

Pompeii Excavation

Mt. Vesuvius

History: Pompeii was an ancient Roman city destroyed and buried under ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It was lost for about 1,500 years until 1599 and then rediscovered 150 years later by the Spanish engineer, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. Pompeii and its objects were well preserved because of the lack of air and moisture. These objects now reside in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Italian Fresco

What to Expect: Pompeii is huge, so don’t expect to see it all in a couple of hours. Actually, you can’t see it all because some sections of the ancient city aren’t open to the public. Pompeii is a city of ruins, so don’t think you’re going to see much other than the shells or foundations of buildings and a few frescos. There are also a lot of dogs. Locals abandon them in Pompeii and workers name, feed, and take care of these strays. They’re harmless and generally just lay around and sleep. There is a store to grab some snacks, drinks, and to use the restroom in the middle of the ruins, which made me laugh. Commercialism is alive and well even in the lost city of Pompeii.

What’s Essential: Let’s be real. Unless you’re an expert on Ancient Roman history you’re going to need some sort of guide. Whether you use an actual person, a book, or one of the audio tours, a guide is vital. Otherwise, Pompeii is just going to look like a bunch of rocks and ruins when in reality, it’s way more than that. Often I’ll do an audio tour because I just don’t want to be bothered organizing anything, but to get the very most out of Pompeii, I’d go with a real live person. Because Walks of Italy connected me with Ilaria, I am sure I learned exponentially more than if I’d put on some headphones and walked around. Her knowledge was extensive and she was able to answer even my silliest questions.  You don’t get that from a pre-recorded tour.

Pompeii Road

Pompeii Ruins

Mount Vesuvius

View from Mt. Vesuvius

After a night living in the lap of luxury at the Bellevue Syrene in Sorrento, my driver and modern-day philosopher, Enzo, picked me up for a drive through Heaven, also known as the Amalfi Coast. Perhaps you remember Enzo from my previous post, along with the sage wisdom he offered {“I think it is necessary to believe in something you don’t touch” and “If you want to live long then make love all the time”}. Yes, Enzo was something else.

On top of being entertaining and showing me the Amalfi Coast, Enzo was also charged with the task of getting me to Mt. Vesuvius by 2:00 pm as I had tour with a volcano expert planned. Just so you know, this wasn’t just any tour. Walks of Italy set me up with their down in the crater tour with Roberto. Let me just remind you that Mt. Vesuvius is still an active volcano. This is the same volcano that destroyed Pompeii, the city I’d just visited the day before. I would walk around the lip of the crater and then actually go into this active volcano. What the hell was I thinking?

Inside Mt Vesuvius

History: This stratovolcano located in the Gulf of Naples is best known for its eruption in 79 AD that buried and destroyed of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. That eruption ejected a cloud of stones, ash, and fumes, spewing molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second. An estimated 16,000 people died. Vesuvius has erupted several other times and is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years. It is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the population of 3,000,000 people living nearby and its tendency towards eruptions.

Smoke inside Mt Vesuvius

What to Expect: Cars can only be driven so close to the crater before visitors have to hike the rest of the way. It’s a pretty steep climb along a dirt road so appropriate footwear is essential. Plan on about a 10-15 minute walk before reaching the area for the regular tourists. If you’re with a Walks of Italy guide, then you’re able to actually walk around the lip and go inside of the crater. There are some very narrow and unstable paths, so caution should be taken. Also, weather can play havoc on viewing opportunities. Fog can hover over the mountain and prevent visitors from seeing inside of the crater and out into the Bay of Naples. Timing is essential. There’s also a couple of little shops with souvenirs, drinks, and snacks in the car park.

What’s Essential: Quite frankly, I needed an oxygen tank. The altitude combined with my pasta and wine gluttony over the previous weeks did nothing to help me. Luckily, I was driven up to the crater by my guide or I surely would have died from exhaustion. Thank goodness I had the wherewithal to wear a couple of extra layers of clothes and proper footwear. Don’t forget your camera; the views of the Bay of Naples is extraordinary. Also, make sure to bring your knowledge of Pompeii. Being so close to the source of Pompeii’s destruction puts the event into perspective. In my opinion, you’d be missing out if you skipped Mt. Vesuvius.

Climbing Mt Vesuvius

Naples National Archaeological Museum

Ceiling Fresco

With rain coming down, I was driven down Mt. Vesuvius exhausted, but still alive. Enzo, my driver, was patiently waiting to take me to Naples. Had I not been flying out of the city I would have skipped it all together. Since I had one night, I figured I better make the most of it. Naples happens to be the birthplace of pizza, so I intended on having my fill. It was also suggested by Walks of Italy that I experience the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Marble Statue

Ilaria would be my guide and I was thrilled to see her again. With only a couple of hours to give to the museum before my flight, Ilaria showed me the high points of the museum. She explained that many people venture to Pompeii only to leave disappointed. Where’s all the stuff? Why is it just dirt and rocks? Well, all the stuff found buried under ash in Pompeii is actually in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. This stop would complete the trifecta.

Antique Silver

History: The museum displays a very large collection of artifacts from Pompeii and contains an extensive collection of Greek and Roman antiques. Charles the III of Spain founded the museum in the 1750s, but the building had previously been used for cavalry barracks and also housed the University of Naples. Marbles, bronzes, and mosaics, including the Alexander Mosaic dating to 100 BC, are found throughout. The Secret Cabinet is perhaps the museum’s most unique collection.

Alexander Mosaic

What to Expect: If you’ve properly prepared yourself with visits to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius with a guide, you can expect for all the pieces of history to come together with a visit to this museum. With Ilaria’s extensive knowledge, I was able to envision what life must have been like in 79 AD. Mosaics in the museum were from the blank walls that she pointed to in Pompeii. The smallest details didn’t escape her, even mentioning that glass was a rare find in the excavation due to the heat from the ash. If you don’t have the historical background then expect to feel like you’re just looking at a bunch of old stuff in a beautiful building.

Naples National Archaeological Museum

What’s Essential: First and foremost, you’re going to need a good bit of time. There’s so much to see that to do it justice, you’re going to need more than a few hours. But if you are on a tight schedule like I was, make sure you see the Secret Cabinet. This was the name that the Bourbon Monarchy gave the private rooms that held their collection of erotic items found in the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Starting in the 1800s, access has been controlled and censored by various Italian ruling bodies. Since 2000, access to the collection has been allowed to anyone over the age of 14, and those under 14 can view with an adult. At first glance, the Secret Cabinet is quite racy, but stripping away the erotic nature and learning about the history makes the collection all the more interesting.

Naples National Archaeological Museum

After two hours, I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the museum, but my time in Italy was up. I had to get to the airport. Barcelona was waiting. I can honestly say that I loved every minute in Italy, even all the crazy and frustrating encounters I had on the trains. Perhaps I was on a pasta and wine high for the entire ten days, but I can’t wait to get back….gypsies, regional trains, and all.

Walks of Italy provided me with each of these three tours, however the opinions expressed here are truly my own. In no way was I guilted into writing a good review because of my frequent tardiness nor swayed by the unbelievable professionalism and knowledge of Roberto and Ilaria. If you’re headed to Italy, I highly recommend Walks of Italy for their private and small-group tours. You’ll be glad you did!

Leah Walker

Leah’s a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that’s in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah’s thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don’t extend to speaking French. Yet.

33 Comments

  1. Great post! It has all the essentials- It’s funny & informative, and has beer in it. I’m a big fan! 🙂

    (Seriously, I can’t get this far south on my upcoming trip, but Naples & the Amalfi Coast are high on my to do list…)

    1. Yeah, I get the time crunch, Erik, but I wasn’t getting that close to the Amalfi Coast not to go. Frankly, I didn’t care that it was the off season. It’s the second most beautiful place I’ve ever seen behind….wait for it…the South Island of New Zealand.

      Does that put it in perspective for you?

  2. Naples looks fantastic, but I think I’m more amused by your travails of train travel. As a wae lad, I’d been fascinated by volcanoes and Vesuvius is no exception. Did you get a chance to ask people what it was like to live next to an *active* volcano? I’d learned of Pompeii in elementary school, and that sparked dreams of what it would be like to visit, minus an ongoing-eruption, of course. But as Erik wrote, I think I need a beer now …

    1. I did ask that question to a few people, but they said that because of technology, there’s plenty of warning prior to eruption. None seemed worried in the least.

  3. Walks of Italy certainly hires the very *best* tour guides and offers such unique opportunities in tours. Who took ALL those fantastic photos of you all over this Italian leg of the tour?? 😉

    1. I was absolutely impressed with Walks. They have to be awesome to put up with the two of us for 10 days.

    1. I was there in November, and yes, it was very windy. First off, it’s always going to be windy at the top of a mountain, plus a storm was rolling in.

  4. Your train ride sounds crazy! I can only imagine your joy when all the school kids arrived! I really do need to spend some time in Italy – sounds like a great time!

    1. Ohhhh…I can’t tell you how many mutterings were under my breath…and not. I’m not afraid to discipline a kid in public. 😉

  5. Well, that was quite an ordeal, but it looks to have been worth it. Seriously, what is it with people boarding trains, elevators, etc. before everyone else is off. Drives me absolutely bat-$hit crazy and it’s not just the youth…old people do it too!

    1. Oh, the old people are the worst at doing that! I suppose they don’t move as fast as they used to so require a head start. Kids are just rude. 😉

      Rant over. It was an ordeal, but if you’ve seen the Amalfi Coast then you know it’s worth it.

    1. Hopefully you’re in better shape than me before you decide to climb Mt. Vesuvius. As for the sign, I find that making light of an annoying situation makes everything better. Honestly, I’d never seen so many people without teeth since I visited a nursing home. Crazy!

  6. Your train ride is hilarious. I am shocked you didn’t smack anyone! I totally agree that Pompeii without any type of guide (human or audio) is a waste of the trip to get there. We toured it with “Rick Steves fame” Gaetano – he was phenomenal and my understanding of Pompeii and its world at the time certainly improved by leaps and bound. Nice post!

  7. I have always been fascinated with Mt. Vesuvius and the 79 A.D. eruption. I enjoy checking out historical places while traveling, so this is one spot I would love to visit.

    1. I can see you hiking Mt. Vesuvius, with the fanny pack, of course. It’s a very interesting place. I’d make it a point to visit in the near future.

  8. ohh we can only imagine you and lola in the museum looking at the secret cabinet. looks like you made the most of your time in pompei, mt vesuvius, and naples! xo

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