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Vesuvius at Night

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on August 22, 2013 | 3:21 pm | 1 Comments

Vesuvius at Night

Nothing could prepare me for the strange experience of being on top of Mount Vesuvius at night. Of course it was not just any night, but August 10, an evening in which the sky was filled with shooting stars dedicated to Saint Lawrence, (La Notte di San Lorenzo). This unique cosmic configuration combined with the slumbering volcano made for an evening which can be described as mysterious, magical and marvelous all rolled up into one.

The shooting stars of San Lorenzo have been noted for millennia. While we now know they are caused by the Earth’s annual entry into the orbit of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, the ancients did not know this and ascribed many strange meanings to the apparition of these celestial bodies, including the obvious symbolism of the shooting stars being divine seed cast to fertilize the Earth. San Lorenzo himself was martyred on this night, being roasted on an open spit. Being courageous, he famously asserted that he was “sufficiently grilled on one side of his body and should be turned over so the other side could be roasted.” Some guy that San Lorenzo!

With all this in mind, when I had the opportunity to go to Vesuvius to see the shooting stars, I did not hesitate to say yes. We got up to the area near the ticket office around 8 p.m. and enjoyed the beautiful rose colored sunset over the Gulf of Naples, looking west toward Ischia and Procida.

Vesuvius at Night

Just before we started our hike, our fabulous guide Umberto Saetta gave us some advice. There have been a series of tremors lately (there are always tremors, but these were of sufficient force to have been felt by visitors). He told us that if there was a tremor, not to panic. What me, panic? Actually I was hoping to feel one, but no such luck. By the way, Vesuvius is the most monitored volcano in the world.

In typical Neapolitan fashion, we couldn’t go on a hike without refreshment, so we took off in the dark to a way station (refugio) located about 300 feet below the crater’s rim to have some marvelous Vesuvian wine and cheese. The wine, called Per’e’ Palumb means the “feet of the pigeon,” named after of the wine red color of the feet of an indigenous bird. It was great, as are all the Vesuvian wines, with its rich, mineral laden flavor, all thanks to the volcanic soil.

Umberto told us about another Vesuvian wine, Lacrima Christi, (Tears of Christ). Here’s the story. Volcanoes were always considered hazardous and evil because people associated them with the devil and the Underworld. They would not consider drinking a wine that was produced from volcanic soil because of the obvious evil implications. So here’s where brilliant marketing and rebranding come in. The wine producers, who amazingly enough were members of the Medici family from Florence, basically wrote a marketing plan. Here’s a summary of the press release. Satan, as he was being banished from Heaven, stole a piece of Paradise and brought it down to Earth. The piece he stole was Vesuvius! Christ was so upset that he started to cry and his tears moisturized the soil allowing the grapes to flourish and thus was born a wine called “Tears of Christ.” Just to make sure the wine was known to as many people as possible, the Medici, who had relatives who were Popes, arranged for the Lacrima Christi to be the official wine of the Church. In this way, the faithful were treated to this marvelous wine at Mass and it soon became a sought-after, appreciated product.

After our wine tasting and instruction, we edged our way along the ink black path, eventually arriving at our first viewing station, which looked out over the gulf to the west.  By this time it was dark and the lights of Napoli flickered beneath us like thousands of little candles. We saw our first shooting stars and of course, made our wishes.

Vesuvius at Night

We walked along, circling the crater. Here, in the absolute darkness, I saw something darker, the top of the crater which appeared like a black void looming some 300 feet overhead. It had no beginning or end, it was just there. Here’s where it started to get weird. I did not feel frightened or have a sense of foreboding, I felt strangely comforted, like I was being watched over by some monumental force. I have read about many poets and writers who have come to Vesuvius and have experienced this disconcerting feeling. They of course, can express themselves much better than I, but they have described it as an emotional catharsis and have credited the volcano with their new or renewed creativity. It was as if the volcano touched something in their soul. I think it is true.

Vesuvius at Night

We arrived at another viewing area where we were treated to the eastern end of the gulf which circled around toward Sorrento. While ablaze with color and even fireworks, Umberto identified certain black voids as Pompeii and vineyards. While waiting for more shooting stars, Umberto broke out some fine Vesuvian grappa. As we sipped, under the starry sky being watched by volcanic forces, I made a wish— Dear Lord, thank you for giving us this piece of Paradise, please let me come back next year.

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Ann Pizzorusso is a geologist and Italian Renaissance scholar. After many years of doing virtually everything in the world of geology (drilling for oil, hunting for gems, cleaning up pollution in soil and groundwater) she turned her geologic skills toward Leonardo da Vinci. See Ann's work on Tweeting Da Vinci. Ann writes the EarthScape Naples series for Napoli Unplugged.
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