Its tragic history and the dramatic testimonies handed down to us in the form of relics and archaeological excavations have made Vesuvius one of the most famous volcanoes in the world. This majestic mountain which dominates the Bay of Naples, almost seeming to encircle it in an embrace, is now safeguarded by the National Park of Vesuvius which protects the environment, promotes environmental educational activities and scientific research and invites travelers to discover an area that is home to picturesque towns, magnificent landscapes and agricultural offerings that are unique in terms of their variety and unique flavours.
The National Park of Vesuvius includes 13 communes, all falling under the administration of the province of Naples, boasting a population of roughly 380,000 inhabitants.
The focal point of the Park, as well as its main attraction, is the volcano, the most important active volcano in continental Europe. Its external cone, Monte Somma, now extinct, is semi-circular in shape and reaches a height of 1,132 metres above sea level, with Punta Nasone. it represents what remains of the old volcano, whose activity dates back to at least 300,000 years ago. On the contrary, a vast depression known as the Valle del Gigante, is divided into Atrio del Cavallo to the west and Valle dell’Inferno to the east and represents the residual inner part of the old caldera. The earliest eruptions, which took place between 25,000 and 17,000 years ago, partly destroyed the most ancient volcano, Mt. Somma, within which the Gran Cono of Mt. Vesuvius later formed.
One of the volcano’s most significant eruptions occurred on 24 August 79 A.D. This devastating eruption totally destroyed the three cities of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabia, burying them under a thick layer of ash, lapilli and lava. The formation of Vesuvius, inside Monte Somma, probably dates back to this period. Another violent eruption was the one that occurred on 16 December 1631. This time, it destroyed most of the inhabited centres lying at the foot of the volcano, causing the death of some 4,000 victims and lava to flow into the sea. The last eruption occurred in March 1944, generating 21 million cubic metres of lava and destroying numerous inhabited centres. Ash from the volcano was scattered far and wide even reaching as far as Albania. Since that time, the volcano has not erupted again even though frequent seismic waves generated by earthquakes move underneath the volcano demonstrating its active state of quiescence. The volcanological observatory of Herculaneum, located inside the Park, is a part of the volcano’s history. Established in the 19th century, it was the first volcanological observatory in the world, where the first seismic and volcanological research was carried out.
One of the highlights of the park is its flora, characterized by significant differences depending on which side of the volcano it grows. The Vesuvius side has a characteristic Mediterranean-type vegetation: basically arid, over the course of the years it has gradually been reforested to prevent landslides. On the contrary, the vegetation on the Somma side is damper and more fertile. Today, 610 different vegetable species populate the Park.
It also abounds in a rich variety of fauna. While walking along the trails that cross the park you might meet mammals such as the rare Wood Mouse, the Stone Marten, the fox, the dormouse, wild rabbits and hares. The Park also boasts more than 100 bird species. Among its amphibians, particularly noteworthy is the incredibly rare Emerald Toad. There is also a large community of invertebrates, including 44 different species of multi-coloured butterflies which are especially easy to sight when the Park is in bloom.
The Park offers visitors 54km of walks, divided into 9 trails, each signposted with information on the nature, geology and history of the trail thus making them accessible to those who wish to explore the treasures of the Park in total safety. In the vicinity of the Vesuvius Observatory, at an altitude of between 800 and 850 metres above sea level, you will find the Atrio del Cavallo, a large natural amphitheatre that owes its name to the horses and donkeys that were tethered here by tourists heading up to the craters. On the contrary, the Valle del Gigante is a volcanic depression measuring approximately 5km in length which separates the steep slopes of Monte Somma from those of the Gran Cono, including the Atrio del Cavallo and the Valle dell’inferno. Its sandy bottom is conducive to the growth of lichen, Etna broom, black locust and birch trees. One of the most evocative and isolated areas of the Park is the Valle dell’Inferno. Along the paths that are accessible to tourists it is not unusual to find fumaroles whose gas emissions often reach temperatures of around 80° C (there is even one that has a fumarole temperature of 500°C).
Landmark sights inside the Park include the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii is one of the best-known archaeological sites, of extraordinary interest because it offers visitors insight into the places and lifestyles of those who inhabited the city two thousand years ago. Alternately, the easiest route to reach the Observatory and the crater of Vesuvius starts from Herculaneum. Its excavations, which are smaller than those of Pompeii, are, however, better preserved. At the foot of the northern side of the volcano, Somma Vesuviana boasts an interesting historical centre. Make sure to visit the medieval quarter of Casamale, the ruins of the castle and the Museum of peasant life, boasting 32,000 objects of daily life originating from all over Campania. For years, Ottaviano, a densely populated agricultural centre at the foot of Monte Somma, was a playground for holidaymakers: the city, damaged several times by eruptions, is dominated by an imposing castle where Gabriele D’Annunzio resided.
How to get there:
By car: Take the A3 Napoli-Salerno Autostrada. Exit at Herculaneum or Torre del Greco. From here, follow the signs to the top of the volcano.
By train: Take the Ferrovia Circumvesuviana. Napoli-Torre Annunziata, Napoli-Sorrento, Napoli-Poggiomarino-Sarno and Napoli-Ottaviano-Sarno lines.
Ente Parco Nazionale del Vesuvio. Palazzo Mediceo. Via Palazzo del Principe, Ottaviano, Naples. T: 0818653911 www.parconazionaledelvesuvio.it
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