The history and landscape of Mount Vesuvius
The presence of Vesuvius has dominated life on the Bay of Naples ever since it buried the towns of Pompei and Herculaneum under a 6m thick layer of ash in 79AD. Vesuvius is the last remaining active volcano in continental Europe. The torrent of solidified lava left by the last eruption in 1944, visible on the walk leading to the crater, provides an eloquent reminder that Vesuvius is by no means dead - just sleeping.
Despite its devastating potential, Vesuvius has proved to be a source of wealth and prosperity for the people living in its shadows. Its fertile soil favors the cultivation of fruit and vegetables of worldwide fame, such as the del piennolo cherry tomatoes, the Somma Vesuviana peaches, and the grapes from which the highly prized Lacryma Christi wine is made. The volcano lies at the heart of the Vesuvius National Park, a protected area in which there are many spectacular nature trails.
When thinking of Vesuvius, one inevitably thinks of Pompeii, the volcano's most famous victim and now one of the world's most visited archaeological sites, and one which is, not surprisingly, included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
Pompeii was a much larger town than Herculaneum, which shared its dismal fate, and guides often take visitors on tours according to themes such as that of the private houses including the House of Sallust, the House of the Hunt and the House of the Vettii or that of the patrician villas, just beyond the walls, where to admire the famous Villa of Mysteries and Villa of Diomedes.
Unlike Pompeii, which was a busy commercial town, Herculaneum was substantially a holiday resort for aristocrats, ecclesiastics, and politicians.
Although the greater part of its villas' treasures are now exhibited in Naples' National Archaeological Museum, a visit to Herculaneum, on the western slopes of Vesuvius, offers an invaluable insight in to the life and times of the Roman Empire's elite classes. High on the list of the buildings worth seeing: the House of Neptune and Anphitrite, the House of Relief of Telephus and the Thermal Baths, the latter used as much an important social gathering place, as a hygienic necessity.