Tag Archives: Sorrento

First Passport

In the spring of 1976 I made arrangements for my very first trip to continental Europe and booked a Cosmos holiday to Sorrento in Italy.  Having never been abroad before or flown on an airplane I needed to apply for my first passport.

This was quite a different process in 1976 because although now over 80% of the UK population has one, thirty-five years ago it was less than 20% so to have one and to travel felt a little bit exclusive.

My first passport was issued on 16th May 1976. It was a 32-page document with a dark blue cover, known nowadays as the old blue. This much loved style had been in use into use in 1920 with the formation of the Passport Service following international agreement on a standard format for passports, and remained in use until replaced by the European-Union-style machine-readable passport in late 1988. Details were handwritten into the passport and included: number, holder’s name, profession, place and date of birth, country of residence, height, eye and hair colour, special peculiarities, signature and photograph and, at the back, details of the amount of foreign exchange for travel expenses because only a limited amount of sterling, typically as little as £50, could be taken out of the country.

And so, on the appointed Saturday, we travelled to Luton airport for the Monarch Airlines flight to Naples.  Apart from the Isle of Wight this was the first time that dad had been overseas as well and to be honest he was slightly overdressed for the occasion in his rather formal sports jacket and tie.

As well as passports and foreign currency exchange, airline travel was different in 1976, the flight had proper seat allocations and the plane had comfortable seats with adequate legroom and stewardesses who wore smart orange uniforms and served a complimentary hot meal and we both enjoyed our very first airline journey.

The plane landed at a Spartan military airport base near to the city of Naples and after I had already taken a picture of the plane we were firmly warned against taking photographs.  It wasn’t an especially welcoming sort of place as we passed through a rather austere passport control and baggage reclaim hall both decorated in drab grey and in dire need of a welcoming makeover and made our way through to the coach that was waiting for us.

It is hard to remember how different travelling was thirty years ago.  Staying in touch was difficult because there were no mobile phones, no satellite television with United Kingdom news broadcasts and whilst I could happily do without those today there were no bank debit cards or ATMs if you ran short of cash, which I now find rather handy.

Getting holiday spending money estimates right was quite important because getting a top up if you needed one was a real problem.   Dad and I had taken £60 each for spending money, which I suppose would be about £200 now and although this didn’t sound a lot we were on full board arrangements at the hotel and I didn’t drink quite so much beer in those days!   In 1976 £60 in sterling converted to several thousand Italian Lire and so for a few days we were able to spend as though we were millionaires.

Codice della Strada the Italian Highway Code

“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It
seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver
ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it!”     John Steinbeck

In Italy, traffic regulations currently in force were approved by the Legislative Decree number 285 of 30th April 1992 and are contained in the Italian Highway Code called the Codice della Strada.

Anyone visiting a busy Italian city or town however may well however dispute that there is such a thing as a highway code in Italy.  I visited Naples in 1976 and was overwhelmed by the cacophony of blaring noise and the indiscipline on the roads and even after 1992 it wasn’t any better when I went to Florence in 2007.

Once again the town resembled a racetrack and this is because despite the best intentions of the rule book Italy has some ludicrously different driving rules to the rest of Europe and the traffic was murderously hectic on this Sunday morning.

Traffic lights are a good example of these different rules because each one resembles the starting grid of a formula one Grand Prix.  At an Italian traffic junction there is an intolerant commotion with cars all impatiently throbbing with engines growling, exhaust pipes fuming and clutch plates sizzling whilst behind the wheel the driver’s blood pressure reaches several degrees above boiling point.

A regard for the normal habits of road safety is curiously absent in Italy so although the traffic light colours are the same as elsewhere they mean completely different things.  Red means slow down, amber means go and green means that no rules apply!  At a junction an Italian driver simply points his car at the exit he is aiming for and five seconds before the lights go green, he shuts his eyes, presses the accelerator to the floor then races forward and may God have mercy on anything or anyone in his way.

Italian drivers also have a range of additional hand signals not used in most other countries, which means that for them holding the steering wheel is a bit of an inconvenience that makes driving even more exciting.

Once in Pisa  it was just my luck to get the craziest taxi driver on the rank.  He drove at madcap speeds into the city, dodging down back streets and directing the car into impossibly tight spaces and then he rounded off this virtuoso lunatic performance by demonstrating some advanced driving skills that involved having two very loud and very animated mobile telephone conversations on two separate phones whilst steering the car with his knees. With his knees!  This man was clearly on the run from an asylum and nervous laughter only encouraged him to play some more tricks as he switched lanes and negotiated the busy traffic with careless abandon.

Interestingly the Codice della Strada prohibits the use of the horn in built up areas but this rule is treated with complete contempt and an Italian driver has to always keep one hand free for this purpose.  Once in a hotel evening meal one of the waiters said that he had seen me earlier and he had tooted his horn and waved but I hadn’t seen him.  I explained that everyone was tooting their horns so how could I possibly have picked his out from all the rest and he seemed to accept the explanation but it left me wondering if they have different horn toots for different things and I listened out for that in future for the subtle variations I but detected nothing but a blaze of chaotic sounds.

Italy’s roads are dangerous and 2004 was probably the worst year and according to EuroStat there were thirty two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-one road deaths in the EU and five thousand, six-hundred and twenty-five of them were in Italy. That is about 17%.  In the ten years up to 2004 the Italians slaughtered sixty-five thousand, one hundred and twenty five people in traffic accidents so it pays to have your wits about you when crossing the road and why if you want to be sure of avoiding death on the highway in Italy it is probably safest to visit Venice.

Mount Vesuvius

The last major eruption of the volcano Vesuvius was in March 1944.  From 6th January to 23rd February 1944, lava flows appeared within the rim and there were outflows. The activity paused on 23rd February, resuming on 13th March. Small explosions then occurred until the major explosion took place on 18th March 1944.

In 1976 on a holiday to Sorrento we had a half day trip to nearby Mount Vesuvius which is an active stratovolcano situated to the east of Naples.  What that means technically and geologically is that it is a tall, conical shaped volcano composed of many layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash laid down over the centuries by previous eruptions.  It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years and that was in 1944 when it destroyed a handful of communities and an entire United States bomber squadron, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just take off and go somewhere else!

It is difficult to be precise but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around Naples.  The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent.

The Italian Government and the City of Naples have emergency evacuation plans in place that would take nearly three weeks to evacuate the entire population to other parts of the country but as Pompeii was destroyed in less than three days or so they might want to work on speeding that up a bit.  Many buildings exist ludicrously close to the summit in what is called the red zone and there are ongoing efforts being made to reduce the population living there by demolishing illegally constructed buildings, establishing a National Park around the upper slopes of the mountain to prevent the erection of any further buildings and by offering a financial incentive of €35,000 to families who are prepared to move away.

In 1976 it was twenty years before the creation of the National Park and the route up the mountain was via a narrow, steep, winding road through some of the poorest residential areas in Naples.  These were people who have chosen to live in run-down houses and shacks, many of which still had evidence of the damage inflicted by the 1944 eruption. They lived in the potential danger zone making the most out of the highly fertile volcanic earth to make a living out of growing fruit and vegetables and selling these at local street markets.

The coach wheezed it’s way up the narrow road and around the hairpin bends to a coach park about three hundred metres from the top of the one thousand, three hundred metre high crater.  This was as far as it could go but there was still a considerable way further along a dusty path of loose volcanic ash and clinker so it was a good job that we had taken the pre excursion advice to wear stout shoes and suitable clothing.  The track would almost certainly not have met current health and safety regulations because there was very little to stop careless people slipping and falling over the edge and tumbling down the mountain because every so often the track had slipped away down a massive vertical drop and occasionally had been propped up with a few bits of insufficient wood held together with scraps of string.  I understand that it is a lot safer now however.

It took about half-an-hour to reach the top and that wasn’t much safer either with a path with a potential vertical fall into the six hundred and fifty metre wide crater if you didn’t keep your wits about you.   It was worth the climb however because it was a clear day and the views from the top were simply stunning.  To the west was Naples laid out before us and beyond that the Bay of Naples and then the Thyrrenian Sea liberally punctuated by tiny islands and islets, which looked as though they were floating on the water like precious jewels set in a priceless bracelet.  To the east was the countryside and the vineyards of the region of Campania and the mid morning sun shone brightly on both land and sea below us.  The path around the crater was made of the same ash and pumice and on the way around I collected some pieces of curiously shaped lava that caught my eye and put them in my pocket and I still have these on show at home even today.

Apart from the great views there wasn’t really a great deal to see at the top except for the great yawning crater and a big hole full of rocks waiting to blow up again some time soon.  I suppose the point of going to the top of Vesuvius is simply to say you have been there and not because there is anything special to see.  In the sunshine the colours however were fascinating, the rocks were black, brown, purple and umber and all over there was scraggy green vegetation clinging on to life in a highly improbable location.  There were little wisps of smoke and every so often a smell of sulphur and a little bit of steam drifting across the path just to remind us that this was a living and active volcano.  At the top an old man demonstrated how hot the rocks were by lighting a cigarette by bending down and igniting it on the rocks.  I think he must have got through a lot of cigarettes in a day and we were all impressed with this and left a small contribution in his collection pot but I have always wondered subsequently if it was some sort of trick.

First European Holiday

In the spring of 1976 I made arrangements for my very first trip to continental Europe and booked a Cosmos holiday to Sorrento and so, on the appointed Saturday, we travelled to Luton airport for the Monarch Airlines flight to Naples.  Apart from the Isle of Wight this was the first time that dad had been overseas as well and to be honest he was slightly overdressed for the occasion in his rather formal sports jacket and tie.

Airline travel was different in 1976, the flight had proper seat allocations and the plane had comfortable seats with adequate legroom and stewardesses who wore smart orange uniforms and served a complimentary hot meal and we both enjoyed our very first airline journey.

The plane landed at a Spartan military airport base near to the city of Naples and after I had already taken a picture of the plane we were firmly warned against taking photographs.  It wasn’t an especially welcoming sort of place as we passed through a rather austere passport control and baggage reclaim hall both decorated in drab grey and in dire need of a welcoming makeover and made our way through to the coach that was waiting for us outside.

The twenty-five kilometre drive to Sorrento took about forty-five minutes along a busy road running alongside the Circumvesuviana railway and on the way we got our first look at Mount Vesuvius which towers up dangerously close to the city, and then as we swooped down through cypresses, citrus groves and vineyards around the Bay of Naples we could see the Mediterranean Sea and the Island of Capri.  The sea and the sky were so intensely blue that at times it was difficult to be sure where one finished and the other started.  This was exciting stuff because previously we had never been further than Cornwall or Norfolk and the blue, almost luminous, water looked a lot more inviting than the grey North Sea that’s for sure.  When the coach arrived in Sorrento it started dropping off the passengers at their various hotels and finally drove to Sant’ Agnello and a position directly on the coast on the top of the cliff and guests stopping at the Hotel Mediterraneo were invited to leave the coach.  This was our stop and we were immediately impressed with where we would be staying and I secretly congratulated myself on a good selection.

The hotel was six stories high and painted a dazzling white with smart green shutters on the windows.  At the front trees with attractive pink blossom surrounded it and at the back there was a secluded garden full of citrus trees.  Our room was on the fourth floor and the hotel had one of those old fashioned lifts that were little more than a metal cage that went up and down the shaft and you could see the walls flashing by through the grill.  This was the sort of lift that you don’t see any more and have been consigned to history by European health and safety legislation.  Our room was on the back of the hotel overlooking the garden and although it was basic it was clean and comfortable and we agreed that it would do very nicely.  There was a tiled floor and real wooden furniture, beds with crisp linen sheets and a bathroom with an old-fashioned bath suite.  Being 1976 there was no mini-bar of course and no television, no complimentary toiletries  and certainly no Internet access.

It is hard to remember how different travelling was thirty years ago.  Staying in touch was difficult because there were no mobile phones, no satellite television with United Kingdom news broadcasts and whilst I could happily do without those today there were no bank debit cards or ATMs if you ran short of cash, which I now find rather handy.

Getting holiday spending money estimates right was quite important because getting a top up if you needed one was a real problem.   Dad and I had taken £60 each for spending money, which I suppose would be about £200 now and although this didn’t sound a lot we were on full board arrangements at the hotel and I didn’t drink quite so much beer in those days!   In 1976 £60 in sterling converted to several thousand Italian Lire and so for a few days we were able to spend as though we were millionaires.

In the late afternoon we had been invited to the Cosmos welcome meeting and as we thought that this was probably compulsory we went along to the hotel lounge with all the other guests to get the information that we all needed.  Later on, on package holidays, I stopped going to the welcome meetings because they began to tell you less and less and only wanted to sell you more and more but this one turned out to be very worthwhile.  The holiday representative was an attractive Italian woman called Maria who was very informative and gave us good advice before she sold us our trips.  We planned our fortnight to go out every other day and chose to go to Amalfi, Capri, Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii and Rome as well as two entertainment nights in Sorrento.  That was just about everything that was on offer although we did pass on the Monte Casino option.  Trips must have been a great deal cheaper then and much better value for money because even after we had paid for them all we still managed to have plenty of spending money left over.

A Life in a Year – 24th August, Mount Vesuvius, Naples and Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius is an active stratovolcano situated to the east of Naples.  What that means technically and geologically is that it is a tall, conical shaped volcano composed of many layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash laid down over the centuries by previous eruptions.  It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years and that was in 1944 when it destroyed a handful of communities and an entire United States bomber squadron, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just take off and go somewhere else!

It is difficult to be precise but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii over two days beginning on 24th  August 79 it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around Naples.  The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent.

The Italian Government and the City of Naples have emergency evacuation plans in place that would take nearly three weeks to evacuate the entire population to other parts of the country but as Pompeii was destroyed in less than three days or so they might want to work on speeding that up a bit.  Many buildings exist ludicrously close to the summit in what is called the red zone and there are ongoing efforts being made to reduce the population living there by demolishing illegally constructed buildings, establishing a National Park around the upper slopes of the mountain to prevent the erection of any further buildings and by offering a financial incentive of €35,000 to families who are prepared to move away.

When I visited in 1976 it was twenty years before the creation of the National Park and the route up the mountain was via a narrow, steep, winding road through some of the poorest residential areas in Naples.  These were people who have chosen to live in run-down houses and shacks, many of which still had evidence of the damage inflicted by the 1944 eruption. They lived in the potential danger zone making the most out of the highly fertile volcanic earth to make a living out of growing fruit and vegetables and selling these at local street markets.

The coach wheezed its way up the narrow road and around the hairpin bends to a coach park about three hundred metres from the top of the one thousand, three hundred metre high crater.  This was as far as it could go but there was still a considerable way to go up a dusty path of loose volcanic ash and clinker so it was a good job that we had taken the pre-excursion advice to wear stout shoes and suitable clothing.  The track would almost certainly not have met current health and safety regulations because there was very little to stop careless people slipping and falling over the edge and tumbling down the mountain because every so often the track had slipped away down a massive vertical drop and occasionally had been propped up with a few bits of insufficient wood held together with scraps of string.  I understand that it is a lot safer now however.

It took about half-an-hour to reach the top and that wasn’t much safer either with a path with a potential vertical fall into the six hundred and fifty metre wide crater if you didn’t keep your wits about you.   It was worth the climb however because it was a clear day and the views from the top were simply stunning.  To the west was Naples laid out before us and beyond that the Bay of Naples and then the Thyrrenian Sea liberally punctuated by tiny islands and islets, which looked as though they were floating on the water like precious jewels set in a priceless braclet.  To the east was the countryside and the vineyards of the region of Campania and the mid morning sun shone brightly on both land and sea below us.  The path around the crater was made of the same ash and pumice and on the way around I collected some pieces of curiously shaped lava that caught my eye and put them in my pocket and I still have these on show at home even today.

Apart from the spectacular views there wasn’t really a great deal to see at the top except for the great yawning crater and a big hole full of rocks waiting to blow up again sometime soon.  I suppose the point of going to the top of Vesuvius is simply to say you have been there and not because there is anything special to see.  In the sunshine the colours however were fascinating, the rocks were black, brown, purple and umber and all over there was scraggy green vegetation clinging on to life in a highly improbable location.  There were little wisps of smoke and every so often a smell of sulphur and a little bit of steam drifting across the path just to remind us that this was a living and active volcano.  At the top an old man demonstrated how hot the rocks were by lighting a cigarette by bending down and igniting it on the rocks.  I think he must have got through a lot of cigarettes in a day and we were all impressed with this and left a small contribution in his collection pot but I have always wondered subsequently if it was some sort of trick.

A Life in a Year – 16th May, My First British Passport

In the spring of 1976 I made arrangements for my very first trip to continental Europe and booked a Cosmos holiday to Sorrento in Italy.  Having never been abroad before or flown on an airplane I needed to apply for my first passport.  This was quite a different process in 1976 because although now over 80% of the UK population has one, thirty-five years ago it was less than 20% so to have one and to travel felt a little bit exclusive.

My first passport was issued on 16th May 1976. It was a 32-page document with a dark blue cover, known nowadays as the old blue style. This much loved style had been in use into use in 1920 with the formation of the Passport Service following international agreement on a standard format for passports, and remained in use until replaced by the European-Union-style machine-readable passport in late 1988. Details were handwritten into the passport and included: number, holder’s name, profession, place and date of birth, country of residence, height, eye and hair colour, special peculiarities, signature and photograph and, at the back, details of the amount of foreign exchange for travel expenses because only a limited amount of sterling, typically as little as £50, could be taken out of the country.

And so, on the appointed Saturday, we travelled to Luton airport for the Monarch Airlines flight to Naples.  Apart from the Isle of Wight this was the first time that dad had been overseas as well and to be honest he was slightly overdressed for the occasion in his rather formal sports jacket and tie.

As well as passports and foreign currency exchange, airline travel was different in 1976, the flight had proper seat allocations and the plane had comfortable seats with adequate legroom and stewardesses who wore smart orange uniforms and served a complimentary hot meal and we both enjoyed our very first airline journey.

 

The plane landed at a Spartan military airport base near to the city of Naples and after I had already taken a picture of the plane we were firmly warned against taking photographs.  It wasn’t an especially welcoming sort of place as we passed through a rather austere passport control and baggage reclaim hall both decorated in drab grey and in dire need of a welcoming makeover and made our way through to the coach that was waiting for us.

It is hard to remember how different travelling was thirty years ago.  Staying in touch was difficult because there were no mobile phones, no satellite television with United Kingdom news broadcasts and whilst I could happily do without those today there were no bank debit cards or ATMs if you ran short of cash, which I now find rather handy.

Getting holiday spending money estimates right was quite important because getting a top up if you needed one was a real problem.   Dad and I had taken £60 each for spending money, which I suppose would be about £200 now and although this didn’t sound a lot we were on full board arrangements at the hotel and I didn’t drink quite so much beer in those days!   In 1976 £60 in sterling converted to several thousand Italian Lire and so for a few days we were able to spend as though we were millionaires.

A Life in a Year – 30th April, Codice della Strada the Italian Highway Code

In Italy, traffic regulations currently in force were approved by the Legislative Decree number 285 of 30th April 1992 and are contained in the Italian Highway Code called the Codice della Strada.

Anyone visiting a busy Italian city or town however may well however dispute that there is such a thing as a highway code in Italy.  I visited Naples in 1976 and was overwhelmed by the cacophony of blaring noise and the indiscipline on the roads and even after 1992 it wasn’t any better when I went to Florence in 2007.

Once again the town resembled a racetrack and this is because despite the best intentions of the rule book Italy has some ludicrously different driving rules to the rest of Europe and the traffic was murderously hectic on this Sunday morning.

Traffic lights are a good example of these different rules because each one resembles the starting grid of a formula one Grand Prix.  At an Italian traffic junction there is an intolerant commotion with cars all impatiently throbbing with engines growling, exhaust pipes fuming and clutch plates sizzling whilst behind the wheel the driver’s blood pressure reaches several degrees above boiling point.

A regard for the normal habits of road safety is curiously absent in Italy so although the traffic light colours are the same as elsewhere they mean completely different things.  Red means slow down, amber means go and green means that no rules apply!  At a junction an Italian driver simply points his car at the exit he is aiming for and five seconds before the lights go green, he shuts his eyes, presses the accelerator to the floor then races forward and may God have mercy on anything or anyone in his way.

Italian drivers also have a range of additional hand signals not used in most other countries, which means that for them holding the steering wheel is a bit of an inconvenience that makes driving even more exciting.

Once in Pisa  it was just my luck to get the craziest taxi driver on the rank.  He drove at madcap speeds into the city, dodging down back streets and directing the car into impossibly tight spaces and then he rounded off this virtuoso lunatic performance by demonstrating some advanced driving skills that involved having two very loud and very animated mobile telephone conversations on two separate phones whilst steering the car with his knees. With his knees!  This man was clearly on the run from an asylum and nervous laughter only encouraged him to play some more tricks as he switched lanes and negotiated the busy traffic with careless abandon.

Interestingly the Codice della Strada prohibits the use of the horn in built up areas but this rule is treated with complete contempt and an Italian driver has to always keep one hand free for this purpose.  Once in a hotel evening meal one of the waiters said that he had seen me earlier and he had tooted his horn and waved but I hadn’t seen him.  I explained that everyone was tooting their horns so how could I possibly have picked his out from all the rest and he seemed to accept the explanation but it left me wondering if they have different horn toots for different things and I listened out for that in future for the subtle variations I but detected nothing but a blaze of chaotic sounds.

Italy’s roads are dangerous and 2004 was probably the worst year and according to EuroStat there were thirty two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-one road deaths in the EU and five thousand, six-hundred and twenty-five of them were in Italy. That is about 17%.  In the ten years up to 2004 the Italians slaughtered sixty-five thousand, one hundred and twenty five people in traffic accidents so it pays to have your wits about you when crossing the road and why if you want to be sure of avoiding death on the highway in Italy it is probably safest to visit Venice.

A Life in a Year – 18th March, the last Major Eruption of Vesuvius

The last major eruption of the volcano Vesuvius was in March 1944.  From 6th January to 23rd February 1944, lava flows appeared within the rim and there were outflows. The activity paused on 23rd February, resuming on 13th March. Small explosions then occurred until the major explosion took place on 18th March 1944.

In 1976 on a holiday to Sorrento we had a half day trip to nearby Mount Vesuvius which is an active stratovolcano situated to the east of Naples.  What that means technically and geologically is that it is a tall, conical shaped volcano composed of many layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash laid down over the centuries by previous eruptions.  It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years and that was in 1944 when it destroyed a handful of communities and an entire United States bomber squadron, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just take off and go somewhere else!

It is difficult to be precise but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around Naples.  The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent. 

The Italian Government and the City of Naples have emergency evacuation plans in place that would take nearly three weeks to evacuate the entire population to other parts of the country but as Pompeii was destroyed in less than three days or so they might want to work on speeding that up a bit.  Many buildings exist ludicrously close to the summit in what is called the red zone and there are ongoing efforts being made to reduce the population living there by demolishing illegally constructed buildings, establishing a National Park around the upper slopes of the mountain to prevent the erection of any further buildings and by offering a financial incentive of €35,000 to families who are prepared to move away.

 

In 1976 it was twenty years before the creation of the National Park and the route up the mountain was via a narrow, steep, winding road through some of the poorest residential areas in Naples.  These were people who have chosen to live in run-down houses and shacks, many of which still had evidence of the damage inflicted by the 1944 eruption. They lived in the potential danger zone making the most out of the highly fertile volcanic earth to make a living out of growing fruit and vegetables and selling these at local street markets.

The coach wheezed it’s way up the narrow road and around the hairpin bends to a coach park about three hundred metres from the top of the one thousand, three hundred metre high crater.  This was as far as it could go but there was still a considerable way to go up a dusty path of loose volcanic ash and clinker so it was a good job that we had taken the pre excursion advice to wear stout shoes and suitable clothing.  The track would almost certainly not have met current health and safety regulations because there was very little to stop careless people slipping and falling over the edge and tumbling down the mountain because every so often the track had slipped away down a massive vertical drop and occasionally had been propped up with a few bits of insufficient wood held together with scraps of string.  I understand that it is a lot safer now however. 

It took about half-an-hour to reach the top and that wasn’t much safer either with a path with a potential vertical fall into the six hundred and fifty metre wide crater if you didn’t keep your wits about you.   It was worth the climb however because it was a clear day and the views from the top were simply stunning.  To the west was Naples laid out before us and beyond that the Bay of Naples and then the Thyrrenian Sea liberally punctuated by tiny islands and islets, which looked as though they were floating on the water like precious jewels set in a priceless braclet.  To the east was the countryside and the vineyards of the region of Campania and the mid morning sun shone brightly on both land and sea below us.  The path around the crater was made of the same ash and pumice and on the way around I collected some pieces of curiously shaped lava that caught my eye and put them in my pocket and I still have these on show at home even today. 

Apart from the great views there wasn’t really a great deal to see at the top except for the great yawning crater and a big hole full of rocks waiting to blow up again some time soon.  I suppose the point of going to the top of Vesuvius is simply to say you have been there and not because there is anything special to see.  In the sunshine the colours however were fascinating, the rocks were black, brown, purple and umber and all over there was scraggy green vegetation clinging on to life in a highly improbable location.  There were little wisps of smoke and every so often a smell of sulphur and a little bit of steam drifting across the path just to remind us that this was a living and active volcano.  At the top an old man demonstrated how hot the rocks were by lighting a cigarette by bending down and igniting it on the rocks.  I think he must have got through a lot of cigarettes in a day and we were all impressed with this and left a small contribution in his collection pot but I have always wondered subsequently if it was some sort of trick.

A Life in a Year – 18th February, Italian Unification inspires my Travels

Although not confirmed for a couple of weeks or so, on February 18th 1861 King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont and Savoy assumed the title of King of a united Italy.  I studied Italian unification at school and university and became obsessed with the idea of visiting the country and soon after starting work and earning money I fulfilled that ambition.

In the spring of 1976 I made arrangements for my very first trip to continental Europe and booked a Cosmos holiday to Sorrento and so, on the appointed Saturday, we travelled to Luton airport for the Monarch Airlines flight to Naples.  Apart from the Isle of Wight this was the first time that dad had been overseas as well and to be honest he was slightly overdressed for the occasion in his rather formal sports jacket and tie.

Airline travel was different in 1976, the flight had proper seat allocations and the plane had comfortable seats with adequate legroom and stewardesses who wore smart orange uniforms and served a complimentary hot meal and we both enjoyed our very first airline journey.

The plane landed at a Spartan military airport base near to the city of Naples and after I had already taken a picture of the plane we were firmly warned against taking photographs.  It wasn’t an especially welcoming sort of place as we passed through a rather austere passport control and baggage reclaim hall both decorated in drab grey and in dire need of a welcoming makeover and made our way through to the coach that was waiting for us.

The twenty-five kilometre drive to Sorrento took about forty-five minutes along a busy road running alongside the Circumvesuviana railway and on the way we got our first look at Mount Vesuvius which towers up dangerously close to the city, and then as we swooped down through cypresses, citrus groves and vineyards around the Bay of Naples we could see the Mediterranean Sea and the Island of Capri.  The sea and the sky were so intensely blue that at times it was difficult to be sure where one finished and the other started.  This was exciting stuff because previously we had never been further than Cornwall or Norfolk and the blue, almost luminous, water looked a lot more inviting than the grey North Sea that’s for sure.  When the coach arrived in Sorrento it started dropping off the passengers at their various hotels and finally drove to Sant’ Agnello and a position directly on the coast on the top of the cliff and guests stopping at the Hotel Mediterraneo were invited to leave the coach.  This was our stop and we were immediately impressed with where we would be staying and I secretly congratulated myself on a good selection.

The hotel was six stories high and painted a dazzling white with smart green shutters on the windows.  At the front trees with attractive pink blossom surrounded it and at the back there was a secluded garden full of citrus trees.  Our room was on the fourth floor and the hotel had one of those old fashioned lifts that were little more than a metal cage that went up and down the shaft and you could see the walls flashing by through the grill.  This was the sort of lift that you don’t see any more and have been consigned to history by European health and safety legislation.  Our room was on the back of the hotel overlooking the garden and although it was basic it was clean and comfortable and we agreed that it would do very nicely.  There was a tiled floor and real wooden furniture, beds with crisp linen sheets and a bathroom with an old-fashioned bath suite.  Being 1976 there was no mini-bar of course and no television and certainly no Internet access.

It is hard to remember how different travelling was thirty years ago.  Staying in touch was difficult because there were no mobile phones, no satellite television with United Kingdom news broadcasts and whilst I could happily do without those today there were no bank debit cards or ATMs if you ran short of cash, which I now find rather handy.

Getting holiday spending money estimates right was quite important because getting a top up if you needed one was a real problem.   Dad and I had taken £60 each for spending money, which I suppose would be about £200 now and although this didn’t sound a lot we were on full board arrangements at the hotel and I didn’t drink quite so much beer in those days!   In 1976 £60 in sterling converted to several thousand Italian Lire and so for a few days we were able to spend as though we were millionaires.

In the late afternoon we had been invited to the Cosmos welcome meeting and as we thought that this was probably compulsory we went along to the hotel lounge with all the other guests to get the information that we all needed.  Later on, on package holidays, I stopped going to the welcome meetings because they began to tell you less and less and only wanted to sell you more and more but this one turned out to be very worthwhile.  The holiday representative was an attractive Italian woman called Maria who was very informative and gave us good advice before she sold us our trips.  We planned our fortnight to go out every other day and chose to go to Amalfi, Capri, Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii and Rome as well as two entertainment nights in Sorrento.  That was just about everything that was on offer although we did pass on the Monte Casino option.  Trips must have been a great deal cheaper then and much better value for money because even after we had paid for them all we still managed to have plenty of spending money left over.