Half an hour past midnight, carrying water, snacks, a footer, and a torch in a small bag, I was leaving my lodging in downtown Pompei. I set out striding along the streets of the still rather lively town’s centre. The restaurants were open, catering the town’s visitors with food and the last drinks before making for bed. I was thinking of how different from all those people’s my imminent night is going to be, as I was leaving behind me the last traces of this liveliness and was heading out of town.
I was walking up the road SP358 through the quiet northern suburbs of Pompei. I had hardly managed to fall asleep for about an hour in the evening. So I’d been practically awake since early morning this day. My eyes were feeling heavy and my mind slow. I thought of how I had omitted to have a cup of coffee before leaving, when the sign of an open cafeteria I was walking by was, on the spur of the moment, registered by my brain. I stopped and had a midnight espresso and a cigarette. And then, resolute, I got back on track of my long way.
I left SP358 taking a left on Via Pizzo Martino to the town of Boscoreale. The road was perfectly oriented to the northwest, directly facing the commanding figure of Mount Vesuvius posing for me haughtily, straight ahead, in slight contrast with the murky sky. The top of this famous and infamous, tremendous, massive volcano was my very destination this night. It was one hour past midnight and I was intent to have made it up there by dawn.
The view of the mountain, plus the one of the greater portion of the night sky were lost, as I entered Boscoreale and started walking in between the aged buildings of the town, tightly clustered on either side of its narrow principal street, direction west. This tightness of the town’s edification must be the reason, too, of its kinda peculiar waste disposal system: A trash bag was hanging down on a rope, out of every balcony and window, levitating over the rudimental pavements; apparently waiting for someone to pick them up, on some later stage of the night.
I continued through the immediately succeeding town of Boscotrecase; and I found myself at that round-about defining the juncture of Via Cifelli and Via Panoramica by the northwest verge of the town. There, I, finally, was standing right at the south foot of Vesuvius. The time was 2.20 am, and things were just about to start getting interesting.
There is that S200 road leaving straight north, up the mountain slope, from the round-about. Received suspiciously by the dogs, constantly running alongside with me from the inside of the villas’ fences, and barking at me as they were demonized, I proceeded up the road. The dog cortege eventually stopped, and the barking gave its place to some creepy pop music sounding out from a sort of event held in one of the many luxurious venues established there, alongside the villas, after, in the course of years, the area was systematically put on fire and deforested especially for this reason. I distanced my self from the event; the crickets’ ecstatic singing had started prevailing in the air; and I was approaching the end of the road, wherefrom the lights of a still car shone like a pair of eyes through the darkness, facing down the road I was coming up.
It was a military jeep, I found out as I was passing by its side and took a glimpse of the three soldiers attending me bewildered through the open windows. They said nothing, and I continued shortly up to the end of the road looking for the trailhead. And then made its appearance within the reach of my torch, through the darkness, a tall and heavy iron gate with a inscribed-in-large-letters “vietato l’ accesso” sign on it; which basically meant that, according to the law’s disposition, my night adventure had to end there.
According to my disposition, I should jump straight over the gate and keep on my way. But after a few seconds of pondering the issue, the voice of one of the soldiers sounded in a commanding tone from behind, demanding that I come over towards their part. The voice further demanded that I turn out my torch -in a do-as-I-say-or-I-shoot kind of manner-, when I complied with its previous request.
“Where are you going?”, demanded to know in Italian the voice of the soldier whose face was now visible to me in short distance. “To the top”, I explained cooly. “To the top!”, the soldier repeated my words trans-toned to an exclamation of surprise, “In the middle of the night? Why?”. “It is not hot and rather quiet”, I tried to solve his bewilderment.
They explained what I’d I already found out myself some moments ago: That the trail is closed and I have to turn back. Then, one of them requested to see my passport. He checked what he was supposed to check: the front page stating my identity; and then he started leafing through the rest of the pages filled with numerous visas from countries around the world. “You travel a lot, eh?”, he said, his tone and expression suggesting “you might well be a spy… ha!”, while apparently daydreaming the probable scenario of me really being a spy or whatever something which busting me will mean elevating his status to a highly distinctive one – maybe even earning some honor medallion too-, so being offered the chance to feel that he’s done something important in his life: something other than sitting and chatting bullshit with his comrades in a car for all these long and boring nights.
His fingers stopped suddenly leafing over one page where a communist-, or other evil-regime-like symbol of a black star in red frame forced greater suspicion in him. “Guinea-Bissau!!! Have you been there? Why?”, he asked stunned, overdue for up to 5 seconds to terminate the pronouncing of the last ‘e’ of the word ‘perché’ (why). I lingered, too, giving him an answer. I did that in a kind of do-you-really-want-to-know-man?, are-you-sure-you-can-bear-hearing? kind of way; while observing that agonizing suspense painted on his face, slightly drawing himself back. And then, on the moment I couldn’t be sure anymore that he’s not going to draw his gun out… “Because there are many nice beaches down there”, I satisfied his enquiry.
Next question was about why I do not have an Italian stamp in my passport. I seriously even had to explain them what I, until this very moment, had for granted that every citizen of the EU knows -and especially so when that one citizen is one with authority to check passports: that the borders are open, and there is no control or stamps within the Schengen Zone.
They detained me for a while longer; during which time they asked me all sorts of weird, irrelevant, ridiculous questions; and I was free to go. I had walked 10 km and gained 300 m in altitude to get there. Now I had to ingloriously walk all this same way back. I thought I could possibly attempt to trespass from some lower point; but the fact I had to do so through dog-guarded private properties, plus the one that I was dealing with the army and not some park rangers… made me decide to rather not.
I scampered down the same, long way, while observing the sad, yet splendid spectacle of a fire raging brightly in the night sky from somewhere up the Pezzuli mountain across the bay. I crossed through the now utterly desolate streets of Boscotrecase and Boscoreale. And a little bit before daybreak, I was sitting on a bench in Pompei’s void central square, reflecting on what had just passed and formulating the plan of my second, upcoming attempt to make it to the top of Mount Vesuvius on this day which was about to start.