Explore the Azores with Discover the World

Discover the World's Sue joins our first ever school trip to a remarkable volcanic archipelago located in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean.

Last month (April 2015), I was incredibly fortunate to be given the opportunity to join Watford Grammar School for Girls on the very first Azores trip organised by Discover the World Education. Having worked for the company for over 3 years, I knew inside out how school trips are run and having being involved in the Azores booking process for some of this time, I thought I knew what to expect. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer beauty of this archipelago of 9 volcanic islands located way out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Towards the end of our direct flight from London Gatwick, tiny specks of lush green shapes appeared and as we flew closer, these shapes transformed into rugged, dramatic islands with volcanic peaks looming over surf battered coastlines. This may not sound appealing to everyone but there was something about these islands, whether it was the vibrant green landscape or their isolated and remote aura, that I found both inviting and exciting. 

Our group comprised of 38 girls between the ages of 13-15, five teachers and me. Our 8 day adventure began on the island of Sao Miguel (referred to locally as ‘The Green Island’), where we were met by Irene, our local guide. Irene was incredibly knowledgeable throughout our journey. Being born and bred on Sao Miguel and having worked closely with geologists and biologists, she knew the names of so many plants and rock processes that we passed – which is quite a feat considering the countless endemic species and rock formations that exist on these islands.

Watford Grammar School for Girls in the Azores

Sao Miguel is the largest of the nine islands and presented to us an array of geographical features including volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, waterfalls and an abundance of wildlife. As Irene explained, each of the islands is quite different and unique, partly due to being formed at different geological time periods. The contrasts of the islands were clear for us to see but in addition to this it was interesting to witness the contrasts between the urban and rural environments. Ponta Delgada, for example, the most populated urban centre of Sao Miguel, is a stark contrast to the rest of the Azores, which is about as rural and remote as is possible to get in Europe. 

On our first full day on Sao Miguel, we visited a tea plantation, one of only two in Europe. After sampling the locally grown teas, we drove southwards to Furnas Valley, an area of rich volcanic activity boasting numerous fumaroles and thermal vents. After relaxing in the warmth of the Terra Nostra thermal pool set amongst lush and exotic botanical gardens, we drove to nearby Lake Furnas to visit the Interpretation Centre to learn about sustainable land use in the area and took a scenic walk around the lake. It was here we witnessed the preparation of a traditional cozido lunch (buried and cooked in the geothermal earth for approx. 5-6 hours). After witnessing this fine example of the resourcefulness of the Azorean people, we were driven back to our accommodation to enjoy our second evening meal in the adjoining restaurant.

Students swimming in the Terra Nostra thermal pool at Furnas Village

My first impressions of the Azores had been extremely positive, I had done my research before the trip and I was well aware of the achievements that the Azores had been awarded in terms of sustainability. However, what surprised me was the communal effort, which was clearly evident, to preserve the local identity and natural heritage of the islands. After driving past locally employed gardeners trimming roadside hedges (of which there were a lot), Irene explained that even locals not employed by the community would be active in maintaining the beauty of their islands - as they are all very proud of their heritage and culture. This was refreshing to witness and further to this it was explained to us that sustainability is instilled into Azoreans from a young age through the education system.

We stayed on Sao Miguel for a total of four nights. Without going into full details of every activity, the island presented a huge variety of geography topics to students from tectonics to tourism and ecosystems to energy. One of the highlights of Sao Miguel was hiking a trail along Sete Cidades, one of Portugal’s 7 natural wonders and a popular spot for both walkers and cyclists. This remarkable landscape was beyond beautiful and offered spectacular views along the rim of the volcanic crater down to the green and blue lakes at the basin. What was so special about this was that only a short few hours later we were worlds away from this stunning scenery at the Gruta de Carvao lava tube cave, which provided the perfect demonstration of the islands geological contrasts.

Sete Cidades

The next morning we took the short flight to Pico Island, the 8,000 feet of Mt Pico dominating the skyline as we landed. It was on Pico that we would learn about the importance of whaling to the Azorean heritage. The Whalers Museum provided a fitting tribute to the men who had risked their lives to hunt whales using very basic equipment. It was also explained to us how many of these traditional hunting methods still live on through conservation, despite whaling being abolished in the late 1980s. The Azores is one of the world’s greatest places to spot marine wildlife and we saw evidence of this ourselves during our whale-watching trip, led by marine biologists. Not only did we spot Fin Whales, we also saw Common and Risso’s dolphins – this was an incredible experience and one that I am sure the students and teachers will remember.

Our accommodation on Pico Island is also worth a mention. Pousada de Juventude de Pico (Pico Youth Hostel) is an old converted convent and provided an atmospheric and characterful stay. We overnighted here for 2 nights, giving us the opportunity to visit the neighbouring island of Faial by ferry one day and to see as much of Pico as possible in the time allotted to us.

Pousada de Juventude de Pico

Despite being on Faial for less than 8 hours, this small island provided what was possibly one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring days of our trip (although there were quite a few of them). The group hiked around the 5km trail of the crater rim of the Caldeira before visiting the Capelinhos Volcanic Complex and its award winning Interpretation Centre. At Capelinhos, it was staggering to see the effects of a volcano so clearly. The lunar like landscape of the new land created by the 1957-58 eruptions was a striking comparison to what we had previously seen on the Azores. It’s a place made all the more eerie by the presence of the former lighthouse, half-buried by ash. In the basement of this lighthouse was the amazing Interpretation Centre which did this remarkable eruption justice. Faial offered many more gems to us before we returned to Pico by ferry; one was Horta, a quaint hill-side town with a historic harbour which presented a fabulous view of Mount Pico.

New land created by the 1957-58 Capelinhos eruption

Capelinhos award-winning Interpretation Centre

Our last day in the Azores did not disappoint, we started off by exploring one of the longest lava tubes in the world. Gruta das Torres is over 5km in length and we began our tour by watching a short informational video of how the cave was formed. Excitement grew when we were given hard hats and torches and followed our guides deeper into the cave. At one point, we were asked to switch off our lights and remain silent. The experience of pure silence and extreme darkness was phenomenal and one the students were still talking about on our journey home. Back out in the daylight, we visited the UNESCO protected vineyards set amongst black volcanic walls built by monks many centuries ago.

As we boarded the flight back home, I reflected on the remarkable week we had just experienced. My journey to the Azores had far exceeded my expectations and there were too many highlights to include in this blog to fully ‘do it justice’. The incredibly friendly and proud locals welcomed us whole-heartedly to their unspoilt islands which are simply and stunningly beautiful.

Although as yet untouched by the recklessness of mass tourism, the Azores are prepared and looking forward to growth. I hope that the values of identity and heritage that are innate to Azoreans will protect these islands for many many years. One thing is for certain, I will definitely return to these beautiful islands as soon as I am able to. 


Posted on May 8, 2015 in Azores | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

What makes the Bay of Naples such a strong agricultural area and how have locals taken advantage of this?

In the final blog of our look at life in the Bay of Naples, we look at the role of farming in the economy. Agriculture contributes over 5% of jobs in the region, but why is the soil here so good for agriculture and what impact does this have on the quality of produce?

The economy of Naples and the surrounding area is heavily reliant on agriculture, as well as industry and the cargo port, which is one of Italy’s busiest. Naples is well known for its food – after all, the city gave birth to the pizza and is renowned as the best place to take coffee in Italy – and takes great pride in its produce.

Over 5% of employment in the region is from agriculture; key crops include citrus fruit, olives, grapes, figs, apricots, cherries and plums, but the staple crop here is the tomato. Italy is one of the world’s leading producers of tomatoes, and contributes over half of Europe’s tomato yield.

Local produce for sale in Naples

Many of the farms are based in the Bay of Naples. Much of southern Italy is formed from limestone and has poor quality soil. However, the area around Mount Vesuvius has been covered with thick layers of ash and lava from eruptions such as that of 79AD which covered Pompeii and Herculaneum with between 5 – 20m of volcanic material.

This ash and lava is rich in minerals and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, which are essential for plant growth. The volcanic soil here is therefore incredibly fertile. As a result, farmers in this area have focussed their attention on growing fruit and vegetables, rather than cereals which are grown in poorer quality soils elsewhere in the south of Italy.

Much of the area inland is mountainous. Water is scarce, and after rain it quickly disperses towards the coast, forming rivers and entering the sea in the Bay of Naples. This regular supply of water, coupled with the moist oceanic air and warm Mediterranean climate are also key factors in why the area around Vesuvius is so heavily covered in farms.

On a visit to a local vineyard, the producer told me that the danger of the volcano simply isn’t something that they consider and that it was the quality of the earth under their feet that led them to develop their vineyard here – and helped them to keep their operation organic.

Not only is the soil incredibly nourishing, but it has other characteristics which make it ideal for farming. The soil is formed from volcanic ash and broken down pieces of lava. Whilst the ash is packed with the valuable minerals, the porous lava has another purpose – it acts as a sponge, soaking up rainwater and storing it throughout the year, releasing it slowly during the dry summers. As a result, the vineyard requires no artificial irrigation for its mature vines, not even the occasional watering can!

A vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius

The farmers have developed other natural methods too – at the end of each row of vines is planted a rose. These are not decorative, but act as an early warning system for disease. Roses, being more delicate than grapes, will succumb to any disease before the vines, alerting the farmer to any problems and enabling him to take action before the problem destroys his crop. Furthermore, fava bean plants have been planted underneath the vines as they help maintain the soil quality, ‘fixing’ nitrogen and releasing oxygen into the environment.

I was also shown different method of growing vines to help get the best produce possible. More delicate grapes were grown in horizontal planes, hung underneath wooden pergolas so that the vines leaves act as natural shades to prevent the harsh sun from scorching the grapes underneath. Conversely, more hardy grapes were grown vertically using upright fences as support – this enabled more sunlight to reach the fruit, increasing the sugar content which aids fermentation.

After the tour I spoke with the wine producer and my guide over a lunch of local produce – salami, cheese, pasta and tomatoes – to learn more about local produce. Despite the vast swathes of vineyards and greenhouses, the quality of produce is just as important, if not more so, than the quantity.

They explained to me that the key to determining the quality of food is to sample the most basic recipe available. If that tastes good then it’s likely to be as a result of the quality of the ingredients used rather than the skill of a chef in cleverly blending flavours – indeed, the pasta sauce we were served as we spoke was sensational, and made from tomatoes blended with just a little oil, fresh garlic and fresh basil leaves.

View from Vesuvius showing the vegetation and greenhouses reflecting in the sunlight

So respected is Neapolitan produce that certain tomatoes and wine are recognised by their distinctive name, in much the same way as ‘champagne’ can only be from the champagne region of France. A variety of tomato from Vesuvius has been granted its own Protected Geographical Status by the EU as a mark of quality: ‘Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio’. Similarly, ‘Lacryma Christi’ wine is made from grapes only grown on the volcano’s slopes.

The areas within which the produce must be grown is limited to certain municipalities, most of which fall within the Vesuvius National Park, and therefore the Red Zone. As mentioned in the first blog, this provides yet another reason for people to build homes and businesses in a potentially deadly area.

Another local produce with a certified name is ‘Mozzarella di Bufala Campana’, or buffalo mozzarella. Whilst this cheese is produced across Italy, and indeed many other countries, the area of Paestum, to the south of the Bay of Naples, is renowned for its produce and forms. Buffalo mozzarella is typical of the region, and is used as one of the key ingredients of both pizza (originally from Naples) and the ‘Caprese’ salad (originally from Capri). Interestingly, the other key ingredient of both is the tomato.

The other major produce from the region is citrus fruit, and particularly lemons. Sorrento itself is famed for its lemon groves and production of limoncello, a lemon-based alcoholic drink. Despite being situated on limestone bedrock, the earth here is fertile as the vast terrace on which it sits is created from tufa, volcanic rock created by the last eruption of Campi Flegrei to the north. The town also benefits from high levels of sunshine and the shelter and water provided by the mountains behind the town. I met with the owners of the Giardini di Cataldo in Sorrento town, to learn about how they have reacted to tourism. 

The lemon groves of Giardini di Cataldo in Sorrento town

Originally a lemon grove on the edge of the town, the Giardini di Cataldo has been encompassed by the development and growth of the town. Despite being a piece of prime real estate, the owners have kept the land for growing lemons and selling local-made products in their shop in Sorrento town centre.

However, they have cleverly enhanced their appeal by offering tours of the grove to see how the lemons are grown and made into a range of products. Visitors can taste lemon ice-cream, limoncello and other locally-grown and made products, before finishing their tour in the shop. Similarly, other local working farms and vineyards have realised the strength of inviting tourists to them in order to attract increased business from selling their produce directly.

This isn’t a unique idea, but is one that has been successfully implemented by a number of smaller operators in the region. The vineyard I visited on the slopes of Vesuvius was open to tourists, offering tours of the vineyard and production process along with well-priced lunches washed down with samples of their wine in the hope of generating sales. A working farm on the outskirts of Sorrento, the Fondo Galatea, offers a similar visit with a tour of the farm to learn about cheese-making, olive oil production or bread-making, along with the chance to taste some of the home-made produce. Similarly, the Tenuta Vannullo farm near Paestum is a working buffalo farm where visitors can enjoy a tour of the pastures where the buffalo graze, and learn about how the cheese is made from their milk.

These kinds of establishments are fascinating as they not only represent the region’s long and distinguished past in influencing Italian, and global, cuisine today, but they also have recognised the need to take the initiative themselves in re-inventing themselves and creating a new type of attraction to maximise their appeal to tourists now and in the future.

Posted on April 16, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

How has tourism changed in the Bay of Naples and what does the future hold?

In the third of our blogs on the Bay of Naples, we turn our attention towards tourism. Italy is one of the top 5 most visited countries in the world and the Bay of Naples has long been a popular destination but what do locals think of tourism and how is the region preparing for the future?

Naples is Italy’s third largest city and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Bronze Age settlements have been discovered dating back to the second millennium BC and the ancient city was a key seat of power for both the Ancient Greeks and the Romans.

Before becoming part of a unified Italy in the 19th century, the Kingdom of Naples had been under Germanic, Byzantine, Norman, Sicilian, Spanish and French rule and as such is a rich melting pot of cultures. In the 17th century Naples was Europe’s second-largest city (behind Paris) and was a major cultural centre during the Renaissance period. As a result of these myriad influences, Naples’ historic city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its museums house some of Europe’s finest archaeological artefacts and art.

Outside the city lie a vast array of attractions including one of the world’s most famous volcanoes, Mount Vesuvius, the unique preserved ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the staggering beauty of the Amalfi Coast, the upmarket islands of Capri and Ischia and the tranquillity of the Sorrento peninsula. The area boasts a warm, Mediterranean climate and is also home to some of the staples of Italian cuisine, including pizza (originally from Naples) and pasta (from Gragnano, near Pompeii).

Tourists Visiting Pompeii

The region has long welcomed exclusive guests and was popular with a number of Roman Emperors, one of whom, Tiberius, moved his home to Capri after a visit. Naples was the traditional end point of the ‘Grand Tour’, a popular European trip taken by the British upper classes in the 17th and 18th centuries and Capri has long been a popular hangout for film and pop stars. The introduction of a rail network in the mid-19th century made the region more accessible to people of more limited financial means and kick-started mass tourism. Today, visitors flock from all over the globe to explore the incredible variety, culture and natural beauty of the area.

Tourism is an important part of the economy of Naples and one of its most profitable sectors. It is estimated that hotels alone account for around 4% of the employment in the area. Naples Capodichino airport carried just under 6 million passengers in 2014. Naples sea port is one of the largest passenger ports in Europe handling both domestic and international ferries and cruise ships with an overall passenger capacity of over 1.5 million cruise passengers per annum. Naples Centrale station carries more than 50 million rail passengers per year and is connected to Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and beyond by Italy’s high-speed train network.

However, many of the people I encountered were unsure about the future for tourism in the area, and their own financial security. A key concern voiced were that whilst tourist numbers were up compared to 10 or 15 years ago, the actual income to the area from these tourists had not increased accordingly. This was largely attributed to an increase in mass tourism and the short-term nature of both the type of visits and the region’s long-term plans for growth.

The good news first: tourist numbers are up. The global recession hit tourism hard as people tightened their belts, with passengers numbers at Capodichino airport down almost 9% from 2007 – 2009. Thankfully, as the global economy has recovered, air passenger numbers have increased above pre-recession figures and jumped almost 10% from 2013 to 2014. A host of low cost airlines such as easyJet and Wizz Air have made travel to the city affordable.

The impact of the emerging BRIC economies on tourist numbers is particularly interesting – whilst Russian tourist numbers are down as travellers seek a more upmarket, luxurious experience, passenger numbers from Brazil, India and China are booming with tourists attracted not only by the riches of the area, but their relative spending power against the weakening Euro.

However, more than one person I spoke to referred to the ‘quality’ of tourist now visiting. Low cost flights may have made the area more accessible to all, but an influx of price-aware travellers has meant that people typically stay for less time meaning they spend less money on local resources whilst on holiday. They might stay one or two nights less, meaning lost income for hotels; they might book on packages including meals, meaning local restaurants lose trade; they may decide to join a group tour or go without a guide altogether, meaning guides and taxi drivers lose work.

Boat Tour of the Amalfi Coast

The changing nature of cruise passengers has been particularly noted. Whereas the high price of cruises traditionally attracted upmarket guests with money to spend, price wars have resulted in cruise ships offering cheap deals to fill beds and instead try to make their money from passengers booking on the shore excursions. As a result, passengers are often more budget-conscious and frugal than previously and eschew some of the more expensive trips in favour of doing it themselves or, in some cases, remaining on board the ship whilst in port.

Cruises have long been a rich source of income, despite their not relying on local hotels, but this avenue has shown signs of decline and has caused concern, particularly with guides. Many guides are self-employed, and make the bulk of their money during the peak season which runs from late March until mid-October. Many guides work six or even seven days a week during the season to ensure they have enough money to last throughout the winter.

But the loss of income from fewer paying tourists is only part of their concern – an equally pressing worry is a potential change to the law which would increase competition from other guides.

In Italy, guides must pass a strict series of exams in order to qualify as a tourist guide in a particular region. The exam tests their detailed knowledge and understanding of the key sites and history, in order that they can provide a good service to their paying customers. Guides take their careers incredibly seriously. Many will conduct additional research and study throughout the off-season in order to develop their knowledge of local history, politics or art to improve the quality of their service. Alternatively, they might chose to learn a new language, since the ability to speak more languages increases the opportunities for work.

However, in line with European law which allows freedom of movement and employment, changes are proposed which would allow any qualified guide from any part of Italy, or anywhere in the European Union, to guide in any region of Italy. Local guides are anxious as they argue that someone from, for example, Spain or Germany will not be able to provide the same standard of service as they will – after all, many of the local guides are born and bred in the area in which they work and are fully qualified to guide in that region. During my week in Italy, Pompeii and Rome were the sites of demonstrations by guides against the changes.

The impacts of tourism extend to individuals not involved in the industry, however, and it was interesting to discuss the thoughts of a few locals. As always, there were positives and negatives.

In Positano, one of the picture-postcard villages clinging to the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, I found that most people were pleased that tourists came to the area as they found it interesting to speak with people from different backgrounds and thought it good for the local economy. However, they bemoaned the traffic on the roads, telling me that many locals park their cars up from March to October, simply because car-parking spaces are at such a premium they fear not being able to find a space if they drive anywhere during the tourist season.

Positano, on Italy's Amalfi Coast

In Vico Equense, a village a few kilometres east of Sorrento, I spoke to people about their experience of traffic. Previously, all vehicles coming to Sorrento from the Bay of Naples travelled through the village’s narrow centre, clogging roads and causing heavy traffic congestion. A new tunnel cut through the mountain behind the village has alleviated this problem and as a result Vico Equense is calmer, quieter and peaceful.

However, the tunnel has also increased the capacity of the main road meaning more vehicles than ever travel towards Sorrento, causing heavier congestion in the morning rush hour. Additionally, less traffic into Vico Equense has impacted on local businesses as fewer visitors has resulted in less income (thankfully the village is a tourist destination in its own right so this has not been a significant impact.)

Many people also raised concerns over the long-term prospects of tourism. One person I spoke to felt that not enough was being done to improve the tourist experience, to develop new sites or to promote reasons for people to visit. Here follows an example of each.

The CircumVesuviana train which runs from Naples round the bay to Sorrento (and has links to inland towns such as Sarno and Baiano), is a key route for tourist and commercial passengers. It is a cheap and regular service, stopping at many of the most visited sites in the bay including Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum, though the trains are ageing and many have been covered in graffiti for years, with no signs of being renovated or replaced. Despite this, it remains a popular form of transport for locals and tourists alike.

During my time in the Campi Flegrei I visited Cumae, and the ruins of an ancient city dating back to Magna Graecia. Dating back to the 8th century BC, it was the site of the first Greek settlement on mainland Italy and the home to the Cumaen Sybil, an ancient oracle well respected by both Greeks and Romans. On top of the site is a temple to Apollo and spectacular views over the ancient town to the south and the sea to the west.

Other than a local Italian school trip, my guide and I were the only people there. When I queried this, I was told that there were limited transport links meaning any potential visitors would either have use public transport – the nearest train station is 2½ miles away – or do as we had done and rent a car. Additionally, the site itself contained few signs in English, or indeed any language other than Italian. Whilst the major attractions such as Pompeii are easily accessible and well-signed, I was told that there was a wealth of other sites equally as valuable and impressive as Cumae which tourists didn’t visit in great numbers, simply due to a lack of planning or infra-structure.

I was struck with how this compared to another ancient site I had visited, the Terracotta Warriors in China. Discovered in a rural area in 1974 when a farmer digging a well unearthed a vast underground chamber, today the highly developed site boasts an extensive complex catering to tourists’ every need including restaurants, gift shops, large parking lots and is linked to the nearby city of Xi’an by a multi-lane highway and regular bus services.

Mass Tourism in the Bay of Naples

A final example of a lack of planning on a larger, national, scale relates to the forthcoming Milan Expo which is be held from May to October 2015 and will showcase Italy to the world. Stories of the site not being ready in time have circulated for months (although the latest reports suggest that these worries have now been allayed) whilst there have also been reports of corruption in the construction of the site.

However, an indication of the lack of strategic planning was evident at a recent international tourism fair in Berlin. Whilst Italy had a large presence with each of the regions represented, I’m told there was exceptionally little, if anything, focussing on the Milan Expo, despite this 6 month event being one of the major events in the global calendar for 2015 and likely to attract around 20 million visitors to Italy from over 140 countries. What a missed opportunity!

It was clear to me that many people felt strongly that tourists came to the area in spite of, not because of, any tourist development plan, simply because they didn’t believe that there was one – at a local, regional or national level. Many attempts to develop new areas of interest were generally abandoned due to a lack of interest or support from those integral to their success. For example, I was told of one hotelier who refused to work with tourists because he felt that it was easier to focus on business travellers and conferences. His logic was that as businessmen were working, and not ultimately paying for the room themselves, they wouldn’t expect the same standards as tourists and would also be less likely to complain.

Encouragingly though, there were signs of change, albeit on a small scale for now. A number of independent operators are emerging offering a variety of new attractions, excursions and experiences. I met with two young men who were working hard to develop a business offering alternative sight-seeing trips round Naples by bicycle, inspired simply by their passion for cycling and pride in their home city. A number of other activities are emerging, with a range of privately-owned local farms and vineyards opening their doors to attract visitors – more on this in the next blog.

Quite what the future holds for those working in tourism in the area is unclear. The region and the people of Naples are extremely lucky to have been blessed with such a rich variety of attractions which bring high volumes of tourists to them and that is unlikely to change for now. Their great opportunity lies in how they respond to the current challenges in enhancing the visitor experience, encouraging tourists to stay longer and, ultimately, to spend more money.

In the final blog about the Bay of Naples region, we focus on agriculture – why do people farm in this area, what do they grow and what is the quality of produce like compared to other areas?

Posted on April 15, 2015 in Bay of Naples , Classics , CPD , Earthquakes , Geography , Geology , Sorrento , Study Trips , Travel Stories , Volcanoes | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

How is Vesuvius monitored for activity and what emergency plans are in place?

In the second of our of blogs on life in the Bay of Naples, we look at how Vesuvius is monitored for signs of activity and what would happen if it were to erupt.

Vesuvius is the most monitored volcano in the world, which is hardly surprising when you consider that there are around 3 million people living within 20 miles (32km) of the crater. Due to the close proximity of such a large population, it is widely considered to be the most dangerous volcano on the planet.

There is currently no smoke or lava being produced, though when I visited the crater rim I could clearly see small fumaroles emitting steam produced by the heat inside the rocks causing rainwater and the remains of the winter snow to evaporate. The threat of a significant event is ever-present however, and the authorities conduct thorough monitoring of the activity around Vesuvius as well as drawing up an emergency response plan should a major eruption occur.

Mount Vesuvius from above

The monitoring of Vesuvius is widespread and takes many forms. Sensors and instruments on the volcano itself detect seismic activity and gas emissions whilst satellite imagery is also used. The volcano is constantly monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from the observatory on the volcano itself, whilst there are also remote locations which can provide full assistance in the event of a major incident requiring evacuation of the on-site observatory. It used to be possible to visit the observatory, but it has been closed since early 2014 for renovation – there is currently no news on its re-opening.

The emergency response plan has several stages. The first stage, having identified an immediate threat, is to evacuate all residents of the ‘red zone’. This is an area of approximately 200km2 around the crater which would bear the brunt of any eruption – around 18 small towns and villages lie in the red zone, with a combined population of around 600,000 people. A complete evacuation is expected to take around 72 hours.

The second phase involves the evacuations of residents from the ‘yellow zone’ if there was a danger to them from the gas and ash emitted by the eruption. The yellow zone is much larger and comprises the regions of Naples, Salerno, Avellino and Benevento and an additional population of around 2.5 million people. There is also a plan for an area designated the ’blue zone’, a small region which falls within the yellow zone but is at an increased risk of flooding.

An evacuation would be ordered following early signs of a major eruption. Each of the 18 regions in the red zone has been twinned with a region of Italy to which their residents would relocate – for example, residents of Pompeii would be moved to and accommodated in the region of Liguria in Italy’s north.

However, many experts have condemned the plan as undeliverable and inadequate. For starters, they say that the plan is based on a repeat of the 1631 sub-Plinian eruption of Vesuvius which followed a series of smaller events in the days and weeks prior to the main event. This would allow the authorities time to monitor the increasing activity and prepare for an evacuation before sounding the alarm. Yet the 79AD eruption which devastated Pompeii was a sudden Plinian eruption and a repeat of this type of explosive eruption would render the plan useless.

Victims of the 79AD Vesuvius eruption, Pompeii

Evidence from the 79AD suggests that the eruption occurred without warning. The lava flow swept down the volcano’s slopes at over 100 miles per hour, destroying everything in its path and leaving people unable to flee. Unfortunately, the lava flows aren’t the biggest threat as experts have likened a large-scale Plinian eruption to that of a bomb bigger than the most powerful nuclear weapon being detonated. The effects of this will be a wave of intense heat burning everything in its path, smoke and hot ash being ejected miles into the atmosphere and rocks being flung up to 12 miles away and the creation of a small tsunami in the Bay of Naples.

Even if the authorities are given fair warning, local residents are unlikely to be well-prepared. The authorities don’t promote or widely distribute information on safety or the evacuation plan and generally, people haven’t prepared by doing simple things such as packing an emergency bag or planning alternative evacuation routes to safety.

Volcano (or earthquake) safety isn’t even taught in schools – compare this to somewhere like Japan, where even the smallest of children know to seek shelter under a doorway or table in the event of an earthquake. One person I spoke to said that in the 20 years she’d lived in the area there had been just one practice evacuation held at a local school and that the local emergency services had all been present and ready at the beginning of the simulation – highly unlikely in the actual event!

The same person had been on a local train some years previously, which had stopped due to an electrical fault. After a lengthy delay the doors were opened and instructions given for people to make their way off the train in a calm and orderly manner. Instead she described to me a scene of utter chaos as passengers frantically shoved and pushed each other out of the way as they all scrambled to try and be first out, leaving the less mobile or strong people behind to fend for themselves. Her concern is that in the event of an eruption the residents, unprepared or trained for what to do, would simply panic.

As discussed in our first blog, many people have built illegally in the red zone. Unfortunately, rather than act to remove them by law, the government imposed a series of ‘fines’ for those who had built without the necessary permits but allowed them to remain. This created a situation whereby there are large populations living in the most dangerous areas of the volcano, in houses which are often not built to the usual standards and therefore are at greater risk of collapse in the event of even low-level seismic or volcanic activity.

To further compound the issue, the roads within the red zone are largely rural – steep, narrow, twisty roads linking small villages and farms – and unfit for the purpose of allowing 600,000 people to flee quickly. Emergency services trying to provide support would be stranded on the same congested roads as the fleeing population.

Development on Mount Vesuvius 1944-2006, photo courtesy of www.protezionecivile.gov.it

In the face of pressure from volcanologists, in 1995 the Italian government created the National Park of Vesuvius to increase restrictions in developments within the park boundary, whilst in the early 21st century the government introduced an offer of funding of around €30,000 to actively encourage people to move away. However, despite their best attempts they have had relatively little impact – €30,000 is not a lot of money with which to buy a new home and, despite the National Park restrictions, new buildings continue to be erected in the red zone.

This short-sighted planning is not unique to Vesuvius. I spoke to a teacher who lives in the town of Sarno, on the south-eastern side of Vesuvius. The Bourbons, who ruled the Kingdom of Naples in the 18th century, recognised the threat of potential flooding caused by sudden downpours of rain onto the mountains behind the town. They built a series of underground canals and reservoirs to provide protection and conducted surveys which recommended avoiding building in certain areas. Over time these surveys were forgotten about and the town spread over a larger area, resulting in many of the old canals and reservoirs being filled in, blocked or built over.

Sadly, in 1998 Sarno was hit by several large mudslides which partially destroyed the town and killed 137 people. Interestingly, none of the original Bourbon buildings in the old town had been affected whilst there was widespread damage in the areas which they had warned against developing. However, as part of the major re-construction which has taken place in the intervening years, many people have again ignored the advice of the Bourbons, and the lessons of 1998, and re-built their homes in the same high-risk areas.

It seems, much like the locals’ attitude towards life in general, the authorities are focussing more on quick-fix solutions than the long-term implications. However, would having a much more sustainable approach to building in the red zone and devising a more robust emergency response plan, accompanied by the necessary training and provision of public information, actually offer any more support and safety to the local population? The evidence suggests perhaps not.

We know that Vesuvius is overdue a large eruption. This may happen tomorrow or it may not happen for another 100 years or more, but the consensus of opinion suggests that that there will be a ‘big one’ soon. But what will the likely effects of a big eruption be?

Mount Vesuvius looms large over Naples and the bay

To provide some context to how ‘big’ a big eruption might be, the Eyjafjallajokull eruption which seriously affected European air traffic in 2010 was rated as a scale 4 eruption on the logarithmic Volcanic Explosion Index (VEI). The 79AD eruption of Vesuvius was a scale 5 eruption, making it 10 times as powerful.

We know that the smoke and ash from a big eruption will be ejected high into the atmosphere, where it is extremely likely to cause significant interference to weather patterns across Europe and widespread disruption to global air transportation.

(There is historic evidence of scale 6+ volcanic eruptions causing global changes: the sheer volume of ash and smoke causes skies to darken, resulting in lower global temperatures as a result of less sunlight reaching the earth. This has been known to affect harvest and even prompt mass migration of people.)

Whether or not there are early warning signs enabling the evacuation plan to be put into place, a major eruption of Vesuvius will lead to a large loss of life and the creation of a great number of refugees, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to millions, depending on the severity of the event.

A final – and not insignificant question – regards the authorities’ decision-making process in ordering an evacuation. As previously discussed, a speedy evacuation as a response to an immediate threat would be impossible. But, even given warning of an imminent threat from the volcano, they still face a very difficult decision. Evacuating the area too soon based on a risk that doesn’t materialise would devastate the local economy and communities, whilst delaying too long would put the lives of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people at risk.


In the next of our blogs about the Bay of Naples region, we focus on tourism – how has it changed over the years, what are the impacts on the locals and what does the future hold?

Posted on March 24, 2015 in Bay of Naples , CPD , Earthquakes , Geography , Geology , Sorrento , Study Trips , Travel Stories , Volcanoes | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

What do people who live near Vesuvius think of the volcano?

In the first of a series of blogs on life in the Bay of Naples, Discover the World Education’s Product Manager Nick tackles your most pressing concern – what do people think about living next to a large volcano, and why do they do it?

Prior to my recent trip to the Bay of Naples, we invited geography teachers and students to send in questions that you’d like answering about life in the region. Over 80% of the questions we received centred on the threat of eruption from Vesuvius and what the local communities thought of living in such a dangerous environment.

In the UK we occasionally experience minor earthquakes and many people remember the inconvenience of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption of 2010 stopping flights and leaving a thin layer of ash on cars. In contrast, approximately 10% of the world’s population live close enough to a volcano to be directly affected by an eruption. However, we are under no serious threat from volcanic activity so it’s perhaps unsurprising that we are so curious about why people choose to live near to volcanoes.

Approximately 3 million people live within 20 miles of Vesuvius’ crater. The volcano is currently dormant and has been since 1944 when a five day long eruption partially destroyed a couple of small villages on the western slopes of the volcano and emitted smoke and gas high into the atmosphere.

Bay of Naples panorama from Vesuvius

Most people I spoke to fell into two camps. Some didn’t think about the danger, preferring ignorance instead. Others were aware of the danger but accepted that there was little that they could do to prevent or control its activity and therefore chose to concentrate their energy on other aspects of their lives such as family or work, rather than worrying about the volcano. A few people were in denial, insisting that they didn’t live close enough to be in danger, or that the volcano wouldn’t erupt anyway...

Whilst every person I spoke to didn’t worry about the threat of an eruption, many of them were surprised that I had asked them about it – to them, living near Vesuvius was completely normal, in much the same way that driving on the other side of the road or speaking another language is completely normal and familiar to them but very unusual to us Brits.

I found this idea fascinating, but somewhat familiar. One of the things people often talk to me about when I’m abroad and they learn where I’m from is the rain and how wet Britain is. Once I appreciated that living near a volcano was as normal for Neapolitans (people from Naples) as living in a rainy country is for us, I was able to understand their relaxed attitudes a little more easily.

However, I couldn’t comprehend quite how cavalier some people were towards the threat from the volcano. We live in a rainy country and there’s nothing we can do to change that but we have learned to minimise its impact – people check the weather forecast before going out and we dress appropriately in case it does rain whilst we are out. Anyone who has been caught out in the rain without a coat or umbrella usually doesn’t forget one again in a hurry!

I would have thought that a similar approach would be followed around Vesuvius – the people can’t control the volcano, but would stick to living in towns and cities away from the volcano and in houses built to withstand the minor tremors and earthquakes associated with a large eruption. However, this is far from the truth.

Around 600,000 people (20% of the local population) live in the ‘red zone’, an area around the volcano with a radius of approximately 5 miles which would take the most impact in the event of a major eruption. Much of the accommodation in this area has been built without planning permission and doesn’t have the structural integrity to provide much, if any, protection to residents. In the event of a sudden big eruption, the majority of people living in the red zone would stand little chance of survival.

View of Mt Vesuvius and Naples

So what compels people to live in this way? Again, the common answers were that it’s normal. Many people were born in the towns and villages in the red zone and don’t want to leave, others may have been left land or property by elder relatives and found it cheaper to live in the area then sell up and leave.

Another key reason is that the volcano is a major source of income to the area. Pompeii is a big honeypot site though there are others and a high volume of visitors requires hotels and restaurants – locals are more than happy to build additional facilities to secure an income from tourists, even if it means building deep in the red zone. Whilst building closer to the crater might mean more potential danger, it also means the property is elevated further above the plains and offers better views across the entire Bay, from Naples to Sorrento.

The land around Vesuvius is also incredibly fertile and is home to acres of greenhouses and farms. Local tomatoes are amongst the finest in Italy whilst the area is also famed for its citrus fruits and wine, particularly the Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ) which is produced from grapes grown only on the slopes of Vesuvius and is perhaps the closest equivalent to the wine drunk by Ancient Romans.

By now it’s evident that locals really don’t worry about the dangers of living next to a volcano. But during my trip I spent a couple of days with Paolo, a local guide born and bred just outside Naples, and on our travels I learned that the volcano is not just vitally important to the area’s geography and economy, but is instrumental to its culture.

The Romans captured the city of Naples from the Greeks and, attracted by the fertile volcanic land and many thermal pools, quickly developed the region, building towns, cities, roads and aqueducts. The main port of Rome was situated a few miles west of Naples, as was the empire’s largest naval base, whilst the emperors Tiberius and Claudius both spent time living in the area.

The legacy of the Roman era around Naples is vast. Pompeii is the best known relic but nearby Pozzuoli features the third largest Roman amphitheatre in Italy and - thanks to a series of bradyseismic events in the early 1980s which raised previously sunken land from below sea level - an ancient Roman marketplace.

The Romans were also responsible for the execution of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Having unsuccessfully failed to kill him by fire and by lions in the arena, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered him to be beheaded. Locals wrapped his body and head in cloths and soaked up his spilt blood, placing it into two glass ampules. Years later the ampules of blood were carried to the catacombs of Naples and, legend has it, liquefied en route when brought close to the remains of his body.

The vials of San Gennaro’s dried blood are kept in the Cathedral and an annual procession takes place where they are carried across the city – thousands flock to witness his blood liquefy once more, as local superstition says that this event will ensure San Gennaro will protect the city for another year. The last time the miracle did not occur was 1980, the same year an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale killed almost 3,000 people in towns in the Naples area. The previous occasion? 1944.

1944 lava flow on Vesuvius, with Naples in the background

Whist we have a much better understanding of volcanoes in modern times, many local superstitions and traditions date back centuries when people lived in fear of the wrath of the gods – Neapolitans remain religious and superstitious people.

Naples is also a city of great community. Unusually, the very rich and very poor live close to one another rather than in separate neighbourhoods whilst the narrow, busy streets mean privacy can be a luxury, but this has fostered a close-knit community amongst the residents. A practice which has become common in many cities in recent times started in Naples as the caffe sospeso (literally ‘suspended coffee’) whereby a person would buy two coffees – one for themselves, and one to be kept behind the bar for someone who could not afford one to enjoy later. This gesture is typical of Naples and the people’s innate feeling of responsibility towards their fellow man. Neapolitans are also famously vicarious people, living fun-filled and enjoyable lives and epitomising the Roman saying ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’.

Paolo explained that each of these traits – the superstitions and religious practices offering protection from danger, the sense of looking after one’s neighbours and the idea of living each day as if it could be your last – were born from the proximity of Vesuvius to the city and the inhabitants and that he feels it’s almost impossible to talk about Neapolitan culture without considering the influence of the volcano.

Naples from Mt Vesuvius, with Campi Flegrei in the distance

However, perhaps of most interest to me when speaking about the dangers of living in the area was that every person I encountered referred to Vesuvius as the threat, rather than the Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields), a vast volcanic complex including Solfatara situated to the west of the city, but closer to Naples than Vesuvius. This entire region is a supervolcano, much like Yellowstone in USA or Taupo in New Zealand, and an eruption here would dwarf that of Vesuvius in 79AD.

The Vesuvian eruption buried nearby Pompeii under approximately 5m of ash, and Herculaneum under around 20m. In contrast, the last major eruption from Campi Flegrei, approximately 12,000 years ago, changed the landscape of the Sorrento peninsula located 20 miles (32km) across the bay.

Originally both the north and south coasts of the Sorrento peninsula were formed of craggy limestone cliffs, as can still be seen today on the Amalfi Coast, the peninsula's south side. However, the Campi Flegrei eruption ejected such a high volume of volcanic ash and pumice that, as it drifted on the prevailing winds, it settled in the folds of the north coast’s cliffs.

Over time the volcanic material hardened and cooled, forming a great plateau of tufa, the flat volcanic bedrock on which Sorrento town now sits. As it cooled, it contracted and cracked, creating vast crevices in the rock, such as the one which runs from south to north underneath Piazza Tasso and down to Sorrento harbour. These have since been widened by water flowing from the mountains behind the town.

Sorrento peninsula, showing Sorrento's tufa plateau to the left and the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast to the right

Whilst a Vesuvian eruption akin to that of 79AD which destroyed Pompeii would be devastating to the local area, a major eruption from Campi Flegrei would likely remove Naples from the map and have far-reaching consequences across Europe and, possibly, globally.

Perhaps the Neapolitan attitude is right, after all - sometimes ignorance is bliss.


In the second of our blogs on life in the Bay of Naples, we look at the Volcano Monitoring and Evacuation Plan.

Posted on March 18, 2015 in Bay of Naples , Classics , Earthquakes , Geography , Geology , Sorrento , Study Trips , Travel Stories , Volcanoes | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Find Out About Life in the Bay of Naples

Have you ever wanted to know if people who live near volcanoes worry about an eruption? Perhaps you're curious as to how tourism to one of Italy's most popular destinations has changed in recent years? Or you might be interested to learn what life would be like abroad for an English expat?

Discover the World Education's Product Manager Nick is visiting the Bay of Naples next week to explore new excursions and to further develop our Italy school trip programme. He will be meeting a host of residents to find out more about what daily life is like in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.

He'll be meeting a variety of people including a local tourist guide, a Sorrento hotelier, an excursion company running tours around the Campi Flegrei and an English lady living and working as a teacher in the region.

If you or your students have any questions you'd like to know the answers to, tweet or Facebook message your suggestions to us throughout the week - we'll publish answers to the best on his return.


Posted on March 6, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

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