VOLCANOES, PIZZA AND ANCIENT HISTORY

VOLCANOES, PIZZA AND ANCIENT HISTORY

By Hans Rey

Photos by Martin Bissig

About 2000 years ago there was a gigantic explosion releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Mount Vesuvius volcano erupted and spewed its lava and ashes over 20 miles into the air. Several Roman settlements were obliterated and buried underneath massive pyroclastic surges and ashfall deposits, the best known being Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Napoli, as the Italians call the city of Naples, was my most recent destination for yet another urban adventure. The idea was to traverse this historical city and surrounding area on bikes in five days. From the breathtaking Amalfi Coast via Pompeii to the crater of the Vesuvio, and into the urban jungle, history, culture, traffic and chaos of the 3000-year-old streets of Napoli to the beautiful island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. 

“Naples has some crazy traffic, with a cacophony of noise—a mixture of blaring horns and screeching brakes as cars and motorcycles jostle and joust for their piece of the road.”

For me, there was no better way to explore and experience such a place than by bicycle. Finding the ideal route, best trails and most interesting sights is a lot harder than one would imagine. I spent months researching online with the help of Google Earth, as well as some local contacts.

Along the way I was joined by different friends for different stages of this tour, and it was really cool to meet many of the local riders who showed me their best spots, trails and restaurants in their hometown.

FEARS ALLAYED

However, as I was soon to find out, the city of Naples had a bit of a bad reputation, and I became a bit nervous when everybody kept warning me about how dangerous of a city it was. In fact, two Italian photographers whom I had invited on this trip declined to join, saying it was way too dangerous and that I would likely be robbed before we
got started. 

Ultimately, I convinced Swiss photographer Martin Bissig and French videographer Cedric Tassan (VTOPO) to join me. We met up at the tourist town of Amalfi, which is roughly 40 miles south of Naples, at the Gulf of Salerno, surrounded by dramatic cliffs and coastal scenery. 

A casual stroll on one wheel through one of the shopping gallerias in the center of Napoli

 

We also met up with Ottavio Massa, an Italian mountain bike guide, who has helped me with the planning of this project and who established the contacts to the local riders. 

Amalfi’s culture has flourished for centuries—from the ancient Greeks that settled in the area to one of the most important ports of the Middle Ages to today’s popular honeymoon getaway. 

A DIFFERENT TAKE

The food and restaurants lived up to their reputation. Fresh, authentic Italian delicacies; pasta al dente; seafood from the local fishermen; tasty tomatoes; local olive oil and vino; and the most delicious and mouthwatering gelato were a great start before we headed out early the next morning on the famous Path of Gods trail that traverses the steep cliffs and villages high above the coastline. 

This trail is not exactly a bike trail, nor is it beginner-friendly. One cannot be intimidated by the exposure and the many steps. Parts of the trail literally go by and through people’s gardens and tiny villages, with streets barely wide enough for one small car at a time. But, the views are to die for—literally. As they famously say, “Vedi Napoli e poi muori,” or “See Naples and die.” We weren’t quite ready for that yet. 

It was only the first day, and we had already gotten to experience Italy at its best on every level, except for the weather. Some dark clouds overshadowed us, and when we finished the section of the Sentiero delgi Dei path, we had to seek shelter in a bar for an espresso break before we could cross the mountain range that separated the Amalfi Coast from the Bay of Naples. 

WHAT TO BRING

For the trip I was planning to ride two bikes: my regular mountain bike, a GT Sensor equipped with Shimano parts and Stan’s wheels, and my e-bike, a GT Verb. The e-bike would be especially great for the stages inside the city in the days to come. 

After an early start, we reached the crater of the Vesuvius volcano on day two. My sister Silvia, who lives in Italy and has a mountain bike touring company and a boutique bike hotel in Umbria (Alps Tours/Countryhouse Villa Rey), joined Ottavio and me as a surprise guest on this day. She has been biking for many years and always wanted to join me on one of my adventures. She chose the perfect day and location. I will always remember riding the crater rim around this legendary volcano with its views over Naples, Pompeii and the entire coastline all the way to the island of Ischia, where I would finish my trans-Napoli traverse in a few days’ time. 

Naples is full of life in the streets with countless markets, cafes, pizza joints and fish markets.

 

Formed during the last eruption of 1944, the crater measures 1000 feet (about 305 meters) deep and 2000 feet (about 610 meters) across. This was perhaps one of the most spectacular locations I have ever had a chance to ride, and believe me, I have been to many incredible places during my biking career. 

HOT LAVA

The trails around the backside of the volcano were really good, and we had them to ourselves since we had a special permit to enter this area since it had been closed after the recent wildfires. It is like a little micro-climate with very lush vegetation at Mount Somma and the Valley of the Giants that are all part of the Vesuvius massif. The mountain measures 4,203 feet (1,281 meters) today. It used to be about twice the size before its infamous eruption that would cover the surrounding villages in lava and ashes. 

Ischia island had some great and ancient trails.

 

It was eerie to think about the devastation that happened at this very place where we were riding and what it must have been like when this mountain raged, wondering when it might get angry again. The sulfur fumes are a reminder that it’s just a matter of time. 

Arriving in Pompeii and Herculaneum made the volcano’s impact even more real within two of the old Roman towns that were destroyed and preserved. Life ended here in an instant 2000 years ago, and the remains of dead bodies preserved in the ashes bear witness. 

IN THE CITY

Day three was the beginning of the urban assault. I switched over to my e-bike to conquer the streets and neighborhoods of the ancient city that is home to 1 million people. 

“This was perhaps one of the most spectacular locations I have ever had a chance to ride, and believe me, I have been to many incredible places during my biking career.”

Naples has some crazy traffic, with a cacophony of noise—a mixture of blaring horns, and screeching brakes as cars and motorcycles jostle and joust for their piece of the road. MTBs turned out to be the best vehicles for seeing and feeling this buzzing city. Neapolitan traffic is notorious. It’s chaotic, like in developing countries, but by some miraculous and common understanding it works. To avoid it, one can use Naples’ back alleys and many staircases to cut from one district to another. 

Naples has an underground tunnel system below the city that was built in ancient times for shelter, storage, escape, aqueduct and bomb shelter during wars.

 

Naples is home to miles of ancient streets decorated with laundry lines; markets with colorful fruits, vegetables and fresh seafood; pizza stands; cafes; and souvenir shops. The world’s oldest pizzeria is here, and many argue that one can find the best pizza in the world in Naples. Whisking through traffic, dodging cars, pedestrians or scooters, eventually I ended up at the seafront by Castel Nuovo where I met a whole bunch of local riders for an additional evening session. 

On day four we had to ride all along the urban coastline from the center to the northern part of the city to the ancient port of Pozzuoli and Europe’s youngest mountain. Monte Nuovo is only 440 feet tall (134 meters) and was the result of a volcanic eruption some 450 years ago. For the remaining days I was joined by an Italian friend of mine, Julian Giacomelli. We had ridden together many times before in Livigno; it was nice to have him along. He is an exceptional skier, and his biking skills aren’t bad, either. We even got to take our bikes to the underground tunnel systems beneath the city, Napoli Sotterranea, and ride through these antique corridors and tunnels that have been used since before Christ as cellars, cisterns or shelters. 

We passed by the famous Napoli football stadium where Maradona played in his heyday and almost got to ride across the pitch, but only almost. Nearby was a shocking reminder of Napoli’s toxic-waste problems. Due to the corrupt mismanagement of the Camorra, who dumped toxic materials that poisoned many sites and villages, a very big parcel of oceanfront property near Bagnoli is now a completely inaccessible and contaminated ghost town. 

THE E-BIKE PERKS

I have to say, I really embrace e-bikes, even though I’m not ready to give up my regular bikes yet. I love the pedal assist Class 1 bikes have. Not only can one pedal further and steeper than before, but even riding up staircases becomes a possibility—and we found lots of them to prove it. The 504-Wh pedal-assisted Steps 8000 motor Shimano has developed is not like a motorcycle’s, nor does it have a gas throttle; instead, it feels like a bicycle with a little extra va-va-voom. It opens up many new ways to enjoy two wheels. 

Early the next morning, we took the ferry from Pozzuoli to the idyllic island of Ischia. The island is only 10 by 7 kilometers across. It is towered over by Monte Epomeo, its highest point. Many people believe it is a high-energy power source and, according to people who believe in a hollow earth theory, a gateway to the legendary underworld city of Agartha.  

Wherever one rides or looks, there are signs of the long history of the area. Unknown carvings in the woods on Ischia island.

 

It was worth the steep climb to the top at 2600 feet (789 meters), even thought it was raining and we couldn’t enjoy the views until we dropped below the cloud layer. There was an amazing trail network in the mountains, and we got a good dose of real mountain biking after the prior days in the city. The riding was rather rocky and technical. We passed by thermal hot springs and crossed some vineyards before we ended in the picturesque fishing village of Sant’Angelo.

The personality of the Neapolitans, to me, can be described as loud, with dramatic gesticulation, effusive emotion, warmth and passion. There is a need to fuel their unrestrained enthusiasm for life with excellent yet simple food, created with the fruits and vegetables that grow rich in flavor under the warmth of the sun in the rich volcanic soil. If you consider life in Italy as la dolce vita, then head south, because Naples is the epitome of the Italian sweet life.


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