August is peak season in the Mediterranean and a leaflet has arrived in the cabin explaining exactly what this means. There are caveats galore: crowds, traffic delays, renovations of historic sites, heat, guides with funny foreign accents. Clearly, expectations have not always been met on shore excursions and Princess Cruises wants us all to be fully prepared for reality.
The truth is, running the shore excursions for a couple of thousand people is, and has to be, a well-oiled machine; a sightseeing factory.
While the excursion we’ve just done (Pompeii and climbing Vesuvius) was excellent, let’s not pretend there is anything romantic or exclusive about these tours at this time of year and with this many people. We arrived at the top of the mountain road, 25 minutes walk from the crater of Vesuvius, and there were 15 coaches lined up. Pompeii was heaving, drooping tour groups trailing behind jabbering guides bearing giant cardboard lollipops designating their cruise line and tour number.
If you want Vesuvius to yourself, or to enjoy air clear enough to see all the way to Capri from the top, or to get photographs of Pompeii without someone else’s baseball cap in the foreground, come in October!
Having said that, many of us are limited to travel in school holidays, which means making the most of the situation. Happily, our tour today was really good, brought alive by a funny and entertaining guide, Diego, who has been guiding for 33 years and sometimes does Pompeii three times a day. “Vesuvio e last erupt 1944 and e blow every 64 years,” he drawled (do the maths). “Imagine. Catastrophic eruption. More exciting than boring Pompeii. Everybody on bus dead. Except the guide.” Makes a change from an endless string of dates and facts, I suppose.
Pompeii, too, was perfectly judged. We had a lot of teens in our group and as we approached the site, Diego announced: “Vesuvio, e wake up one day in AD79 after really bad McDonald’s and e explode for three days and three nights.” And even when it’s packed, I find Pompeii awe-inspiring, especially the warehouses at the end of the tour where a lot of the artefacts from the site are stacked up, waiting for labelling or display in museums; today, we saw plaster casts of a writhing dog and of a pregnant woman, killed by the eruption and frozen in time from 2,031 years ago. Both have toured the world in Pompeii exhibitions and, today, they were just sitting there, gathering dust. Makes you feel very privileged to see these things, even on the hottest and busiest of August days.