Vesuvius is plumb ahead of us as we thread our way through the traffic in search of the motorway that will take us north to Assisi. Angela (our guide) tells us that what we call Vesuvius is the larger of the two peaks. The lower one is actually Monte Somma and was the original volcano, so strictly speaking it was that which actually did the damage to Pompeii and Herculaneum, to name but two. It is a bit disappointing to look at it now and know we are not seeing what the Ancients saw. It has changed with successive eruptions, the last being in 1944. The gods were angry with Mussolini I imagine.
“The ground is very fertile,” continues Angela, “and they grow a famous wine on the slopes called Lachrima Christi.” She doesn’t say if it is a good wine or not though. It is a very good name however and on those grounds alone I should give it a bash although I am not a big fan of Italian wines as a rule. In my experience they are either thin and watery or so rough they bring a tear to my eye, never mind Christ’s.
And so the countryside of Campania slips by. The bus settles down. Curious at the silence, I turn round to steal a glance at my fellow travellers. Most have discovered the reclining seats and seem to be dozing. No-one is talking. It is just after eight in the morning after all and we have been up long before that.
From time to time Giancarlo flashes his lights and blasts slower vehicles out of the way with his horn. When his mobile phone goes off, he has an earpiece which allows him to talk without taking his hands off the wheel, but it is impossible for him to talk without using them and at the moment he is waving his right arm about like Leonard Bernstein. (Doesn’t he know he’s the bus driver, not the conductor?)
Tired though my eyes are, I can’t keep them closed for more than a minute, terrified I miss something. Apart from looking at the countryside as it unreels, I amuse myself by studying the lorry drivers as we overtake them. I soon discover they have a variety of driving styles, the main one being talking on a mobile or CB, which of course, leaves one hand free to point their forty-ton projectile in the desired direction.
But wait a moment – here’s something different. This driver seems to be a gorilla. Although they may not have heard of many EU laws, in some ways the Italians must be far in advance of us, for to the best of my knowledge, we have not yet trained primates to drive. I can’t help but stare at this unusual sight, as W.H. Davies recommended. He catches my eye, bares his teeth and raises a hirsute left hand in a salutation which I interpret as a friendly gesture since he is using all of his fingers not just two, or in the more economical United States style, just the middle one. The other hand is holding his CB radio.
Now here’s another one – hairy but not quite so hairy and who does have both hands on the wheel. That’s because he has a map spread over it, grasping both ends to anchor the ends down. His lips are moving in frustration: Where did that Simianne say she lived? I can’t find it on this damn map. Funny address anyway. Said it was her he male address – wherever that is.
This method looks a lot more relaxed – steering with your elbows. This requires you to hunch forward so your arms are at right angles to your body, your hands dangling between the spokes of the wheel. The window is wide open and the hairs from the driver’s oxters are whipping round his bosoms like a Lombardy poplar in a hurricane. I see his method now: he’s obviously using the steering wheel as a prop to air his pits. In our air-conditioned coolness, I had forgotten how hot it is out there, even at this time in the morning.
I say “he” but if the size of the bosoms are anything to go by (38 C by my estimation, not that I’m an authority in these matters) it could be a lady driver, albeit a very hairy one. Surely, on the grounds of safety, they wouldn’t allow women to drive topless would they? Think of the havoc that would cause. But when did the Italians ever hear of driving safely, or any other law for that matter?
And incredible as it may seem, there is even a-feet-up-on-the-dashboard style. This is particularly relaxing as all you need are a couple of fingers hooked over the bottom of the wheel. But if, for some reason, you think there is a possibility you might drop off to sleep (which would be a tad irresponsible), how about the Buddha style? For this however, you need to have a 44-inch waist, a shaven head and a shaven torso and back. If you do happen to have dedicated your life to acquiring this vital statistic and are prepared to sacrifice the hair, all you have to do next is slot the wheel in the space between your overhang and where your belt starts, then all you need to do is twitch your massive tum to turn the wheel when you need to. The beauty of this method is that it leaves your hands free to feed your face and keep your steering mechanism in tip-top condition. Or you could read a magazine or have a shave or do whatever else you want to do to while away the hours on the long and winding road.
Mainly those who have adopted this style are eating pizza but I did clock one eating a Chinese take-away with chopsticks. Actually, I just made that up, but the only reason it doesn’t happen is because the Italians are extremely resistant to foreign cuisine since they think theirs is the best in the world (and maybe they’re right). Except you’ll never get a French person to agree to that.
The favoured form of attire seems to be the singlet, but topless is de rigueur also. But everyone must pass a hairiness test before they are allowed to get behind the wheel of a truck. Anyone can grow hairs on their chest, but it takes a real trucker to grow hairs on their back too. A regulation half inch of hair must escape the confines of your vest and stick up like the crest on a cockatoo. If you don’t have a doormat on your shoulders, you are wasting your time taking the trucker test.
This entertainment stops when we stop at a family-run motorway café at a place called Cassino. Up there, high on the hill, is the monastery of Monte Cassino, the site of the famous battle from January to May in 1944 which reduced it to rubble. It was founded in 529 by Saint Benedict, sacked by the Lombards in 581, burned to the ground by the Saracens in 884, damaged by an earthquake in 1349 and sacked by Napoleon in 1799. You might have thought nowhere deserves that much bad luck. It looks impregnable, perched like an eyrie on the top of the spur and seen through my hawk-like eyes (with the help of my binoculars), you would never have guessed at its turbulent past, although there is a crane standing as still as a stork, one-legged, at one of the corners.
Much nearer, a road sign captures my attention. It is the SS7 to Formia and Gaeta and underneath it says “Via Appia”. Now that raises the hairs on the nape of my neck! I remember it well from my schooldays and although other roads are and were available, all leading to Rome of course, this is the most famous of them all. In 71 BC, along a 120-mile stretch between Capua and Rome, 6,000 of Spartacus’ slave army were crucified pour encourager les autres.
But it’s not our road, alas. We are heading in the opposite direction on the A1 to Firenze via Assisi where we have a rendezvous with St Francis. It’s time to get out of this baking heat and climb aboard our air-conditioned coach. Mustn’t keep a saint waiting, even if he may have the patience of one.