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A giant sleeps

Bernard Adams treads softly on the verdant slopes above the bay of Naples - Vesuvius is Europe's one active volcano.

What will Vesuvius do next? It's a question that is likely to pop into the mind if you hike up the 1,281 metres to its summit. Because, for all its verdant loveliness, Vesuvius is still the only live volcano in Europe.

There is much to explore in and around the mountain, which so spectacularly destroyed not only the prosperous town of Pompeii but also its neighbour, Herculaneum in 79AD. Today, you can walk up to the summit, taking paths lined with broom and orchids and although there is no smoke plume at its summit, it is still awe-inspiring.

But the reason most people visit this area is for the extraordinary insight it provides into Roman life. Villas contain dazzling treasures, like the splendid mosaics in the House of Neptune and the ampitheatre; the statue of "Drunken Hercules" in the House of Stags; and, elsewhere, a cross carved in plaster leading to speculation that the residents were very early Christians.

Pompeii itself is a big site, which involves a great deal of legwork. Before its untimely confrontation with Vesuvius, it was a big, prosperous town with 20,000 inhabitants - most of whom, it's now thought, escaped before around 2,000 were asphyxiated by fumes and their homes buried in ash.

To get the most out of a visit to Pompeii it's worth knowing that many of the mosaics and murals, as well as some sombre plaster casts of dead inhabitants, have been removed and put in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Visitors will need to go there as well.

There is so much to see in Pompeii that it is almost impossible to summarise. It is just as hard to avoid the town's ingrained eroticism: phallic symbols neatly embossed on cobblestones; a brothel; and, behind locked doors a series of explicit paintings whose content leaves little to the imagination.

Wealthy Romans used the fishing port of Herculaneum, to the west of Vesuvius, as a holiday resort. It had a neat rectangular street pattern and fine villas. But when the volcano blew, the torrential rain which followed created such a huge mud flow that the town was overwhelmed. People ran down to the shore and hid vainly in houses by the sea, but few of the 5,000 inhabitants managed to escape the suffocating grey tide.

This means that Herculaneum itself is exceptionally well preserved. It's a delight to wander into the luxurious Forum baths, with their strictly demarcated sections and separate entrances for men and women. The bathers would have enjoyed plenty of fresh, clean water, but sewage disposal involved nothing more sophisticated than emptying a bucket into the streets.

In Herculaneum's villas you find the quaint Cave Canem (Beware of the Dog) mosaic in the House of the Tragic Poet; and plenty of colourful murals in the House of the Vettii, depicting episodes from Roman legend, like Hercules struggling with serpents and Ixion tied to a wheel.

There are ruins of grand municipal buildings:the forum; two theatres, both still in use for summer performances, and an amphitheatre, one of Italy's oldest (dating from 80 BC and almost completely intact). It's a wonderful place to take your slice of pizza and rest your poor, weary feet.

* Getting there

Fly to Naples or Rome. Spring or autumn are probably the best times to go. Several companies will organise school trips, among them are:Schools Travel Service, Wigan, 01942 236 537; European Study Tours, London, 0171 424 3339; Educational Tours for Schools, Cambridge, 01223 723 456; Travelbound, Brighton, 01273 677 777

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