On Isola d’Ischia, the port town of Ischia awakens with a rustle: one part feeling, like the first whiff of the morning thermal on your cheek, one part sound, like a heron tiptoeing through a stand of drying sea oats. “Buon giorno.” An animated ex-change of news and gossip follows. The sun peeks through the hatches of our boat and slides down the companionway steps, gently shaking our foursome to action. Ashore, an orchestra of motorscooters, as though responding to a conductor’s baton, launches a glorious chorus of epithets at everyone who dares share the streets. In our cabins, a groan, a snort, a tenor yawn and the water pump’s whir usher in a new day.
Isola d’Ischia is the largest of the three guardians of Golfo di Napoli-Capri at the southern end (“Portals of Heaven,” Yachting, March) and Procida a stone’s throw east of Ischia at the northern end. Like its sisters, Ischia is a destination for vacationing Italians, but you’ll find more Germans and Scandinavians during the months before and after the Italian holiday month of August. Our visit was in September.
Europeans know Ischia best for its heavenly hot springs, created by latent volcanic activity deep inside the island’s backbone mountain range. Water running through this overheated core spills onto the coasts at nearly boiling temperatures. At Casamicciola, we dropped anchor for lunch aboard and a swim in the termali, thermal pools. We shared this small cove with a dozen or so rigid-bottom inflatables and small fiberglass runabouts draped with browning Italians in various poses. A swell from Golfo di Napoli, ricocheting off the mostly vertical shoreline, stirred up a fearsome chop. Ashore, northern European tourists, skin as pale as a troll’s and wrapped loosely over various stages of rotundity, lounged in rock pools of hot water like sea lions on a Sunday. Although the hottest water pools among the rocks ashore, its hyper-temperature warms the salt water of the cove several meters from shore. Bathers choose the level of cooking they prefer by moving from one spot to another.
Every harbor has a street along the limestone bulkhead that defines its shape shoreside. Ancient limestone buildings, most paved in stucco and painted a pastel yellow, pink, coral or blue, delineate the waterfront side of town. We found breakfast in a longer-than-wide storefront café, wherein patrons stand at the counter or mill about, bumping into one another. “Scusi.” A double espresso and two fruit-filled croissants shook me awake.
My tour guide, Marco Due, and I strolled east along the waterfront headed for the Castello Aragonese, a.k.a The Castle of Ischia. It rises from a pillar of rock at the eastern end of the harbor. Gerone I of Syracuse began construction of the castle in 474 B.C. to help the Cumae islanders defend themselves against the Tyrrhenians. Then, in a truly Mediterranean gesture of magnanimity, he took possession of the castle as compensation for his services. The castle changed hands at least 10 times through the Dark Ages, providing refuge in 1301 from erupting Monte Epomeo. With the Renaissance came Alfonso d’Aragona, King of Spain. He ordered reconstruction in 1441. In the early 19th century, the King of Naples turned the castle into a prison for political miscreants.
A visit to Castle Aragonese is thrilling and chilling. The structure has witnessed a great deal of history’s macabre side, such as the cemetery of the Poor Clares. It comprises a few small rooms of stone. Stone seats, which resemble a child’s toilet-training chair sized for a small adult, ring each room’s perimeter hard against the wall. When a nun of the order died, she was seated in one of these chairs, letting the body putrefy slowly so the living nuns could meditate about death every day. Although I feel fortunate to have seen this place, I’ll not return.
On the other hand, I’d love to visit the grounds again, follow the tortuous paths and imagine myself in the 14th century. Tiny vineyards, vegetable gardens, pomegranate trees, roses and bougainvillaea brighten an otherwise drab landscape. Goats and chickens share fenced areas along the paths, giving the impression that you’re exploring a comfortable 800-year-old village.
Superb artwork in the most mundane places is as common to Italy as fine food and wine. Frescos from the school of Giotto, 14th century, decorate the walls of the crypta and the chapels of the noble families who lived in the castle. Placing my finger on a fresco gave me a shiver.
The sun had slid below the mountain peaks by the time we hopped the bus to Sant Angelo. About 40 minutes later, we were at the top of a hill where the road narrows to a wide footpath. Only residents’ motor vehicles may proceed.
A large piazza, bordered on the east and west by water and paved in ancient stone, forms the commercial center of Sant Angelo. Shops and restaurants ring the piazza. We walked the back streets, past private flats and houses, many open to the street as families watched TV, ate dinner or chatted in the crescendos that accompany most casual Italian conversation. The narrow street rose and fell, twisted and turned. At the bottom, where it joined the main road, a sign overhead read “arrivaderci.”
On the bus back to Ischia Porto, the headlights danced on the faces of houses and walls bordering the road as dozens of scooters sped to and fro, passing on corners, squeezing between opposing cars, horns beeping like the Road Runner gone mad.
At 1830, we relaxed outdoors at Gabbiano, a lively restaurant on the harbor. The street along the harbor, now filled with restaurant tables instead of cars, became a pedestrian mall, a festival of daily life. Locals and tourists strolled aimlessly: mothers and daughters arm-in-arm, teenage girls holding hands, young men in sleek trousers and shirts open to midriff strutting like stallions at breeding time, old-timers picking their steps carefully, occasionally resting on their canes.
By 0200, Ischia Porto rustles into slumber, part sound and part feeling. The last scooter barks past the moored boats toward home, a quartet of young adults-boy/girl, boy/girl-shuffles along the quay, whispering all at once, and a last puff of evening breeze pats me on the cheek.
Contact: Argonauti Yacht Charter, (011) 39 6 79329105; fax (011) 39 6 79329111.