There are no boardwalks at the beaches on the island of Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy. But many restaurants and pubs, with owners who hope to quench the hunger and thirst of beach goers, line the sand. Many of them look like the stands and shacks that are typical of an American boardwalk. While I indulge in frankfurters, fries, fried oreos, or homemade ice cream back home at the Jersey Shore, I will find almost none of that on these here shores. In Ischia, even the beach stands feature home cooking – the kind your mamma would be making for you. The other day, when my husband, teenage niece, nearly 2-year-old son, and I pulled up to the Bagno Corrado stand at San Pietro Beach, we had bruschetta – toasted Italian bread with tomato salad on top of it – for antipasto and the surprising pasta dish in the photo above. The sauce featured fresh tomatoes, chunks of swordfish, and the flower of the zucchini plant. Of course, since it is a fish dish, there was plenty of fresh parsley to boot. It was sweet and savory. And the swordfish melted in your mouth. It is hardly the kind of thing I’d order down the shore, but it was perfect for a beach day in Italy. Still, my niece dug into a Nutellotta, which is a cookie bowl dressed in Nutella and filled with three scoops of vanilla gelato that are covered in more Nutella and whipped cream with a few more cookies sticking out of it. She loved every bite. Who can blame her?
Today is my husband’s birthday. He’d rather forget how old he is, so let’s keep the fact that he turned 42 between us, ok? Working full-time on American hours from Italy while caring for our nearly 2-year-old son is draining, so I wasn’t quite up to planning a birthday bash. But I couldn’t ignore my honey’s big day. As my son was coloring his arm with his washable markers for the millionth time, it hit me that I should get him to help me. So, I decided the theme would be graffiti. You can’t really see it from the photo above, but you’ll get the picture if you look below. I just had my son scribble on everything with his markers. He scribbled with yellow marker on the card covering my husband’s gift (which were personalized pillow cases that read, “Always Kiss Me Goodnight,” which I found at PersonalizationMall.com), the sign on his cake, and a sign for the door. Although my son used every color available to him, I made sure that orange, yellow, and hubby’s favorite blue dominated. I used table linens I had from an Easter we spent in Ischia and were the perfect shades of blue. And the clown picks on the cake (which I found at the supermarket here in Ischia) came in a packet of all different colors and I chose the orange, yellow, and blue ones available. Back in the States I had wrapped hubby’s gift with blue paper, but I found a gold rope used to tie the wrapping on a chocolate Easter egg.
Since this was just for my husband, who is an adult, I didn’t bother carrying the theme in any other ways. But you could. If this were a children’s party, you could tape brown paper to the walls and tables and have the kids make their own graffiti. You could make more decorations with graffiti on them, such as place cards that look like a wall with the name written in what looks like spray paint, a photo booth with a graffiti backdrop, or images of actual street art scattered about. You could make graffiti with icing for the cake. The options are limitless. By the way, for those who are wondering, I made the cake from scratch. It’s a banana cake filled with cherry jam (made by my sisters-in-law) and topped with Nutella that I melted just slightly to be able to spread it. So far, the reviews for the cake have been good. And we managed to use all six of the bananas we had let turn black. Just overly ripe, I say. Overall, I’d say it was a happy birthday, but you’ll have to ask the 42-year-old in the family.
Discover the 5 beaches I think you should visit in Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors, my husband, and for the time being me. While the beach in the photo above – the one we go to most often out of convenience – is briefly mentioned in the story I wrote for ItaliansRus and Las Vegas’ La Voce newspaper, it is not among the 5 best. It is, however, among my personal favorites because it brings such joy to Baby Boy. He merrily spent one day last week at San Pietro Beach throwing sand in the air as though it was confetti and investigating and throwing rocks and pebbles into the water to see how big a splash they would make. It is days like that one that make being away from home far more tolerable. Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.
Now that school is out in Ischia, Italy, kids are at the pinete (pine tree forests) if they’re not at the beach. The towering pine trees are surrounded by all sorts of plants, including wild sage and flowering bushes. There are pathways for those who want to walk and take in the scenery. Of course, some of the paths lead you up mountains that can be difficult to navigate with a stroller or a bum leg. Don’t expect any sort of warning about this. You should know by now that when in Ischia, you are walking at your own risk (writes the girl who has come back from three knee surgeries, a result of an injury she picked up on the island in 2004). No warning signs about the difficulty level of the paths means there are also no signs for the entrance and exit. My friends and I recently got lost in the pineta while searching for a way out.
It turned out to be a fun adventure because Baby Boy was napping in his stroller and their daughter was sitting nicely in hers. We carried the strollers up these stairs made of dirt and grass with wooden frames, and we saw a giant dog (looked more like a horse) try to eat a giant rock. We also caught a couple making out by the children’s swings. They were not at all fazed by our presence, and the guy had no problem rounding second as we were walking by with mouths agape. This is what happens when everyone lives at home with their parents well into their 30s and even 40s. Even the playground seems like an okay place to get some action.
I guess you could argue that Ischia is doing visitors a favor; if there were indicators about where to go, you would miss out on exploration. A trip to the pineta does not have to be so exhausting, however. There are also sitting areas with benches or chairs. As mentioned above, some of the pine tree forests have playgrounds, replete with a slide for the little ones. One near our home has a man-made pond full of croaking frogs, who even let you touch them.
Since the forest is an enchanting place for kids, you will also hear the sounds of childhood – giggles, shouts of joy, and the pitter-patter of little feet. On any given afternoon, you are likely to find a group of children gathered to play a pick-up game of soccer or just chase each other around the trees. Sometimes, the natives hold childrens’ dance and music recitals on a makeshift stage in one of the pinete. Even if you are just sitting by yourself amid the lushness, you will be delighted. One look at these pine tree forests and a visitor understands just how Ischia came to be known as L’Isola Verde or the Green Island.
Right about now, you are either disappointed or relieved because the headline had you thinking this was a whole other kind of blog post. C’mon people, you know who I am. This is about an actual babe, my almost two-year-old boy, of course. I mentioned to you that I love taking photos of the beach. Now that we’re living literally steps from the beach, I am constantly snapping pics.
What I love nearly as much as pictures of the beach are pictures of my son on the beach. But getting a normal toddler to stay still is impossible, let alone Baby Boy, who has outpaced the Energizer Bunny on occasion. At first, I was blue because I had no pictures – or at least no good pictures of Baby Boy on the beach. Then, I had a stroke of genius. Ok, maybe it was just a stroke of common sense.
Instead of trying to pose him or waiting for the moment he stood still (read: fell asleep) to photograph him, I started to just follow Baby Boy’s every move with the camera. The more pictures I snapped, the more likely I’d get something worth framing (or at least worth using to decorate my Desktop or cell phone screen). When my American friends, their nearly two-year-old daughter, my son, and I headed to the beach on Memorial Day, we were armed with a camera – and we all snapped, snapped, snapped as many photos as we could of the kids.
When the two babes toddled over to the spogliatoi (locker rooms), we were swelling with joy. The graphic element of the locker rooms contrasted by their sweet faces, while they were exploring this new terrain, was pure perfection. Once you turn the photos black and white, they look like something out of 1950s’ Italy, which is special for me since that was the era my father was still living in Ischia. It also happens to be the moment in history when Ischia stopped being reliant on an agricultural economy and started focusing on tourism. Regardless of what history the black and white images spark for me, they are worthy of a frame and look good in color to boot (see below). In fact, this second picture would be great blown up as a poster for our home in Ischia. Not surprisingly, you can expect more beach photos on this blog throughout the rest of the year.
With its cobblestone roads, quaint shops, fresh seafood restaurants, and pastel-colored houses – not to mention its crowning jewel, Castello Aragonese (Aragonese Castle) and the bridge that connects it to the island, the town of Ischia Ponte in Ischia, Italy offers peace, quiet, and a bit of that Old World so many people talk about when reminiscing about Italian travel experiences. That is all true, unless you visit Ischia Ponte while Baby Boy is there.
Dozing off in his stroller, he somehow caught a second wind, screamed, and woke up my friends’ daughter about 10 minutes before we were scheduled to have lunch at one of those lovely restaurants I was talking about above. First, he ran on the bridge screaming and crying as though I was kidnapping him. In fact, in the photo above I had just caught him and turned him toward the boats and scenery in the hopes that the tears would stop. There was absolutely no explanation for this sudden fit of rage. I’ve learned that this is perfectly normal behavior when you’re two years old and have parents who each speak a different language and you can’t communicate anything in either one.
Whether it was the language or something else that took over my son’s body in Ischia Ponte, I’ll never know. But once we arrived at lunch, he had completely lost his mind. I mean it seemed to me that his head was literally spinning all the way around and that he would never ever be able to make a peep that wasn’t at the Metallica level of volume. Every tourist in the joint was staring at us – or at least that is how it seemed to me, the American mamma – even though we were in a secluded room all to ourselves. Banish the people with babies is the philosophy around here (at least during the tourist season and when tourists are around because many Italians do adore children, while other people just don’t). And my son proved why it must be so on that very day.
I picked him up and brought him outside, once again heading toward the bridge, in the hopes that he would either calm down or take that much-needed nap, so I could return to the treats at the table, which included muscles and bruschetta and olives and sardines. When Baby Boy’s making like a lunatic and screaming in public, I like to tell people that he’s training his lungs and someday he will be a serious singer or swimmer. But really he’s just being a pia (it’s pronounced p-ee-ah and it’s my cousin’s word for pain in the a–, which he jokingly uses to talk about his teenage daughter when she’s picking out which outfit to wear anywhere). On this occasion, Baby Boy was being a pia and I was trying to get him to sleep, so I was swaying him on my hip and singing lullabies, such as “God Bless America” and “Proud to be an American.” You can see where my head is at. Still, this usually works like a charm. Not today.
So, I returned to the restaurant to see what course my friends were up to. There was a beautiful swordfish, grilled and fried calamari, and my bruschetta and muscles still on the table. I tried to feed Baby Boy the bruschetta. Tomatoes and bread always cheer me up, especially around here. He spit it in my face. I decided to eat it myself post spit and all. All you other parents out there, don’t you dare say, “Ewwww,” because I know you’ve done the same or you would if the tomatoes and bread were as good as they are in Ischia. I gulped down a few of those delicious muscles and a couple of fried calamari as I picked up baby and split again. Again, we headed toward the bridge. I was certain the other people in town watching me with my son were commenting on how the American mom can’t do anything right. They might have a point. Their kids weren’t carrying on and on and on like Baby Boy. And in that moment, like all mothers the world over, I felt guilt and shame rise inside me like a flame in a fire.
Then, when I was holding Baby Boy’s flailing body against my chest, and he was still crying and screaming as though the world was about to literally come to an end, I thought, “Well, at least we’re in a Catholic country. There must be someone around who could perform an exorcism on the spot.” Just as this flashed into my head, Baby Boy let me put him back in the stroller and within minutes he fell asleep. Finally. It was, of course, the very moment that we were leaving Ischia Ponte for my friends had finished the meal. Of course.
When we recently took a tour of the island of Ischia in Italy, we stopped at Sant’ Angelo, which is an old fishing village. Although it is one of the most expensive places to hang out on the island, it is absolutely gorgeous and a must-see if you are ever in the area. Despite the fact that when we were there last, the wind was strong enough to knock over our kids, my son and my friends’ daughter were delighted to wake up and finally get out of the car. My son even did his happy feet dance – he moves his feet like the penguins in the movie Happy Feet – in his stroller and tore off his blanket.
Besides the charming boats and the natural beauty of Sant’ Angelo, you can take in the scene. There are shops with sophisticated gear – bejeweled beach cover ups, Greek-style sandals, and chic beach totes – coffee bars, pastry shops, and gelaterie (ice cream shops). You might even spot a European V.I.P. because they often stay on this exclusive, out-of-the-way part of the island. The natives, who live in Sant’ Angelo, might let you join a pick-up game of soccer like the one that caught Baby Boy’s eye. If he was a little older, he would have jumped right in.
When it is hot outside, you can pull up a towel on the patch of sand or take a dip in the ocean. I once rented a motor boat with friends, and we stopped near Sant’ Angelo for people watching and a snack of fresh pears, which we had brought with us. Before our juicy fruit treat (thanks to thermal soil, a result of Ischia’s previous life as a volcano, the island’s fruit is the sweetest you’ll ever taste), we had gone overboard to cool off in the water. The atmosphere oozes Mediterranean beauty and puts you in a completely different state of mind. I suspect that even if you’re working in Sant’ Angelo, you feel as though you are on vacation. That is why I have no problem returning there again and again.
My heart fell to my stomach and then did the backstroke for 10 minutes while I was stuck in an elevator from the Dark Ages with my 20-month-old son and my friends’ nearly 2-year-old daughter when we recently visited La Mortella Gardens in Ischia, Italy. The baby girl’s parents had gone down the stairs, while I attempted to take the kids down in the elevator because they were in strollers. I should have known better than to even attempt this because 1. we were in Ischia, a small island that lacks many conveniences and 2. I had to hold down the button – per instructions that were handwritten on the elevator wall – for the entire ride up or down and 3. we were in Ischia. I pressed the button to go down and it moved the elevator just enough that we could no longer open the door. It also would not continue to go down or up. The kids started screaming, and I banged on the glass to my friends below. “It is not moving anymore,” I shouted. “We’re stuck.”
A group of senior citizens below were trying to help my friends, who speak Italian and could understand them. Only problem was that these people couldn’t agree on what was the right thing to do. One said to keep pushing the button and the other said to pull the emergency lever. I had my doubts anyone would come even if I hit the alarm, so this mamma kept pushing. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the elevator moved up enough that we could open the door and get out. By then, my friends had come back upstairs. One of them was able to take their daughter and her stroller in the elevator. Then, we tried to have me do it with my son, and we must have been too heavy. We never made it down – at least not in the elevator. Having to carry the strollers down all the stairs in the mountainous gardens was a big pain, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
But that doesn’t mean you should give up on taking your little ones to Giardini La Mortella, the subtropical and Mediterranean garden, which the late Susana Walton, Argentinian wife of the British composer Sir William Walton, began cultivating in 1956. You just have to be prepared to carry your babies or have them walk. Realize it might be challenging. I’ve been to the gardens sans baby before and it makes for a lovely day.
There are gorgeous orchids, tons of tall bamboo, and fountains that will have you de-stressing both by their site and sound. The views of Forio from atop the gardens is also worth the visit. You can see San Francesco Beach with its pristine ocean water in all its glory, while discovering the reason Ischia has earned its name as L’Isola Verde or the Green Island for its lush landscape. The gardens include a bird sanctuary, which had our babes spying parrots and other little chirpers. Sometimes, concerts are held on the grounds. And on other trips to the gardens, I have eaten at the bar. The light, lemon caprese cake was sweet and tart in the most perfect way. If the bar still has it on the menu, that alone would make La Mortella worth the stop. Just avoid the elevators. Please.
Before my husband and I brought Baby Boy to Ischia for nine months, I gave a lot of thought to how he would adjust. What I did not think about was my own adjustment. Parenting in a different country – especially when surrounded by natives with different cultural ideas about how to raise a child – can be a challenge. I wasn’t anticipating that. Not at all. Trying to be a perfect mom is even more impossible in the Boot than it is in the United States. Recently, I wrote all about my struggles in “A Day in the Life of an Italian Mamma,” an installment of Our Paesani on ItaliansRus.com. Read it. Some problems are universal.
Pinch me because I still feel like I’m dreaming after an amazing time in Ischia (yes, for those of you who know my true feelings for the island, you read that correctly) with my friends and their daughter, who is just about three months older than Baby Boy. They left on Friday, and I have had that twinge of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, the one I always get when I say good-bye to the ones I love, ever since. Still, I have the memories of their vacation. And Memorial Day weekend allowed me to make like a tourist myself for a bit. One of the best experiences we shared was a tour by Franco of Ischia Taxi.
Even though I’ve been visiting Ischia since I was 2, I always seem to learn something new when I head out into the island. This time was no different. Thanks to Franco, I learned the overlook, whose view is in the photo above, is a hot spot for guys to bring the ladies with whom they’d like to share a kiss (and something more, but they must feign being gentlemen). This was educational to me because my husband brought me here the first time I visited Ischia after we started dating. You can bet with that beautiful setting, he snagged a kiss – nothing more than a kiss, though, so no worries mamma and papa.
Franco also taught me that there’s a museum in Ischia featuring fish fossils, which were found on top of Mount Epomeo, Ischia’s highest point. You might be wondering, as were we, “How on earth could a fish end up on top of a mountain?” Well, Ischia was a volcano. When it erupted, Epomeo was elevated above the ocean. Those fish that were swimming on what would become Epomeo could not survive without the ocean water, they died, and presumably time and the lava, preserved their remains, thus the fossils. It’s not quite the scientific explanation, but it makes perfect sense, no? Indeed, you do learn something new everyday.
What was so lovely about this two-hour giro dell’isola (island tour) were the visits to various landmarks. While the babies slept – cozy in their car seats in the van taxi – my friends were able to stop and see another overlook that had them view Naples and Mount Vesuvius from Ischia, Forio’s Soccorso church made famous in the movie Avanti and by Pope John Paul II’s visit about a decade ago, the famous Lacco Ameno fungo, a giant rock that naturally formed and juts more than six feet out of the ocean and looks like a mushroom, views of thermal spas, Giardini Poseidon and Negombo, and Sant’ Angelo, an old fishing village turned tourist must-see.
Of course, they also stopped at make-out point, where Franco insisted they share a smooch. When our camera broke and we lost almost all the pictures from the tour, Franco, who drove us to visit La Mortella Gardens the next day, brought them back to make out all over again. This time he had them pose Titanic-style to boot. It was all very Italian. Is that service or what?