Get the truth about one of Italy’s most popular islands – and its people – by reading my new weekly blog installments (every Monday morning right here on this site)
Chapter One – Ischia as Island Paradise
We were born of rock into a fountain of youth. But we must pay the devil for our paradise and eternal beauty, and our debt never ends.
Ischia is the place of dreams. Clear blue skies blanket lush mountainsides and the Mediterranean beaches filled with beautiful people, natives and tourists alike. At Maronti, Ischia’s largest and most popular beach, the setting sun’s rays dance on the ocean like diamond ballerinas on their tippy toes. At nearby Sant’ Angelo, an old fishing village turned tourist trap, a wealthy German woman in her mid 50s in a gold lame’ bikini and hooker heels pays 50 euro for plastic flip flops with a crystal flower in the center. Meanwhile, behind the Church of Soccorso in Forio, you are as likely to find a stray dog on his hind legs as if praying as you are a couple making out at full force, always with an old lady crocheting or making straw baskets in the corner.
Senior citizens flock to Ischia in search of the fountain of youth. They soak themselves in the thermal waters and mud, hoping to preserve their skin and physique for all eternity. Some of them line the beach outside the “fungo,” a naturally occurring rock formation that is in the shape of a mushroom and sits tall and proud in the ocean in Lacco Ameno. They wear the kinds of bathing suits and caps that Sofia Loren might have worn in the 1950s. When you pass by them, in fact, you are half expecting that they’ll jump up and start belting out, “Vuoi far l’Americano.” When you arrive at Ischia’s second port in Casamicciola, you often hear the buzzing of Vespas and smell the sweetness of wine and tomatoes smothering coniglio, or rabbit, which is a specialty dish in Ischia. Families, after all, eat long lunches at home because everything closes for the siesta every afternoon. All the while, pastel houses dot the island like sprinkles atop a fluffy vanilla ice cream cone that you just can’t help but devour.
In Ischia Ponte, Castello Aragonese, a castle connected to the island by a cobblestone bridge, is a testament to Ischia’s ability to lure the fabulous people. The castle was once home to royalty who used Ischia as both fortress and love shack. In the 1960s, the royalty were replaced with celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, who romped on the island with wild abandon. There is a hedonism that hangs in the air. Tourists often buy T-shirts that say, “Ischia – dove si mangia, si beve, e si fischia,” which means, “Ischia – where you eat, you drink, and you whistle.” Indeed, the islanders eat, drink, and have fun – and always at a slower pace than the rest of the world.
Still, the island has two faces. While the new royalty – those whose families own hotels and restaurants and thermal spas – still exist and rule the island, there has always been a peasant culture in Barano and Buonopane, the Ischia towns of my ancestors. In the mountains of Buceto, a wooded area where many of the contadini (peasants) and zappatori (diggers) once worked the land and now have barbecues and hikes, many of the natives know how to seek porcini mushrooms. They pick chestnuts and have sing alongs around a campfire. Some of them ride into the mountains on horseback. Every so often, you’ll find one of the older men planting something there, taking advantage of the rich soil their ancestors once relied on for both food and a few bucks. He’ll wipe his brow with a linen white handkerchief he pulled from his back pocket and offer you a quick, “Buon giorno,” while leaning on the handle of his shovel.
Nicola ‘u pazz’ (Nick the crazy guy) was once a fixture up there. With a mane of wild, wavy, gray hair and a long but thick, gray beard that looked like a Brillo pad that had been torn to shreds, black linen pants with holes at the seams, Nicola ‘u pazz’ would hike Buceto day and night. His shoes had no bottoms because he had worn them out long ago. In the humid cold of February, I would see him with nothing more to keep his chest warm than a striped T-shirt and black linen jacket with sleeves that were too short. As a child I found Nicola ‘u pazz’ terrifying, and whenever I would hike to Buceto with my parents, I dreaded seeing him. I imagined that sack on his back was filled with rocks and he’d use them and the stick he carried as a cane to kill us and leave us for dead in Buceto. It seemed like an episode of Dateline in the making. In reality, however, he sometimes would sing songs and always said, “Ciao,” to us. Even though as a kid, my father also ran like he was in the Olympics whenever he encountered Nicola, as an adult, he would sometimes shake his hand. Years later, my maternal grandfather finally confided that Nicola was actually a cousin of mine on my mother’s side. You can still feel the spirit of Nicola u’ pazz’ in the woods of Buceto.
There was a simplicity to life in the Ischia of my father and Nicola ‘u pazz’. But things have drastically changed since then. Now, there’s a sinister cloud hanging over Ischia. I tried to ignore it, but the cloud has sucked me in, and I now I float above the island and I see it in a whole new light. And my life will never be the same. It all began in 2003 with a weeklong visit to my cousin’s house in Ischia…
Tune into this Web site, Two Worlds, every Monday for the latest installment in my blog about my experiences in Ischia, and every other Monday to ItaliansRus.com for the latest Our Paesani column about all things Italian. Di Meglio is also the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.