From the moment I arrived in Ischia five months ago, my nieces Francesca and Giulia Buono and Laura Porraro have been keeping a calendar. During the week, I work — even if I’m home with them — I’m working. They know that they’re not supposed to come visit me while I’m working unless one of the adults sends them with a message. Sometimes, they come anyway. As a result, I have developed ways to keep working and keep them busy. While I’m working, they are allowed to pull out their box, which thanks to my mom, is filled with goodies for making pictures and homemade cards or they can read.
On the weekends, however, they know that I don’t have to work and they can come to my room whenever they’d like. Usually, I try to come up with special things to do on the weekends. Recently, we made Halloween decorations for my room. Another time, they made videos of themselves singing. Once, we made muffins. It was really the most fun we’ve ever had — until they started fighting and their moms had to break it up. Before the war broke out, we managed to make one batch of chocolate chip muffins and another of banana muffins. Delicious and delightful fun!
When I arrived in Ischia back in May, I was a bit homesick. To make myself feel better, I played tourist often. One of my first stops was Ischia Ponte, the oldest part of the island and home to Castello Aragonese. With less than two weeks to go before I return to the United States, I wanted to reminisce about the time I spent in Ischia Ponte at the start of my journey into married life in Ischia. You can take a tour of the town with me at the “Tour Ischia Ponte” photo album.
On one of my trips to Ischia Ponte (which is only about 15 minutes away by foot from where I live), I was joined by my American friends Lisa and Adam, who were on a honeymoon cruise that stopped in Ischia for a few hours. It was delightful bringing my American pals around the island home of my ancestors and husband. Back then, I wrote about Ischia as a honeymoon destination for About.com — and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Ahh, it’s nice to reminisce.
I won’t even pretend to be an objective critic or journalist today. Antonio and I have been going to Focolare, a family-run restaurant in Ischia, since we started dating about five years ago. We have always loved it and ever since Agostino D’Ambra, one of the owners and a chef at the restaurant visited us in the United States, we’ve grown to love the family who runs the place even more. The food is delicious and the atmosphere is distinctly Ischitano.
To get to Focolare, you must drive on narrow, curvy roads in the dark hills of Ischia, but it’s worth it. Surprisingly, a bus does make it up there, so you don’t have to have a car to get there. Once you arrive, you get to feast on traditional dishes with a twist — always with a twist. (To view some of the dishes we recently ate there, visit the “Dinner at Focolare” photo album.) For those guests, who know the family, the cantina (wine cellar) in the back is the perfect way to begin the food experience that is Focolare. There, much like Ischitani would offer to friends and family at home, the owners serve wine, homemade prosciutto, and bread sticks to the guests they know. We recently headed to the cantina with Americans Pasquale, who is originally from Naples but now works as a chef in the States and recently appeared on the Food Network’s Chopped, and his wife Jaime, an American who is a Rockette in New York. Even if the family doesn’t know you, in the main dining hall, they will treat you like family — and serve you an unforgettable meal. Buon appetito!
As we transition from summer to fall, the weather has gotten a bit chillier in Ischia. In fact, today, we are experiencing thunder storms again. But the colder temperatures do not prevent my husband from taking advantage of Ischia’s water features. While the beach with its breeze and colder ocean is not as pleasurable as it was a couple of weeks ago, the thermal pools with their naturally hot temperatures are still calling his name. Most of the thermal pool parks and spas on Ischia are open until late October — and fall is a lovely time to go to one because the August crowds have cleared out and even the Ischitani themselves are tending to their children who are back at school.
A little more than a week ago, Antonio took me to Castiglione. Of the three major thermal pool parks and spas (the other two being Negombo and Poseidon), Castiglione is the most family friendly and affordable. For less than 30 euro, you can do everything from swim laps in an Olympic-sized pool, take dips in the thermal pools, and sit in the sauna. A cafeteria-like restaurant that serves healthy options, including eggplant, swordfish, salmon, and tomato salad costs extra but remains affordable. We paid about 30 euro total for complete meals for the both of us.
Castiglione is as well known for this thermal pool park and spa as it is for the chestnut trees like the one in the photo above. I didn’t even know these green pom poms were chestnuts. Antonio told me that under that green porcupine lives a delicious chestnut. My father would have been delighted, and Antonio made me photograph the tree for him. (You can view more photos of our day at Castiglione at “Castiglione Thermal Pools” photo album.)
A few weeks ago, my cousin Gigino and his wife Flavia graciously invited me for a day at Nitrodi, a spot in Ischia where there are fountains of naturally warm water that revitalizes the skin and body. (See “Nitrodi Healing Showers” photo album for a picture tour.) I had been to Nitrodi before, but it was always just a single shower and not much else. Now, the community of Barano in Ischia has come together to improve the area for tourists and natives alike. There are additional showers that overlook Maronti, the largest and most popular beach in Ischia, and Sant’ Angelo, an ancient fishing village that now caters to tourists. Stairs and wooden railings that lead guests up to the showers and strategically placed lounge chairs in the hillside are simple yet pretty. And the peaceful atmosphere and lush vegetation make you feel as though you’re at an outdoor spa. If you pack a picnic like my cousins did, you can make a whole day of your stay at Nitrodi. If I could only use one word to describe Nitrodi now, it would be perfect.
A parade literally marched to our door in Ischia, Italy last night. (Click on “Royal Parade in Ischia” above to see a YouTube video of the parade.) Because my husband’s family lives in the heart of the island’s capital city Ischia Porto, this, much to our delight, happens every once in a while. Yesterday’s parade was particularly special because it is held annually in honor of Sant’ Alessandro and has the townspeople dressed in traditional royal and peasant garb from the days when Castello Aragonese in Ischia Ponte was a functioning fortress and castle.
While the dancing horses caught the eye (not to mention the nose every so often), it was the women’s elaborate gowns replete with trains, embroidery, pearl details, and stunning headpieces that stole the show. My three nieces, Laura, Giulia, and Francesca were dreaming out loud of wearing the gowns and playing princess the whole time. To be honest, it made me secretly want to put on one of my wedding dresses even if for just a little while in the privacy of my own home when no one was looking. After all, every girl wants to feel like a princess at least once in a while. That might be why Giulia is always parading around the house in a tiara and beads.
The people of Ischia are sighing with relief because the month of August is swiftly coming to an end. For Ischitani, August means work because the rest of the country heads to the beaches and mountains for vacation. That’s right. Just about the whole country, except for those who work in tourism like most of the Ischitani, have at least a few weeks off in August if not the whole month. If you can’t take off in August for some reason, then you usually get to take time off in July. Unbelievable, right? As an American, who barely gets two weeks of vacation per year, I can’t fathom how Italians can ever get work done with all their vacation time. How can the country earn anything if everyone takes off for the whole month at the same time? I guess that’s what “la dolce vita” means.
For me, August in Ischia wasn’t much different than June or July in Ischia. I work for American publications, and therefore I’m always on call and on the job. But I did get to see more of my relatives in my down time. One cousin, who lives in France but married a woman from Ischia, spent a couple of weeks on the island — and we all got together to break bread one night at another cousin’s restaurant (see photo above). And cousins from Australia and the United States are headed to Ischia at the end of the week for a long weekend that will have us all bidding farewell to yet another August in Italy.
I think Ischia, perhaps myself included, will need a vacation to recuperate after the August summer vacation.
In all my years of visiting Ischia — I visited for the first time when I was just two years old — I had never heard of Bagnitiello in Casamicciola, Ischia until the summer of 2009. (For photos, visit Francesca’s Tour of Bagnitiello.) This year, my husband Antonio and I spent two days with friends at this thermal pool park and bay. The affordable entrance price — 10 euro per person — combined with a spectacular view that gives creedence to Ischia’s name, “The Green Island”, and the delicious bruschetta with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella served at the snack bar are reason enough to keep returning.
Much smaller than the three major thermal spas in Ischia (Poseidon Gardens, Negombo, and Castiglione), Bagnitiello also offers unmatched tranquility. With a hot tub and thermal pool and non-thermal pools for the kiddies, there is plenty to do besides laying out in the sun. The owners also built stairs over the rocks, so people can walk right into the middle of this bay in the ocean, which is the origin of the healing thermal waters. There are boogie board-type mats in the ocean for people to lay out there, too.
Difficult to get to Bagnitiello because there is nowhere to park and you have to walk down a winding, bumpy path, you might consider taking a motorino (think Vespa). But if you’re like me, you’ll have a heart attack on the motorino — not that it has stopped my husband from taking me to Bagnitiello on one. Still, there is some convenience to this location. Bagnitiello is close to the larger thermal spa Castiglione, which is also more affordable than the other two big spas and more conducive to families because of its non-thermal options.The bottom line is that Bagnitiello is not quite the tourist trap that some of the other spas have become, so the atmosphere and the activities are still pleasurable and offer the kind of peace you’d like to have at the beach or spa.
As someone who grew up in northern New Jersey, I can admit that mallrats are my people. When I am in Ischia, I’m a little lost because there are no air conditioned shopping centers replete with movie theaters and food courts. People watching, although an art invented by the Italians, is limited to the piazza, which just isn’t the same as the mall. Who needs a centuries old church and trees when you can grab a Jamba Juice, have your haircut, and buy new kicks all at the same time?
You could move into the Garden State Plaza in Paramus (you could definitely live there), and security would probably take a week to notice because it’s so big. In fact, Ischia itself might be the size of the Garden State Plaza.
Usually, there is a total lack of convenience on the island. Even the supermarkets close at 3 p.m. for the siesta and many of them are closed on Thursdays and Sunday afternoons, too. Getting milk in Ischia is often harder than getting an organ donation from your cousin Luigi. Forget about finding a new purse at an affordable price or picking up a book on tape in the middle of the afternoon.
But once a year in August, stores from the Naples area — and some b-list celebrities — come to Ischia and set up booths to sell necessities — from furniture and pots and pans to clothes to sausage and cheese. Ischia is still in Italy, so you had to expect food to be sold, too. This flea market/sidewalk sale/show is called the Expo. (For more photos of the Expo, visit Francesca’s Expo Photo Album.)
The Expo opened in early August, and Antonio and I were among the first ones there. We purchased odds and ends for our apartment in Ischia, including a cheese grater and a rolling pin. And I picked up a lovely clock for 8 euro for our kitchen in New Jersey. I also bought these amazing paintings of Vesuvius — one for me and one for my mom — directly from the artist, Antonio Attanasio.
As a mallrat, I wasn’t quite at home at the Expo. The stores were mostly under a tent and some of them were actually outside. But the reality stars who made appearances and the ladies from Naples with the big hair and tight clothes in a rainbow of colors were the closest to Jersey folk I can find without going home. The Expo might only last a month, but it brings a bit of convenience — and color — to the islanders.
Italian kids have a fascination with all things American. They watch the Disney channel and Cartoon Network and see all of the wonder of American pop culture. They are particularly fascinated by the concepts of American high schools and the teen scene. One of the traditions my Italian nieces, Francesca and Giulia Buono and Laura Porraro, noticed most of all was the pajama party concept. After they asked a million questions about pajama parties and heard that my sister and I had hosted one for our cousin Nina in the United States, they wanted me to host one for them, too. I happily obliged.
We ate popcorn and played Trivial Pursuit Disney (in Italian, of course) and Sorry Express. I filmed them as they pretended to rescue their stuffed animals and played vets in our kitchen. And then I let them put on lip gloss and do their hair while I gave them manicures and pedicures replete with hand and foot soaking, a moisturizing treatment (note the gloves in the photo), and white nail polish. They fell asleep around midnight while watching Never Been Kissed starring Drew Barrymore in English. The next morning, I made them pancakes and scrambled eggs, and we drank orange juice as if we were in the United States. It’s a great way for girls in any country to celebrate — and I’m sure they’ll remember the pajama party for years to come. You can read all about our cultural exchanges in the bi-weekly “Our Paesani” column on ItaliansRus.com.