VIAGGI – FAMILY TRAVEL
Let me begin by admitting my bias. Ischia, the largest of the three Neapolitan islands that also include Capri and Procida in Italy, is the home of my ancestors on both sides of the family and my husband. But, in this case anyway, my bias happens to be true. Ischia is a magnificent destination for a vacation. It has everything – beaches, mountains, natural wonders, spas, people with southern Italian charm, and a divine cuisine. The only downside is the prices; it’s not cheap. This is luxury people, and that comes with a hefty price tag. That’s probably why it’s so popular with billionaires and Europe’s VIPs, including soccer stars, models, and television personalities.
Still, most Americans have never heard of the place. Cleopatra, starring a gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor, was partially filmed in Ischia. (In fact, it has been credited with inspiring Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton.) Jack Lemmon had us laughing out loud in Avanti!, which was set on Ischia. More recently, Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow called the place home for a few months when filming The Talented Mr. Ripley. American celebrities – think Eva Longoria, Rosario Dawson, Will Smith, and Denzel Washington – have either parked their yachts in an Ischia port (literally, not figuratively) or attended the annual Ischia Film Festival or both. Yet, neighboring Capri continues to overshadow Ischia among American tourists.
Well, that should change. Start saving up because here are 10 reasons you must visit my second home, Ischia:
10. Ischia is L’Isola Verde (The Green Island). There’s a law on the books that prevents the natives (or foreigners for that matter) from building any further on the island. You can do construction on homes and businesses that already exist, but you have to leave some of the island pristine. While Italians are ones to buck the law and more than a few of the people have built where they should not have in the dark of night, the government has cracked down. Many of those places have been knocked down just as quickly as they were constructed. And there are plenty of places on the island that remain untouched. Just about everywhere you go, you will see lush hillsides, flourishing vegetation, and nature’s bounty, including porcini and wild mushrooms and chestnuts in their respective growing seasons. It is a stunning natural backdrop, the likes of which you’ve probably never seen. And hikers can truly escape the bustling tourist trap on the island’s streets by hiking the mountains or taking shelter in one of the gardens, such as La Mortella.
9. Ischia’s spas are on steroids. These are not your typical spas. Sure, you can get a massage like you can everywhere else. There might be dim lights and scented candles. But the treatments are all natural and come from Ischia’s volcanic beginnings. There is thermal mud and thermal waters that do wonders on the skin and aching joints. In fact, athletes from all over the world travel to Ischia for these healers. Thermal baths, such as Negombo and Giardini Poseidon, or the showers at Nitrodi allow guests to spend a day indulging in the island’s natural healing powers. But you don’t even have to go to an actual spa like this. Many of the hotels, pump the thermal ocean water into their pools and showers. And at some of the beaches, you can break open rocks containing thermal mud and rub it all over yourself as you take in the sun. I’ve done it all, and it works.
8. Ischia’s beaches are unlike any you’ve ever seen. Surrounded by hillsides and more of that gorgeous vegetation, the beaches are breathtaking. Some of them are in full view of Castello Aragonese, the centerpiece of the island. Others have rock formations that look like they’re out of the Jurassic Era. As I mentioned, you can give yourself a truly healing mud masque at no cost to you. You can travel in rented motor boats from beach to beach taking in the uniqueness and splendor of each. At Maronti, the largest and most popular beach in Ischia, you can hike to Sant’ Angelo, the oldest fishing village, or cook a meal under the sand. That’s right, you can bury clams and potatoes in the sand al fumarole. You can read all about it in an article from The New York Times. Where else can you do such a thing? You have to admit that is amazing.
7. The people watching is alluring. All over Italy, you can sit in a piazza people watching and socializing. It’s the place to see and be seen. Usually, there is a coffee bar, so you can pump up your energy with an espresso and a bite to boot. In Ischia, the piazza is on a whole other level, especially in the summer. This is where the natives and tourists encounter one another and begin the dance that is their relationship. At once, they hate and love each other. At once, they are repulsed and drawn to one another.
You’ll find couples on motor scooters pulled over to check in with friends. You’ll find men playing Italian card games, such as Scopa. You’ll find moms encouraging their toddlers to interact with the other kids, so they get two minutes to themselves. You’ll see tourists in skimpy bathing suits looking for the bus to the beach or another gelato. People flirt, share the news of the day, and watch each other with a careful eye. Often, it’s like a fashion show, especially if one of those wealthy tourists comes along with beach gear featuring only designer labels. Everyone is trying to make the bella figura, the Italian idea of making a good first impression with your outward appearance and demeanor. Reputations and perceptions are made in the piazza. Stopping there allows you the chance to observe the culture and recognize how island life is different from living in mainland Italy. There’s an exuberance in summer and a sadness in winter that you won’t find in other parts of Italy.
6. The island is a feast for the senses. Ischia is a seductress. Like the sirens of mythology that supposedly lived nearby its shores, the island lures you in with its beauty. It’s almost like magic. Before you realize what’s happening, you are intoxicated. Your whole being is taken over. You experience a lovely madness through sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. You’ll be looking for your fix of Ischia for the rest of your days.
5. Tradition is reason enough. You just might be able to celebrate one of the many saint’s feasts the island recognizes. There’s a carnival-like atmosphere and lots of booths for shopping at the San Vito festival in Forio. There’s free fried fish at the Porto for San Pietro. There’s a parade to show off the gorgeous clothing that the natives and royals wore through different eras on Ischia to honor Sant’ Alessandro. Boats are turned into elaborate floats featuring music, lights, and historical reenactments in the area near the castle as a tribute to Sant’ Anna. For that one, spectators end the night with a view of the castle lit up by controlled fires and an unforgettable fireworks display. If you’re lucky, during your visit you might also catch the generations-old ‘Ndrezzata, a folk dance performed by the people of Buonopane, my father’s hometown.
4. A nonna will adopt you – and who doesn’t need a nonna? At that stop in the piazza or while walking down the street or when pausing at a shop or bar, you will meet a little old lady. Perhaps, she wears only black since her spouse has died. Or she sits near a church knitting or weaving and selling her designs. She might always have on an apron, or you find her constantly sweeping the street. Regardless, she will offer you shelter, food, a hug or all of the above. You will call her Nonna by the time you leave. You may shed a tear when you say good-bye. And you will feel as comforted and safe at the mere thought of her for years to come. Feel extra special if she feeds you her meatballs.
3. It may be the only place in the world where one can truly relax. If natural thermal spas, Nonna’s embrace, that sense of the Old World, and natural beauty can’t help you relax, go to the beach. If the beach doesn’t cut it, then you’re a robot and nothing will help you de-stress. Sorry, but Ischia is known as the island “dove si mangia, si beve, si fischia,” which means “where you eat, drink, and whistle.” Whistling is a euphemism for sex but also refers to R&R. No further explanation needed.
2. You will get some history lessons to boot. Besides the sun, you’ll soak up history. Castello Aragonese and Villa Arbusto are just a couple of the places, where you can learn about the island’s beginnings as a volcano, its place in mythology, its settlement by the Greeks, and the castle’s use as dungeon and love shack at different points in history.
1. You will eat the best meal of your life. Hands down, food in Ischia is the most delicious ever. Fresh fish, the famous coniglio alla Ischitana (Ischia rabbit), porcini mushrooms plucked from the garden and put on the table, and sweetest, freshest, ripest fruits and vegetables make it impossible to be disappointed. These are the original farm-to-table fanatics. They are the kings and queens of organic. They don’t need labels to describe this type of cuisine. It is simply their way of life. And you’ll want to make it yours, too. Frankly, it’s the most delicious life ever, so who could blame you?
Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.