Bougainvillaea froths over the whitewashed walls, a gaudy magenta counterpoint
to the blue skies and seas. But the true colour of Ischia is green. The
green of lush vegetation and the green of envy. Because the tiny unspoilt
island has it all: History, architecture, scenery, mild climate, tranquillity
and as if that werent enough natural hot springs on
cliffs overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Capris lesser-known neighbour takes up 47-square kilometres of the
Bay of Naples. Ischia is a well-kept secret, often neglected by guide
books. Nevertheless, word gets around. Celebrities from Michelangelo Buonarroti
to Elizabeth Taylor have sought refuge there. Norwegian playwright Henrik
Ibsen once pottered about in Casamicciola, the town where Guiseppe Garibaldi
recovered from his war wounds.
Even gods and mythological heroes took a break in Ischia. Ulysses visited
the king on Castiglione hill, while Aphrodite dipped into the thermal
waters. Aeneas beached his boat in Lacco Ameno, where centuries later
the remains of Santa Restituta washed ashore. And archangel Michael put
in an appearance, giving his name to the picturesque fishing village of
The area gained international attention in the 50s and 60s, when tycoon
Angelo Rizzoli built ranks of luxury hotels and spas. "Ischia, the
island of eternal youth," was his slogan, promoting the warm radioactive
waters. Soon health and beauty clinics sprang up, treating anything from
pimples to rheumatism, arthritis to obesity and mysterious "neuro-vegetative
Yet Ischias charms have attracted visitors and settlers
for millennia. Neolithic pot shards and stone tools were found, mainly
in the Cilento area. In 770 BC, colonists arrived from Euboea, establishing
the city of Pithekoussai, the first Greek colony in the West. Scholars
formerly thought the name was connected to pithêkos (monkey),
but now believe it derives from pithos (pitcher) showing
the importance of shipping. Indeed, early inhabitants traded with Puglia,
Ionia, Calabria, Sardinia, Etruria and Lazio.
The Pithecusae Archaeological Museum in Lacco Ameno houses artefacts,
including the fabled Cup of Nestor. The vessel, created in Rhodes, is
inscribed with a quotation from the Iliad: "I am the delicious cup
... of Nestor. Whoever drinks from this cup, straightaway that man the
desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize."
The Greek colony flourished briefly and began declining in the 7th century
BC. Ischia then passed under the rule of Helios, tyrant of Syracuse. The
balmy peaceful island with its strategic location was an
invaders dream. And they flocked in: the Oscans, Romans, Eruli,
Ostrogoths, Saracen pirates, dukes of Naples, Swabian emperors, Normans,
French and Spanish, even the ferocious Barbarossa pasha of the
Ischias tumultuous history calmed down a bit, following a nasty
plague in the 17th-century. The Bourbons and Napoleon reigned until Garibaldis
troops made the island part of Italy in 1860. Barring German occupation
during WWII, the area has escaped ravage and plunder in recent decades.
Now the only invading hordes are tourists, intent on the 300 or so hotels
(many containing spas covered by Italian National Health Insurance).
The political chaos left its stamp on Ischian architecture and culture,
forced to become a Mediterranean melting pot. The oldest tradition
the folk dance Ndrezzata, meaning entwined
dates back to a stylised ancient Greek war dance. Eighteen male dancers
from the village of Buonopane, clad in red vests, whirl and stamp in intricate
patterns, wielding a long staff in one hand and a wooden sword in the
other. Meanwhile, the SantAlessandro parade includes period costumes
from peasant garb to foppish French laces, reflecting the areas
The local character was equally shaped by the ravages of nature, however.
Latin authors such as Virgil claimed that Typhoeus, a monster with 100
serpent heads, lurked below the seemingly tranquil island. The spurts
of lava and earthquakes are in fact his fiery rage erupting from Tartarus.
Modern scientists prefer a more prosaic explanation. Ten million years
ago, the Italian peninsula and its islands were bound together. As they
split apart, the stretching and thinning of the earths crust left
deep faults, prone to magma eruptions.
Whatever the reason, Ischia has suffered from volcanic activity. Early
colonies were repeatedly devastated by lava flows, and the original port
was entirely submerged in the 6th century BC. The last eruption gave the
town of Fiaiano its name, little flame, in 1301. The areas
fifty volcanoes have been dormant ever since, though Ischia is still rocked
Such geothermal unrest isnt entirely negative, however. The island
boasts 103 hot springs with beneficial minerals and radioactivity. Some
of the beaches are naturally heated, the sand scorching bare feet. Warm
water vents make swimming possible most of the year, especially after
basking in a nearby fumarole (plume of steam). And to top it all
off, Ischia has a warm, dry Mediterranean climate, averaging 45-55 degrees
The dramatic landscape was the backdrop for The Talented Mr Ripley.
Cliffs swoop down to sandy beaches, with Mount Epomeo towering 788 metres
above. Its name means to see from a height panoramically
visitors can do just that after a steep hike. Footsore tourists may prefer
to rent a mule in Fontana (about £80,000 round-trip).
Rich vegetation gave Ischia its nickname, The Green Island. Cacti, olives,
palms, pines dot the island, alongside more colourful orange groves and
lavender, with riotous bougainvillaea twining round whitewashed houses.
Local produce includes pomegranates, peaches, apricots, chestnuts and
mushrooms, though wild rabbit is considered the areas speciality.
Try coniglio alla cacciatora, cooked in a clay pot, served with
artichoke and fried potatoes. Rabbit also stars in Ischian favourite bucatini
al sugo di coniglio, supported by pasta and marjoram. Seafood delights
include shellfish spaghetti, fried fresh fish, stuffed squid, bouillabaisse
and grilled swordfish.
Ischia claims to
be the home of Margarita pizza, but the cuisine generally is rustic. Expect
hunting and fishing flavours, such as eggplants containing ham and prosciutto
and wild bird stuffed with olives, lard, bacon and anchovies.
The Greeks imported grapes for cultivation on the steep and rugged slopes.
Tourism weakened the ancient wine tradition, but quality and prestige
sparked a recent demand for Ischian vintages. The regions
abundant sunlight and unique soil create distinctive grapes, hauled along
the twisty mountain paths by donkey or mule. Outstanding local wines include
Coda-Cavallo, Greco and Latino as well as newer varieties Epomeo,
Favorito, Calitto, Monte Corvo, Maronti and Jesca.
Yet dont allow fine wines and food to distract you from Ischias
highlight: the fishing village of SantAngelo. Artists, such as painter
Wernes Gilles, flocked there in the 50s, declaring it "the most beautiful
place in the world". Granted, the petite fishing village has expanded
since, but its charm remains.
Determined townsfolk ensured the areas serenity by banning automobiles
from the centre. Only mules, pedestrians and three-wheeled mini-taxis
can venture up the picturesque slopes. The safe streets encourage a colony
of beautiful and brazen cats, who lounge on the sun-warmed flagstones.
The small harbour
contains tourist bars, swanky boutiques, fishing boats and a narrow isthmus,
stretching across to one of the Tyrrhenian Seas most distinctive
otherwise known as the Isolotto DI SantAngelo is a volcanic
cone, capped with the remains of a tower and Benedictine monastery (both
destroyed when Nelsons English fleet shelled the area in 1809).
Visitors can clamber
onto the islets wildly eroded lower slopes or catch a water taxi
on the isthmus. The Maronti Beach fumarole (steam plume) and ancient Roman
baths at Cava Scura are two popular destinations, though longer boat tours
also depart from the port.
But the true reason to visit SantAngelo, sheer beauty aside, is
the friendliness. The warm informal "ciao" is on every
lip and seems heartfelt. Locals stop and chat, heedless of unlocked
doors. Its a small, safe place, determined to stay that way. The
village embraces tourism but doesnt succumb to it.
And if that doesnt make you green with envy, nothing will.