Italy Daily
November 2001

Ischia: The Green Island of Eternal Youth
A Lush Getaway with Vistas, Thermal Baths
and Seismic Energy to Shake Anyone out of the Daily Grind


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 weren’t enough – natural hot springs on cliffs overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Capri’s 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 Sant’Angelo.

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 disorders".

Yet Ischia’s 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 invader’s 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 Ottoman troops.

Ischia’s tumultuous history calmed down a bit, following a nasty plague in the 17th-century. The Bourbons and Napoleon reigned until Garibaldi’s 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 Sant’Alessandro parade includes period costumes – from peasant garb to foppish French laces, reflecting the area’s diversity.

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 earth’s 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 area’s fifty volcanoes have been dormant ever since, though Ischia is still rocked by earthquakes.

Such geothermal unrest isn’t 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 in January.

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 area’s 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 region’s 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 don’t allow fine wines and food to distract you from Ischia’s highlight: the fishing village of Sant’Angelo. 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 area’s 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 Sea’s most distinctive landmarks.

The Roja – otherwise known as the Isolotto DI Sant’Angelo – is a volcanic cone, capped with the remains of a tower and Benedictine monastery (both destroyed when Nelson’s English fleet shelled the area in 1809).

Visitors can clamber onto the islet’s 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 Sant’Angelo, 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. It’s a small, safe place, determined to stay that way. The village embraces tourism but doesn’t succumb to it.

And if that doesn’t make you green with envy, nothing will.

The warm informal
"ciao" is on every lip
– and seems heartfelt.

It’s a small, safe
place, determined to
stay that way. The
village embraces
tourism but doesn’t
succumb to it.

Ischia sidebar:

Thermal baths
Getting there
Where to Stay
Other sites of note

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