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A New Era for Ischia, Italy

by Amanda Castleman

view from Casa Eugenio's
The view from Casa Eugenio's, a pensione gem.
Salty gusts rose off the pool, freezing white in the December chill, then fading into the turquoise sky. Vents spat scalding jets of water, heated deep within the earth. I snuggled under the surface, listening to the smack of waves and piping birds below. Now this was a Happy New Year. Buon'anno, as the Italians say.

Indeed they were saying it every 30 seconds or so, there on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. The festive spirit ran strong at the cliff-top spa, aided by tangy shots of yellow liquor, sweetly sour limoncello. Children skidded and shrilled on wet pathways, a puppy yapped from his wire cage and strangers chatted, embraced. Buon'anno! Auguri!

Eager to soak up Italian culture, I lingered in the pools, eavesdropping. It wasn't difficult. People spoke very loudly, like actors playing to the cheap seats. Or perhaps they just wanted to be heard above all that surf, seagulls and shrieking offspring.

Merry groups crowded into the boiling plunge bath. Without fail, as a toe immersed, the Italians announced "C'e caldo!" How hot!

Or, playing with understatement, "C'e freddo!" So cold!

At some point, I comforted myself, it will stop. Someone, somewhere, will tweak the phrase, branch out, innovate. But no, for two days I wallowed in the warmth, until caldo and freddo were seared into my brain. Most incredibly, each tired phrase was greeted with a fresh bout of giggling. C'e freddo! Now that's funny!

It's not what you say, but the way that you say it, I realized. The Italians chattered to be friendly, not to express some burning insight. The impulse was purely jolly. Hey look! All those chumps are freezing up there on the ski slopes and we're sipping espresso in our bathing suits. La Dolce Vita!

We had reason to be smug. The island is lush, teaming with bougainvillaea and greenery, even in winter. The scenery is spectacular (remember the cinematic vistas in The Talented Mr. Ripley?). Embraced by the Tyrrhenian Sea, Ischia remains a well-kept secret, nearly unspoilt by tourist taint.

Of course, 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 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.

The Ancient Greeks fell for its charms, establishing their first western colony, Pithekoussai, in 770 BC. They brought along the fabled Cup of Nestor, now housed in the Lacco Ameno Archaeological Museum. 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."

Lo Scoglio restaurant
Lo Scoglio restaurant is carved into a sea stack, overlooking an illuminated harbor.

The balmy peaceful island - with its strategic location - was an invader's dream. And they flocked in: the Oscans, Romans, Eruli, Ostrogoths, Saracen pirates, Neapolitan dukes, Swabian emperors, Normans, French and Spanish, even the ferocious Barbarossa, pasha of the Ottoman troops. 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.

Tourism ignited in the 1950s, when film producer Angelo Rizzoli poured money into luxury hotels. "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".

The area is ideal for spas with 103 natural hot springs and a balmy Mediterranean climate, averaging 45-55 degrees in January. Warm water vents make swimming possible most of the year, especially after basking in a nearby fumarole (plume of steam). At the famous Maronti Beach, the volcanic sand scorches bare feet.

Italian tourists often bury eggs in the hot earth, which emerge hard-boiled and reeking of sulphur, passed among the cheerful crowd.

The thermal baths have garnered Destination Reviews since Roman times. Pliny and Strabo heartily endorsed a plunge, despite the threat of volcanic eruptions. Virgil was more leery. He warned that Typhoeus, an angry monster with 100 serpent heads, lurked below the rocks, spurting lava from Tartarus.

Modern scientists offer a more mundane 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.

Early colonies were 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 50 volcanoes have been dormant ever since, though Ischia is still rocked by earthquakes.

This mild activity, fuelling the hot springs, is welcomed. A 16th-century physician, Jasolino, investigated the island's therapeutic properties. He concluded that "the waters are hot and shining. It aids the kidneys and heals liver sports. The water can be used in place of all the baths in Avignon".

Indeed, the alkaline springs contain sulphur, iodine, chlorine, iron, potassium and other elements, said to improve health. The Gurgitello pools include Stomacho (tastes like capon broth, considered useful for sterility), Denti (for the gums) and Aurifero (thought to contain real gold).

Fishermen and children frequent the beaches of Sant'Angelo
Fishermen and children frequent the beaches of Sant'Angelo.

Italians still place great faith in these mineral baths and the "noble gas radon, which exalts physiological functions," according to Ischia's website ( The island remains a popular retreat for natives, though overshadowed by its glamorous neighbour Capri. A handful of international visitors wander through - mostly German - and are greeted warmly. Ischia isn't jaded yet, embracing tourism without succumbing to it.

Hopefully the welcoming air won't fade as the island grows more popular. Last year, Ischia celebrated the centenary of its famous adopted son, British composer William Walton. England fell into a frenzy, churning out concerts, a festival and four books. America has followed suit, rediscovering his lyricism, jazzy harmonies and stately coronation march.

As his reputation revives, travellers are following his footsteps to Ischia. He retired there in 1949, world-weary and skeptical of his own genius, with his young Argentinian bride.

Until Walton's death in '83, he polished a handful of pieces and gardened. It was a plot of earth worthy of any talent. Landscaper Russell Page transformed a rough valley - dismissed as a quarry - into a tropical paradise. Ferns, camellias and water lilies blanket the slopes, home to over 1,000 rare and exotic plants. Even its name is exquisite: La Mortella, the local word for myrtle. Not bad for an estate "built on the never-never, with the help of IOUs from the local grocer".

The Lady Walton now welcomes curious visitors from April to October, often in person, chatting volubly. The small museum houses photographs, many snapped by scene-setter Cecil Beaton. A concert room cuts deep into the cliff-face and the tea room overlooks the Lotus pool. Young musicians offer afternoon concerts on the weekends.

La Mortella is the serene face of Ischia, far from the jolly splashing and cooing in the cliff-top spas. Yet both offer a glimpse of the true Italia, the secret delights off the tourist track, the sweet blend of culture, courtesy and creature comforts. Catch it while it's hot. C'e caldo!


Getting there
The nearest major airport is Naples Capodichino, though most visitors fly through Rome Leonardo da Vinci. Take an Intercity (€12) or slightly faster Eurostar train from Termini station (€22).

Connections are smoother through Naples Mergellina station, just 200 feet from the waterfront. Linee Lauro runs to Ischia Porto (081.761.4090), while SNAV runs to Casamicciola (081.761.2348). A hydrofoil tickets costs about €12 one-way; the slower ferry just €6.

Travellers arriving in Naples Centrale station should buy a bus ticket at a news-stand (€.77). Cross the manic piazza to reach Tram 1's stop. Ride down to the water, then hop off at the ferry docks (Molo Beverello) opposite the decrepit castle.


On Ischia, the CS1bus runs through both port towns and turns around at Cava Grado outside Sant'Angelo: Look for the Tropical Garden sign (€1.20). Or catch a beribboned mini-taxi for around €20. Half-day transport strikes are common on Ischia, so always double-check schedules.

Best base
The fishing village of Sant'Angelo is the best base for exploring Ischia. 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. Artists, such as painter Werner Gilles, flocked there in the 50s, declaring it "the most beautiful place in the world".

The small harbour contains bars, boutiques, boats and a narrow isthmus, stretching across to one of the Tyrrhenian Sea's most distinctive landmarks. The Roja - "the little island of 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.

Where to stay
Casa Gerado sits in a lush, tangled garden, with a conservatory for chilly days. The family rents both rooms and apartments (€516-826/week). Via Cava Grado. Tel and Fax: 081.907.790. Web: Double €48-88 with breakfast, discount at the Tropical spa.

Pensione Eugenio offers simple en-suite rooms with scenic terraces and a jolly, homey atmosphere. It's the best value for money, especially if you can coax an opera tune from Eugenio. Via Madonnella 21. Tel: 081.999.722. Fax: 081.904.900. Web: Double €50 with breakfast.

Hotel Lorely is a sleek modern building, dazzling snow-white against the greenery and blue sea. It boasts a thermal pool, solarium and views of Capri. Via Sant'Angelo, 50/A. Tel: 081.999.313. Fax: 081.999.065 Web: Double €86-122 with breakfast. Half-board €114-150.

Hotel San Michele is the town's grand dame hotel, set on exquisite grounds, with stables, an internal spa, live folk music and an internet point. Tel: 081.999.276. Fax: 081.999.149. Web: Double €206-240 half-board (add €20 for full).

Where to eat
Pizzeria da Pasquale, Via Sant'Angelo Coatro 79 (081.904.208). Huge wooden benches and rope lamps make this informal pizzeria quite cozy. Entrees run €4-8.

Lo Scoglio, Via Cava Ruffano (081.999.529). This cheerful restaurant, overlooking an illuminated cove, is actually carved into a sea stack. Huge portions of simple Southern Italian cooking with entrees from €6-15.



Ristorante Bar dal Pescatore, Piazzetta Marina Sant'Angelo (081.904.267). Elegant wrought iron-work and fish mosaics enchant tourists by the bay. A hot drink costs €4-6, entrees €8-22.

Ristorante La Tavernetta del Pirata, Via S. Angelo (081.999.251). Pirate motif and piratical prices, but there's no better place for a post-spa cocktail. This waterfront bar has cheerful music, substantial complimentary tapas and wicker chairs overlooking the harbour. Mixed drinks €7-12.

Where to soak
Casual spa-goers should book separate accommodation, then visit one of the thermal parks on a day ticket (€12-20). Some hotels have in-house facilities, which are generally more elite and less spectacular. Long-term cures and specific treatments should be arranged in advance - even a basic massage requires a reservation.

Locals prefer the Aphrodite Apollon, where baths cascade down a cliff to the hot sand beach (Via Fondolillo; 081.999.219; The posher Tropical is open off-season (Via Cava Ruffano; 081.999.242), but forces clients to wear bathing caps, ruining the hedonistic glamour.

Ischian spas are best visited between early April and the end of November, but some remain open throughout the winter.

For more information
Whet your appetite at The tourist office is just beside the Ischia Porto docks (Via Lasolino, Banchina Porto Salvo; 081.991.146). A beaming multi-lingual lady staffs the Sant'Angelo information centre (Cava Grado). She also sells guidebooks and advance tickets to Spa Aphrodite Apollon, which include a free water taxi from the town's docks.

Ischiataxi offers airport transfers from Rome (€360) and Naples (€130) and island tours (€100). Tel: 081.992.651. Fax: 081.333.4869. Web: Salty dogs should contact Ischiabarche to charter boats or book excursions. Via Pontano 7, 80077 Ischia. Tel & Fax: 081.984.854 Web:

William Walton's garden, La Mortella, in Forio is open Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 7pm, admission €8. April-October.