Ciao, this is Allison Spiegel with the Passion for Italy Travel New York office. At the time of this recording, Italy has opened its border to tourists from the European Union, but we are still waiting on directions for travelers from the United States. For many of us, virtual travel will be our only way to experience the treasures of Italy this summer, so today we will continue our virtual journey to another wonderful summer destination in the Campania region, the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples.
Ischia is the largest Phlegrean island in the Tyrrhenian Sea and is often referred to as the mysterious “other” island when compared to its upscale neighbor Capri. Ischia is reachable via ferry from Naples, Capri and other points within the region. Traditionally, Ischia is more touristed by Europeans and the many Italians who have summer homes there, but the recent worldwide success of the Elena Ferrante novels and HBO series, My Brilliant Friend, has certainly put Ischia on the map.
I discovered Ischia many years ago after watching the film The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. I was captivated by the beautiful cinematography portraying Italy in the 1950’s with glamourous scenes of sun-kissed beaches, lively local village life and a castle set atop an imposing mountain of rock, like out of a fairy tale. And upon visiting Ischia for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not much had changed from the time depicted in the movie. Since that first visit, we have not been able to get Ischia out of our system! When designing a trip to Italy, Ischia combines nicely with stays in Naples, the Amalfi Coast and even Rome. Each summer, I combine Ischia with Positano, which we visited virtually in Passion for Italy Travel’s Podcast #7. It is easy to get to Ischia from Positano by taking a ferry across the Gulf of Naples with a brief stop in Capri to let the day trippers off.
I am always amused at how the ferry empties out in Capri and we are left with only a handful of people, usually locals, continuing to Ischia. For those of us who know and love Ischia, it feels like a well-kept secret. When we do encounter other Americans on the island, the conversation is always the same and the guarded question ultimately is asked: “how did you hear about Ischia?” And when you learn about all that Ischia has to offer, you too will understand why this island is held so dear by those who love it.
Ischia was formed by a volcanic eruption and tourism here is unique because much of it centers around the thermal waters that visitors can enjoy throughout the island. Since ancient times, people have been traveling to Ischia for the restorative properties of the waters, which can help heal health issues such as respiratory, circulation, muscular and skin conditions. There are many thermal parks throughout the island where you can go for the day, to experience the water installations, thermal pools and beaches.
One of the beaches that is only accessible via the sea or a long set of stairs is worth a visit for those who love soaking in hot tubs. Here, the piping hot water boils up from the sea and forms thermal pools. Visitors paint their bodies with thermal mud and then submerge in the pools to rejuvenate the body and mind. After your soak, you can have a bite to eat at the seaside restaurant or you can even cook food on the hot rocks like the locals do. This park is very rustic and natural but many of the thermal parks offer upscale amenities such as changing rooms, spas and lovely sit-down restaurants.
Sometimes, you don’t have to go farther than your own hotel to experience the thermal waters of Ischia. Many of the hotels around the island have their own thermal pools and spa treatments for their guests. And hotel options in Ischia range from small, intimate bed and breakfasts to 5-star luxury hotels.
Ischia is well situated for day trips to Capri, Procida and Naples; however, once you arrive, you may never want to leave! As compared to Capri, Ischia is a much larger island. There are six towns all with their own distinct flavor: Ischia Ponte, Ischia Porto, Lacco Ameno, Barano, Forio, Sant Angelo and Serrara Fontana. The best way to travel between these towns is by taxi or water taxi, or there is also a reliable bus system that runs throughout the island.
The topography of Ischia has it all. From wide, sandy beaches, lush gardens and vineyards to Mount Epomeo, which is the highest point on the island. We were once told by a tour guide that when you look at the island, the mountain looks like a man napping on his back. We always laugh and enjoy the outline of his nose and belly especially visible from the sea.
The people of Ischia know how fortunate they are to live amongst such beauty. Years ago, I met Branka Komazec one of the guest relations specialists at the hotel we stay at on Ischia. We keep in touch throughout the year and she told me “Ischia has been my home for 20 years. It is a unique place where the green of the woods meets the blue of the sea. Exploring its most hidden paths allows me to find peace and quiet, while walking through the city streets or along the port gives me a real sense of life on the island.” I love this balance that Branka speaks of and how visitors have the ability to luxuriate in serene spots at one with the land or sea, or the option to keep quite busy as well!
There is much to see and do on Ischia, so the island certainly warrants an overnight stay. One of the main attractions is the commanding, medieval Aragonese Castle, which was built on a mountain of volcanic rock in 474BC and has a long history of conflicts between the Romans and Parthenopeans. Today, it is a privately-owned island that you can reach via the connecting bridge from Ischia Ponte. For those who have seen the Talented Mr. Ripley, this is the location where Matt Damon arrived in the fictional town of Mongebello for the very first time.
Once you reach the entrance, you will be able to take an elevator straight up to the top of the castle where there is a hotel, restaurant and café, and lovely spaces to enjoy the most incredible views of Ischia and the sea. I highly recommend dinner atop the castle but be sure to arrive in time for what I think is the most spectacular location on the island to view the sunset. The castle takes my breath away every time I see it and it is always one of the first places we go once settled on the island. The castle is visible from many points around Ischia and when the golden light of sunset makes its way across its façade, it is just magical.
Another must see on the island is the beautiful La Mortella Gardens in Forio. These gardens originally belonged to British composer, Sir William Walton and his wife, who helped to design the gardens which are built around volcanic rock and offer an exotic array of Mediterranean plants and flowers. There are also several museums worth visiting on Ischia including an archaeological museum and a mare museum about the sea, which is a way of life for the people of Ischia. Ischia is also home to the popular Ischia Film Festival held at the Aragonese Castle every June and July although unfortunately this year, the film festival had to move to a digital platform.
While Ischia is not nearly as famous for its shopping as its high-end neighbor Capri, there are still many lovely local shops to explore throughout the various villages. One of my favorite villages is Sant Angelo, which is pedestrian-only. This picture-perfect town is built surrounding a marina and has its own jetty of beach that connects the village to a small mountain of land. There is a lively piazza with plenty of outdoor cafes, and there are some wonderful shops offering locally made products. If you hire a boat for the day, I highly recommend mooring here for lunch to experience the beauty of this sweet, colorful town. Nearby are some of the most beautiful, sandy beaches on the island including one where the hot volcanic activity heats the sand to high temperatures, which many visitors use for healing purposes.
Much of the southern coast of the island feels as if it is uninhabited, as there are several miles of coastline void of the signs of civilization. You can admire the lush green hills and rocks that tumble down into the sea if you hire a boat to take you around the island. There are many grottoes your boat captain can show you were you can swim and snorkel in the sea. I love the waters off this side of the island, which often feel as if you have all to yourself.
But if the hustle and bustle of Italian life is what you are after, head to the promenade, the pedestrian- only road that connects Ischia Porto where the ferries arrive to Ischia Ponte where the castle is located. I will never forget the first time we visited the promenade. After lunch at our hotel we decided to take a walk and visit some of the local shops, but we were surprised to see they were all closed, and the streets deserted. Back at the hotel, we learned that everything closes between lunch and early evening for Siesta. Having been to Italy many times before, this was the first time we experienced Siesta, although it is observed in other regions of Italy we have since learned, such as in Tuscany and Puglia and other smaller, less touristed towns. Once evening rolls around, the promenade comes alive with people, music and families enjoying the warm night air. It is almost as if there is a nightly party in the streets that goes on well into the early morning hours, and it is not uncommon to see local families with young children out after a late dinner.
And speaking of dinner, the food on Ischia is just incredible. Here, the dishes are simple and full of fresh flavors and local ingredients from the sea and grown from around the island. The volcanic properties of the soil in the Campania region of Italy produce some lovely local wines and wonderful fruits and vegetables. Once you try a tomato from this part of the world you will understand what I mean! One of the most popular items on the menu in Ischia is Coniglio all’ischitana or rabbit.
Restaurants on Ischia range from seaside platforms to countryside spots that make you feel like you are in the middle of Tuscany. Regardless of the location, many offer incredible views all the way to Naples and Mount Vesuvius. You can have a simple meal of pizza or pasta or a meal prepared by Michelin chefs who are as adventurous in their menus as they are in their presentations. I have had tasting menus where the food looks like a work of art that is meant to be admired rather than eaten. But perhaps one of my favorite meals in Ischia was up a mountain that took two cars to get to because the roads were so narrow and steep that we had to transfer from one taxi to a smaller one. We felt like we were on top of the world, and the food wasn’t bad either!
And this podcast wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t once again talk about the people from the locations we take you to virtually. For all of us at Passion for Italy Travel, travel is not just about the places we go, but the people we meet along the way, who enhance our travel experience with their stories, their food and their history. Unlike more touristed areas of Italy, it can sometimes be difficult to communicate with the people of Ischia because many do not speak English. Yet somehow, we always find a way to communicate and get to know each other, and these are the travel experiences I treasure most, especially right now.
And when it comes to the past few months, there is no language barrier to separate us from the hardships we have all experienced. This has been a challenging time for Italy, and the people of Ischia have a bit of a unique perspective. My friend Branka says, “In a certain sense, we felt more protected living on the island, far from the main hot spots and with a sea between us.” Now that Italy is starting to open to tourists, Branka says, “It was only last week that the first tourists arrived on the island. We are coming to terms with our new normal. Hotels, restaurants and all others involved in tourism are taking the utmost precautions by following government guidelines to ensure guests are safe and can enjoy the experience of the island to its fullest.”
And Ischia really does offer a full and unique Italian experience for its visitors, which is why we love it so. It has an authenticity that can sometimes be hard to come by in the more touristed cities of Italy, which is perhaps why people feel so protective of it. Separated by the sea, it possesses an aura of timelessness that you want to bottle up and keep close to your heart. And its physical beauty is just undeniable with so many different landscapes that ultimately all lead to the turquoise waters of the sea. I hope you have enjoyed this virtual visit to another place in Italy, again, near and dear to my heart. I guess the secret is out! So, until next time, andra tutto bene – all will be ok.