Ischia, Italy: Pamper, Explore, Repeat

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Tell people that you’re heading to Ischia and they’re likely to scratch their heads. It’s the bigger but lesser known island off the Gulf of Naples, located just in front of the ankle of Italy’s boot. But Ischia meets my travel criteria: decent value, rich history, distinctive culture, satisfying cuisine and natural beauty. Is it Capri or Positano? No, but it offers interesting adventures if you don’t mind a little effort.

We only made it half way around the island, so I can’t comment on the towns of Barano, Ischia Porte or Casamicciola, nor did we make it to Castello Aragonese, Ischia’s most famous attraction. But I can offer a few highlights from the towns of Lacco Ameno, Forio, Panza, Fontana and the heights of Mt. Epomeo, the island’s 2,589 foot volcanic peak.

Go

By hydrofoil — We watched a ferry loading while waiting for our Alilauro hydrofoil departure from the Beverello port in Naples. The ferry looked packed, and I imagine it would be hot and a little claustrophobic in summer. So if you can afford it, spring for the hydrofoil. The trip took about an hour, and we enjoyed views of the coastline and Procida island before reaching Ischia. (It is, by the way, possible to daytrip from Ischia to Capri, and on some days, from Positano to Ischia, via Sorrento.) Our trip cost about $45 for two people, including two pieces of luggage (suitcases must be ticketed).

Bus — Taxis are readily available on the island, but expensive. The EAV bus circles the island, running every 15 minutes or 20 minutes. The “CD” (pronounced chay day) bus goes clockwise, while “CS” (chay ess) navigates the opposite direction. Purchase a daily ticket for the equivalent of about $4 and jump on and off as many times as you like. Tickets can be purchased at newspaper stands (“giornali”) like the one pictured below, in Lacco Ameno. Ask for “biglietti giornaliero.” If you keep an eye on the road signs, you can tell when you reach the main towns; some bus drivers will call out a stop if you point it out on a map in advance, but we had one who forgot or did not understand (or ignored) our request. Caution: buses are not air conditioned, have limited seats, and can be crowded. The road from Panza to Barano winds around the mountain — not recommended if you’re prone to motion sickness. Stand by well-marked EAV “fermata” (bus stops) to be picked up. Below: the giornali shop and a fellow bus rider

Shop

After Positano, I wasn’t expecting much, but Lacco Ameno in particular has high-end clothing and jewelry shops in addition to the usual ceramic ware and souvenir stores. When we visited just before Easter, a number were still setting up for the season, but these pulled me in like a siren:

Judith Major — Located near the triangular piazza with the unusual fish fountain, this boutique carries Italian designer Brunello Cucinelli. Very expensive, but the fabrics and styles are gorgeous.

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Andy Calzature — The shop next door to Judith carries luxury brand shoes, from the fabulous and funky to more practical.

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KM Bottiglieri — Facing the beach, this small shop offers a well-curated selection of statement jewelry by Italian designers. This bronze bracelet went home with me.

Stella di Mare — Great selection of stylish summer wear, mid-range prices.

Do

Hike — We had only enough time to do the route from Fontana to Mt. Epomeo, a hike of less than two miles, but fairly steep, with a rise of approximately 1,000 feet. We rode the EAV bus from Lacco Ameno for about an hour before reaching the Fontana stop; immediately, we spotted the sign for the trail. About two-thirds of the way is paved; after cutting through the village, the route follows the road before turning into dirt. If we’d had more time, we would have taken the trail down to Forio, which takes about three hours vs. one hour for the one-way route to the peak. The short route is popular: on this spring day we saw several German hiking groups, plus a youth group that gathered around a fire ring for a bit of primal screaming (??). We didn’t eat at the café just adjacent to the peak, but the food smelled good and they offer coniglio (rabbit) cacciatore, a local specialty.  Below: trail marker, map, hanging out at the peak, dog chilling on a car roof halfway up, the destroyed hermitage below the peak, primal-screaming hikers:

Wine taste — We visited Casa D’Ambra , largest of the island’s wineries. Ischia is known for its whites, especially biancollela, a dry but subtly fruit-forward varietal that suits the island’s fresh seafood. (We also enjoyed several bottles of Tommasone, another well regarded local wine maker.) Although the bus driver didn’t identify the closest stop to Casa D’Ambra (located where the CS bus leaves the main road to continue into Panza and then to the shoreline of S. Angelo), we easily found the winery after a 10 minute walk from a bus stop near Il Ristrovo, a restaurant in Panza. The tasting room/cantina isn’t impressive, but we were able to taste six wines. We purchased a bottle of Frassitelli 2016 (100% biancollela, grown high on the steep slopes of Mt. Epomeo) as well as La Vigne dei Mille Anni (piedirosso, a red varietal for which the island is known, blended with cabernet sauvignon and aglianico). Combined cost about $35.

Local festivals — Our visit timed with the re-enactment of Christ’s passion on Good Friday, in Forio. If your planning permits, try to tie in with the “torching of the castle” re-enactment associated with the feast day of Sant’Anna, or the ‘Ndrezzata, an annual dance that imitates warring groups of pirates. Below: the Last Supper re-enacted in Forio on Good Friday; Forio’s harbor at sunset; my husband on the packed EAV bus

Churches — Of particular interest was the Chiesa del Soccorso in Forio, originally constructed in 1350, although little of the original building remains. Besides its dramatic location on a promontory by the sea, its central religious statue, an 18th century wood and polychrome Madonna, is unlike any I’ve ever seen. The Holy Mother brandishes a club above her head while supporting baby Jesus and standing victoriously on the shoulder of a writhing Satan. Nearby, we also visited a 19th century chapel dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi with lovely paintings of the annunciation and Jesus’ birth and life. Recorded classical music added to the restful and meditative effect. Below: the Chiesa del Soccorso, the fierce Madonna and the St. Francis of Assisi chapel

Beaches and thermal parks — For most visitors, the island’s volcanic hot springs are its main attraction. The opening of the thermal park nearest our hotel coincided with the Good Friday re-enactment in Forio, so we skipped it. Beach chair vendors and restaurants in Lacco Ameno and Forio were getting set up for the busy Easter weekend. Below: the beach in Lacco Ameno before the hordes descended, the “big foot” statue dwarfs sandals left by beach goers

Gardens — The Giardini La Mortella was recommended by the concierge at Le Sirenuse in Positano, so it must be wonderful, but we opted for other activities.

Stay

San Montano Resort and Spa — Part of the Small Luxury Hotels chain, San Montano is one of the top hotels on the island. That said, a five star hotel on Ischia is akin to a four star hotel elsewhere. Its fresh modern aesthetic, multiple thermal pools and spa will appeal to guests who are looking to retreat more than explore. The spa alone could keep a guest occupied for an entire week, with roughly 100 treatments and services to choose from. The hotel, perched on conical peak, has 180-degree views of the sea; a shuttle is available to whisk guests down to a private section of emerald-colored San Montano bay, or to the piazza in town. For those who want to explore, Vincenzo and Marco at the front desk provide sound advice and speak English well. Rafaele, Orlando and Franco provided attentive service in the dining room. We visited during the hotel’s opening week and things weren’t perfectly organized quite yet, but everyone tried hard and fixed problems when they arose. The food is good, but expensive compared to restaurants outside the resort. The appetizer course, a buffet, cost 20 Euros by itself and made the meal feel more like a cruise ship than a restaurant. The hotel primarily attracts Italians, Germans and Russians, who may regard a buffet as a plus. (Breakfast, which was included, was also served buffet style, but eggs could be ordered from wait staff.) Below: the lower bar at San Montano with dramatic views of the bay, exterior view, patio of room 120, room 120’s bed

Eat

I didn’t have a chance to do much research for this trip, or I’d have tracked down one of the trattorias that specializes in Ischian fare, which evolved from peasant food. Dominated by fish and shellfish, beans, fresh vegetables, tomatoes, and rabbit, Ischian recipes often include chili peppers, although nothing a Californian would consider hot. Here are a few traditional restaurants credited in “The Flavour of Ischia,” by Lello Arcamone: Il Focolore in Barano; Ristorante Saturnino in Forio ; Bagno Maria de Ischia in Ischia Porte; Dai Tu in Ischia Porte; Ristorante Bracconiere in Serrana Fontana; Il Melograno in Forio; Il Pescatore in S’Angelo; and Ristorante da Ciccio in Ischia Porte.

Besides eating in the hotel restaurant, we had some casual meals around the island:

Il Delfino — in Lacco Ameno, on the water, guests are greeted with a mobile display of still-wiggling lobster and scampi, as well as fish caught that morning. Good value, excellent preparation, friendly staff. (Two courses for both of us, and a good bottle of Tommasone wine came in at around $70.)

La Tinaia — in Forio, the small entrance belies its size, both in terms of space as well as menu. Lots of seafood options, including my mixed seafood plate for 10 Euros (a bargain), pizzas, and plentiful pasta options. They also feature homemade desserts, and our torta con pere e ricotta (sponge cake with ricotta) was excellent. (Great value at $35 for salad, two main courses, three small draft beers, dessert and cappuccino.) Below: my seafood platter, my husband and his “pizza sandwich”

RistoPizza Mimi — in Fontana, this spot near the bus stop dished up one of the best margherita pizzas we’ve ever tasted. The dough, the sauce, the bufala mozzarella, carefully tended in the wood burning stove, was more than welcome after our jaunt up Mt. Epomeo. The big Krombacher pils draft beers hit the spot, too. That said, the proprietor doesn’t mention what he charges for the bufala (nor did he offer us a menu with prices). So here’s a tip: ask the price first! Bufala mozzarella is a a premium ingredient, but it shouldn’t double the price of a normal pizza. The place put us back about $25, but it was delicious.

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Read

Need more inspiration? Read Auden’s In Praise of Limestone, written on the island.

Fun Fact

The largest concentration of Ischians in the United States lives in San Pedro, CA — 20,000 expats, I’m told.

 

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