T'he island of Ischia, which separates the Bay of Gaeta from that of Naples and which is separated by means of a narrow channel from the island of Procida, is but a sheer mountain, whose white electrifying peak has sunk its broken teeth into the sky. Its steep sides, furrowed by valleys, creeks and stream beds, are covered in dark green chestnut groves, while the plains nearest the sea-shore have small houses, country villas and villages which are half-hidden under vine-laden pergolas. Each of these villages has its won harbour. This is also the name of the small port where boats belonging to the island’s fishermen ride at anchor and where the lateen sails flap in the wind. The streamers touch the trees and the vines.
An all-round holiday destination offering something for everyone. This fascinating, multi-faceted, authentic and big-hearted island is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. The reason is simple. Apart from the obvious attractions of fine sandy beaches and a wonderful climate, coming to Ischia means getting up close and personal with primal elements and ancient history. Over the centuries man has left signs of his passing, from the dry-stone walls in the fields built stone by stone with blocks carved out of tufa rock to the Moorish and Mediterranean architecture in towns and villages. Ischia is the largest and most populated island in the Bay of Naples. For thousands of years it’s stood in a strategic position on maritime routes in the central Mediterranean. Greeks from Euboea established the first settlement here back in the 8th century BC during their colonization of the West. Today the island is divided into six administrative districts: Ischia, Casamicciola Terme, Lacco Ameno, Forio, Serrara Fontana and Barano. Each one, described here in geographical order, is a spa destination in its own right, with day and stay spas offering health and beauty treatments following on in the island’s tradition of wellbeing tourism. The age-old practice of “taking the waters” has changed considerably in the last few decades, with the development of fantastic “thermal parks” along the coast, havens of peace and tranquillity built by far-sighted entrepreneurs. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a place of such outstanding natural beauty as Ischia (the origin of the name is open to many interpretations) is known today as the Green Island.
The road carries on towards the coast and takes you to Ischia Ponte, right up to the Arso lava flow, now blanketed by a pine wood planted by the Bourbons. Here you can find the Franciscan church and convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie e Sant’Antonio and the Biblioteca Antoniana (Antonian Library).
In Ischia Ponte, also known as Borgo di Mare or in more modern times Borgo di Celsa, is the striking Palazzo del Seminario, residence of the bishop of the diocese of Ischia built in 1741. Nearby are Palazzo Lanfreschi di Bellarena and Palazzo Lauro. Further on, surrounded by artisan craft shops and artists’ studios, is the Chiesa Collegiata dello Spirito Santo, founded around 1570 by sailors from the village of Celsa. Devoted followers venerate San Giovan Giuseppe della Croce, a member of the order of Discalced Friars Minor (born Carlo Gaetano Calosirto in Ischia in 1654, he died in Naples in 1734). He was a major figure in the religious history of 18th-century Naples and is one of the island’s patron saints. Not far away is a small cathedral dedicated to our Lady of the Assumption (or Santa Maria della Scala). The first chapel in the left-hand aisle houses the baptistery, where San Giovan Giuseppe della Croce was baptized on 15 August 1654. Just next to the cathedral is the Palazzo dell'Orologio, sporting a public clock on its façade. In the 18th century it was called the Casa dei Parlamentari as it was the seat of the town hall. Today it houses the Museo del Mare, containing a large collection of exhibits illustrating the life of local sailors and fishermen.
The Castello Aragonese (Aragonese Castle), just a stone’s throw away, is one of Ischia’s most important historical sights. Standing on the so-called “lesser island”, it seems to be part of the natural environment. The castle was built in 474 BC by Hiero I of Syracuse, come to help the Cumaeans in the war against the Tyrrhenians. However, it began to gain importance from the 5th century onwards and experienced its golden age between the 14th and 15th centuries. The castle rises to a height of 115 metres and can be accessed via a road dug out of the rock on the wishes on Alfonso I of Aragon (circa 1447). Prior to this there was only an external stone stepway, visible by boat at close distance. A causeway, also built by Alfonso I, links the castle to the picturesque village of Ischia Ponte. Castle attractions include the Baroque Chiesa dell’Immacolata, built in the 18th century, the Convent of the Poor Clares (1575) with its adjacent cemetery, and the ruins of the Cattedrale dell’Assunta dating from 1301. The crypt is decorated with frescoes from the School of Giotto. The original cathedral had a nave and two aisles with side chapels. The marriage between the mercenary leader Ferrante d’Avalos and the poetess Vittoria Colonna was celebrated in front of the altar at the end of the left-hand aisle in 1509. A woman of strong personality, Vittoria created one of the most important circles of Renaissance intellectuals at the castle. The tour continues with the fascinating eight-sided church of San Pietro a Pantaniello, founded during the Renaissance (mid-16th century). In the nearby dungeons, several patriots were held prisoner during the Risorgimento. Today the old prison is used to host exhibitions and live performances. It’s part of the “Sentiero del Sole”, a panoramic walk offering views of the islands of Vivara and Procida, the magnificent Bay of Naples and the Bay of Cartaromana. This little bay is dominated by the towering Torre dei Guevara, also known as the Torre di Michelangelo, with its richly frescoed 16th-century halls. Standing at its feet is the little church of Sant’Anna, who gave her name to the group of rocks just a few metres off the shore. It dates from the first half of the 16th century.
From the coast we move inland to the square in Campagnano, where you’ll find the parish church of San Domenico nella SS Annunziata. The square is a good starting point for breath-taking walks to Piano Liguori and the eastern promontories.
The heart of Lacco Ameno is Piazza Santa Restituta. The area has always had profoundly religious associations, with various temples and churches built on this site over the ages. Don Pietro Monti, the archaeologist-priest, made a great contribution towards uncovering the secrets of the past. The Santuario di Santa Restituta is notable for its so-called “large” church and adjoining monastery, constructed by Carmelite monks, as well as a small church and basilica built out of a Roman cistern. Inside the sanctuary, you can also visit the Scavi e Museo Santa Restituta, an independently run archaeological area and fascinating underground museum. Excavations have uncovered traces left by man over the ages through a succession of ancient cultures. It offers an insight into the history of the island, from pre-historical times to the Ancient Greek-Hellenistic-Roman period and the early Christian age.
After visiting the archaeological site, you really should go to the Museo Archeologico di Villa Arbusto. The museum is a fascinating testimony to the “Dawn of Magna Graecia”. It is divided into a series of rooms focusing on different periods and containing the most important finds from the Greek settlement. The peoples of central Italy acquired their knowledge of the alphabet from Pithekoussai Greeks, as we know from the three-line inscription scratched on a famous clay drinking vessel, the museum’s prize exhibit. The inscription alludes, in the Euboean form of the Western Greek alphabet, to the famous Cup of Nestor described in the Iliad. It is clearly a sign of the intense trading and political importance of the island, which were to decline with the expansion of Cumae.
From the seafront named after Angelo Rizzoli to the gentle slopes of the hills and on to the village of Fango with the church di San Giuseppe, the atmosphere in Lacco Ameno is at the same time elegant and relaxed. Back at the coast, you can’t help but notice the massive Torre di Montevico, built by Alfonso I of Aragon (15th century) as a watch and defence tower against Saracen incursions.
From Forio’s main shopping drag, you can head off towards the promontory of Soccorso. In Piazza del Municipio there are two churches: the Chiesa di San Francesco di Assisi, with its old convent (today housing the town hall) and the Arciconfraternita di Santa Maria Visitapoveri. In the cloister of the convent are the remains of paintings depicting episodes from the life of Saint Francis and his early followers by the Neapolitan painter Filippo Baldi. The confraternity and the church were founded around 1614 and were a place of intense spirituality and devotion to Our Lady of Graces. An unusual architectural feature is its double façade: one belongs to the church and the other is at the entrance to the courtyard. The church houses works by the painter Alfonso Di Spigna. Nearby is the Chiesa del Soccorso, dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows, with its lovely façade, one of the prettiest and most photographed sites in the whole of Italy. The parvise and part of the side walls are decorated with majolica tiles showing scenes from the passion of Christ and pictures of saints, dating from the 18th century.
Up on the hillside you can enjoy some fantastic views and visit several more churches of historical and artistic interest, such as the mother church (boasting the title of pontifical basilica) dedicated to Forio’s patron saint San Vito. Evidence of the church’s great age is found in a record dated 1306 giving the people of Forio right of patronage over the church, which they had already previously held. The most important work of art is the silver and golden copper statue of Saint Vitus dated 1787. It was made by the Neapolitan silversmiths Gennaro and Giuseppe Del Giudice based on a sketch by the sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino.
In Via Gaetano Morgera, formerly Via Cierco, stands the Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo, an architectural masterpiece built by the Sportiello brothers in 1620. The church has a Latin-cross plan with a single nave. It’s unusual in its use of the local green tufa stone, more commonly used for building houses. Here you can see it in the outer doorway, arches and cornice. The pillars, bases of the pilasters and the cladding of some of the chapels are wonderfully decorated with half-shells made out of a single block of tufa stone. All the paintings are by local artist Cesare Calise. Also worth a visit is the village of Monterone, while the views from San Francesco are fantastic. But whatever you do, don’t miss the climb that takes you almost up to the slopes of Monte Epomeo. Here, at a height of over 400 metres above sea level, stands the little white church dedicated to Santa Maria al Monte, founded by the Sportiello family in 1596. It’s right at the top of a trail walkers and nature enthusiasts will love. From here, you can either go to the Frassitelli area, famous for its vineyards, or head off to Bianchetto and the Bosco della Falanga (Falanga Wood), a haven of Mediterranean scrubland and chestnut woods, with stone houses, cellars and old huts that once belonged to pioneering farmers. Here and there you can spot the highly unusual “neviere”, ditches used for gathering snow and storing ice, recognizable by the tropical ferns growing along the dry-stone retaining walls. From here, the road leading up to the top of Monte Epomeo is an absolute delight. From the summit you can look down on the Bay of Citara, with its string of beaches up to Cava dell’Isola and beyond, from the Spiaggia della Chiaia to the Spiaggia di San Francesco. There are a number of outlying towns and villages, such as Panza, on the way to Sorgeto, a tiny thermal water bay (water from hot springs bubbles up amongst the rocks and mixes with the seawater) and to Sant’Angelo. In the middle of the town, at the top of a flight of steps, stands the parish church of San Leonardo Abate. Historical records show that it existed as early as 1536.
Another place you shouldn’t miss is Villa La Mortella, also known as Villa Walton, in the Zaro woods. In 2004 its magnificent gardens were awarded the title of the most beautiful park in Italy. Sir William Walton, the great English composer, moved to Ischia with his wife Susana in 1956 and decided to build a house with a garden in the mesmerizingly beautiful volcanic area of Monte Zaro. Designed by landscape architect Russel Page, the garden is home to over 3,000 rare plants. Lady Susana came over to Europe from Argentina in 1948, the year she married William. The couple, together with the three Sitwell siblings, were important figures in one of the key periods of the English 1900s. For this little group, the exotic garden was the height of aesthetic thought, later interpreted so well by the genius of Page. The secret of the garden is its microclimates, and it’s a triumph of biology and technology. A large tropical greenhouse houses the largest water lily in the world, the Victoria amazonica, whose flowers grow up to 40 centimetres wide and whose tray-like pads can reach a whopping two and a half metres in diameter. Not far from the villa, in the Zaro wood, you can visit La Colombaia, a charming villa with a fine garden once owned by the great director of stage and screen Luchino Visconti, who is buried here.
Moving inland towards Succhivo, you’ll find the Chiesa della Madonna di Montevergine, founded in 1684 by the Mattera family. In the 18th century it remained in the care of a hermit monk for a few years. In Serrara, everybody stops at the belvedere to enjoy the stunning views of the sea and the coast around Sant’Angelo, as well as the Pontine islands to the west and Capri to the south east. Nearby is the parish church of Maria SS del Carmine, with its two naves. The right-hand nave is in fact the old chapel of San Pasquale, founded by Natale Iacono in 1733. Today it houses the chapel of San Vincenzo Ferreri (the saint has many devoted followers here), whose picture takes pride of place on the altar. Half-way up the hill in the direction of Fontana you’ll come to the village of Kalimera (from the Greek word meaning “good day”) and nearby Noia, another place name of obvious Greek origin (it’s thought to mean “high place – upper land”). Tucked away behind the village is the site of an ancient settlement. A large number of clay artefacts from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD have in fact been discovered in this area. Fontana is an old Medieval village mentioned in the Angevin Registers as early as 1270 and named in a marble monument dated 1374 that Bishop Bussolaro had made at the factories he himself built in Noia. From here on, it gets even more exciting as you look skywards toward the peak of Monte Epomeo and the Eremo di San Nicola (Hermitage of Saint Nicholas). The hermitage can be reached on foot or by mule and the scenery is simply spectacular. The peak itself is an enormous mass of green tufa rock out of which was dug the former hermitage and a little church dedicated to San Nicola di Bari. Built in the 15th century, they both experienced their “golden age” in the 1700s, when a number of famous hermits stayed here, including Fra’ Giorgio il Bavaro and the governor of the island, the Flemish Giuseppe d’Argouth. The hermitage was inhabited right up until the Second World War.
After passing by the area of Pianole, a plain planted with apple and other fruit trees, you’ll come to Vatoliere and its deep volcanic valley, the legendary “fossa” (ditch), just after the Chiesa di Sant’Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori. From here you can walk up to the cliff-top village of Chiummano and follow the mule track going down to a pebble beach called the Spiaggia della Scarrupata. Further on is the village of Piedimonte, originally called Piejo, where you can find the Chiesa di Santa Maria la Porta, originally dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Further on up is the village of Fiaiano, where in 1301 a volcanic lava flow created the area known as Arso, now covered with a lovely pine forest. Here you enter into the heart of Cretaio, a woodland paradise where you’ll find the Buceto spring, at the end of a popular well-marked trail. The road to Cretaio, offering views of the Bay of Naples, winds through chestnut woods until you come to a pretty country church, the Chiesetta del Crocifisso, built by the Menga family in 1731. In the main town of Barano, you can visit the parish church of San Sebastiano Martire, possibly built at the end of the 16th century, and the recently restored Chiesa di San Rocco. Back on the southern side of the municipality, it’s well worth visiting the Santuario dello Schiappone, dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This old hermitage was founded in the 17th century by the Siniscalchi family. At the beginning of the 19th century, the church was decorated with stuccoes by Domenico Savino, while the marble altar and balustrade date from the 18th century. From here, don’t miss a visit to the promontory of San Pancrazio, where you’ll find a small chapel dedicated to the saint after whom the area is named. The views of the rocky coastline and lush Mediterranean maquis are absolutely stunning.
Much of Ischia is given over to agriculture and especially wine growing, and it’s the fertile soil that makes the local cuisine so good. The island’s signature dish is coniglio all’ischitana, Ischia-style rabbit. You’ll find it in all the best cookery books. The rabbits are bred either in special deep pits dug out of the rock in smallholdings or in hutches. Wild rabbits are also hunted in woodland areas, where you can also find wonderful porcini mushrooms, blackberries, strawberry trees and asparagus. Much use is made of wild and garden herbs such as oregano, mint, rosemary, dill, thyme and marjoram, as well as other edible plants growing in the wild including chard, rocket, lemon balm and borage. Locally made traditional wood-fired bread is delicious and you can find it at most bakeries. Ischia’s countless culinary delights can be enjoyed with fine DOC wines from local estates now exported all over the world. Wine has in fact been produced on the island for thousands of years. Some wines are made with noble grape varieties such as Biancolella, Forastera (introduced in 1850), Rilla for whites and Guarnaccia or Per’ e palummo (a local version of Piedirosso) for reds. Other local varieties include San Lunardo and Cannamelu, but you can also find Fiano, Aglianico and special grapes used for blending. Sheep and goats have been reared in the island’s hills for centuries for their milk and cheese. There are also cattle, boars, and a large number of pigs, which means delicious cured meats. Ischia’s strong farming traditions include the cultivation of many kinds of vegetables: various types of green beans (including the rare, so-called “spaghetti” beans), broccoli, aubergines, courgettes, potatoes, artichokes and peppers. There’s no shortage of pulses either, including lentils, peas, grass peas and beans, and some curious varieties such as the speckled purplish red zampognari, perfect for soups, tabacchini, and the little black and white fascisti. The rich volcanic soil is ideal for growing tomatoes, often plaited together to make the traditional hanging bunches stored in dry, well-ventilated places for the winter. Orchards are bursting with all manner of fruits such as oranges, lemons mandarins, tangerines, apples, pears, plums, figs, peaches and apricots. The island makes very good oil made from its olives and honey is produced here, too. Local fishermen bring in daily catches of sea bass, bream, gilthead, turbot, cod, small tuna, anchovies, prawns, squid and lobster depending on the season. These and other less expensive types of fish all end up on the dinner table in simple but tasty dishes.
Il coniglio all’ischitana (Ischia-style rabbit)
«Cut the rabbit into pieces and brown with a whole head of garlic in a “sartana”, the traditional copper frying pan. Don’t worry if you don’t have one – an ordinary frying pan will do! Meanwhile, prepare the offal (especially the liver – considered one of the most prized parts), previously cleaned and soaked in water, lemon and wine, by wrapping in parsley. Add to the rabbit when it’s nice and brown. Transfer the contents of the pan to a “tiano”, a clay pot. Clay pots are particularly suitable because they diffuse the heat evenly and the food retains its moisture. Add some white wine, cherry tomatoes and a sprig of rosemary. When the rabbit is cooked, season with basil and parsley. Use the rich sauce to serve with pasta.».