Ah, I would not ask to be a seagull, or a dolphin; I’d be quite happy to be a scorpion fish, the ugliest fish in the sea, just to be able to be down there, playing in the water"
The history of Procida is one of ships and seas, sails and oars, hard-working fishermen and captains courageous. This tiny little island (just 3.7 square kilometres), set in the Tyrrhenian Sea like a slightly disgruntled pearl in a wild oyster, once inspired Medieval fantasies, and the poems and stories of narrators set on a course towards some far-off paradise. Nowadays it’s a holiday destination, a haven for artists, and a great location for movie shoots. The movie stars you can see appearing in scenes shot on the island may be the legends of today, but in some ways they’re also a reminder of legendary journeys described long ago in literary masterpieces by Virgil, Homer, Giovenale, Boccaccio and others. Procida is also the setting for Graziella, the novel by Alphonse de Lamartine, a French diplomat stationed in Naples in the 19th century. He nearly drowned off the island during a fishing trip but managed somehow to land. Here he met a young coral worker, daughter of a fisherman, and they fell in love. This is how he describes her: “Her eyes, large and oval in form, were of that undecided colour between deep black and the blue of the sea… a celestial colour which the eyes of the Asiatic and Italian women borrow from the brilliant light of their fiery days and from the serene blue of their heaven, their sea and their night.”
Probably the island’s most attractive feature is the architecture of the houses in the older neighbourhoods. The houses are painted in bright pastel colours, originally so they could be easily recognized from a distance by sailors out at sea, and fit tightly together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They certainly make a striking sight as soon as you step off the ferry at Marina Grande. Procida’s port is next to a small harbour for fishing-boats and a marina. Cesare Brandi, art historian and founder of the prestigious Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro in Rome, was full of praise for these “breath-taking” views, and the “row of tall multi-colored houses squashed together like a barricade, with many arches half closed as if they were winking.” They are symbolic of a tight-knit community, a style of architecture that “is Mediterranean and represents the last living vestiges, at least until not so long ago, of late Roman and Byzantine architecture. Arches and vaulted ceilings, that’s all, just arches and vaulted ceilings, sometimes with the addition of external staircases as pleasing as a compliment.” From the port you can see the crenelated walls of Palazzo Montefusco, also known as Palazzo della Catena (a catena, or chain was hung across the entrance, to discourage inquisitive passers-by), formerly a summer residence of the royal family. In this area, it was once easy to find sheds dug out of the rock used for keeping boats in dry storage over the winter. Now there are boatyards, a tangible reminder of what has traditionally been the island’s economic mainstay. On the right, towards the west, you’ll find a beach called the Spiaggia delle Grotte, also known as the Spiaggia della Silurenza. To the left of the quay is the Spiaggia della Lingua, invaded in summer by hordes of day-trippers arriving by ferry from Pozzuoli and Naples. Bustling Via Roma, lined with restaurants, shops and bars, is Procida’s main drag. Here you’ll find a wooden crucifix, another symbol of Procida’s religious identity. Since its erection in 1845, it’s been a symbol of the devotion of local sailors. Not far away is Piazza di Sent’ Cò (meaning Sancio Cattolico in the local dialect), a popular venue for open-air events. Looking onto the square is the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pietà, originally a chapel built in 1616. Walking along the side of the new harbour you may sense something of the places once frequented by Alphonse de Lamartine, author of the novel Graziella. The book was written in 1852, apparently after he nearly drowned during a storm off the island, and following its publication the beauty of the local girls became legendary. The writer fell in love with a young girl from Procida, who died of lovesickness after he left for Paris. But as well as being a love story between Alphonse and his Graziella, the novel is also a love letter to the island. A building dated 1786, with a high doorway, houses the Istituto Tecnico Nautico Francesco Caracciolo, the oldest school for nautical studies in Europe.
Via Vittorio Emanuele II will take you into the heart of the old part of Procida. In this street is the church dedicated to San Leonardo (late 16th century), patron saint of slaves. Many islanders were in fact captured and sold into slavery during barbarian invasions. Terra Murata, Marina Corricella and Casale Vascello are all set in spectacular surroundings. Terra Murata, described in Elsa Morante’s novel Arthur’s Island, is in actual fact Procida’s fortress, and makes for an exciting visit. Here you’ll find the Abazia di San Michele Arcangelo, dedicated to the island’s patron saint. This was where people would come and take refuge when the island was attacked by pirates. The abbey is a symbol of the island’s history and houses a picture gallery containing a wealth of books and extraordinary records from the past. It dates from the year 1000, when it was home a community of Benedictine monks, but was secularized in the 15th century. It was severely damaged, burnt and looted during barbarian invasions. In the apse there’s a fine painting by Nicola Russo from 1690 depicting the sinking of the barbarian fleet thanks to the miraculous intervention of the Archangel Saint Michael, but the whole place with its lower floor rooms and oratories belonging to the different confraternities is absolutely fascinating. Next to the abbey is the Castello d’Avalos, an imposing 16th-cenutry building also known as Palazzo Reale. During the Bourbon dynasty, it was used as a royal residence. The king would come to Procida, one of the royal family’s many hunting reserves, to catch pheasants. In the year 1800 the castle underwent alterations and was used as a prison, eventually closed in 1986. Casale Vascello can be reached from Piazza dei Martiri, where sympathizers of the Neapolitan Republic of 1799 were hanged. Casale Vascello is actually a large courtyard completely surrounded by rows of three-storey houses. This was the first settlement to have been built outside the medieval village of Terra Murata and dates back to around the end of the 16th century.
La Corricella (from the Greek kora kale, meaning “beautiful place”), is a popular location with filmmakers and has appeared in many hit movies. A fishing village with a tiny harbour, its restaurants and little shops make also make it very popular with holiday-makers. The houses are all clustered together with their terraces, stairways and shared balconies. To get here you have to walk down wide stepped streets or narrow flights of steps like the Gradinata Scura, in Callìa (another name of Greek origin referring to beauty), or the Gradinata Larga and the Gradinata del Pennino. This last one is the one most people use and starts opposite the little 15th-century church of San Rocco. Forming a maze of narrow passageways, these stepped lanes winding down to the coast are a typical feature of the island. La Corricella is a pedestrian area where the pace is slow. You may well find fishermen sitting quietly mending their nets. The scenery and views of historical sites are wonderful, and the light has a very special quality.
Via San Rocco passes through Callìa and becomes Via Marcello Scotti, named after a scholar and priest who was a victim of the Bourbon reprisals in 1799. On the left side of the road going from Via Vittorio Emanuele to Piazza Olmo are a number of old houses with lovely internal courtyards and gardens, once the residences of 18th- or early 19th-century local dignitaries, such as Minichini, Romeo, Miramare or Scotto di Pagliara. Others lookout towards the sea and the Spiaggia della Chiaia. A number of paths surrounded by wonderful lemon groves lead off from a belvedere down to the beach. On the right-hand side of the street, just as interesting but without direct access to the Bay of Chiaia, are Palazzo Scotti Lachianca, also known as Palazzo Mamozio (the local name given to the ornamental gargoyle above the door), Palazzo Parascandola, Palazzo Esposito, Palazzo Figoli, and others. After the small Chiesa di San Vincenzo (1571), another lane called Via dei Bagni takes you right down to the beach. Continuing on past houses and other old buildings (such as Palazzo Manzo, built in 1865), you’ll come to the 17th-century Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate at the beginning of Via Cavour. From here you can either make your way to the Torre dei De Jorio or head into the fields and vineyards around Starza until you come to paths leading to Punta Pioppeto and the lighthouse, active since 1849. Retracing your steps, you can walk through more of the countryside until you come to Punta Cottimo and the Aragonese defence tower, one of the three built in the 16th century by the viceroy of Naples, Don Pedro da Toledo.
Passing through more vineyards and orchards, you’ll reach the top of a hill with spectacular views of Pozzo Vecchio (one of the ancient craters). The little beach here is now known as the “Spiaggia del Postino” (Postman’s Beach) after scenes of the Oscar-winning film starring Massimo Troisi were shot here. Overlooking the beach is a small cemetery and to the south is Punta Serra, beyond which lies the Spiaggia di Ciraccio. The beach ends in a narrow strip of land joining the island to the promontory of Santa Margherita, creating a beautiful backdrop to the little village of Chiaiolella. From here you can walk across the bridge to the tiny island of Vivara (or Vivaro), a major natural, cultural and tourist cultural attraction. The bridge was built in 1956, financed by the Cassa del Mezzogiorno (Development Fund for the South of Italy), in order to support pipes supplying drinking water to Ischia from the mainland spring of Serino. For a visit by Princess Marie José, wife of King Umberto II of Italy, an access stairway was built in what was previously a gully. With its three kilometres of coastline and 34 hectares supporting many protected plant and animal species, Vivara has been declared a National Nature Reserve. Eight hundred plant biotypes have been recorded here, and the island provides a home to several hundred migratory and resident bird species. It’s also an important archaeological area. Mycenaean finds have been discovered around Punta D’Alaca and in the waters of the Bay of Genito.
Chiaiolella has been home to one of the island’s marinas for decades, and offers a wide range of yachting facilities (including hotels and restaurants). Along the road going up to Punta Solchiaro, you can still find old fishermen’s houses, many of which have been converted into holiday homes. From the marina you can take Via Simone Schiano to the Neoclassical Villa Chiaiozza, built just after the Second World War by the British consul M. Wentworth Gurney. Alternatively, you can go back to the heart of Procida by following Via Giovanni da Procida and other paths leading to Piazza Olmo. You’ll pass through the so-called “parùle”, once an area of marshland irrigated with the characteristic noria, machines used to extract water from artesian wells. Via Monsignor Scotto Pagliara will take you to the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio di Padova, founded in1635 by Scipione and Giacomo Cacciuttolo. If you carry on along Via IV Novembre you’ll come to Punta di Pizzàco. Here, in Via Raia, stands the house where Cesare Brandi used to live. It has also been identified as the home of Lamartine’s Graziella. From the church, carry on to the must-see Palazzo Guarracino, formerly a Bourbon hunting lodge. Built on two floors, the interior is decorated with stuccoes and other decorative elements. The house overlooks the bay of Cala del Carbonio in Centane, and has a lovely belvedere facing the sea to the south west.
Limone al piatto (Lemon salad)
Chop some garlic, mint and chilli pepper. Put on a plate with chunks of peeled lemon and a little water. Drizzle over some oil and season with salt. Not many people know it, but it’s one of Procida’s signature dishes, bursting with the colours, tastes and smells of the island.