It’s a bumpy road for the little Ape Piaggio, but our female taxi driver doesn’t seem to notice. She is wearing big black sunglasses and high heels, her beautiful black hair floating on her shoulders. VROOOM! We hear when she sprints to make sure she can attack the steep hill. My friend Yvonne and I, unprepared for the movement, are bumping into each other when a motorbike comes. The road is so tight that we have to slowly go backward to the bottom again, to let it pass. Then another sprint. We finally make it to our hotel – or so we think – laughing and shaking.
We look around. My God, where are we? In a La Dolce Vita movie?
-What a sunset! What a view!
I tell Yvonne.
-Yes, and we need to go to another very steep cobbled road to get there, and 120 steps. You better get going before it’s dark, she answers, starting to move.
A hissing sound makes us turn our heads.
We see our luggage flying on a zip line and landing at the lighthouse.
The gentle circling light of the lantern illuminates the sea. A beautiful piano melody reaches us. Some waiters are preparing the white clothes for our tables and lighting some candles on the spectacular terrace.
I have been in Italy for just an hour and I already feel I have enough material to write a blogpost.
The Romantic Lighthouse
The reason why Yvonne and I are here is a press trip to show us the Island of Ischia. It takes just more than one hour to fly from Zurich directly to Naples, and after a short trip with the ferry, here we are. Our first stop is the recently renovated Faro di Punta Imperatore, that has just opened after a two year renovation – you can imagine it wasn’t easy to bring all the materials here, and that Italian that bureaucracy didn’t make the process any smoother either. But I guess the result is that this must be the most romantic location in the world. When the lights switch on and food arrives, we are ready to listen to the Lucia story.
Luci is the name of the restaurant in honour of the woman who used to live here when she was married to the lighthouse keeper. However, her husband died and another couple was given the position. Lucia was supposed to leave. She refused because she knew the job inside out and didn’t know where to go anyway, with her seven children. After many talks and discussions with the Marina Militare (Italian Navy), she finally convinced them she could stay and work. She became the first female lighthouse keeper in Italy, and probably (we don’t know for sure) the first one in the world.
We spend the night in the beautifully decorated lighthouse room and get ready for the second day, which is dedicated to sailing and dolphin watching.
But don’t be fooled: Ischia isn’t your typical island where you only eat fish and have holidays on the beach. In fact, this place is nicknamed by locals isola verde (green island) for its rich vegetation and deep relationship with its land. Wine and agriculture were traditionally the main activities, not tourism or fishing like in Procida, for example. So forget about Capri or any other neighbouring area: Ischia is Ischia, and nothing else is like it.
Incredibly, the dolphins do grace our trip on this mild October day, and jump around the boat. I put a hand in the water and can’t believe it’s as warm as in Summer – the reason, the Captain explains to me, are thermal waters. In Ischia, one can basically swim in the sea all year round, and many have their secret spot to do that.
Lunch time arrives and of course we get beautiful antipasti and some penne with tomato. There is so much pasta that I try to use the leftovers to get the dolphins to come really close to me. My smart plan doesn’t seem to work that perfectly, because this is the only time that dolphins don’t show up. You can’t force anything in Ischia – you need to wait until it comes to you.
Our next stop is among the vibrant colours of a Keramos ceramic laboratory, where we are are asked by the two local artists if we are prepared to get our hands seriously dirty. The pair, Gaetano De Nigris and Nello Di Leva, seems to pop out of a Quentin Tarantino movie (later we find out that they also work as actors in the theatre). Of course we are ready! We realise that working at the lathe is very calming, and then learn that it is also used for therapy against depression. We see the oven where our little artworks will be cooked for one and a half days at 1,000 degrees – now we start to understand the price of ceramics: a lot of electricity is needed.
We are finished and it’s sad to leave – this place is better than the candy store – but we are told that our artifacts will be shipped to us once they are ready.
Everybody who follows me knows it: I don’t drink at all. So when I was told we would visit a winery for a light lunch and wine tasting, I was not really interested. Silly me: I had forgotten that in Italy there is always a good looking man or/and a lovely family with entrepreneurial ideas who has something new to say. And that was the case at the Tommasone Vini family. Guess what they are doing to create the best bubbles? They put their wine in two huge metal cages under the see and keep it in there – at a constant temperature of 11 degrees and 6 bars pressure – until the final product is perfect. It takes them two hours just to locate the cages, when they need to check them out, because the GPS is not totally precise and because of the water conditions. The experiment is an interesting mix of old and new ideas. Before tourism, Ischia inhabitants used to survive thanks to agriculture and wine. With 2,800 years of history, Ischia was the first Greek colony, since Greeks were pleasure-loving and wouldn’t settle anywhere, if it wasn’t possible to have grapes there. After hearing these stories, I am ready to go to the next activity.
The Famous Thermal Treatments
We change hotel and go to the deliciously retro Mezzatorre Hotel & Thermal Spa. Yvonne and I are so enthusiastic about its decor, that we steal some vintage radios to use them as handbags (see cover picture). A man working at the pool spots that and almost has a heart attack, because there’s a light rain and he’s afraid we ruin them by making them wet. We do our little photo shooting and place them back. We have breakfast with a view, and we are ready for the best thing one can do on a cloudy day: thermal treatments.
We first get a medical check. This is no cosmetic centre and treatments are designed to help your overall health and well being, so a doctor consults me and suggests some actions. I am then ushered to the treatment rooms and get plastered in the 42 degrees mud. Not everywhere though, since this is not a cosmetic peeling. It only goes where needed, like joints and feet, for me (I am a runner). An almost unknown song by Italian melodic singer Al Bano entertains me while I’m waiting for the mud to have its effect. I ask who decides the soundtrack, and my practitioner says that the guy who does that every day first goes to the spa to have a look at guests, then goes to Spotify and prepares something according to the people he saw. Opera, Samba, or pop. The music always changes and goes with the flow.
The Green Island
After driving and photographing the Tuk Tuk (or better, the Ape Piaggio) of the Mezzatorre Hotel again, we have a full program dedicated to nature. We visit the Ravino Gardens and meet its owner, who tells us about his childhood dream of having the most luscious exotic plants in one unique garden. Ischia is five times as big as Capri, so there is space, land, and a lot of wind that makes its climate change all the time, also during the same day. Sometimes it rains on one side, and it’s dry on the other. The plants benefit from these very special conditions and grace most parts of ischia. Giardini Ravino also features its own villa and a very special architecture – a bit Greek, a bit 70s – all curves and white round walls. They are the perfect location for seminars, meetings, and to discuss complex matters while watching the relaxing views. We get a cactus cocktail which is surprisingly delicious, and off we go to the next part of our program: a hike to Monte Epomeo. I now understand while Angela Merkel is so in love with the island and has been hiking and walking this area for years. Nobody disturbs you here; this is the opposite of those locations where you want to be seen. When I get to the top, catching my breath from the steep tuff formations at the top of the mountain, I can look at the whole gulf of Naples: the Vesuvius, Pozzuoli (where Sofia Loren used to live) Capri, Procida, Ponza, Gaeta.
Thermal Marathon at Poseidon Gardens
At sunset we hit the famous Giardini Poseidon for more thermal water. We want to try everything they offer before they close down, so we go at quick speed to the sauna first, and then to some of the many pools that alternate lukewarm water to cold one (at the beginning) to warm water and very cold one (in the middle), and boiling hot water and freezing water (at the end). In the meantime we admire the sunset over the beaches and the palm trees. No need to say: a very good looking Italian man is leading us the way and giving us instructions. Why am I surprised?
The Most Beautiful Island in the World
According to Leisure & Travel, Ischia tops the chart of all beautiful islands in the world. This chart has recently brought a lot of young people to the area, especially those seeking nature, sustainable holidays and well being. I was quite surprised when I heard it from a local, but I now really see why the island won.
There is no junk food in Ischia. Think about it again. No McDonald’s, no ethnic food, no Zara or H&M either, no chains. How many holiday destinations can say that? Traditions are strong and one can eat only the local way, so if you are looking for an international kind of vacation, please go somewhere else. The other surprise is that fish is not the main nourishment. In an island that considers itself strongly defined by its land and not by its waters, meat, pizza and the like are more important.
This philosophy is very (and I mean very!) well elucidated at “il Focolare”, a restaurant that stole my heart.
The whole family, who owns it and works here, is again fit for a movie – and indeed the venue is plastered in modern and vintage posters of all the movies that were shot in Ischia. Agostino and Francesco d’Ambra, the two chefs (and brothers) have both traveled extensively and worked in Michelin-starred restaurant. They chose to come back and tell you off if you dare asking for ketchup or cappuccino with food. They are welcoming and funny, but definitely a bit bossy too! Before we have dinner we are shown both kitchen and cellar, and told how the family used to earn their living before tourists arrived (and how they more or less live the same way now). A very focused granny is peeling a big case of garlic without even looking at us, straight as a rod – who needs a chair, when you live in Ischia? No wonder Stanley Tucci is a regular here, and even wrote about this incredible place.
The smells and flavours of dinner are delicious, and by the time dessert arrives and I think I can take no more, the fluffiest and zestiest Lemon tart in the world arrives. Casually, the chef mentions he always brings it “to the gym”.
–What do you mean … to the gym?
Yes, when we party or celebrate or meet many people … you know, the way you do at the gym!
Apparently, there are events that last the whole night, at Ischia gyms, where families bring all sort of food while kids make tournaments and parents eat for 24 hours.
I laugh and picture my Swiss gym in my mind, an immaculate series of rooms that has never seen a crostata or a single crumble, or any big socialisation anyway. In Switzerland, I tell him, you go to the gym to actually exercise.
The chef gives me a big smile and looks deep into my eyes.
-I also go to the gym! To do what, this I don’t know exactly.
My Number one Tip
At the end of this whirlwind of intense experiences, while drinking my last delicious espresso, I ask Andrea – who is vice president of the local hotel association and the person who invited me here together with Italia.it – how can people who don’t know the island also see so many interesting things, the way I did thanks to her, who is a local. I’m not sure one can find all the bright details I experienced in a standard tourist guide.
-Talk to locals, she immediately says.
–Stop a moment and let them give you that information. They are the best guides.
And indeed, I now see how often I was taking notes white chatting with our driver (who has a degree in geology and a passion for history), or how many times I thought “wow” by simply asking something to a shop owner, or how I was smiling for a random comment overheard in the street. That afternoon, for example, an old gentleman had came to the coffee shop where I was having my ice cream and ordered the barista, while smiling:
-Un caffè con poco zucchero, per piacere. La vita è già abbastanza dolce! (A coffee with little sugar, please. Life is already sweet enough!)
Isn’t this an invitation to join the conversation?
The Focolare team, the room maid, the castle owner, the many Presidente of a local association: they are the best “thing” to do in Ischia. Trust them. Talk to them. Find that human connection that is such an important part of well being here – together with the thermal waters and the land. You’ll find a common language even if you don’t speak Italian. And by the time you’re on the ferryboat back home, saying goodbye to Ischia, you’ll be intoxicated. And hopelessly in love.