The massive bulk of the Aragonese castle dominates the coast of Ischia. It is only one of many highlights of this jewel of an island in the Gulf of Naples.
The castle was originally constructed in 474 BC but has undergone many incarnations since then. Descending into the bowels of the castle I was shown the site of not-for-the-faint-hearted death rituals carried out by the resident nuns of St Clare between 1500 and 1800.
These cloistered women didn’t bury nuns who died (of natural causes I hasten to add) but sat their bodies on chairs cut into the stone walls of the castle. Yes I know they look like toilets but below each chair is a hole into which the decomposing bodies would slowly descend into the depths of the island. All the while their former companions, the still-living nuns, sat nearby in deep contemplation. I stared at the tour guide who was calmly telling me all this trying to mask my horror.
All this aside, the island of Ischia is a lush Italian paradise. It feels a world away from the neighbouring day-trip-Mecca of Capri, where cruise ships decant thousands of tourists every day and people fight for space on the tiny beaches.
A hideaway for stars such as Gracie Fields, Pablo Neruda and Truman Capote, Ischia was appropriately one of the glamorous Italian locations featuring in the Matt Damon/Gwyneth Paltrow/Jude Law film The Talented Mr Ripley.
It plays the role of the fictitious resort of Mongibello and you can laze away a day on Bagno Antonio – the beach where the 1950s playboys and girls idled away their time in the film.
Ischia is blessed with a balmy climate that extends from April through to the end of October and it’s more the kind of island where people come for a one- or two-week holiday. It is perfect for people who want to both relax and have some sights to see.
Hire a boat and potter around the coastline, stopping at tiny beaches to swim and picnic. The best views of the Aragonese castle are from the water. The castle once boasted a beautiful 13th-century cathedral but this was ruined by Nelson’s canon in 1800. All that remains is the crypt, where you can still see some exquisite frescoes from the school of Giotto.
The Giardini La Mortella
I also visited the Giardini La Mortella, where English composer William Walton lived from 1946 until his death in 1983. This lush sub-tropical garden was created on the site of an old quarry by Walton’s wife Susanna with the help of landscape architect Russell Page. La Mortella is a riot of hibiscus and waterlily flowers under the cool shadow of the umbrella pines and the air is scented with jasmine and honeysuckle and a hundred other exotic plants.
In summer the garden’s concert hall enjoys fabulous acoustics because of the warm air rising off the sea and a full programme of concerts features orchestras and chamber musicians from around the world. At the very top of the hill are views over the coastline and an agapanthus-fringed pool where a concerto of copulating frogs entertains visitors.
Ischia’s thermal spas
Ischia is also famous for its thermal spas, said to be therapeutic for neurological, respiratory, gynaecological, dermatological and vascular problems. Most of the 220-odd hotels on the island having their own thermal springs and many offer pools and spa treatments.
Built into the foot of dramatic tufa cliffs beside the bay of Citara, the Giardini Poseidon occupies a prime beachfront position and has been welcoming visitors to enjoy the extensive complex of thermal pools heated to different temperatures since 1956. This German-run spa is unsurprisingly clean and efficiently run and has an extensive menu of spa beauty and massage treatments.
And after your day at the spa? Sit under a wisteria bower and sip limoncello or freshly-squeezed orange juice in a roadside cafe. Gosh it’s good to be in Italy!
By Natasha von Geldern
How to get to Ischia
Regular Caremar and Lauro ferries and hydrofoils travel from Naples (including from the main port and Mergellina) and Pozzuoli to the various ports on Ischia every day.
Getting around on Ischia
Getting around Ischia is easy. A 24-hour bus service runs every half an hour between 05:00 and 01:00 and every hour for the rest of the night. It costs 1 Euro for a ticket that lasts 90 minutes and 4 Euros for an all-day pass.
Where to eat on Ischia
It’s Italy so of course the food is going to be good but for a couple of foodie travel tips on where to eat while visiting Ischia see my blog post…
For more information on holidays on Ischia see the Campania region tourism website.
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