One of my favourite islands and one of Italy’s unsung gems, the picture-postcard beautiful island of Procida is best known for being the fictitious town of Mongibello in the film The Talented Mr Ripley, as well as one of the film locations for Il Postino. I first came here a few years ago and had such an amazing time I was very wary of coming back again in case I spoiled the memories. I didn’t. I just remembered them all over again! Procida (pronounced PRO-chi-da) is 4.1 km² in size, has 16kms of jagged coastline and these days is home to over 10,000 people. It’s charming in a slightly dusty and faded but beautifully authentic kind of way and it’s full of history.
Procida is one of the 4 Phlegraean (Flegrean) islands which make up a small archipelago in the Phlegraean Fields – an area of ancient volcanic activity West of Naples and was formed from the eruptions of 4 extinct and submerged volcanoes. The other Phlegraen islands are Ischia, Vivara & Nisida (but not Capri which is from a geologically different origin). We travelled to Procida by high speed hydrofoil from Molo Beverello in Naples which takes under an hour – just long enough for a quick nap to sleep off the effects of our lunch in Capri!
The hydrofoil spills out its passengers onto the waterfront that makes up one side of the main street of Marina Grande. The other side of the road has a long line of bars with outside terraces and little shops selling onto the public the fish, shellfish and crabs the fisherman have deposited with them that morning.
Although Procida is a small island, there is a lot to see and, as we only had 24 hours, we concentrated our visit on the west side of the island where the main settlements of Marina Grande, La Corricella and Terra Murata are situated. We’d booked a room at the Casa Bormioli – apparently a Relais de Charme (or upmarket guest house) – situated in the upper part of town. We weren’t allowed to check-in until after 4 pm so we had a leisurely beer at one of the waterfront bars, watched the boats and the people and prepared ourselves for the uphill walk to our home for the night.
Marina Grande is linked to the fishing marina of La Corricella by a fairly steep and narrow, flagstoned street, lined with tall, old buildings painted in faded shades of yellow, ochre and terracotta. Mopeds, cars and pedestrians all vied for the available space as we made our way up the dark street towards the light at the top. We emerged at the top to a junction with a huge, pale yellow, domed church right in front of us and a broad terrace on our right – Piazza dei Martiri – offering amazing views out across the sea. We’d crossed (the small distance) to the other side of the island. Some helpful locals told us we’d walked right past our destination and directed us back down the street.
Casa Bormioli turned out to be a first floor apartment in an enormous old building tucked away behind huge dark green wooden doors leading directly off the street to a cavernous, interior courtyard, complete with its own well and – at the back – wide stone steps up to ornate wrought iron gates leading to a pretty lemon orchard. The enormous doors had a more human-size door set into them and we climbed through and made our way up the stairs. Casa Bormioli was apparently the summer residence of Mimi, a glamorous and slightly unnerving lady of indeterminate age and nationality and was furnished (so said the blurb) with findings from her life of travels around the globe! Enormous white rooms sparsely kitted out with over-sized sofas and odd Moroccan lamps welcomed us. A glass bridge floor over which we were obliged to walk in order to get in or out – with clear views down to the courtyard below – linked the two sides of the apartment. Our reservation included a welcome drink. The Signora offered us a glass of fizzy water on the terrace overlooking the lemon trees which was presumably it! We were shown to our ‘suite’ – 2 rooms one on top of the other and a bright yellow Moroccan-style bathroom complete with plastic barbie dolls which was not exactly what we’d booked. Stylish in its own way, the whole place was rather strangely amusing!
After eventually checking in and armed with a restaurant recommendation for that night, we headed off to explore the fishermen’s quarter of La Corricella – better known as fictional Mongibello. Built on top of each other in a higgeldy-piggledy fashion, the pastel-coloured houses, balconies and stairways of the fishermen’s quarter spill down the hillside between the upper town and the harbour below. If you live there, you have a key to the door of a tiny lobby on the top street that allows access to the steep staircases and alleyways which wind past the doors of the little houses and finally arrive at the harbour. As non-residents, we took the street and some steps down onto the harbour side.
Marina Corricella is a living postcard. Fishermen mend their nets and repair their boats and children play amongst restaurant tables set out on the quayside with polished glass and linen napkins waiting for the evening’s customers. Tiny boats line the waterfront and fishing nets and other fishing paraphernalia are stacked on the quayside – home to hoards of multi-coloured cats waiting to be fed the day’s leftovers by restaurant staff. Larger boats are moored to stone moorings further out in the bay. The fortress and part of town known as Terra Murata (walled land) look down from above and are floodlit at night. The whole place is a fascinating, colourful feast for the eyes. We found our recommended restaurant, laughed with one of the staff who gave us a piece of seafood we didn’t recognise to try, and came back later for a delicious dinner of fresh pasta, unusual seafood and local wine at a table right on the water’s edge. It was a bit chilly but well worth it to sit outside in this lovely location – apologies for my poor flash photography – the photos don’t do the place justice.
Before dinner we enjoyed an aperitif and the last of the day’s sunshine on the enormous Piazza dei Martiri where the roads down to La Corricella harbour, up to Terra Murata and across the island to Marina Grande converge. The ‘aperitivo’, for me, is one of Italy’s great traditions – sitting on a terrace, with a chilled drink and some nibbles to stimulate the appetite, relaxing and getting ready for dinner. Nothing better.
Breakfast at Casa Bormioli was like an Alice in Wonderland tea party – a huge colourful table laden with goodies and enormous brightly-coloured cups was set out for us. We tried ‘lingue de bue’ (ox tongues) – a delicious local pastry (nothing to do with oxen!) – home-made chocolate cake, fresh fruit, boiled eggs and great coffee. It was a fun start to the day! Energised by breakfast, we decided to make the walk up to the Terra Murata, the old fortified town which, at 91ms above sea level, is Procida’s highest point and a separate ‘borgo’ or neighbourhood.
The walk up is fairly steep but flat and easy and you are rewarded by stunning views down over La Corricella, over the rest of Procida and across the water to the nearby island of Ischia. Some artists had positioned themselves overlooking La Corricella and were beginning paintings as we passed. The walk took us up through the ruins of the fort and past the old prison and finally through an arch in the thick ancient stone walls into the medieval walled town. Terra Murata is a small but busy and thriving community and the locals were preparing for one of the 2 annual festivals celebrating their patron saint San Michele Archangelo (Archangel Michael). The streets and churches were festooned with colourful bunting and there was an air of cheerful good-humour as the locals tried to hang flags from dangerously high balconies. The abbey dedicated to Archangel Michael is one of Southern Italy’s most famous churches – its origins dating back to the 11th century – now home to exquisite works of art and religious artefacts. The views across to Capri and the Bay of Naples from the top are breathtaking – well worth the walk up!
We collected our bags on the way down, said goodbye to our hosts and headed back to Marina Grande to travel the short distance to Ischia – this time on a big ship. On the way we chatted to the proud, elderly owner of an ancient and rusty Fiat cinque cento (500) which he told us he’d be driving for 42 years! Natalie and I enjoyed sitting outside on the deck of the ship for a change and looking at the view as we departed Procida. Alison – a reluctant sailor – was not so convinced!
Ciao Procida – give me your dusty charm and faded elegance over spruced up Capri any day! Ci vediamo.
NEXT ISLAND: The next island will be the last one in Italy for now – Ischia.