We arrived in Ischia Porto on a large ship from the next-door island of Procida. On the way, the weather took a turn for the worst and, by the time we disembarked, it was drizzling miserably. We opted for a taxi. The driver was jolly and dropped us at our hotel, the Hotel Villa Panoramica in the nearby village of Ischia Ponte. Rather like an Italian version of Fawlty Towers, the hotel was full of mismatched furniture, odd pictures and paraphernalia none of which went together – more Granny’s favourite hotel in Bournemouth than the elegant Italian holiday resort we’d been hoping for (but hadn’t paid for!). The staff were friendly and our room was huge with views of the Castello Aragonese and all 3 beds in the same room this time so we were happy.
Once again we had less than 24 hours to explore so we asked our handsome and helpful receptionist for recommendations. He sadly informed us that there was a big cycle race happening the next day and all of the roads around us would be closed – effectively making it rather difficult/impossible to go anywhere! His top recommendation was the Castello Aragonese (Aragonese Castle) – a magnificent castle on its own small island within walking distance – also top of our list and the reason we’d opted for Ischia Ponte. So we decided to make that the focus of our visit. It’s on an island!!
As it was still raining we decided to do the only sensible thing when in Italy at lunchtime – eat – and found a tiny family-run trattoria full of locals eating lunch on wooden bench seats. Steaming bowls of ‘Spaghetti cozze e vongole’ (mussels and clams), some local white wine and some good strong espresso set us up for the afternoon’s castle expedition.
The impressive and majestic castle dominates the landscape and is awe-inspiring as you approach it, across the causeway, from Ischia Ponte. The Castello has had a very long and turbulent history. Built on a huge natural volcanic islet, the first fortress was built in 474 BC by Hiero I of Syracuse. Since then it has been occupied by many different civilizations including Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Angevins all of whom have made their own additions and improvements. The islet became increasingly popular as a settlement when Monte Epomeo erupted in 1301 and sanctuary was guaranteed to all genuine Ischian citizens.
Originally a separate island, the islet was joined by a wood and stone bridge in 1441 by Alfonso V of Aragon (who presumably named it after his place of origin). Strong fortified walls and defenses were built to protect the citizens against frequent pirate attacks and the castle became home to the majority of citizens. According to castle records, the islet’s heyday was at the end of the 16th century when it apparently hosted a staggering 1892 families within the castle walls. Thirteen churches, a convent, an abbey of Greek Orthodox Basilian monks and a Prince and his garrison were also accommodated!
Around 1750 the danger from pirates diminished and the local population felt safe enough to return to a more comfortable life on Ischia island where they were free to cultivate the land and develop their fishing industry.
The British attacked the rock in 1809, by then held by the French, and managed to almost complete destroy the existing settlement with cannon fire. In 1823 the last remaining 30 inhabitants were sent packing by Ferdinand I of Naples who turned the little island into a prison for those serving a life sentence. The prison was subsequently abolished by Garibaldi in 1860 when the island of Ischia became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. In 1912 it was purchased by private owners who are now dedicated to the castle’s management and restoration.
Today it is a fascinating labyrinth of churches, houses, gardens and viewpoints offering breathtaking views across the Bay of Naples and the island of Ischia. There is even a cathedral and an art gallery! Forbidding and grey from the ground, the fortress is beautiful and fascinating on the inside with lots of little gardens and green areas providing refreshing colour and shade to visitors. There is a much-appreciated lift which carries visitors up through the middle of the rock to the top and the €10 entry fee includes a brilliant leaflet (also available in well-translated English) which takes the visitor on a clearly marked walk around the castle’s many different rooms and areas. There is even a café and a bar/restaurant for the weary.
Our favourite room was the one with stone seats built into the walls with holes in the bottom. The dead nuns were placed there and the ‘humours’ from their de-composing bodies were collected in vases. The bones from their dried out skeletons were then ground and stored in a mass ossuary. This morbid practise, together with the lack of individual graves, was allegedly designed to emphasise that the body was nothing more than a simple vessel for the spirit. The nuns were apparently required to meditate on the meaning of death for several hours a day in this room full of decomposing bodies as a result of which they often became gravely ill! Jolly! The Castello was truly amazing and a fantastic experience to visit. We all loved it! The views from the top were wonderful and the whole experience was really fascinating. Highly recommended!
After all that serious historical tourism, an ice cream and a paddle in the sea were in order so we treated ourselves to gelato as only Italy knows how to make. Dinner was simple, cheap and delicious Margarita pizzas washed down with (yet more) local white wine in a huge garden restaurant with live music just around the corner from our hotel.
Lots of the people we met in Ischia had spent some time in the UK (in their youth) and wanted to tell us all about it! Our pizza waiter had worked in Liverpool. Our taxi driver had stayed in a Salvation Army homeless hostel in London (and complained about the food!!). The Ischitani we met were really friendly and helpful and keen to share their island with us – we were sorry we weren’t able to see more of it.
We woke in the night to a loud storm and high winds rattling the shutters on our windows. Our flight from Naples to London was leaving the following afternoon and we started to get a bit nervous about missing the plane if the boat couldn’t leave on time (or at all) plus Alison gets seasick! As we weren’t able to go anywhere anyway because of the cycle race, we decided to cut our losses, catch the early boat and treat ourselves to a nice, relaxed lunch in Naples instead.
I would have liked to visit Sant’Angelo on the south of the island and visit the beach where they cook things in the hot sand but it’s always good to save something for next time. After coffee in the harbour with more jolly waiters, we boarded the hydrofoil for Naples. To take our mind off the rough sea, we watched someone who was not the Pope celebrating Sunday morning mass on the TV! When in Rome……!
We made it to Naples, had drinks at the water’s edge and an amazing lunch of fresh pasta and seafood in the old port and bid farewell to Italy and its beautiful islands. Thank you to my lovely friends, Natalie and Alison, for their brilliant company, putting up with my limping, all the laughs and the shared photos. Arrivederci Italia!
NEXT ISLAND: My next island will be Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) in Germany.