Isles of Wellbeing

The Phlegrean isles of Ichia and Procida lie sedately in the idyllic azure Tyrrhenian Sea of the Bay of Naples. Ischia is called “the emerald isle” with its fertile volcanic soil and is the largest of the pair.

Also called the “island of well being” it has had a considerable spa resort industry down through the centuries. It retains that Mediterranean island charm even if it attracts the tourist hordes in high season. Procida, the poor relative and much smaller island, is more rustic, sleepy and seems caught in a time warp of decades past.

The Greeks formed a colony on Ischia (at Pithecusa near Lacco Ameno) in the eighth century and the remains of their necropolis are at Monte Vico. The island was in Greek times known as Aeneas, as the fleet of the hero of Troy and ultimate founder of Rome stopped here. It was the Greeks who founded many of the most ancient and famous of Ischia’s thermal baths and brought viniculture to the island. Ischia is now famous for the white wine grown on its volcanic soils. Fragments of Nestor’s Cup mentioned in the Iliad were found in a child’s grave during excavation of the site of the ancient Greek colony in the 1950s. The cup came originally from Rhodes and on it is inscribed Homer’s words “Whosoever drinks from this cup, fair crowned Aphrodite will serve.” Not a bad fate really. The Greeks eventually tired of the volcanic eruptions and headed off to Cuma on the mainland.

Subsequently, the Roman aristocracy came to the islands for the famed thermal baths. But they too were irritated by continuous volcanic eruptions and earth tremors on Ischia, so they decided to locate their luxurious villas on the isle of Capri and on the mainland. The hot springs and spas although much loved were abandoned and many have only recently been rediscovered.

Ischia Porto is where the ferries come in and it is usually a frantically busy place with daytrippers from the mainland being ferried to and fro. It was actually a volcanic lake used for bathing until a sea channel was constructed just big enough to let the passenger ferries through. The communal thermal baths just up from the harbour are one of the most economical places to take the plunge but they are not always open.

Ischia Ponte is the site of the island’s first town. Until the Middle Ages it was called Ischia Minor (an isle itself) until the “magnanimous” Spaniard Alphonso of Aragon built a bridge and constructed a town fortressed against pirate attacks. He held his Renaissance court in the castle filled with noblemen, artists and poets. The poetess Vittoria Colonna (a friend of Michelangelo) got married to Ferrante of Aragon in the castle. The sculptor allegedly stayed in a tower (Torre Michelangelo) on the island for some time.

The domineering Mount Epomeo is Ischia’s main landmark. According to legend the island was formed after a battle of the Gods and some giants, led by the ferocious Typhon, just failed to oust Jupiter from Olympus. Mount Epomeo is the resting place of the defeated Typhon and his tears form the thermal pools on the island. In 1301, after the last eruption of Epomeo the ancient town of Geronda was completely destroyed by lava flows that lasted for a few months. The panoramic view from Epomeo is worth the climb as on a clear day the Bay of Naples looks magnificent. There is a small church dedicated to Saint Nicholas excavated into the tufa rock near the summit.

Casamacciole Terme is a spa resort town that has had several peaks and troughs in fortune. The major attraction is the water from the fountain of Gurgitello. Its medicinal properties were discovered by a Roman matron Nizola who was cured of crippling arthritis when she bathed in a hot stream that passed by her house. In its heyday Casamacciole was a favourite haunt of European nobility and gentry. Giuseppe Garabaldi convalesced here and nursed his war wounds. The Norwegian writer Ibsen stayed here and wrote his play about the nomadic Peer Gynt. But all changed when the town was at the epicentre of a nasty earthquake in the 1880s, with the buildings nearly all flattened and destroyed. The tourists stopped coming and then the precious water was sold in barrels that were carried by ship to Naples to fill their baths. Now Casamacciole has regained its popularity as a resort.

The curious mushroom-shaped fungal rock in the harbour at Lacco Ameno is made of tufa rock from an ancient eruption that has been eroded by the sea. As well as being the place where fabled Aeneas docked his fleet, St Restituta’s body miraculously appeared in a boat here after she was martyred in Africa. The bay was instantaneously filled with flowering lilies. They built a basilica to the saint and she is locally revered.

After the earthquake just down the road, the tourist industry here also collapsed. Fortunes were revived when Milanese media magnate Angelo Rizzoli financed its revival and promotion through his various businesses. This attracted the celebrity personalities of the day and tourism took off. In Lacco Ameno, the therapeutic water is at its most radioactive with traces of the noble gas radon. The links with cancer of exposure to radon are as tentative as the alleged health benefits from soaking in a radon soup. But it makes you wonder why those who swear by this remedy don’t market the health benefits of a dip in the Irish Sea.

Forio is the biggest town on the island. The elegant white Santa Maria del Soccorso (Church of Our Lady of Aid) stands sentinel between the two major town beaches and is as scenic a place to tie the knot if you were considering a marriage abroad. The church courtyard is decorated with colourful majolica depicting the scenes from the Passion and saints being martyred.

Near Forio are the gardens of La Mortella built by the English composer Sir William Walton and his Argentinian wife. Exotic and rare plants fill his “Garden of Eden” that was once barren rock. His friend Laurence Olivier dismissed the land as a “quarry” before they started reconstruction. A definite expatriate feeling pervades the place and in the garden’s tearooms you can sip on the finest Fortnum and Mason tea with your scones.

Sant’Angelo is Ischia’s most charming resort and is still a working port for fishermen who supply the local restaurants with their caught fare. Remote and isolated until the 1950s because there was no road, barrels of wine had to be delivered by mule along narrow ravines to get to the town. The pedestrianised streets now house chic restaurants and boutiques. The headland in the harbour ends in a pyramidal lump of lava that used to be the site of an ancient monastery and then a fortification that was attacked by the Admiral Nelson and his fleet in 1809. It was destroyed with a direct hit on a munitions store.

The nearby black beach at Maronti is the most famous beach. The sand is warmed to boiling in places by the sun and the fumaroles, which emit fuming and hissing steam. You can boil an egg in the sand – infact you can, as the locals do, use the sand as an oven to cook a chicken or some fish.

There are about 130 hot springs and 70 fumaroles on Ischia and the thermal activity is extensive. The thermal gardens have been cynically called “the theme parks of the arthritic” and they are usually associated with the very rich aged. And also the very beautiful as the beauty enhancing aspect of the therapy is heavily promoted. The resorts generally offer a complete package of therapies including a wide range of beauty and alternative treatments. The thermal gardens can be expensive (a day lounging around in Poseidon, Negombo or Aphrodite is up to twenty euros). There are spouting fumaroles in caves that form a kind of natural sauna (speleotherapy) and that sounds particularly attractive, although personally haven’t tried it.

Ischia doesn’t have the celebrity status of its illustrious cousin Capri, which lies further south, and certainly doesn’t get as crowded. The throngs on Capri that celebrity spot are only likely to catch a glimpse of a deadringer, as most of stars hide in bougainvillea covered secluded villas and are whisked about in Mercedes taxis with tinted windows.

Despite its lack of stars, Ischia has been a popular location for film-making and some associated stellar romantic dalliances. Some of the 1963 remake of Cleopatra was filmed here starring three never far from scandal Rex Harrison and of course Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The latter two started their steamy and intermittent stormy relationship on Ischia and it marked the beginning of the end for her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher. Cleopatra went well over budget at an exorbitant 40 million dollars and it subsequently bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox. Although it won four academy awards it did not make money at the box office. Golden armour worn by Taylor was made from real gold and cost 1 million dollars (not surprising really the film costs overstretched the budget). The armour was very heavy and difficult to wear in the heat – not really the safest way to shed some pounds. Other films made on Ischia include the remake of The Talented Mr Ripley with Matt Damon and Jude Law (Ischia is Mongibello) and Billy Wilder’s Avanti. In an underrated Avanti, Jack Lemmon plays a serious role despite the fact in one scene he bares all when he skinny dips in the sea.

There is not much to say about volcanic Procida, nor much to do on the island and indeed that is its attraction. The film Il Postino was made here and you can bathe on the beach at Pozzo Vecchio where much of the crew and cast must have had a quick dip in between takes. The film was Massimo Troisi’s swansong before he tragically died too early. It even won deserved accolate in pompous Hollywood. As on Ischia, there is the remains of an Aragonese castle. The curious San Michele abbey church is home to a fabulous painting by Luca Giordano of the archangel beating off the Turks as they tried to invade. The pastel painted houses characterize the rather cramped town of Marina Grande. This is where all the action happens but the pace is slow so it is best to just chill.

Both the Phlegrean Islands are definitively romantic in a decidedly different way. Procida with its lemon groves will definitely give you some precious time to yourselves. Inventor of the Limerick, the poet and artist Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense, suggests how a sojourn on Ischia might affect your libido.

“There was an old person from Ischia whose conduct grew friskier and friskier.

He danced hornpipes and jigs.

And ate thousands of figs,

That lively old person from Ischia.”

The pampering you get on Ischia is guaranteed to make you feel at least a little more beautiful and being on a Mediterranean island and after a few glasses of local Epomeo wine sure you might even feel just a wee bit frisky yourself.



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