In the Bay of Naples: Ischia and Procida

In this post we head out to two islands in the Bay of Naples. From the port you can see Capri, a soft gray lopsided rock straight ahead in the distance. Everyone goes there, so we’re not.

We’re going to Ischia and Procida ( and if you know Italian; and if you don’t). The islands aren’t far from shore, but to get to them you need to take a ferry (90 minutes) or hydrofoil (35 minutes) and head about 12 miles north-ish. You arrive at tiny Procida first, make a brief stop to drop off or pick up passengers and then make the 10-minute hop to Ischia.

A digital panorama of Ischia Porto, the port, with Monte Epomeo in the distance


Ischia is first. It’s lopsided like Capri, but bigger--and thankfully free of boldface names--with Monte Epomeo dominating both the profile of the island and the island itself. There’s a thriving tourist and spa life ringing the island—every town, commune, along the water has its own port and its hotels with thermal waters.

But up the mountain there’s life as it’s always been lived, with modest homes, each with a backyard vegetable garden, lemon trees, and a rabbit pen—rabbits, coniglie, being the chickens of the island. I know this because some 15 years ago I went up the mountain to Serrara Fontana to visit Zio Mario and Zia Maria, my father’s uncle and aunt, in their modest house with a wood cookstove and a semi-outhouse (you walked through the courtyard to get to it, but it had running water). Zia Maria kept a big vegetable garden and raised rabbits. I’m a vegetarian, but I ate her pasta with rabbit sauce because you can’t refuse food at an Italian meal (no actual rabbit though; I've been vegetarian for too long). Despite their 19th- (or 18th- or 17th- or 16th-) century way of life, they were very much connected to life in the late 20-th century. They received CNN on the tube, which they accessed via telecomando, the remote. Their adult kids had jobs in Pisa and in Belgium, and their grandson, also named Mario, who drove his motociclo all over the island, had a late-20th-century American vocabulary: Winston, playboy, Levi’s 501 jeans. (When I set up my scanner, I’ll post some images from this trip.)

The homes are modest, but the color schemes are not. This house is in Serrara, up the mountain. The road to Monte Epomeo is at right.

At sea level, the Island is ringed by lovely towns: Ischia Porto (the port), Casamicciola Terme and Lacco Ameno (site of many thermal spas) , Forio, Sant’Angelo, and Ischia Ponte, whose pedestrian causeway links it to a 12th century fortress, the Castello Aragonese, on a rock of an island. You won't find too many Americans without family ties to the island, because few residents speak English, but those intrepid spa-going German tourists are out in force, and just about everyone on the island has learned German to be able to cater to them. Tourism appears to have made the whole island wealthier—there’s a better dock, new buses that connect the island efficiently and on time, and renovations on even the smallest homes and shops. But it pisses me off when I'm given a menu in German. Italiano, per favore.

The authentic and the touristic: A cobbler's shop, closed for the afternoon break, above; Sapori d'Ischia, Flavors of Ischia, open for the tourists all day (the food is authentic, though)

Forio is my favorite commune. The town is modestly scaled, and while it has all the conveniences of modern life (I bought a chemical ice pack for a sprained knee at a clean, modern farmacia ) it also has the beautiful fourteenth-century Chiesa del Soccorso, where seagoers and their families prayed to Santa Maria of the Ships for a voyage’s safe return. The church is nothing like those big baroque marble-and gilded structures you find in Napoli. It's a modest whitewashed building decorated on the outside with a wall of tiles and on the inside by models of ships, ex votos, offered in thanks for those safe voyages. The church is constructed on an immense and solid rampart of a foundation, all the better to withstand the force of the sea, which it overlooks. It appears Greek in style because its builders--the founders of Ischia--were Greek. And just as Napoli has an original Greek name, Neopolis, so does Ischia: Pithecusa.

The facade of the Chiesa Del Soccorso is plain except for the formally patterned tiles accenting its stairway. The tiles on the facade of the house, below, are the polar opposite--an asymmetric, wildly vernacular expression of pattern and color. The last time I was here, the woman of the house was standing in the doorway wearing a geometrically patterned dress. It couldn't have been more perfect

Working in her al fresco studio at the wall abutting the church--see her at left, below--this woman makes baskets





...Someone took the time to sample a multitude of colors for the door of a garage that is set into a hillside. I love that the swatches almost assume the shape of Italy on the map. I shot this on the road to Sant'Angelo


Do you remember the film, "The Talented Mr. Ripley"—the Anthony Minghella-directed 1999 film from the Patricia Highsmith novel? The story was set outside Naples, but some of the scenes were shot on the island. Some Internet souces say it’s Ischia Porto, but it looked like Forio to me.

I know for sure that "Il Postino"--from 1994, the story of the town postman who befriended the poet Pablo Neruda in exile--was shot on Procida, Ischia’s tiny neighbor. Like Ischia, Procida was founded by Greeks around the 8th century BC. It can be toured in an hour, though of course, that’s a typically touristic thing to say. People live their whole lives savoring every square centimeter of the place. But as a return visitor who was bringing friends there for the first time, I wanted them to get a sense of the place before we took the ferry back to Napoli.
We hired a driver. I needed someone who spoke Italian, rather than the more regional Prodcidano, a dialect unintelligible to me, as I was translating. I found Antonio, whose initial brusqueness mellowed into warmth as we drove around the island together. Here are some pictures of the island.

On Procida: A doorway near the Abbey of San Michele

Our driver picking grapefruit-size lemons; at the port, a three-wheel truck loaded with the fruit

Santorini? This is a tourist shot looking down on the port of Chaiolella. The architecture appears Greek because it is--built by Greeks who inhabited the island long before it became part of the Citta di Napoli


Soggiorno a Napoli

The bella and the brutta of Napoli: sublimely beautiful buildings; the traffic so heavy it takes to the sidewalk. These buildings are on Via Toledo, the main street that connects the Capodimonte Palace, high above the city, to the porto and the glorious Bay of Naples below

I ’ve been all over Italy in the past 25 years, but Naples—Napoli— is where my heart is. It’s where my DNA is, too. Everyone there looks like a cousin. Grandma Josephine (Giuseppina) was from a hill town above the city; Grandpa Antonio was from the island of Ischia (you can’t see the island from the port as you can Capri; Ischia is off to the north, a 40 minute ride by hydrofoil, but still part of the city of Napoli).Napoli itself is the personification of Yin and Yang, Italian Style. It’s big, noisy, hot, congested, dirty—and sublimely beautiful. Povery exists check by jowl with extraordinary wealth, like the renovations going on next to crumbling buildings, or the generosity of a shopkeeper (‘ssage, ‘assage, dialect for "have a taste,") in direct proportion to the taxi driver who tells you the meter’s broken and then charges you double what would have been on it.

Open city: I love how the door to the pizza display swings out onto the street

I go there in early spring when the mornings are cool and the churches remain refreshingly so all day. A classic cultural mosaic, Napoli started life as a Greek outpost, Neopolis—"new city"—several millenia ago, and over time was built up by the Romans, and in recent centuries by the Spanish who ruled it for two hundred years. The architecture reflects all of this. You can, for instance, leave the Spanish Baroque (and the motorini, the motor scooters, and the Smart Cars) of street level and descend to the remnants of a Roman street and shops, and below, that, to the stones of a Greek road.

The ubiquitous lines of laundry hanging overhead are a metaphor for Neapolitan life. Everything is out in the open: the immodestly clothespinned underwear, the shop displays dramatic as stage sets, the gelato machines pushed aggressively out into the middle of the sidewalk. It’s not unusual to see families sitting down to dinner, napkins tucked under chins, in a kitchen that’s open to the cobblestoned streets. On the streets, the motor scooter is an al fresco stationwagon holding the driver, a passenger, a couple of kids and the groceries.

More life on the street. A theater set? No. A family is assembled on the steps of a church for a photo op (how convenient for me) for a boy's First Communion. The horse and carriage is a dramatic touch, no?

Even the inside is outside. This is the Cloister of Santa Chiara, cool and quiet, despite the noisy street life of Spaccanapoli on the other side of the walls. The majolica tiles are unusual in that they depict Neopolitan life, not scenes from religious life. It's a museum now. You can see orange trees and grape vines on the grounds

Animated conversations take place on street corners, and from balcony to street level, and from motor scooter to sidewalk, and via wireless, as the talkers gesticulate wildly to one another—or to the air in front of them when a cellphone is involved. I know this sounds like a cliché, but it’s not. (When I was a kid, my parents would say, "Don’t talk with your hands." They might as well have been saying, "Don’t walk with your feet." It just can’t be done in Southern Italy or its diaspora.)

Down by the water, seagoing life is surprisingly well scheduled as ferries and hydrofoils pull in and out of the port. (Except for the sciopperi, the one-day strikes that take place just when you want to go somewhere.) In Santa Lucia, the picturesque orignal port increasingly crowded by restaurants, muscular old guys painting their boats stop to flex for a tourist—is this real life or theater? Oh, right, it’s Napoli, so real life is theater.

I've never been here when the shrine to Santa Lucia wasn't freshly painted. The fisherfolk take care of her--and she of the them, at least the faithful. "Without me you can't do a thing," says her plaque

Maybe this is where my stripes come from?

Italy is a Latin country, and south of Rome, you really feel the passion, the color, the heat. Hispanic Latins have son and salsa; Iberian Latins, flamenco and fado. Italian Latins, the Neapolitans in particular, have their songs of heartbreak and longing, and the opera of the stage and the street. The languages and expressions are different by degree, but these are cultures cut from the same passionate cloth.

Next post: The Islands in the Bay