I only learned of Ischia while I was visiting Napoli last year and immediately became eager to visit. So this year when I received an offer in my inbox for the “Toussaint holiday”, the two week school holiday from the 22nd of October through the 6th of November, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and part for Ischia to stay from the 19th to the 25th of October.
Ischia (the region of Campania in the province of Naples) is the third largest Italian island after Sicily and Sardinia with 62,000 inhabitants. The Italian island is situated north of the Gulf of Naples in the group of Phlegrean Islands in the Tyrrhenian sea. The island is 47 km2 and measures 10 km from east to west and 7 km from north to south.
We disembarked the ferry at the port of Ischia after a beautiful and refreshing one and a half hour ride from Napoli. Here we are! Squads of Italian police security swarmed the port and ‘secured’ the streets at every corner. I learned there are 2,000 police for security posted on the island! Wow! We were safe between the presence of the carabinieri (the Italian paramilitary police) and the polizia di stato.
Ischia, Italy wellness destination
As the main routes were closed, our taxi driver was a bit annoyed to be instructed by security ‘polizia’ to take a long way around to arrive at our hotel only 2 kilometers from the port. To my enjoyment however, the ride turned into an informative tour, and I will gladly hire this taxi driver at the next opportunity. Upon arrival, we enjoyed a ‘prosecco’ welcome and a visit of the hotel, our destination spa hotel, MiraMare é Castello , sister hotel to Mareblu that hosted G7 participants,
wellness grounds and facilities.
We return to our native, knowledgeable and kind taxi driver. He held no grudge as he meandered his way perfectly through narrow neighbourhood passages and explained to us that the police were brought to Ischia from as far away as Florence and Rome to secure the island for the G7 meetings taking place on the Castello Aragonese on Friday and Saturday. He also joyfully and proudly shared a local history of Ischia while we made our way toward the hotel, the destination spa hotel, MiraMare é Castello , sister hotel to Mareblu that hosted G7 participants.
The G7 meetings were held within the grounds of the Castello Aragonese. The official members of the International G7 include the Ministers of Economy, Culture and Security from Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, as well as European Union officials. This year, representatives of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter were also present.
I digress. That is another story you can learn of through the link. I encourage your curiosity, and I share with you my passion for the Italian language. After the initial official Youtube account of the event, you can see interesting local accounts of the demonstration against the G7 and more about traffic control and security measures! As for the larger perspective, to understand the relatively small Italian island, there is a video below. And – as usual – I am looking through the lens. The crew happens to look out for my wellbeing!
A look at historical Ischia begins around 700BC / (474 BC) when the Greeks discovered it. Mythology speaks of the monster Typhon, “Who, angry with Zeus for the imprisonment of the Titans, seeks to destroy the ‘Father of Gods and Men’.” Tifeo (in local tongue) is a monstrous figure with flames gushing from his mouth. Well, with a little help from his friend Hermes, Zeus prevails and leaves Tifeo resting below the island to vent his anger with earthquakes, flames and boiling hot water.”
Historically, the island has been documented as “Pithécusses” by the Greeks, which comes from ‘pithekos’ (“monkey”). This account is in reference to the legend that the first inhabitants of the island, the Cercopes, had been changed by Zeus into monkeys because of their perjury. Pliny the Elder instead claims this name from ‘pythoi’, because of the so-called amphorae produced in Ischia. Archaeology shows that the production of ceramics had flourished there at the end of the first phase of Greek colonization. The current name is seen for the first time in a letter from Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in 813: ‘iscla’, from classical Latin ‘insula’, simply means “island”.
At any rate, archaeological digs have discovered that the Euboeans, the Greek tribe who were the very first people to live on the island, used the thermal water from the springs to treat the wounds of their injured soldiers who had returned from war. The Greeks so revered the power of the water that they built temples to gods such as Apollo in its honour.
On a humorous note, this outlook on the Castello included a plaque indicating, “antica torre di avvistamonto e difesa.” Since I had just experienced a peaceful meditation in a small chapel with classical chants in the background, feeling peaceful and momentarily forgetting human history, I approached this outlook with an imbedded impression of peace. I interpreted the plaque (which I should have known ‘vista’ ‘monto’ as “view shown”). Yet I saw the word as ‘avvisa’ as in “advise”. I held onto the feeling, envisioning a loving couple, looking out to nature and receiving universal guidance. In reality, of course, the lookout point is a defense watchtower! …Ummm, obviously!
As one can imagine, many historical changes evolve with the passing of hands from Romans to Visigoths, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Angevins, each having left their mark on the structures. Stories recount attacks by pirates in the Middle Ages, describe warring republics throughout Roman times, provide explanations through the passage of the Risorgimento (the Italian reunification in the 19th century), and finally recount details of habitation on to modern times.
Ischia is a volcanic island. Throughout history, mankind has learned about the thermal water of Ischia and has understood how best to optimise the water’s availability for the treatment of disease and to restore the spirit.
The Romans, renowned for their love of baths and spas, built ‘thermae’ on the island so that the public could take advantage of the water’s many restorative qualities.
The effect of modern-day tourism on the island has only served to improve and enhance the facilities that nature provided, so that Ischia can now be considered one of the world’s leading destinations for wellness holidays.
A large number of hotels on the island include the word “terme” in their title, which means that they have their own well from which to draw the thermal water to use in their spas and wellness centres. These spas and wellness centres provide a wide range of treatments for mind, body and spirit, using a combination of thermal water, mud, massages and other sophisticated techniques aimed at improving health and promoting relaxation.
Ischia attracts visitors like me who wish to enjoy the health benefits of its hot springs and volcanic mud. At the centre of the treatment programs, the mud (created with the thermal water and mineral-rich clay) is used to treat a wide range of ailments and diseases. Once the tests and health checks have been carried out, the doctors at the centres will prescribe a course of treatment.
There are a number of places on the island to enjoy these natural phenomena without a doctor. I bee-lined to the nearest seaside, full-service spa hotel to soak, sauna, and steam, and to enjoy the prosecco, the ‘pomodoro’ (as the tomatoes from this region are world-renowned), and the best-ever pizza and spaghetti. It simply means I will return to explore the nature and the volcanic mud, of course!
Castello Aragonese d’Ischia and Its History
The first recorded fortress was built by the Greek ruler of Syracuse in 474 BC. After the last eruption of Ischia’s Monte Epomeo in 1301, local inhabitants left their damaged homes and moved to the island.
Alfonso of Aragon rebuilt the old Angevin Castle in the mid 1400s. He joined the island to the main island with an artificial bridge and built strong walls and fortifications in which almost all the people of Ischia found refuge and protection against pirate raids.
Living inside these walls, the Ischians were protected from military and piratical marauders. Over a thousand families squeezed onto the rocky slopes.
The fortress sheltered a convent, an abbey, 13 churches and a garrison as well as the homes. Gradually, the Ischians began moving back to the shores of Ischia. While the fortress was held by the French, it was shelled by the British in 1809. The damaged buildings were abandoned until the fortress was used briefly as a prison by the Bourbon rulers of Naples before Italy’s unification.
Nowadays, the island is privately owned and immaculately maintained. Yet as a UNESCO Heritage site, it is open to the public for 8€. An elevator built inside the rock reaches 60 mt above sea level. The highest points are private residences and are unreachable by visitors. I was told ten people, comprising three families, live on the island. The island also hosts special events such as concerts and exhibitions. There is also a hotel on the islet, housed in the old convent buildings.
Among the most interesting and creepy sights within the Castello is the Nuns’ Cemetery. The Clarisse order of nuns who lived there from 1575 until 1810 placed their dead sisters on stone seats (with drainage holes) in small cells. Living nuns practised daily prayers in the company of their decomposing companions, meditating on mortality. Obviously, this macabre and unhealthy custom led to illness, and now clearly the eerie cells are hygienically empty of corpses.
And last – yet not in anyway least – Ischia is noted as one of the principal residences of Vittoria Colonna. Certainly the most renowned and successful female writer of her epoch in Italy, she was widely admired by her peers for her impeccable *Petrarchan verses and her public image of unimpeachable chastity and piety. Her work went through numerous sixteenth-century editions, but these tailed off after the 1560s, and subsequent editorial neglect belies her status at the forefront of literary production by secular women in the Renaissance. As I am studying Italian, I optimistically bought the book on Vittoria Colonna in Italian to inspire my own progress.
No worries about furthur details from me, as Culture Honey’s own Catherine Hommes, scholar and expert on the history of Vittoria Colonna, can enlighten us with further insights about this remarkable (and, like most women with historical merit), nearly overlooked poet.
(*Francesco Petrarca, commonly anglicized as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar and poet in Renaissance Italy who was one of the earliest humanists. His rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited with initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.)
While Ischia is known for its thermal waters, health spas, volcanic mineral mud cures and Renaissance poet Vittoria Colonna, it also is now sadly known for the acidic ocean water that threatens sea-life around the Castello Argoneses d’Ischia.
I will read my book, and I will return to Ischia. Perhaps you might be interested in a volcanic mud cure?