For a journey off the beaten track, there is little to beat the cultural heritage of Ischia
By Rosalind Milani Gallieni
There are not many places on our globe that truly exude an unmatched natural beauty – but Ischia, an island located to the west of Naples, is one such place, and it has not only been nominated as one of the best islands in Europe, but indeed in the world. Add to that a consortium of passionate entrepreneurs, who came out of the pandemic and pulled together to create a wealth of interesting itineraries for visitors to experience and learn from. The intention is that this will, in time, create a transition away from summer’s over-tourism to bring a more qualitative and memorable experience for visitors. In addition, a huge amount of work has been put into ensuring that the sustainability of the island is front of mind to represent its best natural assets throughout the year.
Arriving in the evening on the ferry from Naples, I was glad to be heading to San Montano Resort, in the north west of the island, following long winding roads along bays, through villages, and finally up the mountain, where a full moon lit up the entire bay below. Its classical Italian style holds the hotel in its era of elegance, and the 360-degree views of Ischia all around it can be taken in from any of the fresh white sitting rooms and endless terraces around the building. Rooms and suites are grand and the sense of space has not been compromised in the nautical theme of the interiors. Stepping out onto the private terrace of my room, lined with breezy plumbago flowers, an endless pool greeted me like a teaser to the sea that glistened beyond.
With the summer season having just started, I am told a further nine new rooms will open out on these views, and onto the quintessentially Mediterranean gardens that take up three hectares of the mountain top. San Montano is a true spa resort scattered with alcoves, glades, pools, thermal baths, hot springs, showers and terraces, all dreamt up and landscaped sympathetically to reflect the history of the island.
If you can bear to tear yourself away from the sanctuary of the resort, Ischia has much to offer intrepid explorers. I can highly recommend a visit to Distillerie Aragonesi – the first of its kind on Ischia. Behind an unassuming glass door lies a story of dedication and passion for the finest and most complex distillery processes, using only ingredients from the island. A tranquil place of learning and tasting of course, this is where architecture, design and the past heritage of the island meet, bottled to make the finest “distillati” with dream-like names: Figaro, Gerone, Purtuall, On Carrubo, Sciuscella, and Frescura: the latter being a citrussy liquor of wild citrus fruits and fig leaves infused in wine spirit. A tasting, led by founder and distiller Alessandro, takes about one hour and casts you back into the local traditions he is bringing to life.
Local traditions are also evident at Ristorante Indaco. The seasons, fresh fish, the love of the sea and local ingredients are all brought to life through the imagination of Chef Pasquale Palamaro (a native of Ischia). Set in a tiny bay, prepare for a very intimate culinary experience as the moon sets over the glistening dark sea and the dishes start their sensory game with you, activating all of your senses. All of these elements explain why this gourmet restaurant, now part of the iconic Regina Isabella in Lacco Ameno, is Michelin starred.
The following day, fuelled by the previous evening’s delights, I headed to the heart of Ischia, namely the Giardini La Mortella – where I found something akin to a bijou Kew Gardens, dating back to 1956. With a surprise at every turn, these gardens were created for Lady Walton, by the famous garden designer Russell Page, and the result was a garden love story, to meander in, set in a lost world of near-tropical beauty carved out of a stone quarry. Much like the music that her husband Sir William Walton wrote, the garden is a true botanical symphony from the moment you walk into the leafy pathways, all the way up to the sun. Fountains can be heard all over the garden and they seem to lead you along the route from one pool of water and sound to the next, while flowers and foliage flourish in the open air. A private paradise and living story of the Waltons’ love and appreciation of beauty.
The life of Ischia’s art, its passions, the island’s suffering and its age-old history are also recounted in an unexpected visit I made to the Museo di Pithecusae. An archaeological museum filled with important finds dating back to the Hellenic era, with even parts of the Acropolis under its roof, the highlight here by all accounts is the legendary Coppa di Nestore (“Nestor’s Cup”) dating back to the 7th century BC, bearing a restored inscription of the oldest-known Greek calligraphy. Appropriately, it celebrates the Ischitano wines and the old truism that the more you drink, the more desire takes hold of you. This delicate cup and its warning message are something I had also noted on the table in the sensual menu at Indaco, where Chef Pasquale filled a replica of Nestor’s Cup with a deeply decadent dessert…. I wonder what Nestore would have made of a combination of delicious wines being finely paired with silky soft chocolate.
When I return to Ischia – and I hope soon, before too many descend – I will return to the Keramos Studio in Casamicciola, in the north of the island, to see if they might entertain a workshop to make a lookalike Coppa di Nestore of my own (ideally with a great deal of help from owners Gaetano and Nello) to use for either wine or chocolate delights. These two masters of clay-work have a deep knowledge of the island’s traditions, its imagination and creativity, which they work into each unique object, much like their ancestors and fellow artisans did, bringing the sea, the earth, the sky and Ischia into every piece.
Ischia is a vast constellation of so many Italian cultures, and the deeper you go into listening to the details in the stories, and those that others share with you, the more everything starts to make sense. It explains why this is such a particular island that rests on a collective of truly passionate minds who have brought so many assets together to create a year-long destination. For my own part, I’m even tempted to come back in December, when the Stelle in Strada (Stars in the Streets) sees Michelin starred chefs at the stoves, preparing street food at another level. Until then, I shall be sustained by my memories of this truly beautiful island.