Sunday, January 13, 2008

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ISCHIA, CAPRI and the BAY OF NAPLES



Beautiful boys and girls, la dolce vita and some of the world's top tourist sites, such as Capri's Villa San Michele, haunting Pompeii, ravishing Ravello, William Walton's tropical garden and the dramatic Aragonese castle: that's your trip to Ischia and the Bay of Naples.

Think of erect volcanoes, grand old hotels, topless beaches, swaying palms, mysterious villas, palatial yachts, and the Mafia.

WHO COMES TO THIS AREA?

Ulysses, Aphrodite, Tiberius, Michelangelo, Elizabeth Taylor, Henrik Ibsen, Garibaldi, Graham Greene, Krupp, Visconti, Gore Vidal....

Tourists these days tend to be well-heeled, retired Germans who like to do a lot of walking. Young folks who love the night life of Ibiza or Benidorm might find this place not to their taste.

LA DOLCE VITA?

In the good old days, Italians may not have had much money, but they knew how to smile and flirt and make friends.

According to a recent survey Italians are now the grumpiest people in Europe.

( The international social survey programme collated results from 37 countries. The happiest are the Swiss, of whom only 3.6% are disgruntled. Britain's dissatisfaction figure was 8.5%. Some 27% of Italians are not happy with life and it shows!)

The Mafia?

Today, 60% of businesses in the Naples area are alleged to pay protection money to the local mafia, the Camorra.

The good old days?

Norman Lewis's book "Naples '44" tells what happened towards the end of World War II. Cholera and malaria were widespread; up to one third of the female population was forced into prostitution to survive.

On my third day in Ischia, the morning newspapers had a story about an explosion in Piazza Garibaldi in Naples, and about alleged corruption by Berlusconi, Andreotti and other politicians. Witnesses against Andreotti say that within the Mafia he is known as Uncle Guilio and that he is linked to certain murders. European Commission president Romano Prodi is alleged to have had links to the KGB, Milosevic and the murder of Aldo Moro.

FLIGHT

I flew with a well known package holiday company in a crowded and rather scruffy plane with little leg room.

Naples airport had a Third World feel about it. It took a little while to find the holiday reps at the airport.

HOTEL

A ferry journey of about 45 minutes brought us from Naples to the Island of Ischia where I was staying at the four star Hotel X, located in Ischia's main town.

The hotel is one of the most beautiful in the world.

Guest rooms are set in a collection of villas within the exotic gardens.

The public rooms feature polished marble, terra-cotta floors and the sort of furniture you'd expect to find in an expensive Italian town house.

The basic holiday price for 2 weeks half board was just over £700.

Why so cheap?

1. This was May rather than July.
2. I booked over the internet.
3. The hotel is well inland from the beach and it's a long walk along a busy road to get to the centre of things. Buses can be crowded.
4. My room was relatively small.
5. There was sometimes a package-holiday feel about the hotel - some rude staff at reception, a wine bill that contained many items I had not ordered, breakfast orange juice that seemed to be out of a packet, unhelpful and unfriendly staff at the hotel's health spa.
6. Some local people seem hostile to tourists, especially the British (thanks to the up to 250,000 civilians killed in Iraq since the invasion).
7. Traditionally most tourists to Ischia are Germans and the German economy has reportedly been in some trouble.
8. Italy can be expensive for the British tourist.
9. The Bush/Blair war on Tourism.

Opposite my hotel was a school with a fair amount of graffiti on its walls. The children seemed better behaved than many in Sheffield or London or Manchester, but they did push off and on the buses.

Don't take travel cheques to Italy. My hotel said that they no longer deal with travel cheques. It cost me 11 Euros to change 200 Euros at a bank. Take a plastic card instead.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Ischia is a small hilly island with about half a dozen small towns/villages.

It reminds me of some Caribbean islands because of the lush vegetation and steep pointy volcanic hills; but it lacks the joie de vivre of the Caribbean.

Ischia can be seen within a week, but, during a second week, ferry boats can take you to Capri, Procida, Sorrento and Naples.

From Naples you can visit places like Pompeii.



Ischia Town is the best transport centre and is the most suitable place to stay unless you want a very quiet holiday.

ISCHIA TOWN

Ischia Town has an old-fashioned beach area with fishermen's cottages, washing hanging out, and views of the Aragonese castle.

If you're lucky you may hear the excellent town band.



The visually stunning castle is on a small, steep island reached by a causeway. The castle and its surrounding buildings and gardens provide fabulous views of mountains, bays and boats.

Ischia Town has sections of beach which are free and sections which you pay to enter.

Ischia Town's small, colourful port is usually crammed full of ferry boats and expensive yachts. You could imagine you were on St Lucia.

The main shopping streets of Ischia Town have smart boutiques and smart cafes, including a useful internet cafe (123 Corso Colonna).

The hinterland of Ischia Town has some narrow roads and quiet tracks, villas and wild flowers, a small Roman viaduct, some relatively poor houses and the usual graffiti on houses and schools.

MARONTI BEACH

A number 5 bus will whisk you swiftly from Ischia Town through the middle of the island to its destination which is called Maronti. Maronti is possibly the best BEACH on the island, and is within walking distance of the little town called St Angelo.

The number 5 bus leaves from the small bus station at Ischia port and bus tickets can be bought there or at any tobacconist. A ticket which covers 7 days use of local buses costs 15 Euros. Maronti beach is long and backed by low crumbling cliffs. Pallone is a pleasant beach restaurant, built mainly of wood, which overlooks the action on the beach. For 13 Euros I had sardines, fried potatoes, water and wine. A gentleman in a funny hat, a young woman in a short skirt and a young boy wheeling a baby in a pram, provided my entertainment within the restaurant.

WALTON'S GARDEN

What is Victoria Amazonica? She opens near nightfall. Next day she has changed sex and become male.

Victoria Amazonica is a water lily and can be viewed at LA MORTELLA, the huge gardens built on the site of a hillside quarry by composer Sir William Walton and his wife, who both came to live on Ischia in 1949.

The world famous gardens contain many hundreds of rare plants and trees and have views of mountains and of the coastal resort of Forio. There is a tearoom where not-very-happy staff serve weak tea. I recommend the wine.

In the Walton-museum section there are regular concerts.

The gardens are open from April to November on Tuesdays, Thursdays and at weekends, from 9am until 7 pm.

To reach La Mortella, I took an expensive 'rip-off' tour arranged by Thomson holidays, using a local tour company. Their bus arrived late and was driven too fast. The much cheaper alternative is to take a local bus - buses number 1 or 2 or CS which depart from Ischia port. Get off the bus just before it reaches the town of Forio.

FORIO

I took a CD bus to the Ischian town of Forio. Why not walk to Forio? The steep narrow S-shaped roads are not always suited to walking.

Forio had deep litter on the beach and some graffiti on walls. The harbour is undistinguished.

I walked inland from Forio on little country roads but soon came up against signs saying 'private'. The best feature of Forio is the view of the pink-orange mountain with the white-walled villas and the flowers at its base.

Lunch was excellent lentil soup and pasta with tomato sauce in an empty and rather dull restaurant.

CASAMICCIOLA & LACCO AMENO

I walked from Ischia town to the next-door seaside town of Casamicciola which struck me as being a place of road repairs, building works and boring buildings.

I walked on to nearby Lacco Ameno and found this had more character: a pleasant church, boutiques, flowers and a friendly street cafe serving bruschetta with tomatoes, wine and Italian ice-cream.

ST ANGELO

Bus 1 or CD or CS take you to St Angelo, which has become a bit un-natural and boutique-ish. It's superficially pretty, with its little harbour and painted houses. But it has a Disney-feel about it.

MOUNT EPOMEO (789 meters)

Take a CD bus to the village of Serraro Fontana. From the main square, follow the signs for the track leading up the mountain.

PROCIDA

At Ischia Port I bought a ticket for the Caremar ferry to the nearby island of Procida. The carabinieri police at Ischia port look menacing in the extreme - mafia dark glasses, tall leather boots. On the ferry I had a drink in the bar and then looked through the pollution haze towards Vesuvius and various islands.

If Capri seems very wealthy, and Ischia seems well-off, then PROCIDA could be said to be relatively poor and scruffy. It is not the interesting scruffiness of some Italian settlements. The main port has bleak tenements and the usual graffiti and road works.

The main interest is Marina Corricella, a small harbour within walking distance of Procida's port. A seat in a cafe in Marina Corricella can give you a view of the prison and colourful tenements, while you sup vinegary wine.

NAPLES TO POMPEII

The fast aliscafi hydrofoil from Ischia to Naples (Molo Beverello) costs 22 Euros return and is not recommended because of the fixed return time. Much better to get a single on an ordinary Caremar ferry and then your time of return is more flexible.

Once in Naples I walked towards the railway station. Take care and avoid disreputable types hanging around quiet stretches of street near the docks.

Piazza Garibaldi, next the railway station, was deep in stinking garbage and the populace seemed made up of beggar women and evil-looking pimps.

Naples has some of the loveliest and some of the most venal-looking faces in the world.

From the station I took the Circumvesuviana train that heads to Pompeii and Sorrento.

Naples and its surrounds have deteriorated dramatically.

The Circumvesuviana trains and most of the stations are completely covered in graffiti.

My train contained at least one madman and a horde of intimidating young men.

Pompeii was full of sometimes impolite parties of Italian school kids. But Pompeii is still fabulous: acres and acres of Roman streets and buildings.

I did not travel on to Sorrento. I had heard that, like Naples, it also has deteriorated.



CAPRI

Capri was the highlight of my trip. It is a spectacular little island, almost traffic free.

I took the Caremar aliscafi hydrofoil to Capri, a boat journey of 40 minutes, costing about £15 return.

I walked from the port, Marina Grande, up the very steep twisting road to Capri town: wonderful views of villas and flowers and yachts, but a long walk.

I would recommend taking the funicular, instead of walking! Tickets for the funicular are bought at a hut next to the pier (turn right as you exit the pier). You can buy a ticket that will include buses and last all day. The entrance to the funicular is opposite the pier.

This was May, but, unlike in Ischia, Capri Town was crowded with tourists, mainly large tour groups of the portly and elderly, but also a few people with film-star good looks.



From Capri Town I took a bus up to the town of Anacapri. This narrow, steep, z-bend road has been known to suffer from rock falls.

I got off at the first stop in Anacapri, crossed the road, and followed the sign for Villa San Michele.

It's a short walk along a path to one of the world's great sights.

At the age of 18, Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe visited Capri and decided that some day he would build a house on the island. Its loggias would be full of light, and there would be a small chapel, a vineyard, and old statues in the garden. After practising in Paris and Italy, Munthe became in 1903 physician to the Swedish Royal family.

THE STORY OF SAN MICHELE (1929) is an account of Munthe's experience as a doctor in Paris and Rome, and in semi-retirement at the villa of San Michele on the island of Capri. Both realistic and mystical, the book became a world-wide best seller, one of the most famous books ever written.

Munthe built his villa on the site of a villa of the emperor Tiberius, high up on the rocky ledges just northeast of Anacapri, at the foot of Mount Barbarossa.

Villa san Michele: a villa and garden decorated with beautiful pillars and statues; a curving terrace with views down to Marina Grande.

At the other end of Capri is Villa Jovis to which Roman emperor Tiberius retired in 27 AD, allegedly to live a life of vice and debauchery.

To get there, start at the main square in Capri Town. The route is free of motor traffic. Follow Via Botteghe out of the square. There are signposts.

It's about a half hour walk up gentle slopes.

You pass wonderful villas with beautiful gardens and have views of distant islands.

Villa Jovis is a bit of a ruin but it only costs 2 Euros to get in.

The gardens next to the vill have some of the world's most amazing views - of cliffs and stacks and distant domes and distant mountains.

Close to Villa Jovis is a gorgeous little open-air restaurant where you can enjoy wine and mozarrelo with tomatoes.

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