See Naples and sigh
Clodagh Finn enjoys the buzz of the city and the island charm of Ischia
THERE is something about the Italian air that brings on an immediate feeling of well-being. Even in Naples, with its particular brand of scuzzy chic, the warm sun and the smell of the sea insinuate themselves into your pores, slowing the body down to Mediterranean pace.
True, there's a scooter frenzy on the traffic-choked streets but in the Ristoranta L'Europeo Di Mattozzi , in the city's historic centre, there's a sense that lunch is going to last all day. The owner tells you the secret of the region's great food is in the water as he serves up a perfect Neapolitan pizza, topped with tomatoes so succulent they can only be distant cousins of the anaemic things found on Irish supermarket shelves.
In fact, we're on our way to Ischia, the biggest island in the Bay of Naples, but find the stopover in this bustling southern city offers unexpected surprises. You can see instantly why the Neapolitan experience has been dubbed a "double-shot espresso" -- the tangle of streets is all a-bustle. There's a tumbledown cast to the distempered and pock-marked buildings, but the washing-lined balconies are bursting with geraniums and oleander. And there is much to see -- Baroque fountains, frescoed cloisters (check out the church of Santa Chiara) and masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian and Raphael at the museum of Capodimonte. It's a place of legends too and in hypnotic, Italian-inflected English, our guide is constructing a magnificent history filled with stories of Dante, "our maximum poet", conquering Greeks, pirates, royalty and war.
Later, old Vesuvius is on the horizon as we bob across the sparkling water to Ischia. The light is magnificent; it might have been painted on a canvas by one of the Old Masters. When we pull into Ischia Porto, the island's biggest town, it seems that we are already a world away from Naples. The green, rugged beauty of the landscape stretches out before us and, in the distance, you can see the outline of Castello Aragonese, a mighty fortress perched high on a hill overlooking the island.
Yet here, too, there is a story of a hulking, destructive volcano that forced locals to flee in 1301. Happily, it is now extinct, leaving in its wake fertile volcanic soil and hundreds of thermal springs that draw pleasure- and cure-seekers from far and wide.
Madame Marie Curie came here to investigate the radioactivity of some of the springs, and at the Poseidon Thermal Springs centre on the east of the island, a long list of benefits to muscles, joints, skin and general health will be spelt out to you between dips in the resort's thermal swimming pools.
But you don't have to book into a special resort to enjoy the deeply invigorating experience of swimming in the mineral-rich sea. You come out feeling as if you have been exfoliated by an army of sea nymphs. But beware, the sand underfoot can be very hot. On Maronti Beach, in the south, it's so hot you could literally fry an egg in the sand -- if you had an egg -- as it reaches temperatures higher than 100°C.
It's hardly surprising to find that the roll call of famous visitors to this bewitching island is impressive. In the 19th century, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt here. Other big-name visitors include King Ludwig of Bavaria, Hans Christian Andersen and Garibaldi. The modern-day celebrities, however, are drawn to the flashier island of Capri, where, the locals on Ischia quip, you have to pay for the air you breathe. But this is no sleepy backwater. In July and August, the population swells from 70,000 to 250,000 and the place buzzes with heaving nightlife. In the other months of the year, however, the profile is a little different and the pace calmer. You can, of course, set your own agenda, but perhaps the essence of Ischia is best illustrated at Un Attimo di Vino (A Moment of Wine), a restaurant near the marina in Ischia Porto.
Chef and owner Raimondo Triolo boasts that he has more than 700 wines and it seems as if most of them are on the bookshelves lining the walls. (Ironically, the books have found a home in the wine crates scattered around the restaurant). There is no formal menu, but Raimondo's motto -- "simple and seasonal" -- informs the staggering array of food he produces from a tiny kitchen at the back.
The mouth-watering bruschetta that is topped with basil, oregano, pecorino and cherry tomatoes is drizzled with his own olive oil. The courses that follow -- ravioli with ricotta; seabass in a potato batter; the best tiramisu in history -- are served with heartfelt explanations from Raimondo and a wine to suit.
It's a cliche, and perhaps a little patronising, to say that the locals are friendly, but it's genuinely true here. And the feeling that you have landed in one of the last unspoilt corners of Italy's Campania region is enhanced by the island's accommodation -- the hotels tend to be small, cosy and family-run.
There's a lot to see and do, too. I was particularly taken by the 15th-century castle perched atop a hill of lava just outside Ischia Porto. It's still inhabited, but tourists can visit the 11th-century crypt to see an impressive collection of frescoes and amble around the stuccoed ruins that include a chilling cemetery once used by the Clarisse order of nuns in the 18th century: the poor sisters were put on a throne-like stone chair when they passed away and their bodies were allowed to decompose in the open, eventually filtering through a hole on the seat to a little urn underneath.
The castle's guide plays a little on the thrill of the macabre as we gawp at the stone chairs still in situ and imagine what life -- and death -- was like for this enclosed order of nuns, many of them the daughters of rich families who had little choice about entering religious life.
It makes the sunlight all the more welcoming when we step outside and walk down a snaking path that is lined with Bougainvillea, pine and wild capers. It feels idyllic -- and as if we have been let in on a well-kept secret. Ischia maintains something of a low profile on the Italian coast and somehow you can't help hoping that it stays that way.