The Mediterranean coast has always appealed to me, perhaps because of spending my childhood on the California shore; nothing makes a faraway destination seem like home than familiarity. The seaside cities on everyone’s bucket list in the Amalfi Coast, the French Riviera, and Greek islands are admittedly beautiful, but away from the hordes of tourists there are many lesser-known places just a short drive or ferry ride away, far from the rabble, and equally exquisite. After all, there are almost 30,000 miles of coastline to explore.
The best times to go are either before or after summer, during the shoulder seasons of mid-May to mid-June and mid-September to mid-October. The weather is pleasantly warm but not infernally hot, and the crowds of visitors – like you – are acceptably small. This is your chance to lazily work on your tan and break in those holiday togs gathering dust in your closet.
Last year we spent almost three weeks in Turkey. For a few of those days, we toured around the Mediterranean coast on a gulet, a wooden boat hailing from the southeastern coast, and a big part of the country’s tourism. Starting from Fethiye and ending in Marmaris, it was easily the most relaxing part of our trip.
This year we decided to keep to the south of Italy, so we spent a few days in Ischia, part of an archipelago off the coast of Napoli. It does get quite a few visitors, but they are mostly Italian, and the island is fairly large, so it doesn’t feel overcrowded. Boasting magnificent coastlines, rugged cliffs, sandy beaches, striking hilltop castles, sleepy picturesque squares, mouthwatering cuisine, multiple thermal pools and gardens, and oodles of history, there’s quite a bit to see, so here’s some recommendations.
If you’re taking the ferry there from Napoli, one of the first things you’ll notice is the Albergo il Monastero, located on a rock island just before you reach the port of Ischia. A castle and two towers were built there by Heiro of Syracuse in 474 BC to protect Ischia and its city from seafaring marauders. From that point onward the population grew, and in the 1400’s the fortress was reinforced with what is now known as the Castello Aragonese, named after the royal family who occupied the island. At its peak, the rock island was home to thousands and included the prince, his staff, a garrison, an abbey, and over a dozen churches.
Just the walk over from Ischia Porto on the rock bridge is a sight to behold – leaving the city behind, the rock isle fortification looms high on the horizon and shades fisherman’s boats, as they have for centuries past. Here’s what I wore, as well as excepts from Antonio Ciongoli’s Spring 2015 Eidos lookbook Il Cuore di Pescatore, shot entirely in Ischia and the nearby island of Procida.
Nowadays, the hotel Albergo il Monastero resides in what was originally a convent built in the 16th century, and it has been painstakingly restored and renovated to modern standards in a simple, unfussy decor, styled with antiques and design notes of the island’s storied history. Surrounded by gardens and ruins of the castle, you could easily make an extended stay meandering the verdant pathways, admiring the vaulted arches, and soaking in the views from its terrace. Oh, and there’s a restaurant, overlooking the bridge to the island, that serves outstanding local cuisine, is stocked in part by the garden, and offers wine from its own vineyards. I suggest the coniglio.
Inside the Albergo, you can also peruse some of the art of Gabriele Mattera, whose mid-century art focused primarily on local fisherman, and view other works from various artisans around the world. My wife bought me a wonderful scarf by Bettina Buttgen, a German artist who calls Ischia her home, and who creates “wearable art”. Indeed, the scarf, in silk organza, is one of the most interesting fabrics I’ve ever seen: each one is individually hand-painted in shades of blue, grey, and tan – no two are exactly alike. Its richness and depth of color can only be appreciated in person, but here’s a closeup:
One last thing: do go to Negombo, one of Ischia’s many thermal pool parks, and do stop by and see Antonio Ciongoli’s cousin Gioacchino, who works at Trattoria Casa Colonica, which serves light lunch (no pasta) and a full dinner menu. Just tell him to chose your plates – we did, and even though the lunch wasn’t exactly light (we almost exploded), my wife and I had some of the tastiest dishes on our trip there.