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Ischia   

© by David Taylor

"Beatrice paused by the doors leading to the rear terrace. 'Look,' James. I make good cannelloni. How if I come down tonight and cook for you?'
The temptation went in and out of Bond's mind in the time it takes an expert to slit a throat. He smiled and shook his head. 'Very kind of you, Beatrice. Perhaps tomorrow. I'm tired and want to make it an early night. Need the rest. You know, light meal and bed with a good book.'
'You're missing one of the great delights of Ischia,' she said, the cheekiness in both face and voice."

from Win, Lose or Die, a James Bond novel by John Gardner.

Clearly, the normally indefatigable Bond was saving up the energy he would need to make the most out of the Isle of Ischia. Faced with a mission on the largest island in the Bay of Naples with its plethora of panoramas, hilly walks, bays, beaches, shops, nightclubs, water sports, thermal springs and baths, traditional cuisine and local wines, poor James just had to renounce something. One thing is for sure: if Bond has come to the point of confusing the temptations of cheeky Beatrice with the slitting of throats he is in urgent need of the type of rejuvenating holiday that Ischia offers, and Mr. Gardener may even find some quiet retirement villa in which to rest his weary metaphors.

Ischia has a long  history,  being one of the earliest Greek colonies in this part of the Mediterranean. The first settlers (circa 7th century B.C.) named the island Pithecusa or The Island of Monkeys, not in reference to some primitive man they found there but in deference to the Cercopes, mythical inhabitants of volcanic zones, and, according to legend, changed by Zeus into yellow-haired monkeys and banished to Pithecusa. The Romans in their turn called the island Aenaria, a name which may have meant terrible, once again a reference to the active volcanic nature of the island. Earthquakes and eruptions are known to have led to complete evacuations of the island in pre-Christian times but did not stop settlers returning at the first possible opportunity. The present name is  possibly a simple corruption of the word insula.

From the Romans to the present Ischia's history is a typical Mediterranean mosaic of occupation and domination by Neapolitans, Ostrogoths, Byzantine Greeks, Spanish, French, English and Arabs. The cylindrical towers found at intervals along the coast once formed part of the defences against the incursions of Corsairs, the most notorious of whom, Khair ad-din, the fearsome Redbeard the Pirate, attacked the island frequently between the years 1543-52, taking 4,000 prisoners and plundering the coastal areas. The most famous fortification and landmark on the island, though, is the Castello d'Ischia, a complex of structures of different periods rising upon an islet linked to the main island by the bridge built at the orders of Alfonso of Aragon in 1483. Once the baronial seat of the D'Avalos family, the castle housed a number of famous women, one of whom, Vittoria Colonna, the poet, married to Ferrante D'Avalos in the castle in 1509, has given her name to a yearly literary prize awarded by the island to women writers. That the castle is partly ruined is due to the last historical event of any importance to unfold on the island: during the wars with Revolutionary France and the Neapolitan Republic of 1799, Commodore Trowbridge under the command of Admiral Nelson bombarded the occupying French garrison into submission. Annually, on the 26th of July, the castle is the site for the spectacular Festa di Sant'Anna, which culminates in a spectacular firework display.

The only invasion the modem inhabitant need fear is the yearly influx of homo touristicus armed with the formidable pentaxmaximus, and even the seismic discomforts of the past have now been turned to the benefit of the islanders and visitors in the form of the thermal springs which flow just about everywhere on the island and have now been incorporated into numerous health spas for both the unwell and the health conscious.

The island is divided into six administrative districts: Ischia, Barano, Casamicciola, Terme, Forio, Lacco Ameno and Serrara Fontana, each of which has its own distinct character, governed by such factors as altitude, economy, microclimate and the degree of tourism. The variation from town to town, district to district, means that there is something to suit all tastes. Ischia Port is undoubtedly the hub of night life and day-tripper activity, but it is a mistake not to move further afield, as all areas are within comfortable travelling distance.

We all have our favourite places and mine include: la spiaggia inglese (the English Beach) — a sliver of beach within walking distance of the port; the hot sands and clear sea of Maronti beach; the quaint and unspoilt town of Sant'Angelo — with its caring residents, views of two bays and a relaxing sea-front piazza. Sant'Angelo is very much  the 'in' place for the more discerning tourist. The town celebrates the festival of St. Michael every  28th, 29th and 30th of  September — three days of processions by sea and land, music and fireworks. But Ischia is an island where anyone willing to move out of the confines of the tourist cliche will find their own favourite cove, mountain walk, hillside trattoria, holiday villa, and if they are lucky they may even witness an authentic performance of the centuries-old dance known as the N'drezzata.


[Also see Pithecusa.]


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