Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet novels were set in a gritty, poverty-stricken Fifties Naples still recovering from the War. I came later than most to the best-selling saga of Elena and Lila, then devoured its 550,000 words with all the gusto I had brought to road-testing the pizzas of that chaotic, hypnotic city.
Seventy years ago, as now, an idyllic escape route was offered by the hour ferry ride across the Gulf to Ischia. It was on a moonlit beach there that Elena lost her virginity in The Story of a New Name. My solo visit to this 17-square mile island out in the Bay of Naples was less life-changing but quite unforgettable.
Ischia teems with other ghosts – cinematic, musical and literary. This volcanic outcrop of hot springs and mud treatments may lack the sheer chocolate box glamour of rival Capri, but what an exotic, sometimes louche, backdrop it has been to the lives of numerous creative mavericks.
Capri boasts homespun Gracie Fields; Ischia WH Auden, William Walton, Luchino Visconti and their luminous guests. OK, much of this celebrity action was back in the Fifties and Sixties, when it was not the developed tourist destination it is today. The same is true of so many Mediterranean boltholes, yet against the odds Ischia retains a special dolce vita allure.
It helps that it has acted as location for at least 30 movies. It also hosts two annual film festivals. I gasped when I first reached Ischia Ponte, the picturesque extension of the island’s capital, Ischia Porte, and gazed upon the iconic citadel, Castello Aragonese, rearing 300ft above the sea across its causeway. Instantly recognisable from film noir The Talented Mr Ripley, where Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow play out their sardonic, sun-kissed endgame.
Off-screen movie melodrama came to Ischia four decades before when Richard Burton and Liz Taylor conducted their very open and controversial public affair on the island during the filming of Cleopatra in 1962. At the Bar Mara Caffe Internazionale in Forio town there’s no recognition they were once visitors alongside a starry cast that included Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis.
The regular presence at Maria’s Cafe of great English poet Auden is marked by a framed photo with then owner Maria Senese, while other visitors have terrace tables named after them. I sipped a wheat beer with my legs under ‘Truman Capote’. Auden lived nearby in the summer with boyfriend Chester Kallman, forming a gay enclave that sometimes scandalised residents of this workaday port.
There is no trace left of the house they rented, so I pursued my quest for Ischia’s bohemian past by walking north along the coast back to my hilltop hotel base, San Montano Resort & Spa via two surviving monuments to artistic giants. It was a stiff climb up to the pine-clad Zaro promontory in the north east of the island that is home both to film director Luchino Visconti’s Moorish-style villa, La Colombaia (The Dovecot), and Oldham-born composer Sir William Walton’s world famous garden, La Mortella (The Myrtles).
La Colombaia, set deep in forested grounds, was rescued from a decade of neglect and relaunched as a museum and international school of film and theatre 20 years ago. In these difficult times the whole complex is closed, possibly for good. The ghosts remain. Here the rampantly bisexual director held open house. If walls could tell tales. When Aristotle Onassis ditched Mara Callas for Jackie Kennedy, here Visconti comforted Callas, who he had directed in La Traviata at La Scala. All three were his friends and frequent house guests.
A couple of miles away is a place with an altogether less turbulent past. The gardens of La Mortella were 50 years in the making. In 1958 Lady Susana Walton started transforming a quarry on the property her husband Sir William had bought, opening it to the public in 1991. Today, run by a private foundation, it is a spectacular sub-tropical and mediterranean garden featuring a working concert amphitheatre, a museum devoted to the composer (best known for Facade and Belshazzar’s Feast) and his pyramid-shaped tomb overlooking the sea. I liked the risque murals in the quasi pagan ‘Temple of the Sun’ and the world’s largest water lily, the gender-bending victoria amazonica, that flowers in the morning as a white petalled female and later in the day reopens as deep crimson petals and male organs.
If you visit one attraction in Ischia, make it La Mortella, but note it is shut to the public from until April 2 2022. During the winter month the garden can be visited via a guided tour each Thursday. You must book in advance.
I was lucky it was an hour’s walk away from marvellous San Montano,which itself boasts a spectacular outlook in all directions. Down to its private beach 100m below or along the coast towards Ischia Porte. Perfect for sunrises and sunsets. My room with its own balcony shared these sublime vistas.
It is such a haven much of the clientele seemed happy to while away the afternoons around the fabulous pool complex or make full use of the light-filled Ocean Blue Spa with its hand-made Vietri tiles before dining in formal but relaxed style al fresco on the terrace. Dishes featuring plenty of fish, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, salad and herbs offered a deft take on traditional local cuisine. The local produce is magnificent.
A dinner excursion down to Lacco Amena town was exciting, too. Here at the island’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, the Ristorante Indaco locally-born chef Pasquale Palamaro offers challenging tasting menus. It is situated in the L’Albergo della Regina Isabella, the only hotel on the island with its own beach – and a sense of a glorious celeb past.
Both hotels have fabulous wine lists showcasing Campania on the mainland and Ischia’s own specific grape heritage. Key local producer is the acclaimed D’Ambra winery, which has championed varieties native to the island such as Biancolella, Forastera, and Rilla white varieties, and Piedirosso and Guarnaccia for reds.
I tasted the range in the company of Andrea d’Ambra, who is assisted in th winemaking these days by his daughters Marina and Sara, then went on a vertiginous car ride up to the Frassitelli vineyard that is their pride and joy, four hectares clinging to a mountainside 600m up en route for Monte Epomeo, the slumbering volcano that dominates the island. Great walking all around, aided by a colour-coded footpath network.
Frassitelli, the flagship white produced here from Biancolella, also hits the heights. Peachy on the nose, it is piercingly fruity, with a hint of salt, on the palate. Visconti helped design distinctive labels for D’Ambra when they were finding their feet in markets beyond the island.
Visible from the vineyards on the southern coast is Sant’Angelo, loveliest spot on the island. All whitewashed cubes and pricey boutiques and fish restaurants, it lies on an isthmus in the lee of a volcanic hump (they are everywhere – Lacco Amena has a tufa outcrop called Il Fungo because it resembles a mushroom.
Here most of all on this lush, less developed side Ischia lives up to its sobriquet of the Emerald Isle. No cars or buses are allowed in Sant’Angelo, so it is a tranquil spot to people watch on the beach or grab a beer and a pizza.
I covered so much of the island on foot there was no time left to take to the hot springs. Those in the know recommend Negombo, which is next door to San Montano’s private beach. This ‘thermal garden’ covers 22 hectares with a variety of mineral baths, jacuzzi and Turkish bath. You buy a day pass. Probably a great place to relax and gather your strength before being ferried back from vibrant, villagey Ponte Ischia (below) to the urban maelstrom that is Naples.
I flew into Naples and then travelled to Ischia by Alilauro hydrofoil on the 9th at 2.35pm (alt 3.30). Get there 45 minutes before and tell them you have luggage. Alilauro ticket office is at Molo Beverello (Napoli’s Port).
A version of this article first appeared on Manchester Confidential.