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Trip Report RETURN TO CAMPANIA--ISCHIA CASTS ITS SPELL

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The third week in September found me, accompanied by my usual travel partner, bound for Campania for the second time in as many years. Several reports here (many thanks to Caroline, Jim, Ann, Julia, SteveJames, and all who were so helpful in planning this trip) had piqued my interest in this largest island in the Bay of Naples and we had originally planned 5 nights there, followed by two on Capri, where I had not been in decades. (This plan would change due to several factors, and we would actually spend 6 nights on Ischia and one in Naples)

Once again, Iberia offered the best connections at the best price for the round trip from the New York area to Naples. And once again, we were very satisfied by both the flights and the easy connections at Madrid Barajas airport.

Economy class food is not, however, the Spanish airline’s strong suit. I am firm adherent of the “bring-your-own meal in coach” brigade, but with a renovation at home about to begin, I was more frenzied than usual in the days before the departure. And so, hoping to avoid a repeat what I had remembered as one of the worst airline dinners in recent memory, I had pre-ordered “special” meals for myself and my travel partner. I received the Halal dinner and he, the low fat version. Both were surprisingly tasty, although the two Halal fish meals served on the return flight were far less “special” than I might have liked.

We arrived in Madrid about 30 minutes early and spent about 3 hours in the spectacularly handsome airport waiting for our connecting flight to Naples on Air Nostrum. This leg of the itinerary should offer tremendous views of Sardinia and the Bay of Naples. I had been concerned with forecasts of bad weather for the week of our trip and much of Italy had, indeed, suffered torrential rains and flooding in the days prior to our arrival. My fears intensified when the aircraft entered thick clouds just outside the Naples area. Uh oh!

Naples Capodichino airport is small and non-threatening and just a few minutes after our 12:40 pm arrival, we were through the exit and headed for the taxi line. Before we reached the taxis, however, I noticed a group of buses just outside the terminal and learned, upon inquiring, that the Alibus to the railway station and Piazza Municipio (near the Molo Beverello, the port from where we would board the hydrofoil for Ischia) was just about to depart. (The bus is scheduled to run every 20 minutes and costs 3 euro per person):

http://www.portal.gesac.it/portal/page/portal/internet/inAEROPORTO/Autobus


The moment I hoisted my giant suitcase aboard the packed bus, I uttered a silent vow that next time I would, I absolutely, definitely would, use a smaller suitcase and perhaps even attain my longstanding goal of taking only carry-on luggage.

The bus was jammed and, saddled with the albatross of my suitcase, I was wedged in between the driver and the many latecomers who piled aboard as the bus was about to depart. Not one minute into the ride, the driver got into hand-wringing, word slinging argument with another driver who had failed to yield at the exit to the parking lot. We were so happy to be back in Italy!

The bus ride proved to be a fantastic introduction to the city. Worth the ride just to careen through the streets and observe the tragic-comic opera of Neopolitan life unfolding on the streets. I think we could have ridden that bus all afternoon!


We made one stop at Piazza Garibaldi and then within a few minutes were deposited at the Piazza Municipio. From there, the walk of about 10 minutes takes you over a wooden plank walkway lined with West African sellers of “designer” handbags and Versace-esque sunglasses and across a busy highway to the Molo Beverello, the principal hydrofoil terminus.

An electronic board lists the departures for the various ports—Capri, Sorrento, Ischia, etc.
I had obsessively consulted the schedule before we left and we were pleased to arrive in plenty of time to purchase tickets for the 2:30pm departure for Forio via Ischia Porto. Be sure to declare the amount of large bags when you buy your tickets; you must pay a small supplement for each one.

http://www.alilauro.it/ischia.php

There is plenty of seating on benches in the shade, and a nearby group of snackbars if one gets desperate.


If the transfer to the port and the purchasing of tickets was straightforward, the actual boarding of the aliscafi was more than a little frenzied, with much pushing, shoving, and loud exclaiming in at least five languages. Again, the schlepping of the bags complicated the issue a bit. The procedure appears to be that, if you carry your own bags, as opposed to hiring a porter, you deposit them in open area in the front of the vessel and then grab a seat, either indoors, or outside on the upper deck. You are not permitted to stand in the outdoor area where the luggage is kept, so forget keeping an eye on your belongings during the voyage.

The sky had cleared a bit by departure time and the trip was wondrous, from my seat upstairs I was treated to movie-set views of Vesuvius, Naples, the Flegrean coast, Procida, Vivara--and, further distant, the humpbacked shape of Capri. After a brief stop in Ischia Porto, and a glimpse of the famous Aragonese castle rising up from its rocky perch in the distance, the hydrofoil hugged the northern shore and we soon spied the checkerboard of chalk white houses huddled in the shadow of Mount Epomeo that marked our arrival in the harbor of Forio.


http://tinyurl.com/yescf46



From the port, we hired a taxi (15 euro; we later learned that these pricey “set” rates can be manipulated with a bit of bargaining, but by the time we learned this, we were experts on navigating the island’s bus system) and a few minutes later, pulled into the driveway of our intended destination, the Villa Melodie, where we planned to spend the next 5 nights:

http://www.melodie.it/eng/home.html


To read the discussions about the best place to stay on the island (the answer is that there is no single “right” answer), see:


http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/ischia--best-base-on-the-island.cfm

Map of Ischia, from one of the excellent websites devoted to the island:

http://www.ischiamappe.it/mappa_en.asp



Villa Melodie is an adorable former family home now a small low-rise hotel fashioned of stucco and local stone and surrounded by gardens that would give us our first glimpse of the island’s luxuriant foliage. Everything from umbrella pines to cactus seems to flourish on Ischia and everywhere we were astounded by the lushness of the greenery.

We were shown to a tidy white room on the second floor of the hotel, Room #117, with simple furnishings and a terrace with a distant view of the sea. The bathroom was of ample size and had a very small shower with a wall fixture. The mattress was firm and comfortable. The price was 47 euro per person with breakfast. (For 55 euro per night,per person, the hotel offers the option of breakfast and dinner.) As we would learn, Ischia in general and with some exceptions, is quite a bit less expensive than the Amalfi Coast area.



What had drawn us to Villa Melodie had been the large, recangular swimming pool and within a few minutes of arrival we were doing laps to the sounds of falling water tumbling from a ceramic vessel at the pool’s edge. After our swim we had a quick soak in the indoor thermal pool, encased in a stone grotto and surrounded by little blue-hued terra cotta ducks. We were very glad that we had our swim on that first Sunday, as the weather would turn nasty and we would not see the sun again until he middle of the week!


After a quick change, we were ready to begin exploring the island. First stop, the port of Forio. I had debated endlessly about whether or not to rent a car on the island and we had decided to arrange a one day rental once we had arrived. (We eventually altered this plan). But for now, we were dependent on the local bus system, of which I had read conflicting reports. In our experience, the buses were fine! Yes, they were jam-packed at times (before lunch; at the end of the afternoon) and we had to stand. But they run often until late at night, and we never had to wait more than 15 minutes and usually waited far less time. There are places that are inaccessible by bus, however, as we would discover later that week.

The bus stop was a few steps from the front of the hotel, and the ride to Forio took only a few minutes. Forio is an attractive port town hugging a picturesque fishing harbor. There is a pedestrian zone at the center of town, forming a T shape, and we would get to know this well. Many shops are oriented toward tourists, but we found this to be true in Ischia Porto and Ischia Ponte as well.
There are at least two small supermarkets, and a small covered permanent food market, in Forio center.

At the edge of town, a few blocks from the port, the little whitewashed church of Santa Maria del Soccorso perches on a rocky outcropping over the sea. The style is vaguely Moorish, with Majolica tiles embellishing a portion of the exterior. Inside, votive offerings in the form of ship models recall the sailors who credited the Virgin from sparing them from shipwreck. An essential stop on an Ischia visit!



http://tinyurl.com/yd4cluv

Adjacent to the church is one of the island’s most famous restaurants, Umberto A Mare. I had read about this seafood restaurant and we considered eating here later in the week.

It was not too long before the question of dinner loomed large on our minds. I had found relatively little information on eating on Ischia during the research phase of this trip. What I did learn was that the island has two principal cuisines; restaurants on the perimeter of the island tend to focus on seafood, while those in the interior specialize in rabbit, pork and other “land-based” foods. (Surprisingly, many locals told us that the best seafood restaurants were on the nearby island of Procida, which apparently has more of a focus on fishing).

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