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RETURN TO CAMPANIA--ISCHIA CASTS ITS SPELL

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Oct 7th, 2009, 04:18 AM
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RETURN TO CAMPANIA--ISCHIA CASTS ITS SPELL

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/pa...OPORTO/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/euro...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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Oct 7th, 2009, 07:09 AM
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Welcome back, Eks Hope the weather didn't spoil your stay too much ...

Steve
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Oct 7th, 2009, 09:40 AM
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You will see that I got impatient and posted a question!
Im already enjoying this full report!
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Oct 7th, 2009, 10:37 AM
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Thanks! I answered you, JJJ--I would highly recommend a visit--you should be able to see a lot in one day as it is very easy to get around; we did not see even a small fraction of the island's highlights. I had been very leery of the bus but my fears were not realized. And if one bus is very crowded (this only happened a couple of times) you can be sure that another one will be around the bend within a few minutes.

The weather, Steve, was a bit annoying (remember, we had had terrible weather on our last trip to Italy--to Piemonte in April) but we did have some mostly sunny days, too, and we did not let the rain stop us from exploring.

More soon!
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Oct 7th, 2009, 05:01 PM
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ekscrunchy, I'm so glad you are posting as we are planning on visiting Ischia 1st week June. Look forward to more of your trip report. I think we will base ourselves in Sant Angelo. Loren
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Oct 8th, 2009, 04:09 AM
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Loren: I am glad that you chose Ischia. I cannot fathom why this island is virtually ignored on this forum! I myself had been to that area of the world several times before I considered Ischia, so I include myself in the group of former "ignorers!"

At the second hotel we stayed at, we commented on the general lack of Americans on the island and the lovely front desk person said, "It is true that not many come. But the Americans that do come to Ischia,---they return again and again."

I will be writing this in fits and starts, as there is a lot of upheaval in my house right now and I do not always have access to the computer....but I will file the next installment soon!
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Oct 8th, 2009, 09:54 AM
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Forio center is not overly endowed with appealing eating spots, so that first night on the island, we decided to try a country restaurant outside the port town that had turned up in my pre-trip internet research. Reading the website, I became convinced that this family-run trattoria was “our kind of place.” Online reviews of the Poggio del Sole hotel made frequent mention of the food served at the adjoining eatery.


http://www.lacasereccia.com/cuisine.asp


Having no bus map, and being unsuccessful in learning if there was even bus service to the B&B that housed the restaurant (there is, indeed) we opted to take a rather expensive (12 euro, 10 minute) taxi ride to La Casareccia. Upon taking another look at their website, I see that the restaurant offers free pickup for diners located in Forio. Yet another reason to carry a cell phone; I had tried unsuccessfully to ”borrow” a phone in town in order to call the restaurant.

We arrived early, before 8pm, and were soon shown to a candle-lit table on the arbor-shaded terrace. Slowly the place filled, with a mixture of foreign tourists and locals.


Not wanting to wait another minute to sample the signature salad of the region, I opted to begin my meal with an Insalata Caprese. While the mozzarella di bufala was as exquisite as expected, the tomatoes were shockingly poor—as poor as one would find back home in a supermarket off season. I only hoped that this was not a harbinger of things to follow!

(While tomatoes are grown on Ischia, the island has no tradition of cheesemaking since it is home to neither cows nor sheep. So cheeses tend to be “imported” from Agerola, Paestum, or other cheese producing regions on the mainland. )

The eggplant parmigiana was, indeed, devoid of cheese but it did contain mushrooms, along with tomatoes and onions. A good dish, if an unexpected rendition.

Second course: Seeing a mixed seafood grill of calamari and scampi offered for the very reasonable price of 15 euro, I inquired if the seafood was fresh. Not surprisingly, the answer was “no.” (Sometimes frozen items are marked on menus with an asterisk; here one had to ask). Soliciting a recommendation from the congenial proprietor, I was steered to the swordfish, which we would see on many menus that week. I was very pleased with this large portion of grilled fish, accompanied by a garlic/parsley/olive oil sauce. Truly excellent, this was a dish that I thought about long after that night.

My partner opted for a pasta (“come secondi” ??), and the creamy Tagliatelle al Limone drew many sighs of satisfaction. We were so happy to be back at the Italian table!

While we were devouring our food, I noticed the proprietor, Sr.Colella, passing our table coddling a napkin with something evidently precious nestled within. When I questioned the contents of the little bundle, he unfolded it to reveal about a dozen white figs.
Apparently he had picked these from his tree and had followed a process of drying the fruit, first in the sun and then in a low oven.

He made us a gift of a few of these for dessert. Lovely!

With a bottle of Panna water and a half-liter of the very good house white wine, the total came to a reasonable 31 euro.

The bus passes the restaurant every hour at night and so, after short wait at the stop across the street, we made our way back through the town of Forio to the Villa Melodie and were tucked into bed less than an hour after leaving the restaurant.
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Oct 8th, 2009, 10:10 AM
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bookmarking for later reading.
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Oct 8th, 2009, 02:32 PM
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ekscrunchy: I can only speak for what my family (most of them in the tourist industry) in Ischia says. They say that Ischia has always been a destination for Europeans especially Germans and they feel that Capri is the pull for Americans. They say Capri has more of what Americans want......more services and more luxury and more English speaking residents. It's much more expensive, also. If you want real down to earth Italian living, Ischia is the place to be. Don't kill the messenger I'm only repeating what they say.
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Oct 8th, 2009, 03:46 PM
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ek, I'm really enjoying the report. I was considering Villa Melodie for next July after reading your lengthy thread about choosing a place. I also really want the pool. Can you tell me about the number of steps to the rooms? Are there any ground-floor rooms? I'm thinking I would request that or a first-floor room (my knees don't like a lot of stairs, so I try not to add on a lot at the hotel).

Looking forward to every detail!
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Oct 8th, 2009, 04:43 PM
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Ann: That sounds similar to what I have heard, too. You cannot imagine how many people, when I told them where we were headed, asked "where is that?" And these were people who have traveled a fair bit in Italy. Well, I suppose you CAN imagine, but I was surprised.

I think that the thermal waters must have been, and must be still, a big draw for many tourists. And aren't Germans big believers in the medicinal benefits of these waters? There seems to be a large Russian contingent on the island, too. Can you believe that the entire 6 days that we were there, we encountered no more than 6 Americans, and two of these were on a day trip from a WindStar cruise???


Susan: Yes, Villa Melodie does have ground floor rooms; I am not certain where they are all located but I did see a row of them near the pool. Those rooms had outdoor terrace areas so you could walk to the pool without returning to the lobby.

To reach our room, we had to walk up a flight of steps from the lobby, but it is a very shallow stairway, not at all steep. Gianni, one of the owners, is very receptive to e-mails so you could ask him for more details.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to navigate with the bus system. I would say that the bus stop is about one city block from the door of the hotel. You do have to walk a few steps along a busy road but it was not scary. And when you return to the hotel, some bus drivers will let you off at the entrance to the hotel driveway rather than at the bus stop.
They did this for us a couple of times when it was pouring rain!
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Oct 8th, 2009, 05:51 PM
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Thanks for the additional information. It sounds like my kind of place. And I love the price! A block from the bus stop is great! I would definitely be taking the bus a lot. I hope that in July I won't have to worry about pouring rain!
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Oct 8th, 2009, 08:34 PM
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ek- I'm so happy to see an ek Italy trip report! I think you were the most helpful Fodorite when I was planning my first trip to Italy in 2007. I still have pages and pages of ekscrunchy trip reports/tips.

I am more the history buff, and so do not go to Italy to see beaches or "scenery". I really am there to "feel" the history. Which is why Rome and Florence are where I will be returning to in April next year. I'll pull out my ek notes when I start finite planning.

Thanks for the great trip report. (The picture of that church is gorgeous!)
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Oct 8th, 2009, 10:04 PM
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I'm enjoying your report; lots of great details. We also thought the bus system was easy. Well, it was on strike one day, but a lovely old man in an even older VW bus gave us a ride half way around the island that day, and the buses eventually started running again.

I'm just remembering that we stopped at a cafe with our geriatric driver-friend, and while we had a quick coffee, he had a shot of something stronger. Then we all tumbled back in the old VW and away we went. The things you do on vacation!

Looking forward to hearing more.
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Oct 9th, 2009, 04:16 AM
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Thanks to you both, and also apologies to Annabelle for not mentioning you among those who had been so helpful in answering my many questions during the planning phase of this trip.

More soon....I hope I will not be delayed in the completion of this when my NEW laptop has to go to the hospital next week!
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Oct 9th, 2009, 04:24 AM
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YAY!!!! Tagging to read over the weekend
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Oct 9th, 2009, 01:22 PM
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Here is a bit more:


The next day, Monday, our first full day on Ischia, we awakened to pounding rain. (The rain eventually let up but the day remained cloudy and dreary) The first order of the morning was breakfast and I have to say that this was the Villa Melodie’s weak point. Taken in the breakfast room on lobby level, it featured juice and coffee from a machine, along with non-descript bread, hard-boiled eggs, and dried cereals. The lone Italian couple breakfasting that morning must have noticed my look of dismay because they generously offered to share their plate of pastries with us. (They did tell us that these could be obtained by placing an order with the kitchen the night before; we did not attempt this, however).

Most of our fellow guests were Germans of a “certain age” and, we later learned from the congenial Gianni, by his estimate, 90% of the guests were repeat visitors to the hotel. It did seem at bit strange at first to be so frequently greeted, in Italy, with "Guten Morgen."

After breakfast we set off to explore Forio for an hour or so; I wanted to stock up on fresh fruit and, at the fruit stand facing the port, I got an education into the various varieties of peaches common in Italy—white peaches, yellow peaches, peaches for steeping in red wine, peaches to submerge in sparkling wine, peaches to eat out of hand. (We bought a sampling of each--the best for eating would turn out to be the white peaches). Just then a downpour stranded us inside the shop, so I made the most of the time there by chatting with the proprietess who, in reponse to my question, recommended the restaurant Umberto Al Mare as the best in Forio. As soon as the rain let up a bit, we headed in that direction to check out the menu.

This restaurant is featured in several guidebooks including the excellent FOOD AND WINE GUIDE TO NAPLES AND CAMPANIA by Carla Capalbo, so generously given to me last year by KyBourbon.


When I walked in, I noticed the breakfast spread (the restaurant is attached to a small waterfront hotel) and could not help but glance somewhat longingly at the luscious array of cakes and pastries on display in the pretty breakfast room. This looked like an appealing place to stay for those uninterested in a swimming pool. The restaurant looked lovely but I was taken aback by the prices—both the primi and the secondi were well into the 20-30 euro range which would make this very pricey due to the poor status of the dollar at the time. The hotel rates are quite reasonable, though.


http://www.umbertoamare.it/inglesehome.htm


From there, we took the quick bus ride back to the hotel (in order to know the proper stop, we learned to tell the driver, “Melodie” upon boarding so that he could alert us when the bus reached our stop. (The hotel stop is the first one after the Total gas station, coming from Forio).

After dropping off our peaches, we were back on the bus, this time in the opposite direction headed for Ischia Porto, where we would change buses at the “deposito” across from the harbor, boarding the #7 minibus for Ischia Ponte.
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Oct 9th, 2009, 03:08 PM
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Your trip report is so interesting ekscrunchy as I have never made it to Ischia. We were going to go twice but it never worked out, long stories which I won't bore you with. So I am enjoying travelling along with you regarding your time on Ischia. I don't know many Italians that stay on Ischia except for one friend that goes every year and claims that helps her aches and pains. Well she convinced her husband anyway! Anyway, thanks for sharing and thanks for all the interesting websites.
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Oct 10th, 2009, 08:15 AM
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ek, do you know what Melodie's cancellation policies are? I sent a reservation request for four nights in July. They have responded that they cannot give a reservation for three-four nights this far ahead, they can only do it a month ahead! This far ahead, they will only give a reservation for a week. I certainly don't want to wait until that close and hope they have a room. Normally I would never do this, but I'm considering booking it for a week, and then changing the reservation to the four nights I want a month before. I know, not a good thing to do, but I think this policy is not very good, either! Since I'm considering this, I can't ask them what their cancellation policy is.
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Oct 10th, 2009, 01:01 PM
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OK, I'm probably not going to do this! I feel guilty already. (I've never been one of those people who book two or three hotels and then cancel all but one right before the trip.) I may email them back and see if they will give me a four-night reservation if I pay for it now.
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