After an idyllic morning in the gardens of La Mortella it was time to return to the real world. I took the bus to Ischia Porto, where, ironically, I ended up spending most of my time while on the island. Actually grew quite fond of the little village. The restaurants that line the harbour may have had something to do with that.
Every day they try to lure passersby with fantastical Natura Morta (Dead Nature), an expression that has always struck me as only marginally less bizarre than our English “Still Life”.
While I strolled along the quay checking out the restaurants, I noticed the alarmingly high water level, but it wasn’t until I got back home and had a look at this photo on my computer screen that I noticed the sign.
After lunch I headed for the rocky outcrop hanging off the north-east tip of Ischia.
Being an island in the Bay of Naples is, of course, a large part of Ischia’s present-day allure. But in the past, being stuck out in the middle of the sea meant one thing only – vulnerability. Over the centuries Ischia was attacked by Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Normans – it’s probably easier to list who didn’t attack it. And, as if marauding invaders didn’t give the islanders enough to contend with, there were the island’s volcanic origins that made themselves felt now and then. When Mt. Epomeo erupted at the beginning of the 14th century and destroyed their homes, they decided enough was enough. They abandoned the “mainland” and fled to the shelter of the nearby islet.
Over the centuries various invaders added bits and pieces to the original fortress which had been built by Greek settlers around the 5th century B.C. In the 15th century, Alphonso of Aragon did a major rebuild and joined the islet to the mainland. From then on, the former island was known as Castello Aragonese. It’s hard to imagine a thousand families, a convent, an abbey, a dozen or so small churches and a garrison all huddled together on this small hunk of magma.
By this time I had figured out, more or less, how the local naming thing went. The isola (island) is called Ischia. You know this already, but pazienza (patience)! On the north shore of Ischia Island is a comune (municipality). It is also called Ischia. This Ischia is divided into two sub-Ischias: Ischia Porto and Ischia Ponte. Porto means “harbour”, so Ischia Porto was obviously the area where the ferry landing and my favourite restaurants were located. Ponte means “bridge”, so I had assumed Ischia Ponte was the name of the causeway. But that would be putting two and two together. Ischia Ponte is the name of the town. I never did figure out where Ischia Porto ended and Ischia Ponte began. In any event it was a lovely 10-minute walk from the town to the former islet.
Another bellissima giornata and, even though it was only May, surprisingly hot.
Lantana (the tree-like plant on the left with the orange and yellow flowers) and bougainvillea flank the entrance to the Casa del Sole (House of Sun). Look at what they’re growing out of. I’ve seen “Magic Soil” for sale at nursery stores back home, but “Magic Rock”?
“The ruins of the cathedral. Dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, it was built in 1301 by the local inhabitants from the ruins of the destroyed city of Gerone. On December 27, 1509 the wedding ceremony of Princess Vittoria Colonna and the Marquis of Pescara Ferrante d’Avalos was celebrated. The style is Romanesque, with 18th century Baroque enhancements. It collapsed under the British cannon attack of 1809.”
There was a young woman standing nearby in a uniformish-looking outfit. Some Italian uniforms are so elegant it can be hard to tell. Was she was a guide or a security guard? She was definitely keeping a close eye on us visitors. From her comments about the ruinous state of the church, I got the feeling that those English cannonballs still touched a raw nerve with the locals.
The stone cupola behind the Casa del Sole is La Chiesa dell’Immacolata. Attached to it and down a few steps is the Convento delle Clarisse. Most of the Clarisse nuns were of noble ancestry. For them, life on the islet was not a sanctuary. They had not chosen the cloistered life, but had been brought here by their families. Usually when they were mere babies.
There is no primogeniture in Italy. Who would have guessed? In a society riddled with centuries-old traditions of male dominance. I first came across this cultural anomaly while doing some research after visiting a garden in Tuscany. (I’ll write more about it when we return to Tuscany – which, given the way this Canadian winter is going, won’t be any time soon.) However, even without a custom that aristocrats – male aristocrats – throughout Europe have found very handy throughout the centuries, Italy’s aristocrats never worried much about their estates being fractured. Whenever their procreational activities had the unfortunate result of producing female offspring – creatures that might one day grow up to be potential heiresses – they had a handy remedy. To paraphrase Hamlet, they would send them to the nunnery.
Even though I like it hot, the cooler temperature inside the thick walls was a welcome relief from the glaring sun. That would soon change.
I wandered around the underground rooms until I came to what I took for the WC. Carved into the rock were two structures where presumably one could do one’s business. In Pompeii and Ostia Antica I had seen communal toilets – as well as a few other things that showed surprisingly little concern for privacy. Even today – obviously not when we’re talking about WC practices – there is no Italian word for privacy. When the concept comes up, Italians just say ‘pree-vuh-see’.
A reasonable assumption, wouldn’t you think? Usable space was obviously at a premium. Every inch of it had to be carved out of the rock by hand.
Then I saw the plaque.
“Convent cemetery. After death, instead of being buried, the nuns were placed on seats carved out of the rock wall.” Oh. “The flesh decomposed slowly and the living nuns would come here every day to pray and meditate on death. Eventually the bones were piled up in the ossuary.”
Absent from the remarkably dry explanation was any mention of maggots or stench, let alone what must have been a terrifying sight as the decaying bodies slithered into the holes. Or whether the rotting bodies ever fell forward, splattering maggot-ridden bits and pieces onto the nuns kneeling in prayer in front of them. Or whether the close daily proximity to disease and infection from the rotting corpses hastened the turn of the living to sit on the “throne”.
I got out of there as fast as I could. A path follows the perimeter of the island. The sea breezes and views are probably wonderful just on their own, but in comparison to the macabre place I had just been in, they struck me as absolutely spectacular.
Space might have been in short supply, but a flat area was created to grow the essentials, which in this part of the world meant an orto (vegetable garden), olive grove and, naturalmente, a vineyard. A few vines on the other side of a bougainvillea-laden fence give today’s visitors an idea of what it would have looked like.
After I had done the full circle, I headed back to town, where I hoped to find a centuries-old ritual in progress.
Walking back along the shore I was surprised by the way the town seemed to turn its back to the sea. But maybe, given all those centuries, when the sea was more likely to bring sorrow than happiness, it wasn’t so surprising after all.
As I’d hoped, la passeggiata was in full progress. This is one of Italy’s most enduring and charming traditions. Every evening, rain or shine, in villages and towns, and even a few cities throughout Italy, the locals take to the streets. Here in Ischia Ponte, the most charming and most low-tech road barriers I’ve seen – simple terracotta planters filled with hot red and pink geraniums – are rolled out and presto! the main street is transformed into a pedestrian-only zone. I joined the friends and families who would spend the next hour or so strolling up and down the road, catching up on the latest gossip, talking about what they had for supper last night or what they bought at the market for supper tonight – a lot of Italian conversation revolves around food – doing a little window shopping, or just enjoying each other’s company.
After a while, since it was my last night on Ischia, I took the bus back to Forio and headed for the best location to watch Forio’s famous sunset.
While I waited for the sun to set, I had a quick look inside. In addition to the usual assortment of angels there was a strong nautical theme I hadn’t seen in a church before. I imagined lots of prayers had been said for sea-faring loved ones.
And domani? Capri.