I had never heard of this island until I got to Naples, Italy. Located just off the coast and less than one hour by ferry, it is the ultimate vacation spot for the locals. Forget the touristic frenzy and overpriced extravagance of Capri. Ischia has retained that untouched quality that so many of us travellers are looking for, but thought had ceased to exist. The streets are still paved with cobblestone. Vintage Fiats needle through the narrow alleyways, barely avoiding hitting the walls by just a hair. No gaudy golden arches of McDonald’s or Starbucks to be seen anywhere.
I arrived in Ischia by ship with just my backpack. Jumped onto a bus, and got off in the middle of Forio, the main town located on the west side of the island. Wandering the streets and rustic alleyways, roasting underneath the hot sun, I stumble upon a hostel. I check-in, throw my bags down and immediately head for the beach. My mini-vacation from the chaotic hustle of backpacking life this past month, has begun.
The city comes to life at night. The decorative archways installed throughout the city for the festival of Saint Vito, light up and fill the night sky with colors. Street vendors line the main road, with people swarming the many candy booths selling gummy candies, nougat, and homemade pralines. Smells of roasted peanuts fill the air as roasters turn out freshly roasted peanuts, a local favorite.
I treat myself to a delicious pizza and a glass of wine at La Strambata in the middle of the busy square. Sitting outside in the warm night, I pick the café table with the perfect vantage point from which to people watch. It is refreshing to feel completely foreign, without echoes of English speakers constantly buzzing in the background noise. I feel completely isolated, yet not vulnerable. Walking by myself late at night in complete darkness, I feel at ease. It’s a feeling that I’ve never experienced before, this sense of complete openness and trust. The people of Ischia are a different breed from mainland Italians. The Ischians are friendly, and because the island is so small, everyone knows one another. I can not count how many times the family sitting at the table next to mine, shouted “Bueno Sera!” or “Ciao bella!” to the ever-changing crowd walking by.
Ischia is also home to natural volcanic hot springs. Sorgeto Hot Springs is an area open to the public. And best of all, it’s free. Yes, I couldn’t believe it either. It’s basically a free spa! The beach is situated up against the cliffs. Boiling hot volcanic thermal water gently streams out from the cliff’s crevices and heats up the ocean water it flows into. The natural rocks create mini pools in which people can lounge and soak it all in. These last 30 days of backpacking has been grueling. From trekking miles a day everyday with the weight of a 10 yr old on my back, to sleeping on lumpy mattresses at weird hostels, and from missing flights and hustling to catch the next one, to hours of flying on cramped planes with seats that don’t recline, I’ve learned that my body can endure a lot. However, lying against the slippery boulders, the hot water eases the tension built up in my muscles and erases it all away. A much needed “refresh” button.
The food in Ischia is homemade, and rustic. The restaurants are all family-owned by people who take pride in their homemade dishes. Best of all, it is quite inexpensive to eat a great meal here. My pizza at La Strambata consisted of toppings I had never encountered before. The dough was perfectly chewy and soft, which led me to reminisce about Da Michele. Slathered in a creamy sour cream base, the sauce was dotted with cheese curds that exploded with every bite. The perfect complement against the spicy arugula and salty cured ham.
Seafood is very much a part of the life here. I had a Sicilian pasta made with homemade rigatoni with olives, capers, fresh tomato and chunks of white tuna caught that morning. Sounds simple, but I will never forget my first bite. These once familiar flavors came to life when put together. Freshness is key, as well as cooking from the heart.
Mama Tina is one chef that pours her heart into the dishes she creates at La Caserreccia. I had the opportunity to dine there because her sons own the hostel I stayed at. The ambiance comfortably upscale without being pretentious. Lorenzo, one of the brothers, mans the wood-fired oven turning out pizza. The different pizzas are named after various members of the family, including the Gregorio, topped with sausage and eggplant.
The butterflied anchovies, lightly battered and fried, were so delectably fresh. The pulpo affogato was the star of the night: whole baby octopus, braised in white wine, fresh tomatoes, herbs and creamy potatoes. The combination of flavors was sublime. The octopus was fork tender, and I could not help but dip my bread into every last bit of the savory sauce.
Oh, and did I mention the family bottles their own wine, presses their own olive oil, makes their own limoncello, and collects their own honey? The appreciation for food and where it comes from is such an essential part of the culture. Can I just…live here?
This island worked its wonders on me. Coming here with no agenda is the way to go, let the island be your guide.