Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Saturday Stroll - To Ischia Porto

By mid June, the rain has usually stopped and Naples is stifling hot. This weekend was the rare exception – but that didn’t dampen our spirits any. Rain or shine, Ischia is our favorite weekend getaway in the Bay of Naples. A 10 mile wide gulf that opens to the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay stretches from the Sorrentine coast on the south; east to Pompeii, Vesuvius, and Herculanium; and north to Naples, Pozzuoli, Baia, Bacoli, and Monte di Procida. The cluster of islands in the Bay of Naples known as the Campanian or Neapolitan Archipelago includes five principal islands: Capri, Ischia, ProcidaVivara and Nisida, and a number of islets including Castello Aragonese off of Ischia, Gaiola at the end of the Posillipo coast, and the famous Faraglioni of Capri.

The Island of Nisida

The most popular destinations in the Bay are definitely Sorrento and Capri. The characteristic small town charm and laid back beach resort lifestyle in Sorrento attracts a large English crowd, and it’s where we go when we need an English break. Capri on the other hand is a renowned tourist destination of immense natural beauty. With crystal clear blue waters, panoramic vistas, the famed Blue Grotto, a chic upscale atmosphere, and high end hotels and designer stores, Capri attracts the rich and the famous, and has the price tag to match.

By contrast, the tiny and oft forgotten island of Procida attracts far less crowds. The antithesis of Capri, it is little more than a small fishing village really, and with no upscale hotels or designer stores, it has a quaint charm and local character that makes it the perfect place for a day trip.

Then there is Ischia. The largest of the Campanian islands, it is the perfect middle ground between touristy Sorrento, upscale Capri and tiny Procida. It boasts some of the best thermal spas in the area, is considered almost rural by some, attracts less crowds – mostly locals and Germans, and everything is reasonably priced (except the taxis). In other words, it’s a great weekend getaway from the city.

And getaway we did. Not just one weekend, but the last two. I don't know what it is, but something keeps drawing me back here. Maybe it's the respite from my chaotic city life, maybe it's the short journey to a whole other world, or maybe, I just love the hotel.

In today's world of nightmare travel this has to be one of the most pleasant journeys by far. No waking up at dawn to catch a flight or train; no airport security lines or the customary metal detector and strip search; no traffic jams or toll boothes. A five minute bus ride from my apartment and a short walk and I'm at the Mergellina port waiting for an Alilauro Aliscafi (hydrofoil). The only thing I have to contend with is the classic Neapolitan queue - or lack there of - and I choose simply to wait it out and let everyone else cram on.

Such was the case when I left on Friday. The line didn't look that long so I had no real worries, but I forgot that the ferry was coming from Naples main port, Porto Molo Beverello and all ready filled with passengers. By the time we made it on the boat - there was no room at the inn. But it was a blessing in disguise, as we were "forced" to stand outside on the deck and soak in the stunning views.

We reached our destination, Ischia Porto, in about 35 minutes or so (it's a little quicker from Mergellina than from Molo Beverello). There are two other ports on Ischia, Casamicciola and Forio which we will visit another day, but today we go to Ischia Porto, the largest "city" on the island.

A Caremar Ferry pulls into Ischia Porto

Just beyond the pier, the taxis are lined up and waiting for your business - minivans, sedans, and little three wheelers. But this is one expense I just can't abide. The €15,00 fare to take me the kilometer or so to my hotel seems outrageous compared to the €5,00 or €7,00 I'd pay in Naples. Instead I grab a few bus tickets at the newspaper stand and walk a block to the main piazza and get on a bus. €1,30 euro and I'm at my summer hideaway in 10 or 15 minutes.

Normally we rent an apartment when we travel, but a few years back we tried this hotel, the Continental Terme, on a whim and we have never been able to bring ourselves to stay anywhere else. Just like a comfortable pair of old shoes, it just fits us perfectly. Though its billed as a four star hotel, more for its amenities than its rooms I'm sure, it doesn't put on airs. Rather it feels like coming home to family and old friends and takes you back to the simpler times of the 1950s and 60s. It always reminds me of Dirty Dancing and the great resorts of the Poconos.

The property I was told, dates back to the late 50s or early 60s and started with just 20 rooms. Today, there are some 250 rooms spread across three hectares that cross two comunesIschia and Barano. But its thoughtful design makes it feel small and intimate. Rooms are spread out over the complex in small two story buildings painted in classic Mediterranean colors - pale blues, soft peaches, terracottas, and sunset pinks.

Fuchsia and purple bougainvillea and lush greens climb the walls and the entire property is drenched in the local flora. Nearly every room has a balcony or terrace - some large and sunny, some small and shady.

Our days are spent lying by the hotel's main pool (one of five thermal pools on the property) - a half Olympic size pool that is kept at about 28°C. To break things up we head up to the gorgeous 36°C tropical pool which is set inside a greenhouse filled with tropical plants.
The rest of the time we spend at the the Olympic Bar that overlooks the main pool. And it was there that we spent Sunday afternoon watching Italy play in the World Cup amidst the thunder, lightning and pouring rain of a rare early summer storm.
Luckily for us, we had done our jaunt down to the port for dinner on Saturday evening so we were happy to ride out the weather at the hotel. Vibrant and bustling but with a small town feel, the whole port area comes alive at night. Stores along tree lined shopping streets keep their doors open until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.
Bars and cafes fill with tourists and locals alike for the pre-dinner gelato, afternoon caffe, or an early evening drink. And by 10:00 p.m. every one of the restaurants that line the port are filled with diners enjoying the local speciality - seafood.

Before we feasted on a huge meal though, we stopped for a drink and watched an incredible sunset.
There is much to see and do on Ischia, but this trip was just about rest and relaxation. We will definitely explore the island in future posts, but in the meantime, learn a bit about Ischia's history in Ischia, by Gabriella Sannino.
Until next Saturday :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Saturday Stroll - To Summers Past

Saturday stroll is a little late this week, mostly because it lasted until Monday. Yes, we took a long and much needed weekend away. Arriving home late Monday afternoon, there was the unpacking, laundry, a zillion updates to make to the website, and a thousand RT thanks to make on twitter before I could actually sit down and compose my thoughts.

With the unseasonably cold and rainy May we had this year, I thought we just might have another week or two of spring left to explore the city, but it went from chilly to scorching with a snap of the finger. And as soon as it gets this hot, all strolls are off and you either run and duck for cover or join the rest of the Neapolitans in a four month long celebration of the sun. One of what I call their five religions, God, family, the sun, the sea, and football, and not necessarily in that order, they don’t hide from the sun, they bake in it.

Whether out in their boats which fill the bay like a thousand Navy sailors decked out in their summer whites, or basking along the shore line, sun lovers appear sometimes as early as April and stay as late as November. Along Lungomare they crowd into the few small public beaches, one at Rotunda Diaz and one at Piazza Vittoria, or bask on the characteristic white rocked reefs that dot Naples shoreline.

Rotunda Diaz - Before the Crowds

Along the Posillipo coast they flock into the famed bagnos (bathing beaches) – Elena, Sirena, and Ideal or the Marechiaro bagnos at the Capo Posillipo where for €10.00 or €15.00 you can rent a sun bed and umbrella for the day.

Early Morning at the Posillipo Bagnos

Then there are the private beaches hidden in the many coves along the Posillipo coast, which is where we spent our last four summers. Each day we made the long and arduous journey across the street to a gated residential area known as Villa Martinelli. Not really a “parco,” Villa Martinelli is more an odd collection of turn of the century palazzi (five or six story tall apartment buildings), the more modern condos built around the 1960s or 70s, and the remains of Villa Mazziotti and Villa Cappella, which eventually became Villa Martinelli, from which the area takes its name.

Villa Martinelli in the foreground and Villa Mazziotti in the background

Perched along the shear tufo rock cliff, this conglomerate of old and new buildings make their descent from Via Posillipo to the water’s edge, which by my estimation is some 20 stories down or more. And into that cliff, the product of pure Neapolitan ingenuity, an elevator shaft was installed, our primary transportation to our summer hideaway. For € .20 you can cram three people into a tiny and sometimes unlit box to make the long descent through the cliff, that is, when it is working.

Otherwise, it is a long trek down a windy and narrow one lane road with five hairpin turns, where traffic runs in both directions, and car horns and mirrors at each bend direct the traffic. Strolling down the hill, either on the street or trekking down the three staircases that span the levels of the road is a fairly enjoyable walk with spectacular views. Making the journey up in the sweltering 90+ degree heat when the elevator is not working – well that’s another story.

Once you reach the bottom of the road, it is just one more staircase to the final destination, a Pompeii red two story building with bright blue doors set at the center of a wide cove, home to some 50 or so little cabinas (cabanas). Fairly rare in this city, they are larger than the typical changing room type cabana you might be familiar with. Almost tiny apartments really, they have a bathroom with a shower, a small kitchenette with a stove and refrigerator, and room enough to cook and change clothes. And while the two of us might have felt a bit cramped, most cabinas are home to families of eight or more.

The Villa Martinelli Cabinas and Villa Mazziotti

Most of our friends in the neighborhood have a cabina at Villa Martinelli, so every weekend is like going to beach with your large extended family. Moms and dads, grandfathers and grandmothers, and tots to teens gather to worship the sea, the sun, and of course there is fabulous food, great wine and animated conversation. Fresh cozze (mussels) harvested right from the sea are thrown into big pots to cook and served in the classic manner, either with lemon or pepper; pans of Pasta al Pomodoro (tomato) simmer on the stove; plates are piled high with fresh balls of Mozzarella di Bufala; crumbs from crusty fresh loaves of bread litter the tables; jugs are filled with ice cold white wine and peaches; and fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, cherries, and in late summer, Indian figs top it off. The smells and tastes of summer.

There is a definite rhythm to Villa Martinelli that repeats itself each weekend during the summer and everyday during ferie (the summer holidays in August). Families start to arrive mid morning and the kids head immediately for the water. The men pull out the tables, chairs, sun beds, toys, and other beach paraphernalia while the women put the groceries away. Next, the men head out to get mussels and the occasional polipo (octopus) while the women start cooking. Emerging from the water with overflowing netted bags of mussels tied around their waists, they all meet up to clean them. Lunch is usually served around two, three courses followed by fruit, dolce (dessert), and of course caffè. Then it’s a nap or a swim for the adults and play time for the kids. In the late afternoon you’ll find groups of men and groups of women playing cards in the shade.

An amazing summer routine we were very fortunate to be a part of. So why give it up, you wonder? Well we really haven’t… we have a standing invitation to Villa Martinelli with just about everyone in the neighborhood. But this year we wanted to do something a bit different – head out and explore the many fabulous destinations that are just a short ferry ride away, the islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, and maybe even journey to some other beaches around the Med. Our first jaunt this weekend took us to our favorite island in the gulf, Ischia. And in fact, we enjoyed it so much we are heading back there again next weekend. So next Saturday stroll we'll take you to our favorite hideaway on Ischia, and after that who knows where you'll find us next. 

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Saturday Stroll - Downhill

It was a late night Friday night. Well, to be honest, the night ended early Saturday morning. It was a Paella and Sangria spettacolo at what is becoming one of our favorite haunts in Fuorigrotta, the Pitagoras Restaurant. The food was great, the flamenco dancers (from Andalucia) were fantastic, the guitarist and singer reminded me of our time in Andalucia, Spain, and the Sangria did its job.

Arriving home late, we found the crowd at the JenLine pub below our apartment had thinned out so we sat down to catch up with some old friends. Antonio, who you met on last Saturday's stroll was in the mood to reminisce about his childhood, the years just after WWII. Times were tough then, tougher than most of us can imagine now. His five brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, ten in all cramped into a on room apartment in Casale di Posillipo. Some days the only thing they had to eat was a small piece of bread and broth made from discarded pea and bean pods. Meanwhile, the rich would crowd into the restaurant that is now Reginella's and the young kids would stare into the windows dreaming of what it would be like to have a real meal.

We finally made it upstairs just a few hours before sunrise and put our weary bones to bed. A cool breeze snuck through the window shutters waking us up just before noon. Stumbling to the kitchen I put on the caffe, and we followed it with a hearty Neapolitan breakfast of melon, prosciutto crudo, and fresh squeezed OJ. Shaking the self-induced cobwebs from our head we started the day. Normal stuff, you know, the life of a twitter, blogger, apartment dweller in Napoli.

As the bright afternoon sun started its descent, we grabbed our cameras and headed out the door. Since we  took a right and headed up the hill last Saturday, we took a left and headed down the hill. Not only do we love the views this way, we also both knew that at the end of this journey, we would find a Cappucino Freddo and Caffe del Nonno waiting for us at Chalet Ciro in Mergellina, one of the best pasticcerias in the city.

There are no "you have to see" monuments this way, with perhaps the exception of the forever photographed Palazzo Donn'Anna.

There is, however, an endless and priceless panoramic view of the Gulf of Naples, the city, Vesuvio and Capri. Flowers are everywhere, whether they're in gardens, on terraces or simply in boxes on the many balconetti along the way.We pass restaraunts setting up for the receptions of the many June weddings here. We catch a glimpse of Castel Sant'Elmo looking down on the city. 

Further down we walk by Bagno Elena,  Bagno Sirena and Bagno Ideal, three of Naples best bathing beaches. It's still early in the season and the chairs are lined up like red, yellow and blue soldiers. 

The beach has been smoothed, and the only footprints you see were made by the sand zamboni operator.

One last turn, a walk around Largo Sermoneta, and we have a seat at one of the yellow tables at Chalet Ciro. See you next Saturday!