Ischia: Our Castle in the Sky
To celebrate the Luxembourgish holiday of Whit Monday (we are still not clear on what this is), we decided to hightail it out of town and fly to Ischia, a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just off of Naples. To make the most of our 4 day trip, we booked a 7am flight out of nearby Brussels, and woke up at 3am to drive a couple hours north to the airport.
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Journey to the Island
We arrived at the South Brussels Charleroi airport and were greeted by thousands of seemingly confused holiday-goers standing in a security line that stretched the length of the entire airport. Dave used some crafty spy blending-in skills to weave us in towards the front of the line so we didn't miss our flight. We felt a little but guilty about cutting (sorry, we're not sorry), but ultimately were relieved when we made it to our gate mid-boarding. We boarded our packed-to-the-gills RyanAir flight and touched down in Napoli just after 9am. We hopped in a taxi to the port, picked up some snacks and took an hour-long hydrofoil to Ischia, arriving just before noon.
Despite the long morning, we were pretty pumped to get started on our plans on the island, which included sleeping in a castle perched atop a steep rocky islet, bathing in volcanic hot springs, hiking up to the highest point on the island and evening out all the activities by indulging in Napoli-style pizza - the best in the world.
Scooter to the Castle
We rented a scooter at the port, somehow managed to pile our duffle bags and backpacks on top, and rode 10 minutes to Castelo Aragonese, our home base for the trip. The castle is medieval, but also includes ruins dating from 476 BC, Roman fortresses and remnants of 13 churches. We chose to stay at a simple hotel on the highest level of the castle, Albergo Il Monastero, in order to take advantage of the birds-eye views back to the main island of Ischia (and sleeping in a castle is bucket list type stuff). We strolled through a rocky cave at the base of the structure and rode a tiny, rickety elevator up to the top, walked through a few gardens and ruins, and made our way to the hotel. Our simple room provided a panoramic view, making us super stoked to get out and explore.
The Best Pizza on the Island
We changed into our swimsuits, hurried back down to sea level and jumped on the scooter in search of a very special lunch - the best pizza on the island. According to Google, we had 40 minutes before the restaurant closed for afternoon rest time, and Google maps showed a 30 minute drive. Dave revved the engine of our little scooter and we drove quickly along a winding seaside road, through picturesque towns of multicolored houses. We arrived at the famous pizza shop with 15 minutes to spare only to find it was closed until dinner.
Dave was nearing catastrophic hunger breakdown stage, so we walked down the street to the first open establishment we saw, and, miraculously, stepped into a perfect pizzeria with a wood-fire oven. We ordered two margheritas, took them to go and feasted on the street. Nearby Naples invented pizza, and the classic pomodoro and margherita versions are the way to go in the whole region. In Naples, ingredients are dictated by regulation, and everything comes from the surrounding area. The tight controls and purity are legit, and we were more than satisfied.
Post pizza, we climbed back on the scooter and headed to Cartaromana beach, a pretty pebble beach with castle views (and a few too many kids). After the long morning and the pizza, we both passed out on the shore for a quick nap, then took a dip in the chilly May sea before heading back to our place to get cleaned up. We enjoyed local wine and olives for happy hour on the terrace and watched the sun set over the island from high above over a dinner of homemade pasta, fresh-caught fish tartare and vegetables from the garden.
Hike Up Mount Epomeo
We slept deeply with the windows open and breathing the sea air, and woke at sunrise as the rainbow sky illuminated our little whitewashed room. For day 2, we planned an epic day, starting with what was supposed to be a one hour hike to the top of Mount Epomeo. At 2,589 feet, Mount Epomeo is the highest mountain on Ischia, and, at its peak, provides 360 degree views of the island. We skipped breakfast and scooted to the tiny town of Fontana, where we planned to take the steep but short 3km hike to the top. Since the hike was so short, we didn't even bother bringing water.
We started off on the trail just behind the main square church and followed an uphill path through surprisingly lush greenery. The path forked near an elderly man using a weed-eater, and we chose to go left past the old man, who was staring at us with a perplexed expression (this should have been our first red flag). We continued to hike uphill and started to get the feeling we were walking through the man's creepy back yard, but we pressed on. We came to a few more forks in the path, and ended up in a meadow with a sheep herder and his flock. Again, he gave us a friendly but confused look, but we ignored the signals and continued on our hike.
Lost on the Mountain
By this time, we were about an hour in and we should have been at the top, and the path continued to narrow, the height of the ferns rose above our heads, and the ground started to become overgrown with thorny bushes. We realized we may have taken a wrong turn, but rather than turn back, we continued uphill in the direction we thought the peak would be. Within a few minutes, Dave's legs were bloody from bushwhacking through thorns, and we were using tree roots to climb up slippery dirt hills through thick forest. When we made it to a small clearing, we realized we had been hiking toward the wrong peak and corrected our route.
Exhausted and bloodied but in good spirits, we made it to the top about 90 minutes later than we should have, but the views were worth the struggle - the vivid blue water contrasted against the greenery dotted with white, pink and orange houses, and we could spot the tiny shapes of yachts and sailboats motoring around the island. We did a little rock climbing, sat a minute to take in the views, and scurried back down the correct trail in about 30 minutes in search of a giant bottle of water. We appreciated having the entire mountain top to ourselves, as there were no other hikers. Exploring the island made a huge contrast to our recent Tuscany trip where hordes of tourists crowded out of every corner.
Negombo Volcanic Thermal Baths
Continuing our adventurous day, we headed to the coast to visit the Negombo baths. famous for 14 different pools and water installations, each heated to different temperatures by the volcanic hot springs emanating from the core of the island. We spent the rest of the morning wandering through the terraced waterpark, exploring a natural sauna cave, alternating warm and cold water maze pools and pampering ourselves under steaming waterfalls.
By the time we completed the final pool, we were ready for lunch, so we scooted a few miles up the coast to the Mezzatorre Resort and Spa (the most luxe spot on the island) for a poolside lunch of homemade seafood pasta, fruit smoothies and a giant salad. We quickly realized we only had cash on us, and that we needed to watch our budget at the fancy resort, so we skipped wine and beer and came out with just enough cash to gas up our scooter for the ride home.
Before departing, we took time to walk the grounds of the resort and go for a swim and snorkel in the sparkling azure waters in the grotto just under the infinity pool. While taking our dip, we overheard a wealthy couple in a passive-aggressive argument about eating rabbit for dinner that night, with the woman claiming she would not eat rabbit nor would she enjoy dinner, but also refusing to change plans. Her exasperated partner stormed off to cancel the rabbit, which apparently had been roasting since dawn, and we enjoyed the free entertainment while we floated in the glassy sea.
On our way home, we stopped at the famous Mortella gardens to view hundreds of species of flowers and plants, set among fountains and an airy tea house. By this point, we were pretty exhausted, so we passed through quickly and headed back to our hotel for an afternoon rest. For dinner, we hit the streets again for attempt number 2 for the best pizza on the island. We made it to Il Pizzicotto, the tiny joint with a few booths, and each ordered a simple margherita pie. The place lived up to its reputation, and we took our time tasting the simple ingredients - tomatoes, olive oil, flour and bufala mozzarella, washed down with a local beer.
After dinner, we walked off our pizza through the streets of Forio, the largest city on the island and headed down to the beach for sunset. Before it got too dark, we scooted back towards the castle, passing through some sort of holy festival, complete with light installations, street food stands and a ferris wheel illuminating the coastal water. We picked up some gelato and walked along the nearly empty promenate, enjoying the neon lights set against the calm sea and sunset in the sky. We made it to the castle just after dark and climbed up to the roof, to watch the giant sea birds fly overhead, set against a starry sky.
Maronti Beach to Sant'Angelo
On our final morning, we woke up early to a cloudy sky and a few sprinkles of rain. Determined to make the most of our remaining time on the island, we threw on some jackets, packed a dry bag for our cameras, and drove over to Maronti beach, one of the biggest on the island. In addition to visiting the beach, we also planned to visit the neighboring tiny islet town of Sant'Angelo, only to find that it would take an additional 30 minutes to reach the town, as the road wound up through the mountains.
Erin had a goal to visit Sant'Angelo, and she decided that we would try to make it by walking all the way down to the end of Maronti beach, a couple of miles away. The rain stopped and we enjoyed the deserted beach to ourselves. With all of the beach chairs set out and no people, it felt like we were in a sci-fi movie where we were the only survivors of an alien invasion. We pressed on, walking along the pebble beach past the lounge chairs, hotels and restaurants, wading along a sea cliff, until Sant'Angelo came in to clear focus. As we got close, we realized the beach ended and there were a few hundred yards of ocean between us and the cliffside hotel marking the start of town.
Amphibious Assault on Sant'Angelo
At this point, we had been walking for 40 minutes along the beach, and Erin didn't want to take no for an answer. We decided to strip down, pack up the dry bag, and swim across the sea to the first hotel. We swam through the calm chilly waters, and redressed at the edge of the nice hotel - we walked up the stairs to the breakfast terrace like we owned the place, and sauntered out the front door into Sant'Angelo - mission accomplished.
We explored the cute little down, picked up some delicious, juicy pears for breakfast and then hired a water taxi to take us back to Maronti. We hopped on the scooter and high-tailed it back to the castle, where we had blown past checkout time. Luckily, we learned being late in Italy isn't such a big deal, and we got cleaned up in our room, piled our bags on the scooter, and made it back into down with just enough time to return our ride and hop on the ferry back to Naples.
Naples Pizza Crawl
Upon arriving back in Naples, we realized that our hotel was in the center of old town, which was a 40 minute taxi ride from the port, or a 25 minute walk. We opted to walk, and braved the late-May heat, construction, whizzing cars and motorbikes and hectic crowds, to make it to our hotel in piles of sweat, hungry for lunch. Since pizza originated in Naples, we only had one choice - and set out on a pizza pub crawl to try a few of the most famous spots in town.
Unfortunately for us, each of the most famous spots was either closed for afternoon rest time or had a line out the door. We traipsed from place to place, hoping for a pizza miracle, only to find hordes of people pushing their way for that elusive white box. We saw a few girls posing with their pizzas for Instagram shots, and Dave thought of offering them a few Euros for their pies once the pictures had been taken, but we continued on until we found a less-famous but still well-regarded place to chow down. Once again, our struggle paid off, and we now totally understand the hype. The ingredients for true Napoli pizza are regulated and simple - there is even a local overseeing body that checks in on pizza shops to make sure they are staying true to the code. The crust is chewy and crispy, the bottom of each slice is creamy and soft, and the taste is perfection.
Highlights of Naples
After finally having our true Naples pizza experience, we went on a mini walking tour of the city, checking out the Piazza del Gesu Nuovo, the famous (and crowded) Via Benedetto walking street and visiting the Museo Cappella Sansevero, a fascinating chapel with freemason connections that featured ethereal sculptures, labyrinth-like tile floors and statues depicting the virtues for a fulfilling life. We found the chapel to be both mysterious and fascinating, but by this point, we were simply done with sightseeing, crowds and street traffic. Naples is cool and gritty, but when you are hot and tired, it can be a little overwhelming.
We stopped by the Gay Odin chocolate shop and Scaturchio bakery for a few snacks, and spent the remainder of our night tucked away in our hotel, watching moves and awaiting the 4am wakeup call to head to the airport for our flight back to Brussels. We survived a harrowing, pitch-black, bumpy ride to the airport, with Dave holding himself back from decking our reckless cabbie, and touched down in Brussels around 9am, after a long delay due to a French air traffic control strike. Since it was a work day, we sped back to Luxembourg and spent the rest of the day on our laptops, already dreaming of our castle-top perch in Ischia.
Next up, a work trip to Seattle, visit to our old home in LA and a few days in London on the way back home.
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