Go back


Alan Ross

The Gulf of pleasure, 1951

The town of Porto d'Ischia is in reality two separate places, different in function, in architecture and in date. The beautiful, circular harbour which was originally completely bounded by rocks and formed a lake, was opened under Bourbon rule in 1853 by cutting away a narrow strip of rock. The whole of the modern town and harbour dates from this period and reflects its twin occupations—fishing and the summer tourist trade. Lovely old two and three-masted fishing boats lie alongside fast, new motorboats and all the way up the hill to the pinewoods, over the Punta San Pietro, villas and hotels, a string of light at night, adjoin one another with terraced gardens dropping their buff edges on the shore. But only here and at Casamicciola is there any impression of a special façade put up for visitors - though it is still, for the moment anyway, unostentatious, and the whole coastfront to the castello has a lazy romanticism that the smart beach, and its smoothly-tailored occupants, never quite destroy. The old town, which is early sixteenth century, has narrow, honeycomb streets in the Genoese fashion, a special, rather dingy beach of its own - the Spiaggia dei Pescatori - and is austerely, a little dirtily, beautiful. The houses are painted in delicate washed pink, blue and yellow, a wash which has run down the walls and round the windows into enormous tear-stains. During the heat of the day, its refuse crawling with flies, the narrow alleys fester and smell, but in the evening, when houses glow, the sea levelled into a meringue-coloured, foamy strip, the whole population, the buildings themselves, seem released. Lights come out singly in windows doubled on water; small bulbs burn over complacent religious effigies inset under leaking harbour walls. Old women, barely visible in the darkness, crouch over their doorsteps, children asleep like weights round them, and the whole length of the narrow bridge to the castle is lined with old fishermen sitting and smoking in silence on the walls, wrinkled clay like their pipes.

Casamicciola has a main street, bordered with oleander and palms, running in a straight line along the sea’s edge. On the landward side, several hundred yards of shops, every fifth or sixth separated by narrow lanes running up and losing themselves in the hills, curve round eventually into a piazza, so that the whole town is L-shaped- an effect increased by the pier that runs out from the main square some hundred yards into the sea.
The piazza itself has three or four cafes facing each other uneasily through trees, a taxi rank and a space for carriages. From here everything and everybody can be, and are, observed; the two or three daily buses, the Naples steamer, the arrival of fishing vessels and motorboats. Beyond the quay, the small bathing beach, a litter of upturned boats, while the road curves round a slight point, under cliffs hollowed into wine cellars, towards Lacco Ameno.
Each Ischian town has a bay of its own, a ridge of hills, and a headland that separates them from one another. So that though none of them are more than five miles apart - most of them about two - they seem each to have a distinctive atmos­phere, a private character.

We reached Fontana just as the sun slipped like a lozenge into the sea. Fontana is the highest point reached by the main road; from then on there is only a direct route up the mountain. It was steep, arid going, almost unrelieved by trees or vegetation. Occasionally we passed a peasant's disused, crumbling cottage, blurred like a sepulchre in the fading light; half-way up there were remains of a viaduct; then only the path parting the colourless scrub. It grew perceptibly colder, the air clean and sweet after the coast. Below us a few lights glimmered at various levels of the hill; at the bottom Sant' Angelo glowed, like a stationary railway carriage, the sea a pale wash in its lights.
We began the last stage of the climb in near darkness. The gaunt, ragged outline of Epomeo, its double peak suspended unreally over us, seemed to come near, then retreat into night. We had the impression of far greater height than actually existed - probably because we had made a direct climb from sea-level. Already the gulf was like a military table-map. The coastline round the arms of the bay seemed flat, a flicker of lights at the sea's edge. The guides pushed doggedly on ahead of us, their red woollen caps just visible as they turned to shout throatily at the mules who by now had slowed down, exaggerating their tiredness. We began to be glad of our extra jerseys.
The last few hundred yards were through flatter, grey scrub, a mountain narrowing acutely into a forked peak. The path suddenly wound out of undergrowth onto an open, unfinished- looking stump of rock, with, at one end built into it, an oblong  stone building.
We emerged into buffeting wind, from the quiet protective-ness of the mountain's barrier into noise and a kind of exposed finality. A huge door, just beneath the jagged crag of the summit, opened into a labyrinth of dark passages; immediately to its right, lights were burning in a small chapel whose door was open.
As we dismounted, a tonsured, slight figure wearing a brown habit came out of the chapel.