With the coming of the summer months came a changing of the guard at the school in which I worked. After months, years even, of threatening, many of the moaning minnies I had been working with over the previous year went back to the UK to find “proper jobs”. Both Pete and Jeremy left and I waited impatiently for their replacements to arrive, hoping that they would have a little more in common with me than last year’s bunch had.
First to arrive was Nick, a dapper-looking chap with a sun-tanned face, linen suit and an uncanny resemblance to racing driver David Coulthard. He knocked on the door, gave me a toothy grin, grabbed himself a beer from the fridge and sat down for a “getting to know you” session. Nick looked athletic and super-fit and it came as no surprise to me to learn that he was a keen sportsman and, by profession, a sports journalist. He figured that if he wanted to steal a march on his rivals, then he would have to learn Italian. That way he would be a natural to cover Italian football, which was big in the UK at the time, thanks to the presence of Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne at Lazio and it would also give him a huge advantage in Formula 1. That, he informed me, was what he was doing here. He had gone out and done his four-week TEFL course, applied for a job in Italy and got it, and had flown out the very next day, simply because it would provide an opportunity to learn a language, earn some money, have a bit of fun while doing so, and further his career in the long term.
Very quickly, I built up a picture of Nick as someone who wanted nice things out of life and who did everything in his power to go after them, rather than wait for opportunity to come knocking on his door. And that picture was accurate indeed. I liked Nick tremendously from the very first moment I met him. He was a “lad”, a “bloke”, and I instantly knew that we were going to get on famously.
The second new arrival was Charles, a tall, infuriatingly good-looking young man with a public school haircut. We quickly christened him “Bimbo”. Dreamy and dozy, but with a quiet, deep intelligence, he seemed unaware of the devastating effect he had on the female teaching staff, the secretaries and on just about every girl he met outside of work, Neapolitan or otherwise. Many were the evenings that Nick and I had to spend comforting distraught young women in the kitchen of our flat, during parties, while Bimbo gave some young lady what for in his bedroom, oblivious, as usual, to the emotional turmoil he had left in his wake. Bimbo was a ladies’ man rather than a bloke like Nick, but he knew how to charm both sexes, and he got on with Nick and me very well.
Last in was Roger, a loveable pervert from Wales with just two hobbies: shagging – or, rather, watching other people shag on videotape – and fly-fishing. There wasn’t much fly-fishing in the south of Italy. Nick and I had put together a Caprician salad – tomatoes, mozzarella and basil – in honour of his arrival, and he sat down contentedly to eat with a glass of white wine.
“Lovely,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize that he was referring not to the salad, but to the fact that he had spotted my video recorder on top of the fridge. “I’ve brought my collection of … er … artistic cinema with me,” he said, beaming. “We’ll be able to watch it on that.” Bimbo and I were slow to cotton on. “Artistic cinema?” said Bimbo, uncertainly. Nick gave a raucous laugh. “He means porn, lads.” Roger reached under the table and grabbed his sports bag. He opened it and tipped it towards us, so that we could see what was inside. It was packed with video cassettes, none of which were labelled. “That’s never …” “Is all of that …?” Bimbo and I blurted out together. Roger nodded, still beaming. “How the fuck did you get that lot through customs?” I wanted to know. “They don’t bother checking these days,” Roger explained. “No-one gives a toss any more.” “Looks like you do, though,” said Nick. “On a regular basis.” No political correctness this year, that was for sure.
We decided that a house outing was in order, in order to cement our new friendship. Being summer, Ischia was the obvious choice, with over 30 golden sandy beaches to choose from, hot water springs and luxuriant gardens for when the sun got just that little bit too much. Ischia was also famous for being low in humidity, a welcome change after the city, in which it was pointless even to bother drying yourself after a shower. So I booked a couple of rooms for a long weekend in Forio, a little town lying on a promontory on the west coast of the island, and we all trooped off down to the port of Beverello one Friday morning, to take the ferry to “The Green Isle”, so-called because of the richness of its vegetation and its deeply entrenched agricultural traditions.
Nick, Bimbo and Roger quickly came to appreciate the delights of breakfast on deck, and the 75 minute journey passed all too quickly. We pulled into Ischia Porto, which was very similar to the ports I had already seen in Capri and Procida, although it had much more of a tourist resort feel to the place, with its hotels and boutiques and, if I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn that the fishermen mending their nets and lobster pots on the pier had been put there for the benefit of the tourists.
Ischia Porto is now actually part of a large conglomeration of two towns, Ischia Porto and Ischia Ponte, in which stands a castle on its own rock, connected to Ischia itself by a bridge that is over 200m long. An odd but impressive building which is, in fact, a hotch-potch of various different structures spanning several periods from the 11th century onwards, the castle was a place of refuge for the people of the island, who defended themselves from attackers such as the Saracens and the Barbarians and, later, the English who failed to capture Ischia during the French occupation, and so gave it a good seeing to with their cannons, in a particularly vindictive act of spite.
As well as a bloody military history, Ischia, being a volcanic island, has also had her fair share of run-ins with geological phenomena. Mt. Epomeo, at 788 metres, is, in fact, a volcano which erupted violently in 2200 B.C. and then continued to erupt until 1302 A.D. Although the volcano is now extinct, volcanic activity can still be seen today in the hot water springs and in the great number of earthquakes that have shaken the island over the centuries.
But, if you discount the huge quake of July 1883 that destroyed the town of Casamicciola, one of the oldest spas on the island, Ischia has lived in relative peace for the last 200 years or so, and has become a Mecca for arthritic Germans and stressed Teutonic businessmen who flock to the island year after year in their hundreds. Indeed, the whole of Ischia has a very Germanic feel to it and, wherever the four of us went, shopkeepers, hoteliers and lifeguards all spoke to us in German. I was in my element and quite happy about being taken for a German, but I could sense that it got on the others’ nerves. What it did make for, however, was excellent nightlife, with high-spirited, tipsy German tourists and good, bouncy, foot-tapping music. I don’t know why it should be so, but Germans always seem to make good-natured drunks, unlike the English, who tend to become aggressive. This means that Ischia is generally spared the sporadic outbreaks of violence that occasionally mar resorts such as Sorrento, or other places in which the English gather en masse to knock back pints of lager over plates of egg and chips, and watch football on satellite TV.
We began to map out our weekend. Roger would have been thoroughly content to lie in a state of inebriation on the beach for 72 hours, dreaming of pornography. Nick, at the sight of Mt. Epomeo, began subconsciously jogging up and down on the spot as if in training, and I could sense that he was itching to get to the summit. Bimbo, more easy-going, didn’t really mind what we did, but he had expressed an interest in visiting the archaeological museum in Lacco Ameno, which documents the history of Ischia since ancient times, and has an impressive collection of Bronze Age vases, as well as many exhibits from the period of Greek colonization. I wanted to do all these things, and visit as much of the island as we could in three and a half days, without being superficial.
But first we took a bus, from the port, round to the resort of Forio, so that we could settle into our hotel, freshen up, go and explore the sights, and perhaps do a spot of sunbathing. Forio was touristy but charming, its skyline dominated by the “Torrione”, or “Great Tower”, the most conspicuous of twelve towers built to defend Forio against attack. We checked in and spent a leisurely morning walking around shops, buying postcards and visiting the Chiesa del Soccorso, an evocative white church up on a cliff, which looked as if it would be more at home in Greece rather than Italy. It contained the ex-voto of sailors and fishermen, as well as a rather wonderful crucifix found during a storm, and provides the most magnificent view out over the crystalline blue sea and Forio’s golden beaches.
And we decided that the golden beaches were where we were going to spend the afternoon. Nick had brought a rugby ball, and we spent many a happy, childish hour hurling it back and forth and tackling each other among the waves. The days that we spent on Ischia all passed in this fashion: exploration and exercise in the morning, horseplay on the beach in the afternoon. The following morning, we climbed Mt. Epomeo. Taking the town of Fontana, 452m above sea level, as our starting point, we hiked up the steep climb towards the summit, while Roger and Bimbo wailed and lamented that we should have taken one of the donkeys that were put at the disposal of tourists for the tiring trek.
Nick and I had refused to budge on this point, Nick on account of the fact that it would be good for us to walk, and I on account of the fact that I felt rather sorry for the hapless creatures. The walk to the top of Epomeo is truly stunning. As you climb higher and higher, the landscape opens out below you until there it is, the whole ragged island, an emerald in the sea.
Here you can see everything that makes Ischia what she is: the fungo of Lacco Ameno, a rock set in the sea, that the water has weathered into the shape of a mushroom; the blueberry bushes, pine trees and chestnut woods; the citrus fruit and olive grove; the exotic plants. The woods, we were told at the top of the mountain by a beautiful young Italian girl, were inhabited by hundreds and hundreds of wild rabbits. Hence one of the specialities of the island: Coniglio all’Ischitana – Ischian Rabbit. She smacked her lips and, at our insistence, told us how this gourmet’s delight is best prepared:
For 4 people, you will need:
1 rabbit of one and a half kilos
2 tablespoons of pork fat
Olive oil to taste
4 or 5 cloves of garlic
15 fresh, peeled tomatoes
1 glass of white wine
A basil leaf or two
Chilli pepper (optional)
Skin and gut your rabbit, making sure that you preserve the intestines and the liver. Cut the intestine into pieces and wash well. Fill a bowl with water and slice a lemon. Put the lemon slices in the water along with the pieces of intestine and set aside for two hours. In the meantime, wash the liver well. When two hours have passed, remove the pieces of intestine from the water and bind them with basil stalks.
Put some oil in an earthenware pot, heat it and toss in the garlic and pork fat. Brown the pieces of chopped rabbit meat in a frying pan and then add them to the earthenware pot. Add a little white wine. Cut the tomatoes into pieces and add them to the pot along with the bound pieces of intestine and a little salt and pepper, and cook the lot for about a quarter of an hour. Now add the liver and the basil and cook for a further five minutes. At this point you can also add a little chilli pepper if you wish, but not enough to suffocate the delicate flavour of the rabbit and the sauce. The sauce should be nice and dense.
The first course should be pasta, ideally bucatini, flavoured with a little of the sauce that has been used to cook the rabbit and a sprinkling of parmesan. The rabbit is eaten as a second course. Fried potatoes make an ideal side dish and the whole lot should be washed down with red wine, for although rabbit is a white meat, the rich tomato sauce would suffocate any of the superb whites for which the island of Ischia is rightly renowned.
I swore to the girl that I would learn to cook Coniglio all’Ischitana, or find someone that could cook it for me, as I have always had a soft spot for rabbits, both as domestic pets, and on the end of my fork. This, she seemed to find amusing and she gave a peal of girlish laughter that made me feel funny inside and caused my head to spin a little. She really was a stunner.
“The best time to do this walk,” she told us after several moments of gazing out over the water, “is not during the day, but at night, when there is a full golden moon. You must do it with someone you love and then you must wait for dawn up there on the summit. It is one of the most beautiful, romantic experiences that the island can offer.” I looked at Nick, then at Bimbo, then at Roger, who was leering at our new friend like a salivating dog. I certainly didn’t relish the prospect of dawn at the peak of Mt. Epomeo with the likes of them and so, after a time, I suggested that we make our way back down. We bade the young woman a warm adieu and started to tramp back down the way we had come. “Strewth! She was gorgeous!” I whispered to the others as we were barely out of earshot. “Lovely!” agreed Roger. “Damn right!” said Nick. “Anyway, come on. We’ve got some sunbathing to get done.”
Monday arrived before we knew it and we had just a few precious hours left on Ischia. We decided to take the scenic route back to Ischia Porto and explore the southern flank of the island, which is the part of Ischia best suited to the cultivation of vines on account of its exposure to the sun, and the type of soil found there. This is where Ischia’s divine whites, perfect with seafood, have their origin. We arrived in the little resort of Sant’Angelo, set between two bays and famous for its orange and lemon groves. We spent our time just basking in the peace and quiet of this irresistible fishing town, with its traffic-free alleys and back lanes.
And then we were back on the ferry, heading out across the bay, back to Naples, and I could see that Nick, Bimbo and Roger had all succumbed to the type of light depression that had come over me the first time I had come back from Capri. “We must do that again sometime, lads,” said Nick. “Yeah.” “Definitely.” “Lovely.” And we all knew that we would almost certainly never get round to it.