For many, many people the Gulf or Bay of Naples in the Tyrrhenian Sea is famous for the wonderful, magical island of dreams, history, legends and love — Capri. This stunningly beautiful place is the jewel in the crown of every island that I have ever visited. It will always retain a special place in my heart, and the hearts of the hordes of visitors who flock to visit every summer. And there is the small problem — sometimes there are just too many visitors threading the narrow streets and pathways of the Marina Grande or Anacapri, gathered in the Piazetta Umberto. As Norman Douglas in his 1929 thinly disguised novel of Capri, South Wind, said, “… a charming square, surrounded on three sides by the principal buildings of the town and open, on the fourth, to a lovely prospect over land and sea. They were to meet on this spot; there to exchange gossip, make appointments for the evening and watch the arrival of newcomers to their island.”
The arrival of newcomers today, from Naples and Sorrento on the mainland, perhaps gives credence to the belief that this was the island of the sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey. Here, according to legend, the sirens used to call unsuspecting sailors on to the rocks. Then, as now, it is impossible to resist the lure of the beauty of Capri.
So where to get some peace and quiet between the hours of 10am and 5pm, when the ferry boats arrive and depart, disgorging and collecting their human cargo? There are plenty of quiet spots on Capri, but it's also worth considering the lesser known islands in the Gulf, Ischia and Procida.
Procida is the smallest of the three, quiet and peaceful and, when in the tiny hamlet of La Marina di Corricella, free of any traffic whatsoever. This romantic little fishing village is the oldest on Procida and exudes charm, relaxation and lovely architecture. As one walks down the steps into the semi-circular bay between the colourful buildings in the narrow streets it feels like one is entering a private pastel world, an Italy that no longer exists elsewhere. While watching the fishing vessels and the few private yachts, it is possible to eat at a number of excellent restaurants; fish of course, fresh from the sea, accompanied by the refreshing local white wine.
From Corricella it is possible to walk through Semmarezio up to the fortifications and historic church and palazzo of Terra Murata where the views overlooking the sea are breathtaking. In the opposite direction one can also walk to the relative hustle and bustle of Marina Grande. From here the best way to explore the island is to take the little buses which, within a hair’s breadth, negotiate the narrow roads and somehow avoid the locals who, if they are not on the bus with you, are likely travelling by electric bicycle! Catch the L1 from the port to Chiaiolella and Vivara, the little island, attached by a causeway, which is a dedicated nature reserve. The C1 line, if you jump off at Via A.de Gaspari, will take you not only to one of the prettiest cemeteries I have ever seen but also to the beach made famous by the film Il Postino. The dark volcanic sand of the Pozzo Vecchio beach featured prominently in the gentle and tender 1994 movie about a postman and his love. Many other spots on the island including La Corricella feature as well. Empire magazine said in its review at the time, “The story is sweet, the performances are well pitched, and the sentiment is a worthy one. And if it all gets a bit sugary for you, you can always just enjoy the scenery for a bit.”
The scenery of Procida is incredible and one cannot fail to enjoy it, especially when catching the little boat from La Corricella over to the beach at Chiaia for dinner as the sun begins to set behind the hills.
A short ferry trip (20 minutes) from Procida brings one to the island of Ischia, famous for its healing thermal waters. Though much bigger than Procida, Ischia can still be crossed from end to end by the little three wheeled scooter taxis (an Ape, meaning bee in Italian, while a Vespa is of course smaller and faster and therefore a wasp) in half an hour — much more fun than a normal taxi.
There are two main ports. Ischia is where one should disembark if one is visiting the medieval Castello Aragonese on the site of the original settlement of Hiero of Syracuse in 474BC or the Maritime Museum in the Palazzo dell’Orologio. Casamicciola port, while still quite close by, is best if heading to the rather sophisticated Sant’Angelo. Hip boutiques and tourist shops, great restaurants and cool bars, fantastic scenery, the wonderful long beach of Maronti, all nestle beside each other. Once again, one of the wonders that will hold you in Sant’Angelo, besides its intrinsic beauty, is the fact the only traffic are electronic golf carts delivering luggage and produce to the hotels set on the steep volcanic hill.
The poet W.H. Auden (1907–1973) spent time on Ischia and wrote an eponymous poem in 1948. “I am presently moved by sun-drenched Parthenopea, my thanks are for you, Ischia, to whom a fair wind has brought me rejoicing with dear friends from soiled productive cities. How well you correct our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see things and men in perspective underneath your uniform light …”
All three islands produce marvellous wines — indeed Ischia was originally called “Enaria”, meaning “Land of Wine”, when first colonised by the Romans — and Ischia, Procida and Capri still have the capability to refresh and put things into perspective. Make sure you taste all three of the islands in the archipelago and not just idyllic Capri.