‘Twice a day,’ I wrote in my journal, ‘the steamers pass from Capri, and that is how, in Ischia, they tell the time. Tourists crowd the rails of these steamers and there is Hawaian music mixing with the thunder of the engines and the amplified voice of the guide, anachronistic when heard and seen from the deserted rocks and caves of the coastline of Ischia.’
I had come here for a holiday, planning to stay at the villa belonging to my Aunt Peggy and her friend, the Baroness von Störer.
‘Ischia is not progressive!’ I wrote. ‘Many of its inhabitants are descendants of the convicts who were dumped on the island by the Bourbons. They have an easy-going indolence and look out on life with a long, satisfied, voluptuous gaze. Their home is this fine Syren Isle. Put your head beneath water and you ‘ll find the cliffs hollow, resting apparently only on sea, for their bases have been hugely washed away. The vast pumice cliffs are shells for the caverns within them which, entered at water level through openings only a metre wide, expand, till their ceilings are only a few feet below the pastures above. The whole island is said to be bewitched or enchanted. On Ischia you breathe a different air. Yet people say that if you stay too long it will send you mad.’
I travelled up from the port in the bus that went back and forth on Ischia’s highway. The bus had possibly been built for a cold climate, for it had few windows and none of them opened. As a result, on this warm island, the atmosphere was stifling. The driver wore as uniform an ornamental peaked cap, a singlet, sandals, and swimming trunks. The bus appeared to me to have only two gears, one for uphill and one for downhill.
On a narrow bit of road beside a precipice we lurched to a stop to inch past what I was told was the only other vehicle on the island, a car which I later was told belonged to ‘Il Duco Pignatelli’ who ran it as a taxi.
‘You’ve come at the wrong time,’ cried the Baronessa as I struggled down the path that led from the road to her villa.
I apologised. The Baronessa, a fine looking haughty woman, began a chronicle of the disasters that she said had struck them. The water system had flooded the kitchen and the front door bell wouldn’t work. The electricity had broken down and the nearest man who understood it lived in Naples. He would have to be brought over by boat at huge expense. The cows, which I discovered later were two velvet muzzled creatures living in a shack in the garden, were ill.
Standing in the midst of the confusion the Baronessa, in a heavily German accented baritone, tossed out; ‘It’s no good. Everything in this house goes wrong! It’s hopeless! You’ve come to a ruin! We might as well make a bonfire in the garden and burn up the few bits that remain!’
I looked about me, surprised, for the house seemed substantial to me. Two pretty servant girls were giggling as they scrubbed the floor in a corner. Their giggles modulated into a wild modal song, sung through the nose on one vowel.
Shouting over the attractive music, the Baronessa commanded them, first in her Germanic English and then in Italian, to take my luggage up to my room, and then stormed out. One of the ragazzi, as she picked up my luggage, looked up at me with her olive eyes and said; ‘Take me to the fiesta, please!’
‘I have been thinking,’ says the Baronessa, reappearing. ‘Come with me a moment.’ I followed her out onto a terrace of huge cultivated cacti, with a patio stopping abruptly with a long drop down to the sea. I learned later that they called it the garden. ‘I have been thinking. There is nothing to eat here. I will so arrange it that you join the girls in the pensione.’
The pensione was down a steep path from the villa. As I approached I was surprised to see a stoutish man plunge singing into the sea and strike out across the ocean with a lusty breast stroke. He continued to sing as the water buffeted around him. Climbing out onto a half submerged rock, he then caused the bay to echo with a selection from Italian opera.
The pensione terrace was built out over the turbulent water. Two young women, wearing huge straw hats and one-piece bathing dresses, greeted me from a table laden with wine and Wiener Snitzel. ‘Ah, der freund der Baronessa,’ cried the huge German proprietress, entering with a huge plateful of spaghetti.
After eating we walked to the harbour, bobbing with fishing boats and swarming with little boys. Nets were stretched out on the strand to dry. In the centre of the bay was a rock pierced with arches and caves.
I asked Maria, one of the young women, about it. ‘Oh that,’ she said, ‘we call it the ‘sinny rock’ because they made there a film called ‘The Rock of the Seven Sins’.
I asked about the singing bather who I had seen earlier. ‘He is one of the many on the island who is gone in the head, he is a tourist who decided that he was so happy here that he never wanted to go back. Lots of tourists go like that. There are twenty mad folk even in this little port of Sant Angelo. We would be completely run over by them except that many babies are always being born in Sant Angelo. Here, if a woman doesn’t have a baby every year people say that her husband does not love her no more. So there are always plenty of new faces.’ Maria goes on to tell me she sometimes gives parties for the island’s half-wits. ‘They are most grateful.’
An ancient motor boat with a tattered canvas awning in the stern comes chugging into the harbour. A squat figure in the stern jumps ashore and clambers onto the terrace, exclaiming in broad Neopolitan; ‘I ragazza Romanelli!’ He throws himself down on a chair beside us and then, by way of an introduction, announces; ‘Il Duco Pignatelli!’ He had been a great friend of their father’s, he continues, so he thought he’d look them up and make sure they were alright. Now that he was satisfied that they were, he had a proposition to make. He proposed that we should join him on a tour of the island in his boat, ending up at the fiesta.
As we talked he had kept eyeing his boat and now he told us why. When he was last here, he was paying a visit to the wife of a great friend of his. The friend came back unexpectedly and, for reasons that Pignatelli said he could not understand, pointed his boat out to sea, lashed the rudder, started the engine and then jumped ashore and left it to its own devices. It finished in the Blue Grotto.
Rounding the point, we nearly collided with another yacht. It turned out to belong to a chum of Pignatelli’s and there was a great deal of shouted conversation. It had a frail cargo of good-looking young women who waved gracefully from the bow and stern. We continued round the island, passing the church of Santa Maria Maggoire, pink-washed and lovely above the sea, and later, on a formidable crag, were asked to admire Pignatelli’s handsome castle, as we edged our way past it on the bouncy sea.
We stopped to bathe. As I swam among the headlands, I was caught in a voluptuous current of warm water from a hot spring which poured steaming, under the pumice rocks. Maria explained that there are lots of these on Ischia. They can scald you if you go too close, and the rocks from which they arise are a ruddy colour, and nurture unusual vegetation.
Sitting on a rock in the sea were a beautiful woman and a man. ‘That woman is the star of many films,’ said Pignatelli, naming a film-star whose films I vaguely recollected. ‘Each fisherman has his particular rock to which he takes his loved ones and gives them practice in Italian.’
Maria swam with me out to one of these rocks. ‘It’s nice that you are so healthy,’ she explains. ‘Many here on Ischia are not well. I’m radio-active myself. Not badly, but badly enough not to be able to leave the island and the waters round it. One drop of radio-active water if I were in a boat on any sea except the bay of Naples, and there’d be a short circuit and I’d be no more.’
I asked her about Capri, just visible on the horizon. ‘Oh, it is terrible,’ she said. ‘Queues everywhere and all the men wear skirts.’
A couple of arms holding a cine camera emerged above the waves, followed by the head of Pignatelli in a snorkel mask. He was huffing and puffing and swallowing sea water as he stored up Maria’s image with the camera. Every now and again he encouraged her by shouting, ‘Ohe, belissima, belissima!’
It was twilight as we chugged into the port where the fiesta was being held. ‘Bacca di Buon Mercato’ proclaimed a notice, ‘Cheap Kisses’. ‘Ices here are called kisses,’ Maria explained.
A loudspeaker was blaring a banal song; ‘Ischia, my Ischia’ it echoed again and again. Houses were being patched up as hotels, hovels as love nests. A score of awninged carriages drawn by an assortment of donkeys and horses waited on the quai. The street was thronged. We stopped before a huge neon sign announcing; ‘Just opened, Ischia’s newest Nightclub.’
‘Well, how do you like it?’ asked Pignatelli.
I had not at that time developed my present fondness for the kitsch of seaside resorts.
‘To tell the truth I think it’s a pity that Ischia has to be turned into such a tourist trap ... prostituted.’
Pignatelli was sympathetic. ‘A pity? Yes, it is sad, very sad.’
‘And I suppose someone is making a huge profit out of it all?’
‘You are right. I am.’
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