Italians do lots of things well. Pasta, art, fashion, design, zipping around on scooters. But if there’s one area where we really shine, it’s picturesque islands.
Most have heard of the drop-dead gorgeous Isle of Capri, but the nearby Phlegraean Islands, formed by violent volcanic activity 12,000 years ago, are home to the brightly coloured somewhat sleepier islands of Procida, Ischia, Vivara and Nisida. The historically attractive specks of land are an island-hoppers delight and a fantastic alternative to the often-crowded Capri. Once inhabited by the ancient Greeks, each island has its own distinct landscape and fittingly, its own unique Greek mythological story. Let’s get hopping!
Catch a ferry across the Bay of Naples to the pastel-coloured Procida to spend time relaxing on the island’s secluded beaches and poking around the quaint fishing villages. With a population of roughly 10,000, Procida is one of Italy’s most photographed sites. The Mycenaeans, Greeks, Romans, Normans and French all laid their claim and the island was once a strategic port and bustling maritime academy. However, how Procida came to be involves much controversy. Some say it was formed when the nymph “Prochyta” emerged from the sea. Another legend states that the all-powerful Zeus exiled two misfits, Cercopes from Ephesus, who, after playing pranks on the gods were turned into monkeys and banished to the islands of Ischia and Procida. The most probable explanation though is due to the island’s proximity to nearby Cuma on the mainland. The island was known to its original Greek inhabitants as Prima Cyma – next to Cuma, evolving to become Procida. Today, the photogenic marina’s pastel bungalows, historically painted a bright hue so seamen could spot their homes from far away, glisten in the sun. To catch some rays, head to Chiaia beach in the morning and in the afternoon, head over to Pozzo Vecchio and stay through sunset. Pozzo is also known as Il Postino Beach in honour of the beloved Italian film, Il Postino which was filmed on the island. Both Chiaia and Pozzo Vecchio beaches have small beach clubs along with a public beach area. Before leaving the island, you must try the incredible ricci di mare (sea urchins). Fished off the coast March through May, Ristorante Girone in Marina Chiaolella has an unforgettable spaghetti ai ricci.
From Procida, it’s a short ferry ride to the lush, verdant sprawl of Ischia. For travel in low season, be sure to check ferry times and routes. Discovered by the Greeks in 770 BC, this legendary island also has many myths about its origins. One notes that a band of Greek mariners, reportedly fleeing the Trojan Wars took to the high seas, eventually landing on Ischia and spotted a tail-less monkey species that inhabited the land. Back then the island was known as Pithecusae and the monkey island moniker was most likely an early reference to pre-historic man. According to another Greek myth, Ischia is the long-forgotten body of giant Typhon, who was plunged deep into the Mediterranean under the volcano Epomeo, after failing at a vengeful attack on Zeus. Typhon’s subsequent rage at his incarceration supposedly manifested itself as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the island’s natural hot springs. Neighbourhoods across Ischia are still named after Typhon’s body parts including Panza (belly), Ciglio (eyelash) and Testaccio (head). Today, the island is known for its famous hot springs, beautiful trekking paths, characteristically mineral forward white wines, rabbit (yes, we’ll get to that!) and of course, our beloved Il Mezzatorre where we welcome you with open arms.
From Il Mezzatorre, hike through the woods to Madonna di Zaro, a pilgrimage destination and stop by the Luchino Visconti Museum at Villa La Combaia which allows guests an intimate peak at the late Count Visconti’s home and private art collection.
Linked to Procida by pedestrian bridge, Vivara is a beautiful pocket-sized island and home to a national park filled with unique flora and abundant wildlife. The result of a volcanic crater dating back some 55,000 years ago, archaeological digs have uncovered traces of a Bronze-Age Mycenaean settlement as well as pottery fragments dating back to early Greek colonisation. Closed to the public in 2002, the island reopened for guided tours in 2017 and visitors must book at least 2-3 weeks in advance.
A few miles off the tip of Naples’ Cape Posillipo, lies Nisida, easily accessible via a stone bridge to the mainland. The island’s name comes from the Greek term “islet” meaning small island, later Latinized to become Nesida. According to legend (and Cicero’s letters), Brutus had a villa on the island and while living there, he plotted the killing of Caesar. His wife, Porcia, the daughter of Cato Uticensis, also came to her death in the villa. There are claims that some of archaeological remains on Nisida are, indeed, those of the villa of Brutus. We recommend taking a half day to hike the beautiful paths in the Parco Letteraio nature reserve.
Of course, we have to mention Capri. Though technically not part of the Phlegraean islands, Capri seduces with some of Europe’s most arresting coastal landscapes.
Ever since the notorious Emperor Tiberius ruled the empire from his cliff-top Villa Jovis, the island has been a magnet for politicians, artists, intellectuals, aesthetes and writers alike. Lured by the dreamy lifestyle, inspiring landscape and enviable microclimate, Capri can get a bit overrun.
Try going in early to late spring or from mid-September onward when the crowds have diminished. Glide into the dazzling Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), ride up to Monte Solaro, and grab a gelato as you meander bucolic walking trails. High season ferries offer direct connections to Capri from Ischia, but in low season, one must head back to Naples to catch a Capri-bound service.