As our ferry lurches into Ischia, the Italian couple next to me jump to their feet, unzipping their matching velour tracksuits to reveal deep tans, gold chains and bejewelled swimming costumes. A grandmother pushes past as we disembark, a cloth tied around the fresh blow-dry she travelled to nearby Naples for that morning. Standing on the dock, my lopsided backpack stuffed with hiking boots and a sleeping bag, I feel completely out of place.
A couple of months ago, an Italian friend told me about this tiny island off the coast of southern Italy, where entire villages lie abandoned in overgrown woods and thermal springs trickle down mountains and through canyons towards the sea. I had to see it, and unlike the other holidaymakers milling around the harbour at Casamicciola, I’ve come here with the exhausting idea of crossing this wild, volcanic island on foot. Just as the locals did hundreds of years ago.
I’m met at the dock by a local guide, Aniello di Iorio, a portly man whose belly wobbles with laughter when he sees me approaching. He’s the only other person who looks as out of place as I do. “What are you doing with all that?” he wheezes, jabbing my sleeping bag and hiking poles with a hammer that was previously tucked into his belt. “You don’t need any of this roba [stuff]. Before we had cars, people walked from the port to the other side of the island without shoes, let alone these sticks!”
Suitably chastised, I tumble into his car and we drive a few minutes to the Maddalena forest, where my walk in the wilderness will begin.
Thanks to my friend’s ominous descriptions of abandoned villages and looming volcanoes, I’d been expecting a thick tangle of forest, but as we delve deeper, the park opens wide before us, with the acacia trees trimmed and well maintained under the speckled sunlight. As my feet crunch across the dried leaves littering the forest floor, dogs bound past with their breathless owners, disturbing young families who are plucking chestnuts from the ground, ready to be peeled and roasted for dinner that evening.
For two hours we follow the same moss-covered marker posts that used to guide the locals across the island, until Aniello leads me up a set of stone steps.
There are no trees up here, just views to the nearby islands of Capri and Procida, their hilltop towns perched above the sparkling blue sea. It’s easy to see how Liz Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love while filming Cleopatra here, or why Ischia was chosen as the backdrop to The Talented Mr Ripley.
“When the Greeks arrived here in 8BC they thought they’d hit the jackpot,” says Aniello, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. “They’d found a beautiful island, so many beautiful women, plenty of fish in the sea. We think they would have stayed forever, but then Rotaro volcano erupted so they ran away… ” he pauses, mischief in his smile, “…to Naples! To Vesuvius! They went from the frying pan into the fire!” He laughs raucously, scattering some startled birds into the air.
To be honest, I’m too preoccupied to join in. Away to my left, shrouded by a summer haze is Mount Epomeo, Ischia’s highest peak. I’ll be climbing it soon, and it looks rather terrifying.
A few hours later, scratched and dirty after a scrape with a particularly nasty thicket, I find myself standing beneath the island’s famous aqueduct – a teetering Roman structure that charges through the centre of Barano town. In true Italian fashion, it’s surrounded by a jumble of houses and shops, savvy entrepreneurs doing a roaring trade beneath the ancient stone pillars.
Parked up beside a bakery, my new guide, Stefano, is waiting at the wheel of a turquoise Fiat, a cacophony of German heavy metal music pouring out of the windows.
Stefano runs a beautiful B&B in Maronti, but in his spare time he takes adventurous souls like me on long walks around the island.
Handing me a map of our route, he pulls into the screeching traffic. It’s a funny sort of a plan, taking us up Mount Epomeo and along the coast, through forests and vineyards on to the far side of the island. Given how much of the day has already passed, it strikes me as a mite ambitious.
“How long do you think this is going to take?” I ask nervously.
“About six hours,” he says casually, parking beside a stretch of particularly dense forest and waving me out of the car. “I’m not sure if all the paths are still there.”
I open my mouth to object, but he’s already loping off into the quiet woods. “Try and avoid the stinging nettle,” he calls back.
After an hour, I’m convinced I’ve entered some malicious fairy-tale wood. The trails are overgrown with thorny bushes that Stefano seems to pass through like mist, but which I have to carefully prise away from my face. The floor is damp and the air cool, the trails seeming to disappear beneath my feet just as I’ve found them. I’ve given up all hope of ever seeing light again when we burst on to Mount Epomeo’s limestone peak – my sense of achievement immediately dashed by the young Italian family sitting on the top, taking pictures of each other pulling funny faces.
Miles of coast stretch out either side of us, hundreds of white yachts surrounding the island like an armada. I could stay here all day, but it’s already 5pm and the sun is looking a little weary, so after a quick gulp of water we’re off again, stumbling back through the dark, slippery forest. We’re walking for so long I start to wonder if Stefano is lost, when he holds his hand up. We’re teetering on the edge of an enormous pit.
“Snow hole,” he explains. “This is what we used before the fridge was invented. The people of Ischia would put snow down here, then put leaves and grass on top to keep it cool. In the summer the villagers would sell gelato on the beach.”
The air is cool as we make our way down the mountain, Stefano picking up the pace as the light fails. I huff after him. Stefano is the most unorthodox hiking guide I’ve ever met, though one of the most fun. Over the next few hours we weave (or trespass) in and out of vineyards and tiptoe past natural pinnacles made of eroded limestone that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gaudi museum.
I’m fairly certain our walk is drifting to an easy end when I turn the corner to find a steep canyon. Stefano is already inspecting the rope tied to the rock. “Can you abseil?” he asks.
I want to turn around, but the ground is crumbling beneath my feet and I’m frightened I’ll topple over the cliff face. Clutching the rope, I shakily swing my way down the canyon, my boots sliding as dirt smears my legs.
“This is how we all used to get to Maronti,” calls Stefano, who has reached solid ground. At the bottom I slump on the ground, amazed that I didn’t fall. But there’s another surprise waiting, and it smells like rotten eggs.
“Ischia’s thermal springs are the best in the world,” says Stefano cheerfully, pulling himself over a locked fence to the Terme di Cavascura, Ischia’s ancient Roman baths. “These officially open for the season tomorrow, but the water is ready.”
Incredibly, we’re not the only people inside. Taking advantage of the cool evening air, hundreds of Italians are soaking in the warm waters, their deep tans, gold chains and bejewelled swimming costumes now entirely covered with mud. Finally, I don’t feel out of place.
If you don’t fancy hiking across the island, a more relaxing option is to go around it – by boat. As I hose my sneakers on the balcony I start to feel quite envious of the people down at Maronti beach, their feet dipped in warm, clean water. Despite two showers, I still look dirty. My toenails are black, as if I did the entire hike barefoot. Inside, on the back of a coffee-stained receipt is a scribbled note from my friend Laura. “Boat trips: go down to the port next to the castle and ask for Pasquale or Franco. Tell them Giulia Ferrano sent you, they’ll take you out for a boat ride around the coves.”
There’s a small queue of tourists at the port when I arrive, but when I mention Giulia – who I’ve never met – a small silver motor boat appears and a man called Franco – who’s so tanned he’s almost mahogany – waves me on board, hugging me like we’re old friends. I try to explain that I’m a friend of Giulia’s friend, but Franco – who’s spent the past 50 years at sea around Ischia – doesn’t seem to mind, preferring to steer past yachts and fishing boats as he tells me stories about his life on the island.
“We used to come here to collect the best fish in the winter but it is also home to the magician’s grotto,” he says as we bob up and down outside a cave on the southeastern side of the island. “Go on, jump in,” he adds, grinning at me with his four (surprisingly white) remaining teeth.
The water’s dark here, and the cluster of yachts nearby mean it’s choppy, too. But Franco seems to know the area and I don’t want to look like a wimp so I follow his instructions, half-falling, half-jumping off the boat, where I swallow a mouthful of seawater. Once I can breathe again I realise Franco’s pointing to the grotto, so I warily paddle over, a bit worried I’m going to be sucked in forever. I peek inside…to pitch-black darkness. “Further! Swim further in!” come the shouts from the boat.
Then a wave pushes right inside the cave. It happens so fast I haven’t even had time to feel terrified when I realise I’m standing up, everything around me glowing bright blue. It’s beautiful and calm, a mini beach inside a cave – the kind of place you’d imagine people would come for a secret rendezvous. I dive back in the water and swim out, where a beaming Franco is waiting to help me back onto the boat.
In two days, I’ve hiked up mountains, swam in thermal springs and now I’ve been inside a hidden grotto. Ischia really is Italy’s most beautiful island.