There are few places as intensely, intoxicatingly Italian as the city of Naples and its idyllic satellite island of Ischia. On a trip inspired by the novel My Brilliant Friend, one writer finds herself falling in love.
Within hours of arriving on the island of Ischia, I’d been propositioned by a man on a Vespa, survived a minor vehicular accident, and eaten a meal so delicious I wanted to kiss my fingertips and say, “Perfetto!” Here in the Campania region of southern Italy, life is all about contrasts. There’s the famously hectic metropolis of Naples, where I’d begun my trip; there are the ruined ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which sit under Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed them; there are the upscale destinations of Sorrento, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast. And then there’s Ischia.
I’d first learned about Ischia from the work of Elena Ferrante, the mysterious, pseudonymous Italian author whose books about the friendship between two girls from a rough Neapolitan neighborhood became a surprise international sensation. In the first novel, My Brilliant Friend (which was recently made into an HBO series), the narrator, Elena Greco, leaves her home in 1950s Naples for the first time to spend a summer on Ischia. The island is only a short boat journey away, but might as well be on another planet. Freed from the oppressive family politics of her neighborhood, Elena, who’s known as Lenù, discovers the pleasures of sun and sea, of days spent doing nothing on the beach. Ischia is riotously vegetated and alive with volcanic activity, full of hidden geological perforations that vent sulfurous vapors and ooze hot, mineral-rich waters. In such a lush, steamy setting, Elena can’t help falling in love for the first time.
So it seemed appropriate that I’d barely set foot on Ischia before a suitor found me. My guide, Silvana Coppa, a native Ischian, had dropped me at the causeway that connects the town of Ischia Ponte to Castello Aragonese, a fortified castle built just offshore on a small, solidified bubble of volcanic magma. In the Middle Ages, Silvana told me, townspeople went there to hide from pirates, or volcanic eruptions, or whichever Mediterranean power wanted to colonize the island next. Nowadays, the castle serves as a museum and occasional screen star, having made appearances in The Talented Mr. Ripley and the adaptation of My Brilliant Friend.
As I strolled along the causeway, a middle-aged man rode past on a Vespa, giving me a good old-fashioned ogle as he went. Then he pulled over.
“Deutsche?” he asked.
The news that I was American prompted an elaborate show of astonishment — American visitors are still rare on Ischia, though maybe not as rare as he made out. The man asked how many days I was staying.
“We spend them together,” he said. He pointed emphatically at his chest. “Your boyfriend.”
I laughed semi-politely. I said no thank you and, with increasingly insistent Ciaos, made my way back to Silvana and the red and white Piaggio three-wheeler waiting to take us around the island. She relayed my story to the driver, Giuseppe. “He says we’ll have to be careful not to lose you,” she told me with a laugh.
Getting lost on Ischia didn’t seem like a bad option, I thought, as we puttered inland and wove our way up a mountainside, away from the busy beach towns and thermal spas that have lured Europeans for generations. We passed vineyards, lemon trees, palms and pines, bougainvillea pouring over walls built centuries ago from blocks of porous volcanic rock, or tufa, fitted together so perfectly they didn’t even require mortar. In My Brilliant Friend, Lenù describes how Ischia gave her “a sense of well-being that I had never known before. I felt a sensation that later in my life was often repeated: the joy of the new.”
I’d only spent a few days in Lenù’s home city, but I could already relate to the sense of restoration she took from Ischia. The best way to really appreciate such an island idyll, it turns out, is to arrive there from somewhere noisy and unruly and crowded and undeniably real — somewhere like Naples.
To be honest, my expectations for Naples were not high. I tend to gravitate toward cold, sparsely inhabited, orderly places where people don’t talk with their hands — or really talk much at all — as opposed to hot, labyrinthine Mediterranean cities universally described as gritty, where everyone shouts at one another and no one knows how to wait their turn.
In Ferrante’s novels, characters are always blowing their tops and hurling insults in Neapolitan dialect, an expressive patois unintelligible even to other Italians, cobbled together from the linguistic leftovers of everyone who’s ever come and gone from the port: the Greeks, who founded the city around 600 B.C.; the Romans, who came next; the Byzantines, French, Spanish, Arabs, Germans, and, post–World War II, the Americans, who tossed out slang like candy. Ferrante doesn’t always try to relay exactly what gets said in dialect — perhaps the insults are too horrible for non-Neapolitans to endure. That fiery temperament is mirrored by the landscape: because of the density of population at its base, scientists consider Mount Vesuvius one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
But right away, I began to be won over. The colors got me first. From my balcony at the Grand Hotel Parker’s, in the hills of the tony Chiaia neighborhood, I watched the setting sun warm the faces of the city’s stacked and jumbled buildings, bringing out hues that all seemed to be food-related: butter, saffron, pumpkin, salmon, mint, lemon. The double-humped silhouette of Vesuvius turned purple in the distance, and across the water, I could just make out the jagged outline of Capri rising above a layer of haze. All right, fine. Naples is pretty.
The next morning, I set out for a long walk with Rosaria Perrella, an archaeologist in her early thirties who’d returned to Naples after 11 years in Rome and Berlin. I was hoping she could help me make sense of this place.
“In Naples, we love to live all attached,” Rosaria told me. We were in the oldest part of the city, the Centro Storico, and she was pointing out how even buildings that didn’t need to be connected were, with funky bridges and makeshift additions sealing up the gaps between them.
“This is how we like it,” she said. “You want to know whether your neighbor is in the bathroom.”
She was describing my nightmare — though even I couldn’t deny the charm of the narrow, tufa-paved streets, where laundry flapped from balconies and mopeds wove among groups of people chatting on the sidewalk. Waiters with trays of espresso shots hurried by, making house calls. Something bumped me on the head. It was a basket being lowered from a window above. A guy on the street took money out of it and put in cigarettes.
“It’s a city of layers, and they all blend together,” Rosaria said. “Problematic people? We welcome them!” She wanted me to know that although a hard-line anti-immigration government had recently come to power in Italy, Naples remained friendly to migrants and refugees — an attitude that, like the local dialect, is the legacy of centuries of cultural blending.
Some people are more problematic than others, however, and organized crime has long contributed to both Naples’s unsavory reputation and its slow development compared with Italy’s other major cities. The Camorra, as the Neapolitan version of the Mafia is known, is more decentralized than its Sicilian counterpart, with many small, clannish gangs competing for power and territory. As Ferrante’s novels make clear, this power structure dominated the city in the fifties, when families in Lenù’s neighborhood (thought to be the Rione Luzzati, east of the Garibaldi train station — still not a garden spot) ostensibly kept shops or ran bars but were really getting rich from the black market, loan sharking, and extortion.
“They are still here,” Rosaria acknowledged of the Camorra, but she said they aren’t interested in bothering tourists. Yet, like most of the city’s business owners, they stand to benefit from the new budget-carrier flights bringing foreign visitors in search of sunshine and lively, authentic Italian experiences.
Rosaria led me down narrow, shaded alleys and through sun-baked squares ringed with churches, palazzi, and canopied restaurants. She showed me tranquil private courtyards just off the busiest thoroughfares and took me to streets known for their specialty stores, like Via San Sebastiano, where musical instruments are sold, and Port’Alba, where the booksellers are.
On Via San Gregorio Armeno, perhaps Naples’s most famous shopping street, vendors peddle charms and magnets and key chains in the shape of little red horns, or cornicelli, for good luck. “But you can’t buy one for yourself,” Rosaria said. “Someone has to give it to you.”
The street’s real attractions, however, are the shops filled with nativities, or presepi, which Catholics traditionally display at Christmas. These are not diminutive, anodyne mangers but sprawling, intricately crafted models of 18th-century towns, some several feet tall, populated by butchers and bakers and people of all sorts having a rollicking good time. To spice your presepe up even more, you can add whichever random figurines you fancy. If you think Elvis or Mikhail Gorbachev or Justin Bieber ought to attend the birth of Jesus, their effigies can easily be obtained on Via San Gregorio Armeno.
It was the colors of Naples that first cracked my armor, but it was the food of Naples that shattered it completely (possibly from the inside, due to my waist’s expansion). For coffee, Rosaria took me to Caffè Mexico, an orange-canopied institution near Garibaldi where the baristas gave us our espressos stacked on about seven saucers each — a gentle prank about us being high-class people, Rosaria explained.
As a lunch warm-up, she took me to Scaturchio, the city’s oldest pastry shop, for sfogliatelle: crisp, fat scallop-shaped shells stuffed with sweet, eggy ricotta custard and candied citrus peel. For lunch we went to Spiedo d’Oro Trattoria, a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall on the edge of the Spanish Quarter. The pop, Enzo, had a salt-and-pepper mustache and doled out generous servings of pasta, salad, and fish to the crowd jostling for counter service. Five bucks bought me a heaping plate of pasta with eggplant and tomato and, afterward, a strong desire for a siesta. But, in Naples, I discovered, it’s best just to keep eating. This is a carb marathon, not a carb sprint, after all, and I hadn’t even gotten to the pizza.
In the afternoon, Rosaria took me to the cloister garden of the Santa Chiara Monastery, an oasis of calm amid all the urban chaos. Orange and lemon trees grow among the pillars and benches covered in majolica tiles — each of which is painted with vines, fruits, and scenes of 18th-century life: ships and carriages, hunters and herders, a wedding. “Sometimes this city drives me crazy, but then there’s this,” Rosaria said. She indicated the rustling leaves, the walled-in hush. “This is what I came back to Naples for.”
I was starting to get it: the way the contrasts and contradictions of Naples make life there feel engaging and serendipitous, full of plot twists. One minute I was much too hot and cramped and close to being run over by a phalanx of careening Fiats; the next I was enchanted by the density of life, the warmth with which friends greeted each other on the street, the golden light of evening on the bay.
And let’s not forget the pizza. Its siren song is inescapable in Naples, the city believed to be the place it was invented. Many of the classic spots, like L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele and Sorbillo Pizzeria, are in the Centro Storico, but I went to 50 Kalò, a five-year-old upstart in Mergellina, which emphasizes quality ingredients. There, I was presented with a margherita pizza the size of a hubcap and left alone to get the job done.
There’s no way I can eat this whole thing, I thought, and then I ate the whole thing. The crust was thin and chewy and just salty enough. The sauce was bright and tangy and in perfect proportion to the cheese. Sometimes I feel awkward eating alone, but no one even glanced at me. They were all busy with their own pizzas, their own lives. The waiter didn’t even stop by to ask if the food was good because, I suspect, he knew it was good, and if I had a different opinion, then I was an idiot.
This suggested a larger truth about Naples. The tourist trail in cities like Florence and Venice can have a sanitized, Epcot-style Italy™️ feel, but there’s nothing prettified or artificial about Naples. Its drama — its life — is for itself. You’re welcome to the party, but no one’s going to babysit you or hold your hand or even make an effort to avoid running you over with a moped. In return you get privacy, your own little pocket of peace within the madness.
Still, after a few days in the city, Ischia seemed like blessed relief, a bubble of serenity — at least until our Piaggio collided with a house. Right beforehand, Silvana had taken me to an overlook from which I could see Maronti beach, site of long, lazy days for Lenù. “Endless and deserted” is how Ferrante described the stretch of sand that was now, decades later, pebbled with rows of colorful beach umbrellas and edged with restaurants and hotels.
As we chugged down a snaking road, the three-wheeler suddenly swerved. There was a scrape and a crash, and it came to an abrupt stop nose-first against a white stucco house. Everyone was okay, just startled. This was the sort of thing that was supposed to happen in Naples, not Ischia. Giuseppe bumped his head; Silvana scraped her hand; I acquired a lump the size of half a tennis ball on my shin. The residents of the house we’d crashed into (which was undamaged) kindly invited us inside and gave me an ice pack.
When a replacement Piaggio arrived, I told Silvana I would be needing a glass of wine with lunch, and she said she knew just the place. Sant’Angelo, one of Ischia’s resort towns, gets called — or maybe calls itself — “Little Positano.” I haven’t been to Positano and so can’t say how well the comparison holds, but I can say that Sant’Angelo is dreamy. Cars aren’t allowed, so you walk (or limp, in my case) down toward the water, along a steep lane lined with blindingly white shops and houses, and onto a narrow isthmus with a small marina on one side and a beach on the other. For lunch, on the breezy, canopied patio at the almost painfully pleasant Casa Celestino Restaurant, I had a plate of oily, tender seafood salad, followed by prawns on a nest of scialatielli and long ribbons of lemon zest.
“How many glasses of wine did you have?” Silvana wanted to know afterward.
Two, of a dry Ischian white, I told her. Back at my hotel, L’Albergo della Regina Isabella, I followed them up with the better part of a bottle of champagne while I iced my shin — not only to celebrate escaping death by Piaggio but also because it was my birthday. So, by the time I made my way down to the sea an hour later, just as the late afternoon sun was starting to get serious about turning golden, I was feeling pretty good.
The Regina Isabella, which was established in 1956 by the Italian publisher and film producer Angelo Rizzoli, still has the Old Hollywood elegance that, in its 1960s heyday, drew notable guests like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, and Maria Callas. These days it’s the hotel equivalent of a perfectly coiffed Italian woman of a certain age, proudly and resplendently old-school. That vibe is typical of Ischian accommodations — although this spring, the island’s venerable Mezzatore Hotel & Spa is being relaunched by the group behind the Pellicano resort in Tuscany, perhaps auguring the arrival of a more modern, cosmopolitan take on Italian luxury.
The Regina Isabella’s décor is on the formal side, but the staff is warm, and the Michelin-starred restaurant, Indaco, is exceptional. There’s a medical spa specializing in “bioactive” thermal mud treatments, a heated saltwater pool, and a small beach. But I was drawn to two jetties with metal staircases leading into the water. On the bottom step of one of the staircases, I paused, up to my knees in the cool Mediterranean, the sun still hot on my shoulders. The water was clear and deep. A cluster of small silver fish darted over to inspect my feet. I thought of a scene in the TV version of My Brilliant Friend in which Lenù walks into the sea for the first time, at first wading nervously and then swimming, weightless and euphoric, as the camera rises to show her from above, alone in the blue.
I plunged, then frogged away from the shore, away from the buzzing beach cafés, the boutiques selling white linen outfits that only Europeans can wear, the yachts at anchor, the green mountains that concealed ungovernable heat and unrest. I recognized in myself Lenù’s exhilaration at being small and alone in something very big. I gave in to the thrill — the vulnerability — of being in a place so full of complexity and contrast that it can’t be controlled, and so might as well be embraced.
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