On the climb through the charred shrub lands of Mount Epomeo, Renate highlighted the early inflorescence of Calla Lilies, inaugurating a period of fresh hope in the aftermath of the forest fire that consumed a modicum of the island months earlier. Quite literally the green shoots of recovery. The fire was largely unsung by the media – the earthquake that happened almost simultaneously that summer, instead dominated the headlines.
Renate confided vividly, her memories of the night the earthquake hit before pausing to light a bent cigarette, collecting herself in the process. ‘All the walls shook. The floor, the ceiling. The lights went dead, immediately I turned to my grandchild, I saw her face by the light of the fire. The next day I found her crib, where she should have been sleeping had she not stirred. It was flattened under a rock.’ (Renate; etymology – of Latin origin, means “reborn”).
This was the 3rd and final day on the volcanic island of Ischia. In the distance, cries of dirt bikes revved demonstrably, ricocheting off the tufa rock hills. A shameful chorus of withered pants and wheezes dragged behind Renate; a 50 something tour guide, leaving twenty something journos in her wake. One of which capitulated.
‘This is Camel Rock‘ Renate pointed. In lieu of high-profiled landmarks the islanders had taken to characterising various rocks, much like children titularly christening faces in the clouds. Earlier on the drive from Forio port we passed Lovers Rock, ‘Going through a divorce‘ Renate remarked dolefully – explaining the now unbridgeable rift between them.
Ischia is convalescing not only from the two recent tragedies, but from the seismic void left in the local economy. Within the space of 3 days the island shrank from a population of 600,000 to 60,000 as the tourists escaped in droves, hitting the ferries for the mainland of Naples. Now Ischians are keen to bowdlerise some of the sensationalism that has impacted the local economy far harder than the 4.2 shock that hit the island, killing 3 people.
Sadly, the island hasn’t the distinguished profile of its neighbouring counterpart Capri, despite being four times the size. When the morning fog lifts you can see the white cliffs of Capri eddy along the horizon, like the white teeth of a pernicious demon child sniggering malevolently at its older brother’s recent misfortune. Mainland Italians flock here of course, as do the Germans. It’s not luxury or highbrow enough for rich Russians and there’s nothing to keep the Chinese here for longer than a day. Renate rhapsodises, almost lyrically, about Jennifer Lopez gracing the island back in 2009. Had anyone joined the conversation late they’d be forgiven for thinking she was describing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
We inevitably gravitated towards Aragon Castle, an eminent fortress that has provided refuge for countless Ischians over the centuries. From the eruption of Mount Epomeo to innumerable purges from the French, Vikings even the English. Stretching back from the castle, the 5-star hotels that guard the shoreline of the Spiaggia Dei Pescatori are assembled in typically Mottled-Italian fashion.
On our descent we collected the flagging journo who was keen to cite vertigo, not fatigue for her early retirement. I neither challenged nor accepted her rationing. On the ferry back to the mainland, Renate motioned to the undulating volcanic lines that divided the rock face. A disquieting reminder of the islands tumultuous relationship with nature, ultimately leading to the early Greek settlers abandoning Ischia altogether. Earlier I had sought reassurance from Renate, asking her if the volcano was definitely inactive. She shrugged, shooing a stray dog away from her recently stubbed cigarette. ‘Inactive sure, who knows.’ Her brevity ingeniously sewed nightmare with plausibility.
This article was intended for Cereal Magazine but communication with the submissions department broke down. It’s non-sponsored. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Ischia check out my review of the Garden & Villas Resort.