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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Five Tales from Ischia: The 3rd Tale (Lady Walton and the Croaking Frogs)

On the morning of June 28th, 2007, on my fourth day on the island of Ischia, Marty Nakell, his wife Rebecca, two of his students (Daniel and Nidzára), and I left our hotel near Florio to visit the famed Castello Argonese on Ponte Ischia near the island’s major city, Porto Ischia.

Built by the Syracusan Greek Gerone in 474 B.C., the castle served as a protective fortress for centuries while the surrounding countryside was plundered by various racial and tribal groups, including the Visogoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, and Angevins. In 1301 it served as a refuge against the eruption of the local volcano, Mount Trippodi.

At its greatest “splendor,” it hosted, in the 16th century, 1,892 families, a Convent for Clarisse Nuns, a Greek Basilian Abbey, and a Bishopric and Seminary, as well as the palace of the Prince along with his garrison. There were thirteen churches, seven of which were independent parishes.

In 1809 the English attacked the castle, then owned by the French Aragons, nearly destroying it. In 1823 the King of Naples, Ferdinand I, used it as a political prison for people who opposed Bourbon Power.

The Italian patriot Guiseppe Garibaldi abolished the prison in 1860, joining the whole of Ischia to the Reign of Italy.

Since 1912 it has been owned by private individuals, which explains, perhaps, the existence, a few years ago, of a night club within its confines and today’s rather swanky hotel—which Marty, Rebecca, and I visited. There is also a rather pleasant bar/café at its center, and the Ischia film festival is held in the castle’s confines. The day we visited we saw an art show in the domed church.

But for all its heroic and near-mythical past, it is also a very eerie and somewhat frightening place, a seemingly haunted castle that made us all wonder whether we’d be comfortable staying overnight in that small, elegant hotel.

From the very moment we entered, we encountered that sense of oddness of the place. Martin, who evidently suffers a bit from claustrophobia, determined that he would walk up the several stairs to the top, while Rebecca and I chose the elevator. Once we had entered I quickly pressed a button, realizing at that same moment that I had pressed one warning us not to touch. The door closed and we heard nothing nor felt any movement up, just the quietude of being encapsulated in such small quarters with strangers. After what seemed like a very long while, with an increasing sense of panic crossing Becky’s face, the door opened, presenting us with the panorama of the top floor.

After meeting up again with Marty and taking a few pictures from this palisade of the picturesque city below, he and I checked out the cemetery of the Clarisse nuns, who also practiced, evidently, some very strange ritualistic rites. In the so-called cemetery were numerous stone stools, upon which, so we were told, they sat their sisters after death, permitting their bodily contents to gradually decompose, their essences dripping into the hole below them while the living nuns daily prayed. One can only imagine the stench, to say nothing of the diseases this awful worship of the dead begat.

After a short rest in the shady café while drinking campari and orange, I checked out some of the higher passages of the castle, following my instinct until I had reached an odd room near the very top which appeared like a small prison, but from which one could glimpse a lovely view of the ocean and in the far distance, Capri. After further exploration and meeting up with the rest of Marty’s students, the three of us left the castle, eating a lunch of pesce grilia (calamari, octopus, white fish, with grilled onions, zucchinis, etc) in a small restaurant at the base of Castello Argonese.

For a while I walked the streets of Ponte Ischia before meeting up again with the Nakells and the two students who had come with us, our group taking a small boat across the bay to Coco Beach, where Marty merrily swam and snorkeled out and around three large rocks jutting from the ocean floor. I managed a few side-strokes and dog-paddled close in where my feet could still touch bottom. But even here the sea floor was unpredictable, as I cut my thigh upon a rock—a long gash which the salty sea quickly healed.

Later in the afternoon we walked up to the tower above the beach which, I was told, had once served as Michaelangelo’s studio. There we met a taxi which whisked us back to our Forio-based hotel.

At nine that evening we met up with our hotelier, Maria, who had invited us and several of her favorite German regulars to the Botanical Gardens for a musical concert.

The gardens were stunningly beautiful, but the amphitheatre lies far up the mountain which requires trailing up hundreds of steps. I could hear a couple of elderly German ladies huffing and puffing behind us, we huffing and puffing ahead. Fortunately it was cool, and every once in a while, we briefly stopped to look at the evening lights of Forio spread out below. The city lay behind the stage so that both “performances” were simultaneously visible.

The amphitheatre was a gift of the wife of the late composer William Walton, Lady Susana Walton, who lives still in Ischia today. Playing that evening was a youth orchestra which, consequently, was required to perform at least one William Walton piece—in this case a truly miserable offering. The orchestra, filled with lovely young faces, also played three waltzes by Johann Straus, a composer I cannot abide. Their performance of Gershwin’s American in Paris was a valiant try, but they had difficulties with the constantly changing rhythms and did not seem to understand the jazz aesthetic. More successful was the overture to Fidelio and a charming Boccherini piece—all of these works accompanied by the madly croaking frogs of the nearby pond and the graceful antics of a small bat greedily snatching up insects in the space between audience and orchestra.

After the concert, I joined others waiting in line to greet Lady Walton. “Darling, it was so nice of you to have come,” she took my hand. I invited her to my upcoming reading at a nearby winery. “Thank you so much, my dear,” she replied. She was still beautiful with an elegant head of graying hair. “She must have married Will when she was ten,” I conjectured (in fact, when they married in Buenos Aires, he was 24 years her senior).

On the way down, as we witnessed the youthful orchestra members carrying their instruments the hundreds of winding stairs to the entrance of the park below, we wondered how they gotten the ancient Lady Walton to the top. The Nakell’s had once seen her carried by hand in a kind of chaise through the waiting room of the nearby Naples airport. Had some servile men likewise carried her to the top of these gardens as well?

Down below the taxi drivers were furious over the crowded street and seemingly endless delays. As in Naples, they seem to have the ability to crawl across the nearby walls, and after much swearing and many shouts, we sped away to a Forio restaurant where we dined on a fish stew served with pasta, followed by the remainders of the bones which we each sucked dry.

Florio, Ischia, July 2, 2007


mark wallace said...

A very enjoyable travelogue--makes me want to visit there.

Curtis Faville said...

This is the Ischia of Auden & Kallman, of Vidal & Capote, of Schuyler & The Bird.

Thanks for the travel log.

I've always wanted to visit the Amalfi Coast. The closest I got was Rapallo, of Beerbohm & Bunting fame. They have a gold plaque on Beerbohm's old villa overlooking the sea. Kind of a busy tourist place now, though.

Would also like to see Capri. Norman Douglas etc.