Brightly painted facades by the sea, with land rising steeply behind; fishing boats bobbing in the harbour; some ancient stone buildings? Tobermory in Mull? Add in some Mediterranean sunshine – perhaps Collioure in South-West France, home of the Fauvists? But no – we have just experienced fascinating new examples of seaside colour– Porto di Marina Grande and La Corricella on the tiny and tantalising island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, where at the beginning of May we enjoyed 3 nights at the luxury La Suite hotel. Read my review
As well as enjoying the colours and sights of the island, we also wanted to find out whether, for senior travellers, the island could be an alternative to Naples as a base for tourism in the Bay, including the archaeological remains at Pompeii and possibly Herculaneum – a tall order in the time available!
However, our first steps were 30 minutes walking from the hotel to the colourful Porto di Marina Grande, passing between high walls which provided welcome shade and allowed glimpses of gardens, with lemon and occasional orange trees. Cars and scooters passed alarmingly close and fast on narrow lanes, some cobbled, where tiny shops provided vegetables, flowers, caged birds, groceries and pottery to the local population.
From the port, we climbed to the impressive fortress of the Terra Murata, highest point of the island, passing through the historic Piazza Dei Martiri (Martyr’s Place), where 16 republicans were hanged in 1799 by the Bourbons. From near the attractive domed church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, steps descend to the exceptionally pretty fishing village of La Corricella, with its harbour again fronted by pastel-painted houses.
Climbing above the grim grey ruined citadel of the Terra Murata, we reached the 11th century Benedictine foundation of L’Abbazia di San Michele Arcangelo. From its position, dominating the cliffs of the Terra Murata, we had superb views across the Bay of Naples, East towards a hazy Vesuvius, and South-East to Capri.
The Naples area is the home of pizza-making, and, back in the Porto, ‘Da Giorgio’ provided great examples of the craft, including a local Marina di Corricella recipe, well worth trying with a cold Peroni beer, or with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
After lunch, it was time to be off to Ischia by hydrofoil. (In general, though, we preferred ferries to the slightly faster hydrofoils, as there was more outside space and better views). On approaching, the steep wooded slopes rising from the enchanting natural little harbour of Ischia Porto provided a striking contrast to the flatter Procida, and encouraged us to make an attempt on Monte Epomeo, at 787m, the ex-volcanic high point of the island.
We accepted the offer of a €35 taxi-ride to a point near the village of Fontana, which enabled us to reach the summit in good time. (A bus also circles the whole island). Our driver, Benedetto, pointed out the many vineyards on this ‘green island’, and as if to reinforce the importance of irrigation with upland water, we passed under a fascinating 16th century aqueduct (Acquedotto dei Pilastri), built by the Spanish in the style of the Romans, to bring water from a spring in the mountains.
From our drop-off point, climbing steeply through Sweet Chestnut coppice, we emerged onto the amazing tufa (Tuff) rocks of Epomeo, derived from volcanic ash, and still showing signs of gas bubbles ‘frozen’ into the surface. The relatively soft rock showed clear gullies from water erosion, and in places was carved into steps. There is even a disused hermitage (Eremo di San Nicola) carved out of the rock just below the summit. Unfortunately, just as we arrived at the peak, a small cloud appeared out of nowhere, and enveloped us, blocking out much of the view. Around 45 minutes later though, we were enjoying the sun in the pretty village piazza of Fontana, sipping a fresh lemon granita, while waiting for the very useful bus service back to Ischia Porto.
Pompeii was our target for the next day, an attempt to test Procida as a base for wider exploration. A hydrofoil cancellation, a long wait for the very overcrowded tram from Naples port to the Circumvesuviana station, and a missed train, unfortunately reduced our time at the ruins; and ruled out Herculaneum, which can be visited from the same line.
Despite the limited time, we obtained a strong impression of the character of this ancient city and its frightening proximity to the volcano which caused its annihilation. From the very first entry through the double-arched Porta Marina, along the impressive highway of the Via dell’Abbondanza, with its massive cobbles, stone crossing points and intact drinking fountain, to the amazingly intact Odeon and Teatro Grande, it was possible to imagine the living community of Pompeii. A brief taste of some of the buildings with their carvings, frescoes and artefacts, such as the Forum Baths, the Brothel and the Laundry, reinforced our desire to return for more.
And wanting more was the general feeling with which we regretfully said goodbye to the little gem of Procida, a bustling working community very welcoming to tourism, but not yet spoiled by it; a tranquil refuge from the city and a gateway to the Bay of Naples. More time wanted to visit its nature reserve of Isola di Vivara, and Ciraciello beach; to try the thermal pools of Ischia; to investigate island-hopping by ferry to Ischia, Capri and Sorrento – and to revisit those unique ruins.
Procida is a lively place but has a friendly, peaceful and safe feel, which makes it well-suited to Silver Travellers. As we discovered, for the more active traveller, it can provide a good base for exploring other islands and even the mainland, using different forms of transport and on foot. Many lanes are cobbled and narrow, but even for the less mobile, the cheap small buses which circulate both Procida and Ischia, and/or moderately priced taxis, can give access to many of the most interesting areas. While buses are sometimes crowded, it is noticeable that locals do try to ensure that those with reduced mobility are given seats. And the ferries provide a wonderful way to enjoy the best views in the Bay of Naples with little physical exertion.