Brigitte Bardot, Jane Russell, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando and a galaxy of other celebrities from the 1950’s and 60’s have all sprinkled their stardust on the island of Ischia, set in the Bay of Naples, a 40 minute hydrofoil ride from the Italian coast. Yet its early brushes with stardom have managed to leave Ischia less commercialised and more focussed on its natural attractions than its more famous neighbour, Capri.
Other famed residents of the island include British composer Sir William Walton and his Argentinian wife Susana, who lived on Ischia from 1948 until their deaths, and whose labour of love, `La Mortella Gardens’ at their former private home is now open to the public to view more than 1000 rare and exotic plants.
Summer 2013 celebrates an equally enduring relationship, the marriages and affairs of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whose love was first exposed while they were holidaying on the island of Ischia in the early 1960’s during the making of the iconic film `Cleopatra’.
31st July 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the cinema release of the film, which is still one of the most expensive films ever made and infamous for allegedly nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox. Despite grossing a record US $26 million, it made a loss due to its cost of $44 million, making it the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year to run at a loss.
The film holds several other records, including earning Elizabeth Taylor a Guinness World Record title for "Most costume changes in a film", with 65 costume changes. Her $1 million contract was also a record-breaker at the time.
What drew the film crew to film in Italy, including filming several scenes on the island of Ischia, was in part the English weather after Elizabeth Taylor had to have a life-saving tracheotomy in the early days of filming and the British climate was then considered was detrimental to her recovery.
Despite the original set being put to good use for the filming of `Carry on Cleo’, the cost of rebuilding the scenery twice, once in England and once in Italy, contributed to the film’s record breaking costs.
It’s easy to see why the stars settled so comfortably on the island of Ischia. Its thermal waters have been revered for their relaxing and healing properties as long ago as Ulysses himself, as he is said to have recuperated in the warm springs after battle. Garibaldi too enjoyed the curative waters of the spa waters of the Gurgitiello springs, the island’s most famous waters, and his magnificent marble bath is today a feature of the entrance to the Terme Manzi Hotel & Spa, a luxurious five star hotel built right above Gurgitiello.
Terme Manzi is, not surprisingly, the only hotel on the island to have two Michelin stars for its Il Mosaico restaurant. Push the boat out and try the chef’s taster menu, a most impressive 5 course gastronomic experience, served in part on weighty Murano glass blocks and with exquisite details such as the delightful Naples themed dessert and even a menu of globally sourced mineral waters.
Ischia’s own warm, thermal waters are freely available to all of its visitors, with a number of the beaches enjoying hot springs flowing into the sea water, or fissures in the volcanic rock where it’s said that locals come to cook in the piping hot sand while they swim in the Med.
Beachside spa parks, such as Negombo, near the star-struck resort of Lacco Ameno, are also a feature of the island and for a daily entrance fee visitors can enjoy basking in numerous different pools, beneath tumbling waterfalls and on the adjacent sun baked beaches.
Spend a relaxing few days or more a stone’s throw from Negombo at the 4* Garden & Villas Resort where you’ll hardly be aware of other guests as hotel rooms are within low rise villas linked by a maze of pathways, set amid Mediterranean style gardens.
Bringing Ischia’s star-gazing a little more up to date, the 1999 film `The Talented Mr. Ripley’, starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett, was in part filmed in Ischia, with scenes shot along the promenade of Ischia Ponte, the older part of Ischia main town, leading down to the Aragonese Castle on a peninsula at the end of the port.
It seems that the stars can’t help falling for Ischia, but for some natural star-gazing, the perfect time to be on the island is during July and August, when the Italians will tell you the stars are `falling’ from the sky. Shooting stars, as we know them, proliferate during the summer months, and culminate on 10th August, the feast of St. Lawrence of Rome, one of the most widely venerated saints of the Roman Catholic Church.
Or star in your own thriller and take a hike up to the top of Mount Epomeo, the island’s volcanic `mountain’, rising to a height of 789 metres (2,589 ft), from where there are spectacular three hundred and sixty degree views of the entire coastline of the island, best done during the cooler months in late spring and autumn.