The Island of Ischia
Ischia and the Highpoint of M. Epomeo
Monday, October 1
After several low-activity days with my mom and Aunt Rosetta, I wanted to have one last day of doing something a little more energetic. A day traverse across a mountainous island off the coast near Naples had caught my attention while doing some research, and I planned to make this my last adventure of this trip.
I invited my sister along on this outing, but seeing as the following day - our departure back to Canada day - required a 4 a.m. wake time, she was unsure if she was up for such a big outing. After a see-saw internal battle, though, she decided to come along.
The objective for the day was Ischia - one of the islands that dot the gulf of Naples. Collectively they are known as the Phlegrean islands, and in addition to Ischia, include the islands of Procida, Vivara and Nisida, and most famously of all, the island of Capri.
Rush hour in Naples
The particular walking route I had chosen nearly traversed the island (which is only about 10 kilometres wide), and climbs over its highpoint - a 780m (2,600 ft) volcanic pinnacle, called Monte Epomeo.
Being an island, Ischia required a boat ride. There are several points along the Gulf of Naples where ferry service to the islands is provided, but the most flexible in terms of departure times and frequencies was at the largest ferry terminal, at Beverello port in the heart of downtown Naples. We left very early in the morning from Avellino, hoping to get a jump start on the day and to avoid the crush of rush hour traffic in the downtown of one of Italy's larger cities.
Most of the islands off the Gulf of Naples are restricted in terms of vehicle access, and in any case it would have been much more expensive to take a ferry ride with the car than without. Therefore, the plan was to leave the car in Naples. In such a large city, I'd likely choose a secure underground 24-hour parking area if we were leaving the car overnight, but seeing as we would just be gone during the daylight hours, we parked in a very convenient above-ground car-park immediately adjacent to the port. Only ten euros for the day, too - a bargain!
We had tried to time our arrival with an 8:30a.m. ferry, and it was now 8:20 a.m. We hurried over to the ticket kiosks and bought two one-way passenger-only tickets to Ischia (for, as I recall, about 28 Euro apiece). We bought the tickets one-way so that we could have flexibility in choosing when we would return, which would of course be highly dependant on how long it took us to complete our walk.
With our tickets now purchased, we walked around the corner to docking gate twelve, where the ferry had not yet arrived. Soon, though, a catamaran-hulled SNAV ferry glided up to the pier and performed a practiced 180-degree maneuver, coming to rest right in front of us.
We boarded the ferry and made our way to the front of the cabin, hoping to get a seat with a good view. We were hoping for a very scenic ride, but unfortunately this turned out to be a ferry that did not have an outside viewing area, and furthermore, there were signs everywhere to stay seated while the boat was in motion (further restricting our possibility for looking outside). And the windows were covered in a bit of sea-scum, making the views a bit muted.
The ferry was reasonably swift - once it had cleared the outer boundaries of the port - speeding up to exactly 50 km/hr. It also became clear that the 'no walking or standing' signs were only for show, as just about everyone else was casually doing just that.
Procida, Main port
Our route to Ischia was not direct; instead, it made a quick stop at the port on the little island of Procida, partway between Naples and Ischia. After dropping off a few passengers, the ferry immediately spun around and headed back out into the bay, and soon we could see the mountainous shape of Ischia come into view. On a side note, the island of Procida is a favorite with my dad: My uncle Giotto had a summer residence here (in fact, he may still have it), and my dad and my mother had their honeymoon on this island.
We docked at the port in the town of Cassamicciola - one of three port towns on Ischia that public ferries use. Above us we could see the steep wooded slopes of Monte Epomeo, and the little spike of the open craggy summit. It had been an on-and-off rainy morning (the first rain of our trip, in fact), but the forecast was for it to clear up for the afternoon. In any case, our next objective was to get to the start of our walk.
The island of Ischia has a pretty decent public bus system. In addition to frequent buses connecting some of the more major settlements on the island, there are two special buses, called the circolare buses, that continually travel on the highway that forms a ring around the island. One is circolare destra, and the other circolare sinistra (right circular and left circular). We were pretty much at the opposite side of the island from where we wanted to start, so we simply chose whichever of the two buses showed up next. This turned out to be the circolare sinistra.
The SS270 - the highway that circumnavigates the island - is a narrow and twisting affair, and goes through pretty much every settlement of note on the island. As a result, the bus ride was quite long - even though we covered a road distance of perhaps twenty kilometres at most. Eventually we arrived at a small settlement on the south side of the island called Barano d'Ischia. This would be our starting point.
After stopping at a little grocery store to get some snacks for our hike, we started off through the narrow laneways of the village of Barano. Although the ground was still wet from recent rains, the clouds overhead were starting to break up and let warm sun shine down, creating a very moist, tropical sort of air.
The route we were taking to the top of Epomeo was not the standard one. I wanted something (as I usually do) a little more off-the-beaten-path, and I had discovered a fellow hiker's GPS tracklog on the 'net while doing a search one night. A bit of cross-referencing and further investigation seemed to indicate that it might very well be a nice way to ascend Epomeo, following the crest of a long curving ridge that descended south-east from the summit. It was that track that I was now following through the narrow streets of Barano.
The track faifthfully led us through ever-narrowing laneways to a dead-end, where, sure enough, an unsigned footpath extended up into a wooded slope.
The path was initially steep but very-well graded. Soon we emerged onto grassy open slopes atop the ridge, with beautiful views towards the eastern section of the island. At a more prominent point over the lands below was situated a white religious statue. Below we could see the main settlement of the island - the port of Ischia - and beyond, the hazy outline of the island of Procida. A superb view.
The path continued atop the open ridge for a few more minutes, then started to wind between some cultivated farmland that straddled the ridge. Often we would be following the edge of some farmer's fence. Once beyond the farm section, we entered a nice section of ridgetop forest, following a leafy path through a grassy understory. There were no far-ranging views along this section, but it was still a pleasant walk.
Continuing to ascend the ridge, we began to encounter a multitude of side paths heading off in different directions. Since the route we were on was not officially signed, I had to play close attention to the track I was following, and in a few places, make some educated guesses (there were a few times where I ran ahead down one branch, only to eventually turn back and choose the opposite branch). We came to one point where the path crossed through a vineyard (the Costa delle Caranfe
vineyard, to be precise). Here we walked on a nice cobblestoned path with vines thick with purple grapes on either side.
A steep but short descent took us out of the vineyard and joined us to another track heading steeply upwards. Here there was an actual sign with trail information, but quite frankly, I could not make heads or tails of it (and not because of any language barriers; in fact, the sign was in four different languages, including english). However, I still had my track, and it said to head up this cobblestoned path. It was definitely going in the right general direction, so off we went.
The cobblestoned path we were on soon reverted to a dirt footpath. The grade and type of terrain both alternated - sometimes we were in a shady, leafy forest, and other times we crossed through small open fields. In places, it seemed as if the trail we were on had been groomed for mountain biking, with little constructed dropoffs and jumps. These were good spots to teach Elvira the techniques of good footing on steep terrain.
There were no expansive views along this section like there had been lower down, but still, the path was a very nice walk. The tread was good and we encountered no one else. There were again many side trails leading off in different directions, and next to no signage. The GPS track again proved most useful.
We crossed through some more open fields with views looking southward across the Gulf of Naples. Way off in the distance we could very faintly see the outline of the island of Capri. The path then entered some very neat "trenched" sections, where the path was deeply inset between smooth, sheer walls of green volcanic tuff rock.
We were now nearing the summit area, and our path crossed a number of small access roads. We continued west, crossing through more interesting "trenched" sections, and joining with what was obviously the main walking path to the summit. There were obvious signs and markings now, and the trail was wider and more travelled. And, we started to encounter other hikers.
Just a few hundred metres below the summit, we came to the first of several bare-rock sections, where the trail was directly atop the bare volcanic tuff of which the top of the mountain was composed. You could see how the passage of walkers over the centuries had worn grooves and steps into the rock.
Another deeply grooved stretch
Emerging onto open slopes
The grade of the trail, which had been fairly moderate for the last while, returned to being steeper, and we slowed our pace accordingly. I could see the craggy spike of the summit just a few hundred metres ahead of us. We stopped for a brief rest at a interesting rough-hewn 1500s-era chapel, carved right into the bedrock below the summit.
Start of climb to summit pinnacle