Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Polliwogs of Ischia

Time passes, life goes on and then, one day, this ad appears on television. I think it was from Cadillac. It went something like this, “When was the last time you experienced something for the first time?” That advertisement caught my attention and I turned toward the screen to see what it was about. No, I wasn’t going to rush out and buy a new Cadillac SUV but it gave me pause. When had I last experienced something for the first time? For many of us, life has its normal pace and familiar venues. In fact, for many of us, we even go about our workdays along the same pathways to and from work. It’s hard at times to differentiate from one day to the next. When had I last experienced something new?

Not exactly the same, though on the same cerebral plane, some people have a list of a hundred, possibly even a thousand, things they’d like to do before they die. Something akin to the theme of the movie “The Bucket List”. You know, experiences and otherwise things to do before you kick the bucket! Although I don’t have anything approaching a list as such, I’ve always thought it would be an adventure to go to a spa. I admit there have been past opportunities. We have been on cruises, for instance, where spa sessions were available, but I was holding out. If I had my druthers, something more on the natural side of things, like a sulfur spring or mud bath, was more to my liking.

The natural thermal springs of Ischia, an island just off the coast of Naples, provided me just the opportunity I’d imagined all these years. On Ischia proper, there are many spa venues to choose from with the overwhelming majority of them in the local hotels. Our hotel, Hotel Bristol, even offered a rejuvenating spa program. I could tell immediately when people at breakfast began to appear in white bathrobes and bathing caps! Maria Elena, of course, knew much earlier. That’s why she says I’d have never made it as a spy!

Instead, I opted for a place I’d heard of and relegated to my notes years before - the Bay of Sorgeto. You couldn’t find a more natural, and come to find out, a more primitive spot. It had existed for eons and was accessible only from the sea by boats out of Sant’Angelo for many of them. In more recent times, stairs had been constructed to access the beach far below, where nature’s spa is located. This bay is rich in hot thermal springs, which gush into the Tyrrhenian Sea from the depths of the earth. Just imagine, as old as this earth is, it’s still hot enough deep down inside to generate lava and produce boiling hot springs, which percolate to the surface.

To get to the Bay of Sorgeto, we had taken a local bus from Ischia Porto, where we were staying, around the island proper to Sant’Angelo on the southern coast. The bus, unfortunately, stopped at the top of a hill overlooking the picturesque village of Sant’Angelo. This was the end of the line and we soon learned as close as we could get by bus. We began the long downhill trek toward Sant’Angelo. Along the way, I approached a taxi driver parked to one side and asked him where the Sorgeto hot springs might be. We learned that they were in this area but not in Sant’Angelo per se. We were close but no cigar. Being an alert businessman and sensing opportunity, however, he offered to take us there. We negotiated a price and soon we were off through narrow lanes and byways. Though I wasn’t blindfolded, I would be hard-pressed to ever get there on my own. Hansel and Gretel with sacks of breadcrumbs would have had a time of it. It wasn’t long, however, before we had arrived.

We hadn’t paid our driver by the time he dropped us off by a railing on the edge of a cliff. Where were we and where were the hot springs? The driver, attempting to extend a good deal, said he would return in a few hours to pick us up. Since we hadn’t paid him yet, we thought his return a pretty safe bet.

We had apparently arrived but then we hadn’t. On closer inspection, we found stairs leading from these nose-bleed heights down to the shoreline leagues below. Someone had gone to great expense to construct a fine stairway. In the scheme of things, nothing really ever comes easy. Of fine stone and brick construction the path zigged and zagged down a cliff face covered with agave plants and prickly pear cactus. Though there wasn’t the faintest smell of sulfur anywhere, due to the way the seawater is heated, all that was missing was a Dantesque sign reminding the visitor to “abandon hope all ye who enter here”, the supposed inscription to the -entrance to hell. With much animation and trepidation, we began our descent. We were off, hopefully on the last phase of this “spaga” (spa-saga).

We soon discovered a small solitary bay lying between two steep ridges jutting into the sea. Atop one is the very delightful Hotel Punta Chiarito. This hotel overlooks Sant’Angelo to one side and the picturesque Bay of Sorgeto and Sorgeto Beach itself on the other. This area is also an important archaeological site for it was here were the first Greek colonists founded a village and established fledgling vineyards.

With each step I took down the cliff face, all I could focus on was how we’d need to eventually return up this formidable stairway, and this time, without gravity on our side. For a moment there, I had flashbacks of our assent inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. As we gradually made our way down, every so often I’d peer over the edge toward what lay below. My expectation of some Caribbean-like, sugar-white sandy beach soon vanished. In its stead was a rocky moonscape strewn with uninviting boulders. My advice - don’t bother to bring pails and shovels along for the kids! But there was something else which caught my eye. From our height, the scene struck me as something comparable to numerous puddles of polliwogs. The rocks formed what looked like pools and in each pool any number of people were stretched out relaxing in the heated water. There was almost no motion; simple balletic arm motions kept these human tadpoles in place. All of a sudden, that cruise ship spa began to appeal to me more and more. By then, however, we were committed or at least half committed since we were, by then, about halfway down.

When we finally did reach the bottom, we, the modest puritanical Americans looked for changing rooms while all around us the locals dressed and undressed wrapped solely in a towel. This was new to us. It was almost like one of those magicians who could waft a veiled hoop in front of an assistant and in a flash, completely change their clothing. Balancing on rocks like gulls, they’d morph into and out of their bathing suits. Oh the magic of it! Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought a top hat and cape with me and I wasn’t practiced enough to try the towel thing. Mare wasn’t either. The man running the beach concession directed us through his little restaurant to a place where we could change. Like a Coney Island bath house, the concrete floors were wet, there were no clothes hooks and all the while you had to straddle a toilet. Apparently there were few requests like ours to justify a special changing area - so when in Rome …. Mare suggests wearing your bathing suit to avoid the strip when you do arrive. Otherwise, bring a large towel and prepare to be adventurous!

Now Maria Elena is not sure-footed. She will tell you as much. I can recall the first and only time she tried her hand at skiing for instance! So walking across the boulder field to the sea was no small feat for her. Though lacking in balance and the sure footedness of an alpaca, she did herself credit by employing a low, land-crab style crawl across the beach - nothing glamorous but sufficient. I have to give her credit. Having come this far, she was game to give it a try. Not many gals out there would willingly go this far and be such a “good egg” about it.

I got into the water first and sat down in the midst of a family of Italian tadpoles. Their smiles had invited me in. The seawater was so buoyant it was difficult to stay submerged in true polliwog fashion. It was either the saltiness of the water or the amount of water I was displacing that kept me afloat. I’d like to believe it was the former! When Mare approached the shoreline, she attempted to walk right in. Unfortunately, this was harder than it looked. Neither of us had been forewarned. As she got to the waters edge, she began to hop around and not for joy. Her feet were burning like an egg on a griddle. Talk about being a “good egg” but no one had mentioned anything about frying! I’d been lucky, taking a different route, along a narrow sort of boardwalk. Nothing fancy, just a few planks across the rocks. Mare thought her path to the sea a little safer to navigate, now that she had her crawl technique down. My muddle of polliwog groupies began shouting instructions and otherwise advice to her all at once. Who do you listen to, especially when it comes all at once and in a foreign language? She retreated, it being the better part of valor and instead walked the plank!

Our soak in the heated sea was just wonderful, a truly memorable moment. You had to be careful though. Moving to either side, just a little, and you were into another superheated geyser. Boiled eggs were out of the question! Our neighbors in this puddle, obviously with years of experience under their towels, knew the ropes. Their adjustments were minute while ours far courser. Apparently, ‘la bella figura’ extended even into the sea! We spent an hour or so in listless catharsis in the heated waters. Just beyond us, further out in the surf, the sea broke across even larger boulders. Occasionally, when an especially large wave struck the barrier some of this cool seawater invaded our stone confine and there was a sudden adjustment by everyone, everyone that is but us! We simmered but thankfully had not been poached, or worse yet, experienced anything approaching a Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego moment.

As the day began to relax and the sea took on a wine dark hue, we gathered our belongings and along with other fellow nature worshipers reluctantly began our hike upward to rejoin civilization. When we surfaced at the top of the walkway our taxi driver, as expected, was waiting for us. He proposed that a ride directly to Ischia Porto was much better than returning to the bus stop and waiting for the next bus followed by a return trip along the peripheral coastal road around the island, all while standing. We concurred. Instead our driver went overland and took shortcuts up, around and down some very obscure lanes, some resembling backyards. One of the roads he took, no let me rephrase that, one of the paths he chose, was only wide enough for two mules, or in our case, a small taxi. We bounced and bucked along on this private tour. Still wrapped in towels with an extra towel or two to keep the seats dry, we suspected this was some form of spin dry.

Talk about a poor man’s spa! So what next, a mud bath? I hear there is this really neat place to get slathered in heated mud somewhere up on Mount Vesuvius! Why not a try on our way back to Calitri? So there you have it from an officially baptized Ischia polliwog. Live a little! Surprise yourself, escape the path-dependent world and do the unexpected! Start clearing your “bucket” list today.

The Rogue Tourist,


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "Polliwogs".