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Ischia, the setting for ‘My Brilliant Friend,’ is also a brilliant choice for a respite

The 17-square-mile volcanic island of Ischia, a 90-minute ferry ride from Naples on Italy’s west coast, was a different world 60 years ago for Elena, the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s popular four-book series detailing the lifelong friendship of two women.

Ischia, known for its thermal spas, beaches and rustic cuisine, received its first dose of glamour in the 1960s when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were photographed kissing here.

Recently, Ischia was the site of Elena’s first trip away from home in “My Brilliant Friend,” the first book in what’s known as the Neapolitan Novels. The bestselling quartet, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein and published between 2012 and 2015, has inspired a new generation of visitors to the island, home to about 60,000.

The books were hailed as forceful accounts of the complex tensions and deeply felt emotions characteristic of long-standing female friendships.

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The popularity of “My Brilliant Friend” fueled a stage adaptation in Britain, and HBO announced in late March that it would co-produce and air an eight-part series based on the novel.

Its reputation as a tome on female friendship spurred my friend Jenny, a lawyer in New York, to suggest it as a book club pick for our trip last summer to Italy.

A dozen close friends and I had rented a villa in Tuscany to celebrate several of their 35th birthdays, and Ischia, with its thermal sands and mountainous terrain, seemed like an ideal addition to the trip.

Escape to Ischia

The various colored umbrellas represent different beach chair rental companies in Sant’ Angelo.
The various colored umbrellas represent different beach chair rental companies in Sant’ Angelo.
(Joy Y. Wang)

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Six of us who had extra time would break off and spend four days in Ischia. The five women — Jenny, Sarika, Rachel, Melanie and I, along with Rachel’s boyfriend, Julian — had known one another a decade or more.

Ischia was an escape for Elena, both from her life growing up in an impoverished, violent neighborhood in Naples and from Lila, her beloved but abrasive best friend.

It also was an escape for us as we left behind our stressful professional lives. Each of the women on the trip had read “My Brilliant Friend” and had different takes on the relationships between the main characters.

We each knew what it was like to have deep female friendships that involved feelings of affection muddled at times with jealousy and disappointment; our lives had been entangled as friends and roommates for years.

Some on the trip identified with Elena, who had focused on academia in order to leave her past, and others with strong-willed, charismatic Lila, who chose marriage as a means to escape poverty.

Rachel had booked a two-bedroom apartment (about $274 a night on HomeAway) for us near the main town Ischia Porto, where our ferry from Naples had docked. It was hidden off a winding sidewalk draped with bougainvillea and a short distance from Spiaggia degli Inglesi, a small beach at the base of a craggy set of stairs.

Leave the familiar

Umbrellas, chairs and people bathing crowd the shore of Sorgeto. The clarity of the water is best ap
Umbrellas, chairs and people bathing crowd the shore of Sorgeto. The clarity of the water is best appreciated when seen from above.
(Joy Y. Wang)

Although the challenges that bound us were different from those Elena and Lila had faced, the questions we shared were the same: How do we create lives that are our own and not ones that follow societal expectations?

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Travel to Ischia, and travel in general, presented an obvious answer: Leave the familiar, do more, see more and decide for yourself. “I felt the sensation that later in my life was often repeated: the joy of the new,” Elena said of Ischia.

For us, that meant trying to communicate in broken Italian with the microtaxi driver on how to get to the thermal hot springs at Sorgeto, on the southwest side of the island (about $43 from Ischia Porto to Sorgeto).

The joy Elena had described we found in descending 214 steps to join Italian tourists soaking in the springs amid sharp, slippery rocks.

I felt that sense of discovery as we sped in a boat from Sorgeto to nearby Sant’ Angelo (about $11 per person), a hip beach town dotted with umbrellas and souvenir stores.

We wandered through the shops and drank Aperol Spritzes while watching the sun drop over the water.

Make your own destiny

The majority of the crowd at Sorgeto appeared to be Italian tourists. Some soaked in the thermal wat
The majority of the crowd at Sorgeto appeared to be Italian tourists. Some soaked in the thermal waters while others took advantage of the calm sea to swim farther out.
(Joy Y. Wang)

We didn’t have a set-in-stone plan for each day in Ischia. When we weren’t eating or at the hot springs, we jumped into the water from the ocean access that came with our rental.

In the evenings, we joined the throngs in Ischia Porto perusing souvenir shops on Via Roma or strolling the waterfront along Via Porto. Nightlife consisted of late meals and lingering drinks, punctuated by the occasional blast of a ship’s horn or the heavy rumble of a ferry drawing anchor.

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One afternoon, we returned to charming Sant’ Angelo, where I spooned up an icy espresso at a beach bar and wondered if leaving the familiar and regularly seeing new places would be enough to bring lasting satisfaction.

All the while, Rachel and Julian were getting engaged on a chalky hill overlooking the sea.

Their choice of marriage was made freely, rather than dictated by the circumstances that had penned in Elena and Lina.

Although Ischia was still the vibrant, accessible paradise experienced by the characters in Ferrante’s novels, what had changed was our ability to escape and make our own destinies.

Where to soak in spas and thermal waters in Ischia

The private beach at Negombo was a favorite base for families. The water remained shallow quite far
The private beach at Negombo was a favorite base for families. The water remained shallow quite far out, making swimming and floating easy and safe.
(Joy Y. Wang)

Ischia is rife with spas and thermal waters, but the beach at Sorgeto, on the southwest coast of the island, is free and open to the public. Italians and tourists slot themselves between the rocks and smear their skin with gray volcanic mud.

Scoop up a handful and go to town, or purchase jars of mud for about $10 from a local vendor.

Ristorante La Sorgente abuts the rocky beach and offers everything from pasta and gelato to espresso and prosecco.

Nitrodi, about 25 minutes from Sorgeto, is another natural hot springs with waters touted as therapeutic, particularly for skin conditions.

Entrance fees to the thermal park are about $11 to $13, depending on the season.

Meanwhile, spa complexes such as the Negombo Thermal Gardens provide a more lavish way to experience Ischia’s heated water. The hydrothermal park is good for couples and families, and a visit there can easily take an entire day.

More than dozen pools and showers are scattered throughout extensive gardens; there’s also a hammam, which is similar to a Turkish bath; beauty treatment rooms and a small hotel.

A long, shallow beach means adults and kids can wade far out into the ocean. Fresh fruit, juices, alcohol and snacks are available from a snack bar. Admission is about $34 for a full day, $22 after 2 p.m.

travel@latimes.com

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO ISCHIA, ITALY

From LAX, Lufthansa, British, Air France, Aer Lingus and Alitalia offer connecting service (change of planes) to Naples, Italy. Restricted round-trip fares from $1,062, including taxes and fees. Ferries and hydrofoil boats make several daily trips between the Port of Naples and Ischia. One-way fares from $14 for the ferry and from $20 for the hydrofoil, which is faster.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (country code for Italy) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY

AirBNB lists rentals in Ischia from $50 a night, while HomeAway has rentals from $106 a night. If you stay near Ischia Porto, restaurants and shopping are all in walking distance.

Hotel della Baia, Negombo Thermal Gardens, San Montano Bay, Lacco Ameno, Ischia; 081-99453. Double rooms with breakfast from $165 per person.

Mezzatorre Resort & Spa, 23 Via Mezzatorre, Forio d’Ischia; 081-986111. Dramatic cliff-side views and an air of James Bond-style luxury. Doubles from $274.

WHERE TO EAT

Il Focolare, 3 Via Cretajo al Crocefisso, Barano d’Ischia; 081-902944. Slow-food fare specializing in Ischian cuisine. Open to the outdoors.

Ristorante Pane e Vino, 19 Via Porto Salvo, Ischia; 081-99104. Fairly touristy right on the Riva Destra, which runs along the port. Solid seafood dishes such as spaghetti alle vongole, octopus and fried whole small fish.

TO LEARN MORE

Ischia tourism and Italian Tourism

travel@latimes.com

@latimestravel


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