Image via Binocle.
Ahhh, to live like an Italian and take the month of August off! This is a tradition with a long history in Italy as well as most of Western Europe.
On average, the Italian worker gets 42 days of vacation per year, and many of them take the bulk of it (if not all) in August. Ferragosto, August 15, is a national holiday in Italy, and generally marks the start of vacation season.
The productivity of the entire country declines as bodies lie sizzling in the sun to obtain that sought-after bronze glow that every Italian admires.
The risk of finding signs like the one above (chiuso per ferie means closed for vacation) but around such destinations as the Vatican in Rome and the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence you’ll always find restaurants, shops and hotels that accomodate travelers.
Image via Richard Dietrich.
Continuing our series on less-traveled Italian destinations, we should look at the ancient Roman town that lives in the shadow of Pompeii: Herculaneum (Ercolano, in Italian).
The devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius on that fateful August afternoon on 79 A.D. did not focus its wrath solely on Pompeii. There were neighboring towns that were equally devastated and Herculaneum is an amazing, perhaps overlooked example.
While the buildings of Pompeii and its inhabitants were destroyed mostly by the first stage of the eruption, the population of Herculaneum was spared at this point. The heavy debris and ash that caused the collapse of so many buildings of Pompeii only lightly rained down on Herculaneum, resulting in an evacuation of almost the entire town toward the sea. The later flow of ash and hot gasses slowly filled the buildings from the ground up. Because of this, the structures of the town are remarkably well-preserved.
Once the excavations reached the shore, however, the fate of several hundred members of the population was discovered. A subsequent heat surge sometime in the middle of the night blew through the area and instantaneously killed the people who had taken shelter in the boat houses. Their bodies were carbonized which, along with the debris burial, helped to perfectly preserve the skeletal remains. This was an exciting find for scientists because Romans practiced cremation, rendering typical remains unsuitable for investigation. The unfortunate end of the Ercolani gave forensic investigators the opportunity to glean information such as diet, disease, childbirth, as well as how they died. It was an unprecedented look into the daily life of ancient Romans.
Up to this point, the main cause of death was thought to be suffocation. But, upon further examination of the Ercolani, scientists were able to surmise that it was indeed a pyroclastic surge that was the most deadly aspect of the eruption. Because of the tragic demise of the people of Herculaneum, the entire world has a more detailed account of this catastrophic event that happened almost 2 millennia ago.
If you would like to visit this beautifully preserved Roman town, it is just a 25 minute train ride from Naples on the Circumvesuviana. You won’t have to fight hordes of tourists unloading from multiple buses, as the infrastructure around the area gives little access to major traffic.
For those of you out there who want to take the road less traveled, this is the series for you. For every Uffizzi gallery or Amalfi Coast, there is another, less visited cousin.
We’ll start with the beautiful Island of Ischia (EES-kee’ah), the less famous but no less glamorous sister to Capri. There are technically 4 islands in the Gulf of Naples. Capri, Procida, Vivara, and the largest, Ischia. (We say “technically,” because Vivara is a national park and is attached to Procida by a pedestrian bridge.)
Nicknamed l’Isola Verde (the green island), it certainly doesn’t disappoint with its lush beauty. Although one might think that it’s verdant flora is what gave it this moniker, it’s actually named for the green-hued tufa rock that is its foundation. The surrounding water can rival the limpid, cool green, blue, and deep turquoise of Capri.
Ischia has several sandy beaches and a wealth of thermal water spas. In fact, thermal water is what made the island famous to begin with. Fango, or mud enriched with rich volcanic water is a draw for many each year and is what built Ischia’s traditionally German and British tourism. A day pass for these thermal parks averages around 30 euro. Inside you have access to several pools, natural saunas, lounging chairs, beach, and all of the glorious sea views that you can handle. You can of course pay more for massages or other beauty treatments once inside.
If history is your interest, there is a museum housed in Villa Arbusto in the town of Lacco Ameno that displays one of the purported Nestor’s Cups. Displaying one of the first written records using the Greek alphabet, the island is proud to have found this treasure locally. There is also the Castello Aragonese on the eastern side of Ischia, in the town of Ischia Ponte. The castle is built on a steep volcanic rock that is attached to the island by a pedestrian bridge, hence the name of the town. The first fortifications were built in the fifth century B.C., with the majority of what is seen today being comissioned in the mid-fifteenth century. It is a breathtaking site, both to behold from Ischia Ponte as well as from the castle itself.
Ischia is also rich in shopping and great dining. It’s hard to eat a bad meal! There is fresh fish, high fashion, and a bumping nightlife to suit all tastes.
Though this island isn’t tourist-poor, it definitely is not heavily touristed by Americans. The best times to go are May through July, then September and October. August sees a crush of Italian tourists and hotel rates are highest and beach space is limited. Compared to Capri, however, the hotels are quite the steal. You can even find short-term apartment rentals everywhere if you know where to look.
There is nothing not to love about Ischia, it really has something for everyone. It makes for a romantic vacation for two, as well as a family-friendly destination. Getting there is easy. Just take a ferry or hydrofoil from one of two ports in Naples and within 1 hour you will disembark into a paradise few of your American friends have even heard of.