The non-stop volcanic activity transformed Ischia into a geologic wonderland. Whether it was the birth of a new volcano where a peaceful bay once lay, lava and cinders exploding out of fiery craters, gases hissing out of vents, or the entire island being submerged and then violently pushed up out of the sea.
Relief model of Ischia showing elevation in meters and topography with many volcanoes, lava domes and horsts. Ferdindando II of Bourbone planted the area outlined in blue, the Arso lava flow, with pine trees in the 1850′s. These are still visible in the parks.
The land that resulted from this sculpting by nature’s forces became as beautiful as a work by Michelangelo. In fact, legend has it that in the 1500′s, Michelangelo visited his friend, the poet Vittoria Colonna who lived in the Castello Aragonese, and stayed in the adjacent Torre Michelangelo.
The enchanting landscapes take many forms. There is the brown outer belt of petrified lava of the Zaro Coast which resembles a lunar landscape, the vertical rock faces that jut out over the woody plateau of Falanga, the calcareous spires of the natural cathedral of Pizzi Bianchi at Fontana.
There are the fumaroles, both hot and cold, hissing, huffing and puffing out of the ground. Cold fumaroles are caused by the rule of physics governing the velocity of material. The gas is hot below ground, however it is being forced out through a small opening at a high velocity and, as the velocity of the gas increases, it becomes colder. The volcanic land is also home to plants which are truly unique, like the fumarole papyrus (Cyperus Polystachius) a species of mysterious and very ancient origin that, outside tropical areas only grows among the fumaroles on Ischia.
Where an abandoned rock quarry existed 60 years ago is now, in my opinion, the most beautiful garden on earth. Giardini La Mortella (Gardens of Myrtle) was lovingly planned and planted by Susana and William Walton. Here, thanks to the climate and rich volcanic soil, some of the rarest plants from all over the world thrive and produce a spectacle of color in every season. Some of the plants are the only remaining specimens of their type in the world. Special effort is required to keep the plants from over-growing on the rocks because the focal point of the garden is, in fact, the rocks themselves which provide character and a geologic frame of reference to the entire landscaping plan.
There is bradyseism on Ischia and Roman ruins can be seen underwater near Castello Aragonese. There are also many interesting volcanic features in the water offshore. The Rocks of Sant’Anna are composed of scoria and lava and are about 22,000 years old and there are remnants of volcanic cones on the sea floor between Ischia and Procida. The Ischia Bank (Il Banco d’Ischia), off the southeastern shore, is a submerged volcanic crater almost perfectly circular and two km. (1.5 mi.) in diameter. It is home to a wide variety of fish, coral and marine flora. The underwater Canyon of Cuma, which runs from Lacco Ameno toward Ponza is the home of whales and dolphins as the canyon is rich in plankton, the preferred food of these mammals.
One of the easiest recognizable geologic formations is the one into which you sail when you arrive at Ischia Porto. The harbor is actually a volcanic crater formed from an eruption which occurred circa III-IV century B.C. Ferdinando II of Bourbone, recognizing a good thing, ordered the seaside wall of the crater be destroyed in 1854 so that ships could enter this natural safe harbor.
Lava domes abound on the island. A lava dome is a roughly circular mound-shaped protrusion resulting from the slow extrusion of viscous lava from a volcano.
There are many lava domes on Ischia that are very familiar to us:
*Punta Sant’Angelo in the southern part of the island, near the famous Maronti Beach
*Castello Aragonese is situated atop a lava dome
* Capo Grasso
Unlike Napoli, which abounds in yellow tuff, Ischia’s tuff is green. The green color comes from a specific mineral content and the fact that it lay underwater for a period of time. The famous Fungo (mushroom) di Lacco Ameno is a fragment of the green tuff of Mt Epomeo which has been eroded in a novel way by the water.
Ischia has green tuff. Napoli has yellow tuff.
Some mysterious stone houses can be seen in various parts of the island. They are strange in that they have been carved directly out of large boulders. Legend has it that the big bully giant Typhon caused them to fall from the mountain tops as he shook the earth trying to free himself from his burial chamber under Ischia. Regardless of how they got there, they have been used since ancient time for shelter, worship and for many, a true family home.
Geologist Aniello Di Iorio conducts geologic excursions in German and Italian. I went on two of them and they were terrific. I especially enjoyed the one along the southeast coast from Barano to Campagnano. There was a big storm coming, but none of us brought umbrellas or rain gear.
We walked through craters and fault crevices and saw the most incredible view of Naples, Vesuvius and Procida from another perspective. You could just reach out and practically touch Vivara and Procida.
We got caught in a downpour and the only thing that could get us moving quickly was the promise of wine. We arrived at Agriturismo O’Sole Mio (only reachable on foot) where the patrons looked at us with pity as we were dripping wet. The owner, Francesco Del Neso, quickly brought out rolls of paper towels so we could make a feeble attempt to dry ourselves and then quickly brought out marvelous bruschetta and lots of his homemade fabulous Ischian wine. He kindly sang as we ate and drank (see him singing on the link above).
I would suggest the tours. Even if you don’t understand German or Italian, I know you understand wine.
We still have to talk about the most famous natural resources of the island, the thermal waters and muds which make us feel good and make us beautiful. These natural remedies which have been prized for centuries are a gift from the Ischian volcanoes. They will be discussed in the next segment.
Next up - Ischia – The Fountain of Youth
Ann Pizzorusso is a geologist and Italian Renaissance scholar. After many years of doing virtually everything in the world of geology (drilling for oil, hunting for gems, cleaning up pollution in soil and groundwater) she turned her geologic skills toward Leonardo da Vinci. See her work on Leonardo’s Geology. You can find Ann on Facebook at Leonardo da Vinci Virgin of the Rocks and on Twitter @VirginoftheRock.