The steam spirals into the sky, pirouetting beneath the delicate winter sun, as the blistering spring water trickles, lathers, into the salty sea. A seagull swoops from the frosted cliff top, soaking up the unseasonable warmth of the open bay, and we follow its lead; shedding our heavy winter clothes and easing our shivering bodies into the ocean’s warming embrace.
Amalfi Coast and Italian Island
It’s fair to say it hadn’t been easy to get to Ischia: in fact, our holiday along the Amalfi Coast wasn’t even supposed to include the volcanic Italian Island. We had heard, of course, that Ischia was world-renowned for its magnificent coastline, quaint fishing villages and glistening fig and lemon trees, but we had also been told it had little to offer in the colder months – so we hadn’t put it on the agenda. Even our Neapolitan hotel owner advised us to give it a miss.
But then he mentioned the hot springs. Offering the olive-branch of English while severely testing my high school Italian, he talked of “the island’s bellissime terme” (beautiful thermal springs), divvied up between several “expensive, esclusivo spa resorts”. There was just one
problem: they were all closed for winter. After a gentle jab in the ribs from my girlfriend, I enquired as to whether there were any free – gratuito – hot springs to enjoy on the island… and the hint of a smile creased his face. “Sì…” he ventured, hesitantly, as though sharing a secret forbidden to foreigners. “Sì, c’è un: there is one. Un molto speciale terme. Il Sorgeto.”
Within the hour my girlfriend and I were stepping off the cross-island ferry and onto Ischia’s deserted jetty. Pulling our jackets tight, my girlfriend took the carrier bag given to her by the hotel owner and placed it carefully in her backpack, while I pocketed the map. Now, all we needed was a bike rental shop… one that was open in December. My carefully-considered plan? To knock relentlessly on the door of every scooter shop until they opened their doors.
Even I was amazed when it actually worked.
Exploring By Scooter
I feel my girlfriend trembling in the seat behind, firmly gripping onto my waist, as we speed along the hillside road on our newly-rented scooter.
Winter-weathered agave plants blur at the roadside, and our buttocks freeze to our seats, as we hurtle towards the tropical target that lay tantalizingly close ahead: one of Europe’s wildest – and warmest – thermal spas.
If only it was that simple. “It’s this damn map,” I complain, scrutinizing the soggy pulp as my girlfriend jogs frantically on the spot. She gives me a look. “But we’re definitely close,” I insist. “We must be close. Er, I think we’re close.” Another look. “Let’s just drive around until we find it, shall we?” I gesture for her to get back on the bike as I fire up the engine. But just two minutes later, we’re back in the same place.
I, however, grit my teeth. To the soundtrack of my girlfriend’s protestations, I propel the bike onwards – around villages, up mountains, across bridges, and through tunnels – in an increasingly desperate bid for a hot bath. Yet it’s to no avail. The hotelier’s heartily-recommended hot spring is nowhere to be seen. The trail for our wild winter warmer has gone stone-cold. And the sun is beginning to set.
Eventually… reluctantly… dejectedly, I accept that there’s nowhere else to go. I pull up at the side of the cliff-top road, click off the engine and kick down the bike stand. Then, after taking a moment to arrange my puppy-dog expression, I turn contritely to face my girlfriend in the seat behind. But she’s gone. As I spring up off my seat, I just catch a glimpse of her shoulders vanishing over the cliff edge… so I drop my helmet to
the ground in a panic and sprint over.
As I get right to the edge I see a path cut from the rock, leading down to a steam-smothered bay. The elusive Il Sorgeto. I look on as my girlfriend strides across the narrow stony beach and stops short at the water’s edge, holding out a shivering palm to gauge the heat. Then, without warning, she starts to tear off layer after layer of clothing. I grin a chapped-lip grin as I hurry down the cliff-side path to join her, mindlessly kicking off my new Italian brogues.
Our bones sigh as we sink, together, into the boundless bathtub: the scorching freshwater spring and the icy sea tide blending together to create the perfect temperature for a winter soak. And, as our hotel owner had suggested, to create the ideal “Casa gastronomia” too…
I carefully twist the last rock in place, creating an enclosed pool – a primal cooking pot – at the mouth of the gushing spring, and my girlfriend takes the carrier bag from her backpack. She tips in the contents – eels, mullet, potatoes – and then sinks back into the soothing sea.
We realize dinner will cook slowly in the not-quite-boiling water. But as we float in the warm ocean, watching the sunset over the horizon of the Mediterranean, we also realize we don’t care. Having spent so long discovering this secret winter spa, we’re not going anywhere yet.
Here more about the region by listening to Travel to Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Italy – Amateur Traveler Episode 514