Wednesday, 27 June 2012 10:30 AM
Alex Stevenson discovers another Travelbite.co.uk hot spot – Albergo Il Monastero in Naples
It's impossible not to get excited the first time you spot it.
A cluster of buildings sit atop the cliffs of a small rocky island, connected to the much larger island of Ischia by a narrow causeway. It's a perfect natural defensive position – as was obvious to settlers from as early as 1400 BC. Nowadays visitors climb steps (or take the lift, deep in the bowels of the island) to wander around the ruins of the 15th century castle. Come the evening, most return to Ischia – but not all. For the lucky few, the Albergo Il Monastero hotel allows them to stay overnight in this extraordinary location.
There's been a castle here since 1400 BC, but was rebuilt in the 15th century. They built the causeway – a narrow road held up by massive boulders – at the same time. From the land it looks like a forbidding fortress, and that it is; but what makes it so effective as a defensive position are the gardens, large enough to sustain a population for months at a time. Walking around the ruins is a strange experience – a mixture of medieval masonry, charming tiny churches and the beauty of a Mediterranean garden.
The atmosphere is reflective and peaceful, as you'd expect for a location which has deep spiritual as well as military roots. Until Napoleon's brother-in-law Joachim Murat kicked out the monks at the start of the 19th century there was a monastery here.
The Albergo Il Monastero is located in the old convent of the castle, which was opened up as a pensione at the end of the 1960s. In 2001, the current manager Nicola Matera took charge and conducted further restoration work, increasing its size. The monks' cells now make up the rooms of the hotel. "The castle for the visitors is an experience of two hours," Nicola told me. "An experience of two or three days is something else."
That experience is what the hotel offers. The rooms are simple and suitably spartan but are very comfortable, with astonishing views looking down at the causeway hundreds of feet below.
The keep itself is closed to visitors, but below it a maze of winding cobbled pathways and tracks is enough to keep anyone entertained for hours. The alternative is finding a spot with a good view – and there are many, whether looking out over Ischia and the bay of Sant'Ana or over towards the flat island of Procida between Ischia and the mainland, with Vesuvius and Capri looming in the distance. The world is quiet here – especially after all the day trippers leave.
As the sun descended into the Mediterranean Nicola took me on a tour of the hotel's private gardens, which he hopes to officially open to its visitors later this summer. His grandfather bought the ruins from the Italian state in 1912. "It was a ruin, but I think he had fallen in love with the castle. He had a real vision." It was Nicola's father, Gabriela Matera, who did much of the legwork, splitting his time between painting and restoration work. His love of the arts lives on: the church hosts a film festival in July, contemporary art exhibitions and even a restoration school.
The highlight of the castle is the ruined cathedral, located just below the hotel, which had its roof destroyed by British warships in 1809 after Murat attempted to turn the place into a fortress. Baroque stuccos are now in a state of serious disrepair, but limited restoration work is now underway.
The place is simply magical: the eye moves from the altar, open to the wind and the rain, to the view over Ischia's Monte Epomeo and the town below, in a single sweep. "You can feel the spirit of this place," Nicola says.
He's right. It extends beyond the cathedral to cover the whole island. So it seems strange that in the middle of all this is a hotel, which serves deliciously fresh bianco lille. The wine and vegetables are grown in the castle's gardens (of course). The seafood is excellent. Already the hotel and the rest of the castle seem very well integrated. Staying in the hotel is the best way to soak up the atmosphere of this unique place.
The Materas want to press ahead with their restoration work – even after 100 years there is still a lot to do. Their goal is to ensure doing so doesn't result in the place becoming a museum piece. "To keep life on this castle" – that's just as important, and is the reason why they welcome the visitors the place attracts. Nicola wants to set up a cultural foundation which will manage and maintain the castle with the same concept for the years to come – for the next 100 years, in fact.
For the pure drama of its situation, it's hard to beat the Castello Aragonese as a tourist attraction – never mind one you can spend the night in.
By Alex Stevenson
For more information on the hotel's fascinating history check out the podcast with Albergo Il Monastero's general manager!
Standard double rooms from £85 per night. For more information or to book visit the Albergo Il Monastero website.
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