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Hail Basil

in three volumes, II edition
vol. III, London 1841

The contorni of Naples are so fertile in objects of interest, and of such variety, that no difficulty is found in changing the scene, when health, or curiosity, or caprice, suggests a move. In our case, we felt so excited, and, as it were, burned up, by the volcano of Vesuvius, that we gladly ac­cepted the proposal of some friends to accompany them on a little expedition to the Island of Ischia, which lies on the outer or seaward side of the Bay of Naples, and greatly adds, by its lofty peak, in company with its neighbour Procida, and the more remote island of Capri, to the beauty of that splendid scene.
We started so early in the morning as to carry the brisk land-wind with us, which had been blowing all night; so that, though the bay is generally as smooth as a mill-pond, we found it pretty rough. I may just hint in passing, to persons who make water excursions, especially in those climates where the winds are periodical, that their success will depend almost en­tirely on the previous arrangement of hours with the boatmen. It will not do at all, for instance, to say that you will run across to Ischia after breakfast, or, if you are there, to say you will return to Naples early in the morning. By so doing you will probably have the wind in your teeth, both ways. All this may seem abundantly obvious,- but it is won derful how often such expeditions are bungled at Naples and elsewhere by the want of attention to this simple and obvious precaution. We had a stout boat with six rowers in case of a calm ; but the breeze took us right into the little cove of Casamicciola, on the north side of the island, without a single shift of the sail. The face of the country above the beach looked so inviting, with the most engaging country inn, called the Sentinella, on a knoll rising above it, that we resolved to walk to it, under the trees, planted chiefly on terraces, from among which peeped out snow-white houses, and here and there, a little further off, several no less white vil­lages, half-buried cuts or water-courses, at the bottom of wall-sided volcanic-looking ravines, all covered with a dense foliage of trellised and festooned vines, thickly interspersed with fig-trees. Nothing is more remarkable than the richness of the vegetation on the sides of such mountains. Mr. Lyell says, speaking of an ancient volcano on the island of Ischia, - «The cone of Rotaro is covered with the arbutus and other beautiful evergreens. Such is the strength of the virgin soil, that the shrubs have become almost arborescent ; and the growth of some  of the smaller wild plants has been so vigorous, that botanists have scarcely been able to recognise the species» (Lyell, Principles of geology, vol. II p. 151. Sixth Edition). Above all rose the sharp, white-topped peak of Epomeo to the height of more than 2600 feet, which we resolved in due season to climb.
Long before the boat's nose touched the sand, a dozen men ran nearly up to their middle in the water to proffer their services. Some of these busy gentry led donkeys, some of them carried long planks to assist our disembarkation, and others merely volunteered their general help in loud and angry vociferations. But all were so eager, and so uncontrolled by any sort of discipline, that we had no small trouble to force our way through the crowd - especially that portion of it which consisted of the donkeys and their guides, who were beyond measure displeased and astonished at our preferring a walk to a ride.
Our first expedition was marvellously ill-arranged - seeing that we took for it the hottest period of the day, viz., from half-past ten to half-past two. We had intended to have made a second trip after dinner, but being much heated and exhausted by the excursion in the sun, we were fit for no more, and thus lost the only good time of the day in lounging idly about the gardens and long covered avenues of vines by which they were inter­sected.
A very considerable portion of one's pleasure at such a place is destroyed by the begging habits of the Italians. It is not that we meet with an occasional beg­gar, or an occasional dozen beggars, but it is every man, woman, boy, girl, and almost every infant, that begs, and who seems to think of only one thing - namely, how he, she, or it, can pillage the stranger most successfully. At every turn of the road, in every street, before every house, a group of Ischians stood in wait for us. I need not say that all the advantageous points for views were occupied with the skill of military science taking up positions of strength, — so that nothing could be en­joyed in peace.  For these sturdy suitors, feeling no shame, nor an atom of delicacy, patience or forbearance, pressed forward, interrupted conversation, intercepted the view, and thought of nothing whatever but how most effectually to engage our attention to their importunate and unreasonable demands. This would be very distressing were the people really objects of charity, or even were they paupers by profession : but we were often assailed, not only at Ischia, but elsewhere in Italy, by the respectable, or at all events, by the well-dressed, respectable-looking inhabitants of the towns and villages through which we passed. The manner, indeed, in which the whole population sometimes joined in the chase of^the strangers, rendered a walk or even a ride anything but a pleasure.
From the same cause it happened that in making our pecuniary arrangements in many parts of Italy, we found so little good faith or fairness of any kind in their dealings, that we were gradually provoked into a degree of suspicion which, though sometimes unjust, generally upset our tem­per, blinded our judgment, and too often ended by making us not only rude in out bearing towards the natives, but as hard in our transactions as any Jews. At least such was the effect on me. I began by feeling very kindly towards the inhabitants of that fairest of lands; but they so frequently obliged me to consider them cheats and beggars, that I found myself becoming not only distrustful, but habi­tually uncourteous to them. As I found this very disagreeable, I managed from that time forward, whenever I could, to make all my payments as well as bargains by deputy, in imitation of an excellent plan adopted by a wealthy and kind-hearted friend of mine, who, on under­taking a journey to Italy, invited a gentleman of his acquaintance to accompany him as his purse-bearer, and whose office it was to attend to all money matters what­soever, without letting him know a single word about the expenses. In this way, while his own serenity was never disturbed by this petty source of discomfort, his companion travelled free of cost; and I am told that after all charges were paid, perhaps only a few pounds were disbursed over and above what the same journey might have cost had every scudo of every tavern-bill been contested, and the party kept in hot water from the beginning to the end of the journey !
Nevertheless we enjoyed the delicious quiet of the Sentinella very much, after the hurly-burly of Naples, along the rugged pavements of which an endless double string of carriages roll, from daylight till midnight, creating a sound fatal to all repose. The air of Ischia felt so pleasant and fresh in comparison to the dusty atmosphere of the capital, that from ten at night till four in the morning I never started tack or sheet, according to nautical phrase. But when the daylight breached the apartment and invaded us by the open window, I rose, and, looking out, saw the enchanting landscape of the day before, now all bathed in dew, and the top of Epomeo on the left, far up, lost in the clouds.
I had made an arrangement overnight with a companion, to climb the mountain in the morning before breakfast; but as I found that six hours' sound sleep had not above half repaired the fatigues of Naples and Vesuvius, I barred out the sun and left the picturesque to take care of itself, and with a very faint sigh gave over the mountain to earlier and more energetic walkers. We breakfasted at nine, and then talked of embarking to return ; but the day threatened to be so intensely hot, that after holding a conference with the padrone of our boat, it was agreed to wait till two o'clock; by which time, he assured us, the sea-breeze would be at its height, ready to carry us still more swiftly back to Naples, than the land-wind had taken us out.
This delay in starting suggested the idea of still making out the peak, but, as is usual in such cases, we lost nearly an hour in irresolution, talking of the hows and wherefores, the pros and the cons, in­stead of scrambling up the mountain side, and it was eleven before we made up our minds to go at all; thus leaving ourselves only three clear hours for the job. The sun was shining fiercely, the path rose like a bricklayer's ladder for steepness, and scarcely a breath of air blew into the ra­vine along which we had to find our way. The guide, unlike our sluggish companions on Mount Etna, or the more considerate cicerone of Vesuvius, insisted upon going up at such a pace, that in order to give ourselves any chance for breath, we had to post him, per force, in the rear. This, as he querulously remarked, was an odd place for a guide, and one which he disliked exceedingly; but after various trials we found this the only scheme for keeping him back.
When we gained the summit ridge, we came all at once from the sultry heat of the southern face of the mountain into the enjoyment of the cool air of the sea, sweeping in from the westward, and rippling the water as far off as the horizon. We had thrown off our coats, waistcoats, and neck­cloths, but we were fain to replace them here, seeing that we were about as completely drenched as if we had been visiting the famous vapour-baths of Ischia. The road then took a turn, and carried us along the sharp edge of the top ridge to the highest summit of all, which commanded a complete view of the island, not only from end to end, but along both its sides. The jolly old hermit, celebrated in the guide-books, received us joyfully, and entertained us not merely with his appropriate beverage, water, from a spring which we were surprised to see issuing from the rock at such an altitude, but with generous wine, both red and white. The top of Epomeo is 2605 feet above the level of the sea, and consists of tufa of a greenish hue, which Mr. Lyell says has been clearly shown to be a subaqueous formation. This curious geological fact is ascer­tained by finding strata, consisting of shells and other marine products, inter­mixed with the volcanic ashes, cinders, and lava, which constitute the staple of the mountain. No doubt a prodigious lapse of ages must have been required for the deposition of this immense mass of alternating beds of volcanic and marine substances - all going on at the bottom of the sea, and probably very long before any of them began to show above the level of the ocean. Perhaps an equally long period may have elapsed between the time when they first began to emerge, and the period when they attained their present elevation. But what is beyond measure interesting and deserving of the attention of every visitor, is the obvious fact that, during this last interval, various eruptions of lava have taken place from the sides of the mountain  - some of which are even within the range of history - but the greater number lie far be­yond all mortal ken - except, indeed, where that ken is aided by the light of philosophic inquiry into the arrangements, and order of dates, which Nature permits us to examine.
Some geologists have expressed an opinion that Epomeo is merely a portion of a great volcanic cone, formed above the sea like that of Vesuvius. They do not tell us what has become of the remaining four-fifths of the cone, though they insinuate that they have either settled down into the earth from whence they came, or that they have  been blown into the air and scattered about the bay! Mr. Lyell, who I is of another faith, considers that Epomeo is not a portion of "an habitual volcano like Vesuvius", as Mr. Scrope supposes; and this he thinks he has fully established by the discovery of strata containing marine shells only 800 feet lower than the top of the mountain. Some enormous volcano may have existed, or, rather, must j have existed in the neighbourhood, the successive showers of ashes falling from which into the sea, during the lapse of thousands of centuries, together with occa­sional streams of lava from its sides, would, in time, not only form submarine strata as thick as Epomeo is high, but furnish materials out of which the heights of Camaldoli, those on which Naples is built, and other ranges of hills, may have been produced. The famous grotto of Pausilippo, which is a tunnel about a mile in length, is cut through a branch of one of these ridges, and enables us to examine the strata to great advantage.
We had tight work to reach our boat within the limits specified by the padrone; but the gale, as he had promised, being propitious, we skimmed past Procida, rounded the Cape of Misenum, looked into the celebrated port of that name, crossed the bay of Baise, and dashed past Pozzuoli, or, as it used to be called, Puteoli, where St. Paul remained seven days before the commencement of his journey to Rome, after the fatigues of his sea-voyage. We also saw distinctly the smoke rising from the district well named the Solfatara, then coasted along the island of Nisida, and lastly hauled round that exquisite promontory the Vomero, which forms the western horn of the crescent of the inner harbour of Naples - as Ischia and Procida form the boundary of the great bay on the west.