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From Napoli to Capri, Part 13: Villa Jovis and the Casa Malaparte

Capri is full of the grand houses and spectacular villas of the rich and the famous, and that is nothing new. Some 2000 years ago, the earliest protagonists of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors were setting up resplendent palaces on the paradise Isle, from Emperor Augustus, who took frequent holidays in his Capri villa, to Emperor Tiberius who loved the place so much that he spent the last 13 years of his rule on the island, effectively moving the centre of the Roman Empire to this small but stunning Mediterranean island.

It can be said that Tiberius made as much of an impression on Capri as the island did on him. He spread himself far and wide across its rocky scenery, and the remains of many Tiberian palazzi have been found across Capri, including the ruins which were integral to the construction of Axel Munthe’s Villa San Michele. However, it is widely assumed that of all those palaces constructed for Tiberius’ pleasure on Capri, his main residence was the Villa Jovis, perched on one of the island’s highest peaks with a spectacular view over the Bay of Naples.

The Villa Jovis

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The ruins of the Villa Jovis (aka Jupiter’s Villa) can still be seen today, albeit in such a poor state of repair that they resemble the kind of idyllic pastiche of antiquity which came to romanticise the ancient world in the paintings of the Renaissance and later Roccoco periods. Yet the remains are in such a spectacular location that we found our hot and sweaty up hill struggle worth all the effort, not least because next to the palace, you can wander for free around the Parco Astarita which, built into terraces on a largely steep cliff, enjoys the most incredible views of Capri’s famous coastal scenery, not to mention Vesuvius and the Sorrento peninsula beyond.

Views from the Parco Astarita

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Most notable of all the sights comprising the Parco Astarita views is the Casa Malaparte. Audaciously built onto the rocky outcrop of the Punta Massullo, the Casa Malaparte is without a doubt the most famous house on Capri, not least because it featured prominently in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film, Contempt (Le Mépris) starring one sultry Brigitte Bardot.

Globally renowned as a masterpiece of Italian modern and contemporary architecture, it was conceived in 1937 by Italian architect Adalberto Libera. The construction is audacious because it dominates the local scenery, with its reverse pyramidal staircase and freestanding curving terrace wall visible from far and wide. Yet despite this, its striking Pompeian red masonry, together with the pine trees which surround it, tend also to ingratiate the house with the local environment. The overall effect is beautiful to look at, even though the best view of this privately owned masterpiece is still, necessarily, from afar.

The Casa Malaparte

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 12: Ascending Mount Solaro

On our previous trip to Capri, we gasped in wonder at the heady heights of the island’s mountainous landscape. However we had very little time to explore it to the full. Now, with time on our hands, we took the opportunity to explore beyond the Marina Grande and the super-chic centre of Capri Town, extending our reach to the island’s second town, Anacapri, and the vast mountain which extends up behind it, Mount Solaro.

With an elevation of 589m above sea level, the peak of Mount Solaro is the highest point of Capri, and as such the views are understandably ravishing. With a statue of Emperor Augustus – the first Roman emperor to favour the island – presiding over all, the area around the peak is truly photogenic, with wide swathes of wild flowers rolling down across the steep mountain sides making even the foreground of these impressive vistas a treat on the eye.

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But best of all things was the journey up to the peak. No hiking for those swanky visitors to Capri… rather the ascent can be enjoyed in a chair life which enjoys spectacular views from the starting point in Anacapri, to the final mountain peak. Sitting in individual chairs, one lined up behind another, one doesn’t really have the opportunity to chat with fellow travelers. The result is a ride of some 13 minutes one-way spent in near silence, with only the sounds of nature to accompany the journey. It surely made for a welcome contrast to the bustle of Capri’s much visited twin towns.

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Back down from the heights of Mount Solaro, we also had the opportunity to explore the centre of Anacapri, finding a town much lacking in the notorious glamour of Capri Town, but which felt altogether more authentic. I fully suspect that when the tourists go away, this, rather than Capri Town, is the urban centre most frequented by locals unwilling to pay the exorbitant prices elsewhere. It’s accordingly a place which feels like another kind of Capri. Not necessarily better, but certainly not worse for showing something of the local spirit which must pervade the island during the quieter months of the year.

A glimpse of Anacapri

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

My Travel Sketchbook: View from the Hotel Gatto Bianco

I laboured long and hard over choices of where to stay in Capri. It wasn’t that the choice was overwhelming – far from it. Being small, Capri has a more limited stock of good hotels, and with even the cheapest threatening to implode the most generous of budgets, finding something of a deal was always going to be difficult. In the end, I went for the Hotel Gatto Bianco, something of an institution in Capri, which has long been a staple and celebrity haunt (aren’t they all!) thanks to its excellent position in the centre of Capri Town and, in some rooms at least, the most ravishing views over the Town and the island beyond.

We were lucky enough to enjoy one such view, and upon first encounter of our balcony, its floor delightfully tiled with multi-coloured majolica, and its railings filled to bursting with vibrant pink bougainvillea, I didn’t know where to begin in capturing it artistically. In the end, I opted to work on both views, turning inland towards the steep house-covered hillside with my sketchbook, and swiveling 180 degrees seawards for a gouache painting (yet to be revealed… coming soon!).

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View from Room 210 of the Hotel Gatto Bianco (©2019 Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

So here is the result. It’s a jam-packed image, and appropriately so, as Capri is something of a populated place, despite its innate exclusivity. But even despite the squeeze, given the stunning scenery and views to die for at every turn, I can well imagine that any one of the many houses captured in this sketch would be well worth the having. One day maybe…

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com 

From Napoli to Capri, Part 11: The Villa San Michele

After many blissful days exploring the passionate streets of Naples and the ruins of Pompeii, and moving onto the tranquil haven of Ischia and its many paradise gardens and seafront villages, we arrived at last in Capri. We have been to Capri before, albeit only on a day trip from Positano. But so enamoured were we by those few hours on the legendary island that we vowed to return. 5 years later, we rolled our suitcases off the Ischia ferry onto the famous docks of Capri’s Marina Grande.

We were back in those scenes from It Started in Naples again, since the port really hasn’t changed all that much since Clark Gable disembarked from a ferry on the very same dock in the 1960 movie. He was there to track down Sophia Loren in her home in the Villa Palazzo Reale. However, as we ventured forth in Capri for the second time, we had a different villa in mind. The Villa San Michele.

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The Villa San Michele has been in my mind for some time this year. It all began when I read an enticing book, The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackrell, in the early weeks of 2019. That book introduced me to the flamboyant Marchesa Luisa Casati whose eccentric homes hosted infamous parties included one villa on the island of Capri. A few months later, coincidence took me to the book, The Story of the Villa San Michele by Axel Munthe, which I picked up purely because of the picture of Capri on its cover. However, once I started reading, I realised that the Villa described was one and the same as the Capri house of Luisa Casati, and a broader picture began to form in my mind. Hooked, I read on, and knew that once in Capri, I would have to make a beeline for the place.

Axel Munthe is a complex character, who can essentially be described as Swedish doctor and psychiatrist, collector of antiquities, animal lover and aesthete. His famous novel does far more than tell the story of his villa. It also tells of his long and complex medical career, treating some of Europe’s most notable aristocrats, and providing medical care to the victims of some of recent history’s most disastrous epidemics. Yet it is the pages when Munthe describes his discovery of the land around San Michele, and his gradual construction of the Villa, which are the most enticing.

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The land once hosted one of several villas owned by Emperor Tiberius. Munthe’s discovery of multiple pieces of antiquity both inspired the villa which resulted and became part of its construction. However the land is also unique for having unparalleled views not only over the Bay of Naples but also over towards Capri Town and the Marina Grande.

Having squeezed into a tiny local bus in order to climb the hair-pin bends of the main road up to Anacapri, we arrived at the Villa San Michele and found it to be every bit the paradise Munthe describes in his novel. Among the relics is a ravishing cafe set upon a rooftop and enjoying those same stunning Vesuvius views. The original little chapel, after which the main Villa is named, features the magnificent and mysterious ancient granite sphinx, whose acquisition Munthe describes in an almost dream-like state. And  best of all things, the gardens offer visitors a lush Elysium of cypress trees and flowering fauna, covered porticoes and citrus-lined avenues.

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We were lucky. We not only got to enjoy the Villa San Michele in the full worship of the day’s sunshine, but also at night. There, as part of the Villa’s annual programme of classical music events, we sat down to watch a performance of the Naples Teatro San Carlo string quartet, as all around us the sun set over a silhouette of Ischia to the West, and Vesuvius just south of it. At that moment, all the year’s reflections on this legendary villa seemed to settle into a wholly satisfactory conclusion. I felt somehow rounded and complete, as though one of the main objectives of 2019 had been satisfied. What a way to commence our return to the exquisite island of Capri.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 10: Forio post-Festa

When finally we made it down to the port town of Forio, having ventured through the extensive succulents and prickles of the Giardini Ravino cacti collection, we found a town in the swathes of a calm but subdued hangover.

In the days before our visit, Forio had been celebrating the Festa di San Vito, a rather spectacular annual festival comprising parades, market stalls, musical celebrations, street parties and culminating in a massive firework display which we could enjoy from our hotel. But today’s visit was a far calmer affair. The only signs of the celebration were in the multitude of street lights spanning across roads like the set from a Bollywood movie, those plentiful arches, formed from lattice designs and multiple light bulbs, adding a feeling of fiesta to what is otherwise a sleepy town on the far West coast of Ischia.

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Walking through a town in the midst of its post-festival siesta, we encountered a Forio which was characterised by gently sloping streets, soft pastel houses, simple fishermen-style cottages and a very understated elegance. The streets were full of colour, which, when offset by the dazzling blue sky, gave Forio an enticing sense of happiness.

It was in that reflected positivity that we strolled contented through Forio, stopping by the town’s main fountain to eat bowls of spaghetti and prawns with a glass of limoncello and another of white wine, sad that this would be our last day in Ischia, but excited about the Capri adventure to come… only one day away.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 9: Peacocks and Prickles

Our last day in Ischia was upon us – the incredibly beautiful volcanic island which had brought us such scenes as the pastel-coloured wonders of Sant’Angelo, and the historical magnificence of the Castello Aragonese. We chose to spend these final hours in the area of our hotel, and the nearby port town of Forio where our boat had swept up onto the island a few days previously.

As we wondered down the winding hill to Forio and the sea beyond, we came upon a garden peculiarly loaded with succulents and prickles. Enticed by the collection that lay within, we ventured inside, finding that the gardens were not only open to the public, but entailed a magnificent assemblage of the world’s finest cacti. The name, we were to discover, was the Giardini Ravino, and within its walls grows the life’s work of one Signor Peppino, whose passion for cacti, succulents, and Mediterranean flora generated the amassed gardens we can enjoy today.

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Wondering around the Giardini Ravino was quite a different experience from the lustrous tropicana provided by the Giardini La Mortella visited at the start of our trip. Rather, these gardens had an arid note, more typical of a scene from a Western movie, but the combination of cacti of every shape and size was equally as attractive, much like an abstract painting combining colours and textures quite beyond the imagination.

Despite the obviously hazardous surfaces of the cacti and their prickles, the gardens were home to a surprising number of furry and feathered residents, from rabbits and cats, to the beautiful peacocks who wandered about majestically, their feathers draped luxuriously behind them. Whether it be the weather or the time of year, there was some true flirtation in the air, and many a time we were treated to the true theatrical splendour of a peacock’s feathers in full open array, shaking and vibrating to entice the female. She didn’t look overly impressed, but we were – as the extent of peacock photos on this post probably shows.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 8: Sant’Angelo

Not content with wowing its visitors with its rolling volcanic landscape, lush Mediterranean scenery and ravishing blue seas, Ischia throws a few more treats into the mix by extending its landmass further out into the sea at various points along its shoreline. These little islets, or rocky promontories, have subsequently characterised the coast of Ischia, acting as nuclei for the development of quaint fishermen’s villages, the historical setting for imposing fortresses or places of worship, and providing visitors with truly awe-inspiring landscapes quite unique to this part of the world.

On Tuesday, I shared our experience of what is undoubtedly the most famous of these rocky outcrops, atop of which the Castello Aragonese sits in all its glory. Today is the turn of Sant’Angelo which, complete with its very own islet and impossibly quaint sprawling village, has to be declared one of the prettiest, if not the most beautiful town in all of Ischia.

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We headed to Sant’Angelo on the recommendation of our friend Sarah, whose fine taste and vivacity for life cannot be challenged. We proceeded to follow her recommendations to the letter, from strolling up through quaint, ceramic laden narrow white-washed lanes through the village, and along to the rather handsome stretch of Fumarole Beach, to quenching our thirst on the scintillating mix of lemon granita and freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice at Enzo la Bomba. His juice, served up near the town’s bus stop, was a bomb indeed, as that icy, sweet, citrus freshness exploded in our mouths and left us begging for more. All this we enjoyed, and more, although sadly Sarah’s challenge to find a rather hunky waiter at a nearby hotel passed us by – we’re leaving him for next time.

But all that Sarah described of this place we found and savoured, lingering until the sun turned golden and glittered over the gently rocking waters of the small harbour there. Sant’Angelo is the perfect Ischian town. Small and quaint, full of colour and character. Little enough to digest in mere hours, but so oozing in Italian charm that one could easily spend hours sipping cocktails by the waterside and gorging on gelato barely noticing the passage of time… how easily I could pass life in such a picture-perfect paradise of Mediterranean delight. Sarah… I think it’s time to hit the estate agents lists.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

My Travel Sketchbook: Castello Aragonese

I knew I would have to sketch the Castello Aragonese. Its mighty imposing mass, looming over the town of Ischia Ponte makes the islet and fortress the undisputable icon of the beautiful volcanic island of Ischia. It was only a question of angle.

The answer came from a cafe perfectly placed on the quayside, almost inline with the narrow causeway which leads triumphantly to the castle entrance. However, the location also provided some interest to the composition in the form of both a distant and foreground cafe structure.  And better still, taking a seat in the cafe terrace provided us with the perfect excuse to enjoy a coffee and a pastry, while before us one of Ischia’s most ravishing views unravelled, for the hungry movements of my sketch pens to devour.

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Coffee in front of the Castello Aragonese (©2019 Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com 

From Napoli to Capri, Part 7: Ischia Ponte

Of course, we had to leave the paradisaical grounds of the Tenuta del Antico Poggio eventually, and when we did, we crossed the island, from the vicinity of Forio to the island’s capital town, which combines the dual districts of Ischia Porto and Ischia Ponte. While the former is the main gateway to island visitors coming by boat from Naples, Sorrento and Capri, the latter represents the true historical heart of the island, and is characterised by the sight of its most iconic landmark: the Castello Aragonese.

When we arrived in Ischia Ponte, part modern metropolis; part charming old town, the whole place already felt familiar. It was here that scenes of the house of Dickie Greenleaf were filmed in Minghella’s 1999 thriller, The Talented Mr Ripley, and where Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow reclined back on beach loungers with the imposing silhouette of the Castello Aragonese on the sea’s horizon. It was also here that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed some of the ultimate scenes of the great epic Cleopatra. And today, it was to be the backdrop of another enthralling scene from the life of…Me.

Setting the scene… the streets of Ischia Ponte

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That scene was set, and it carried all the dramatics of a film set, as our stroll through narrow lanes packed tight with pastel coloured fishermen’s houses gave way onto the imposing silhouette of the Castello. Its imposing mass drew us ever closer, as we traversed the narrow causeway which links this ancient rocky mass to the main volcanic island. Once in, a rather tightly packed elevator ride shot us at speed up through the rocky interior and out onto the most splendid terrace alongside the old monastery. The views, back out to Ischia and across the island and Cartaromana Bay were quite impossibly stunning, as likewise was the little shady garden cafe immediately alongside it. There, we happily bedded down with a limoncello spritz for a lunch of sensationally sweet tomato bruschettas, a very Italian coffee cake, and that view as an accompaniment to all courses.

The Castello, the view, the cafe and those exquisite tomatoes…

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Once up in the fortress of the Castello, we could start appreciating its history, and with structures dating back to the first recorded Syracuse manifestation in 474 BC, it certainly has plenty of that. Over the centuries the islet has passed through many hands, and its occupiers (including the Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Angevins) all left their mark on the structures. It also became a citadel in its own right after an eruption of Ischia’s Monte Epomeo in 1301 forced local inhabitants off the main island. Since then, the Spanish, British and French made further occupations. Today’s mix of hotel, tourist sites and private ownership feels pretty unglamorous by comparison.

Fortess features…

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The thing that struck us about the Castello Aragonese was not just what it could offer historically, but the surprising beauty which sprung up all over the islet in the form of incredibly lush gardens, little vineyards, orchards, cafe’s, art galleries and even a top-notch restaurant. And of course at every turn the views that could be admired were simply ravishing, not least as we walked away from Ischia and overlooked a Bay of Naples which included views of Vesuvius, the Sorrento Peninsula, and our beloved Capri which we would reach a few days hence.

Those impossibly enticing gardens

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We spent many hours on the Castello Aragonese. It’s historical embrace and its garden beauty ensnared us, and we could have remained even longer. It meant we had scant time left to admire the winding streets of Ischia Ponte, and still less the sleepy streets of Ischia Porto. But then again, it’s always good to have something saved for next time…

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

From Napoli to Capri, Part 6: Giardini La Mortella

Let’s face it, the mellifluous tones of TV gardener, Monty Don, could prove to be quite persuasive. His TV series Monty Don’s Italian Gardens (and indeed the French alternative) are true staples of our household. On dark wintery days, when all the hope of summer seems far away, we run these DVDs in the background to remind us of happier climates and the seasonal spectacles to come. Over the years, we have been to many of the gardens visited by Monty Don, but one which always evaded us was La Mortella on the island of Ischia, the sumptuous scenes of which are some of the most enchanting of Monty’s Italian exploits. So when Monty told us to go there, what could we do?

Ischia booked, we knew this was going to be priority no.1. So much so that on the day when celebrated our 10th year anniversary, Dominik and I made a beeline for the place. Conceived in 1956 by the late Lady Susana Walton, Argentinian wife of famed British composer, Sir William Walton, the sub-tropical and Mediterranean gardens were a true project of passion, being seeded from almost nothing in the arid volcanic hillside of a rocky promontory overlooking the bay of Forio, and developed into a lush garden of Eden displaying some of the most exquisite varieties of plants from across the globe.

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Working with determination and a heavy dose of her Latin spirit, Susana planted enthusiastically and with daring originality, importing plants from all over the world to create a garden quite unlike any other. As the plants took to the perfectly sunny climate of Ischia, so an almost unbroken canopy of verdant leaves spread over the skyline, creating underneath a micro-climate in which tropical varieties could thrive and add vivacious colour.

I speak often of finding paradise, but I must admit that as I strolled through the gardens of La Mortella, I felt we had come closer than ever to finding it. The softness created by sweeping leaves and palms and flowers hanging, nudging and caressing the space at every twist and turn is deeply satisfying. The dappled sunlight passing through vast tropical trees creates a kind of disco-ball like effect, and as if to further refresh and entice the visitors, a series of idyllic fountains and rivets of water are generously scattered throughout the garden, conceived with the help of Russell Page, the famous landscape architect.

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The garden takes advantage of the suggested natural landscape, moving and twisting up steep volcanic cliffs to unveil further openings of gardens, each having slightly different themes and offering sumptuous views. I must admit to being less of a fan of the false crocodiles and other such paraphernalia which became more prevalent as the gardens moved skywards, but the overall effect was truly ravishing. We could have stayed there forever.

Today the gardens are run by the William Walton Foundation, and every summer the foundation organises a series of classical music recitals in the gardens in honour of the great composer. We were lucky enough to enjoy a highly emotive and utterly beautiful guitar recital by Neapolitan classical guitarist – Francesco Scelzo – making for the perfect ending to the perfect anniversary spent in yet another Ischian slice of paradise.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.