There are places you go to get away from it all. And then there’s Sant’Angelo.
To get to this Italian village, you take an hour-long ferry from Naples to the volcanic island of Ischia, nestled a few waves’ breadth from Capri in the heart of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Then you take a meandering hour-long bus from the island’s manicured capital, Ischia Porto, through fishing villages and hill towns, vineyards and rabbit warrens. Finally, where the car roads stop, you climb a very steep pedestrianized hill.
That’s just the way locals like it.
The thousand-odd person village of Sant’Angelo, among riotous bougainvillea and parched, lizard-dotted tufa on the southern slope of the island, should by any law of touristic averages be a soulless tourist trap: its whitewashed houses and bright-painted wooden doors overrun by foreign buyers and holiday-makers, every other apartment overlooking the natural thermal pools at the garden-spa of Aphrodite Apollon listed on AirBnB. But with the exception of the yachts that dock at high-season weekends (Angela Merkel is a regular) along the narrow isthmus that separates the tiny town from the outcropping of rock that juts into the sea, Sant’Angelo is almost entirely dominated by a mix of local and “regulars"–Italian and German tourists who develop a relationship with the town and return, year after year.
I’ve seen this process firsthand. My mother spent 20 years before I was born coming to Sant’Angelo every summer; I, too, grew up going there almost every June before my mother finally decided to retire here last year. In that time, I’ve watched the titular cook and proprietress at beachside restaurant Emmanuela–known for its fumarole cooking, in which food is cooked naturally underground by the heat of thermal sands–cede authority over la cucina to her sons, watched their children grow from teenage waiters to strapping managers with families of their own. I’ve seen generations of kittens grow up and become cats at the bed-and-breakfast Casa Garibaldi–my home-away-from-home for much of my childhood, where double bedrooms overlooking thermal swimming pools and mosaicked terraces (not to mention the nearly-empty expanse of sea on the horizon) still go for as little as 90 dollars per night.
Sant’Angelo is hardly a place to go for a package holiday. To walk from the seafront to the neighboring hill town for Serrara–from where it’s possible to hike among Ischia’s greener vineyards to the top of Monte Epomeo for the island’s specialty, rabbit braised in tomatoes–is a grueling 40 minute uphill slog through overgrown roads. Its spas are decidedly unconventional: The best one, Cavascura, which dates back to Roman times (Cicero himself praised its thermal waters), necessitates an intense hike between volcanic cliffs, and offers fangos, or mud baths, where would-be wellness-seekers are painted with a claylike substance meant to have thermal properties.
And you’re as likely as not–as I was just last night at the waterside Deus Neptunus restaurant–to be dragooned into a raucous dance party with tambourines and soulful renditions of “O Sole Mio” as to have a sedate, romantic meal (that said, the high-end seafood at Peppino, from pistachio-drizzled linguine alla vongole to platters of exquisite fish carpaccio, is easily the best I’ve had in Italy). But that sense of anarchy–and community–is what makes Sant’Angelo the most beautiful town in Italy. It’s a place where everybody knows your name.
Tara Isabella-Burton, who spent her childhood summering in Sant'Angelo, is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Travel. Follow her travels on Twitter.