Sometimes when I get a bit of homesickness for life in the city, I’ll go for a walk to the center of Forio and throw myself into one of the side streets and wander until I get lost and can’t tell where I am anymore. I love the buildings squashed one next to the other, the smells and sounds coming from the windows, the cats darting into garden doors, and the strange and meandering streets that seem like they lead to a dead end, but will then have a passage way that will take you to another curving street. I love the architecture, the windows that are shaped like portholes or flowers, the secret churches that are built into a corner, the little archways that will take you out onto a path that has a spectacular view of the sea, and the sudden opening up onto a cliff with terraces of lemon and orange trees. The most surprising thing are these mysterious watch towers. The streets curl and stretch around these towers at the base and if you look at Forio up from the hills above the town you can see that the town is studded with these phallic beings.
Why are there so many towers all around the town?
The British poet and editor Alan Ross said about Forio in 1948, ‘It’s not hard to imagine the steep alleyways winding out of the harbour as a casbah, the lanes part of a souk. Houses, behind huge wooden doors, open into courtyards, sometimes with a palm tree in the middle.’ And walking around town, you do notice that there does seem to be a Turkish Arabic influence in the town layout and architecture.
This is because Napoli and the towns and islands in the bay of Naples and along the Amalfi coast were frequently attacked by the Saraceni, a blanket term for the sea invaders that came from the East. The 1500s was an especially violent period as the Naples kingdom was considerably weak with the French and Spanish fighting each other for control of the region. Put on top of that the sea wars between Catholic Christendom and the Islamic empires that were trying as hard as they could for control of the Mediterranean. Ischia, being an island, suffered many attacks, and there were watch towers all over the island that had views of the sea on three sides so they could see who was coming. Some of these towers still exist today with the majority of them in the town of Forio, as the the street plan of the town was integrated into the architecture of these towers. Most of these Forian towers are privately owned, but you can visit the Museo del Torrione just off of the main road at the port which is a main cultural center in town, presenting concerts, exhibitions, and events about the history, culture and art of Ischia.
This layout of the town that exists today came about after the mid-1500s, when the infamous Ottoman Corsar Dragut, who was a violent menace to Naples and the surrounding coastline, nearly destroyed Forio by killing the inhabitants and pillaging the village. Forio’s response was to rebuild the town and create a complex street system that surrounded the towers. This way when the invaders next landed and made their way into the village to attack, the Foriani had enough time to escape from their homes and run into the towers. From there, they would throw down boulders, boiling water, and anything else to fend off the attackers and stop their town from being completely obliterated by the invaders.
Thank god they succeeded because Forio still exists today. Foriani are fiercely loyal to their dialect, traditions, celebrations and faith and maybe its because they came so close to disappearing and they don’t want it to happen again. The history of Forio and the rest of the island is so rich and there’s so much to discover.
If you’re curious about another town in Ischia, you can check out my post about Ischia Ponte, the town where we lived when we first moved to Ischia.