I wasn’t the first to arrive. First came the Etruscans. Then the Greeks. Then the Romans. These were followed by a varied cast of characters ranging from prisoners to patriots, pirates to Popes until April 1999 when at long last, I too stepped ashore on the Italian island of Ponza
This Mediterranean gem situated some 40 miles off the coast between Rome & Naples is the namesake of a small archipelago called the Pontine Islands, and has always been off the beaten tourist track—that is if you’re not counting the period when Ponza, once dubbed as the “Pearl of Rome” served as a summer retreat for the ruling elite. Had I not married a girl who still has family there, I probably never would have heard of the place. Regardless, there I was standing out on deck as the ferry drew us closer to the lumpy silhouette of the island’s northern tip, ready to begin the first leg of my honeymoon.
As we drew near the port, I marveled at the chalky cliffs of eroded sandstone sculpted and bleached by eons of sun & wind that would be a geologist’s dream. Often there would be a cluster of pastel colored boats at their base, bobbing up and down in the turquoise coastal waters. The pastel motif continued as we docked at the port—a two-tiered crescent of shops, houses, and restaurants curving around the sheltered waters of the harbor. Rising above it all were the mottled yellow-green slopes of Monte della Guardia which formed a backdrop that appeared right out of a model railroad set with the ruins of its namesake guardhouse perched on top. Stepping ashore, I was at once struck by the quaint architecture that seemed quintessentially Mediterranean—flat roofed houses with shuttered windows and ornate iron railings enclosing their balconies. There was also the faint scent of fresh seafood wafting on the steady breeze, barely overpowering the stench of diesel exhaust from the line of cars freshly disgorged from the bowels of the ferry.
My first order of business was to join my wife and her uncle in one such car, and with our bags stuffed in the trunk and ourselves crammed in the backseat with our knees around our ears, we set off through the ancient tunnel that provided us with intermittent views of the harbor dotted with the local fishing fleet and sleek yachts of visiting jet-setters. After just five minutes I fell in love with this place. After ten I was already making plans to return.
On Ponza it is refreshing to see that you will not find chain hotels or sprawling resorts. During the summer months the island swells with vacationing Germans, Romans, and other Italians who live most of the year on the mainland yet still retain their hereditary roots and properties. It was on my second visit in the late summer of 2002 that I got the chance to see Ponza in its peak season splendor. Little had changed aside from the climate, which was decidedly drier and hotter than in April, with brilliant sunny days and comfortable nights. Come summertime, the main attraction is Chiaia di Luna—a rocky beach ringed by towering vertical cliffs named for its half-moon shape. What the beach lacks in comfort it makes up for in scenery. With the aquamarine water lapping at my feet as I stared out at the nearby island of Palmarola, I found it hard to imagine a more idyllic setting. Yet on this island, my imagination more than met its match, especially at a place called Le Forne, and a small cove called Cala Feola.
Viewed from above, I couldn’t help but remark at how the boxy, light-colored houses draped along the rocky slopes to meet a sapphire sea looked like something right out of a postcard. (As it turns out, such a postcard is available at the souvenir shops down by the port.) Traversing the brutally steep incline of the road on foot, it was a moderate hike down to the natural pools at the base of the cove. In fact, aside from a soccer field at the north end of the island, I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a flat surface anywhere to be found.
The strain on the hamstrings seemed well worth it once I sprawled out on the smooth skirt of rock populated with glistening sunbathers in various states of undress. Later we explored the cove by paddleboat, every so often plunging into the inviting water to cool down. Not a bad way to spend a weekday afternoon, I mused, though fortunately there are plenty of similar experiences to be had to last many an afternoon.
An easy and inexpensive day trip is a circle island tour, taking in the coastal highlights and usually including stops at uninhabited Palmarola to the west. Here we had the opportunity to take a dip, snorkel in the surprisingly high-visibility waters, and admire the nearly surreal rock formations jutting out of the water like crumbling monuments. We also had a delicious lunch miraculously prepared in the tiny wheelhouse of our boat, consisting of spaghetti marinara washed down with a glass of vino and a shot of espresso. Only in Italy!
Three times I’ve had the privilege of visiting Ponza, which means by default that three times I’ve had to tear myself away. Yet it is authentic memories such as these that have elevated Ponza to the special place that it now holds in my heart. Normally I have a rule of never visiting the same place twice, since there are still so many places I’ve yet to see once. Yet Ponza has an allure that makes it an excusable exception, one that leaves me longing for a fourth time and even a fifth. Perhaps it’s because that while I know I will never be a true islander, Ponza has become part of my history as well, like so many others who have come before me. In that, I’m sure, I am once again not the first.