Ponza Revisited Part I – A Mixed Bag of Changes on Land

The charming port of Ponza
The charming port of Ponza

With so many places left on earth that I’ve yet to see once, I normally chafe at the idea of returning to somewhere that I’ve already been. The idea of visiting the same place multiple times would normally leave me cringing at the thought of missed opportunities. But when it comes to the Italian island of Ponza, which I’ve visited not twice, not three times, but a personal record four times, all such reluctance goes out the window. In fact, it was no burden at all.

If you’d like to read my earlier post about the island of Ponza, click here.

Before re-visiting the island in July 2015, it had been a good eight years since I had last seen these lovely and familiar shores. Back then, I had not yet begun my Trip Accomplice travel blog, nor did I see the need to document my experience there so extensively. This time around I was armed with determination and an idea of what story I wished to tell. The following – divided into two parts covering activities by land and sea – is the result of those endeavors. Here’s my take on the developments on land.

The Port

Get lost in the back streets of the port.
Get lost in the back streets of the port.

If there could be considered a signature scene on the island, it would likely go to the historic port that greets visitors arriving via ferry or aliscafo (hydrofoil). In the interim between my visits, the island has gone to great lengths to improve and expand the appearance and infrastructure of this gateway. Basically a tiered crescent of shops, bars and restaurants, the port has been somewhat gentrified, with upscale boutiques and trendy eateries that belie the simple lifestyle of the year-round residents.

The increase and amelioration of the port area has resulted in greater traffic than ever before. In fact, the entrance to the ancient tunnel built by the Romans now features a traffic light – something once unheard of in this remote outpost. This increase in visitors is not without its benefits. Businesses catering to tourists seemed to be thriving, with many small hotels and pensions dotting the village above the harbor. Increased revenues are not doubt a factor in the renovations along the waterfront which now extend nearly all the way to the tunnel and boast a paved piazza, playground and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. For day-trippers, the port is now more charming than ever, and for those who stick around to dine al fresco in the many outdoor cafés, the scene is among the most captivating I’ve ever seen.

Le Forne and the North End

Sun and scenery await at Le Forne
Sun and scenery await at Le Forne

Located midway along the curved spine of the island is an area called Le Forne. Essentially a pair of coves carved out of the soft rock, this is a popular destination for those looking for a little time in the sun. At Cala Feola, one can take a dip in the natural pools, ancient stone pools filled with seawater, or the turquoise cove itself. Sunbathers will be draped all over the broad skirt of rock located at the shore, and a pair of sandals and/or aqua shoes wouldn’t be a bad idea if you wish to walk around or grab a beer in the literal hole-in-the-wall bar set off to one side.

The north end of the island is still relatively tourist-free, if you don’t count all the rental cars and scooters that clog up the one and only primary road on this end of the island. While there are no real tourist attractions to speak of, it does offer visitors a glimpse at the rather agrarian roots of the island’s inhabitants as well as some fantastic views. I wouldn’t say a trip to the northern end is a must-see, but if you’ve got a few hours (and a few thousand calories) to burn, it’s a nice place for an authentic look at island living.

You Shall Not Pass

The (currently) unreachable lighthouse - but not for lack of trying.
The (currently) unreachable lighthouse – but not for lack of trying.

On this, my fourth visit to the island, I had set the goal of both walking its entire length (approximately 5.5 miles in length) and finding my way to the lighthouse that is perched on a promontory at the southernmost tip. I was able to cross off the former (even if my calves and glutes still haven’t forgiven me) but was alas thwarted in my repeated attempts at the latter.

My first attempt involved my following a back-road above the gorgeous cove of Chiaia di Luna, which due to the threat of rock slides was closed at the time of my visit (it is currently permanently closed at the time of writing, but efforts are being made to reopen it along with the ancient tunnel that leads there). I made it midway up Monte della Guardia – the highest point on the island and the backdrop for the port – when a local directed me to take a certain side road then make a right. All this did was lead me back to the port and (exasperated sigh) back to sea level.

Undeterred, I got directions from a shop owner whose face and tone indicated that only a weirdo would want to go all the way to the lighthouse. I followed his proposed route and stumbled across another improvement – illustrated signs noting historical and archaeological points of interest along with background information. As interesting as it was, it’s hard to get excited about the location of an ancient necropolis when you’re struggling to breathe after climbing an unending chain of sun-baked staircases. I had nearly made it three-quarters up the mountain when I was told by a man troweling cement that yes, there is a road that would take me there, but as they say in New England, “You can’t get there from here.” Demoralized, I glumly accepted that I’d have to go down again, only to make my way up.

On my third attempt I completely ignored the quaint houses and gardens that rose in elevation with my every step and kept my head down until I was almost at the top. I stopped a young kid playing in the street who in turn called for his grandmother. She instructed me to keep on going until a fork in the road, where at last there was a glazed tile sign indicating the way to the lighthouse. With my hopes buoyed and a stretch of semi-level ground in front of me, I felt a stirring of triumph in my chest. Unfortunately, such feelings were short-lived as I turned a corner only to come face to face with a sign prohibiting passage on a very long and sketchy-looking staircase leading along the edge of a steep cliff toward the distant lighthouse. The reason given was the same as Chiaia di Luna and a few other places on the island – the danger of falling rocks, mostly due to age and disrepair.

After all the effort and energy I had expended to get there, it felt like one of those falling rocks came down on my spirit. And as I trudged my way back downhill through a warren of whitewashed lanes, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the improvements to the tourist infrastructure, many parts of the island were quite literally falling apart. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the region called I Conti, where the hereditary plots of terraced hillside – once well-cultivated and in full bloom – were more often than not, now overgrown and wilting from neglect or the limitations of older residents who have not been replaced by a younger generation. It made me sad to think of how that generation will –  for many families – be the last, and the legacy of the hearty, self-sufficient year-round islanders is something passing tourists will likely never know. I was also really tired and sweaty, so maybe I was just feeling sorry for myself.

The Recap

This visit to Ponza was a mixed bag for me. I lamented the paradigm shift from the island known by self-contained older residents, to the emerging tourist destination it seems destined to become. At the same time, the areas that received the necessary upkeep and attention appeared to be coming into their own, and I feel glad that so many new visitors get to experience the wonder of this island gem for the first time. Whether this turns out to be good, bad or a little of both remains to be seen – which would only be, I suppose, on an unprecedented fifth visit. Well, there are certainly worse things in life.

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Fresh From the Blogosphere: Reviews of You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper

You Can Keep Your Adventure bookWell friends, it’s coming up on a month now since its release and some of my fellow bloggers have weighed in about my travel/humor guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper. I wanted to share this with you in the event that a) you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet and b) you would also like a glimpse at some other blogs that deserve your attention.

At the end of my last post I included a link to Kate Denny’s review of my book on her excellent blog Travel Far, Eat Well. Today I’d like to share two more with you.

The first is by Manny from The Greenwich Mummy blog. Besides being a delightful person, she covers a wide range of lifestyle  subjects from her Greenwich (London) base. Whether it be parenting advice or just something to do for the weekend, she knows her town and is happy to share it.

The second is by Carl from theoldfellowgoesrunning. His blog deals partly with running, and partly with many of the myriad topics of everyday life – all through his unique and genuine perspective. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and I’m not just saying that because he reviewed and recommended my book 🙂

I hope you take the time to check out my fellow bloggers’ sites and if you haven’t already done so, my book You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper – you know I’m just going to keep bringing it up until you do.

Have you read my book already? Leave a comment about what you did or didn’t like!

No More Excuses! Why it’s Time For You to Travel – An Excerpt from You Can Keep Your Adventure. Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper

pr-planeIn anticipation of the upcoming release of my travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper, I have modified the penultimate chapter to give you a taste of the kind of insight (and humor) you can expect.

Just a brief word of caution, I’m going to be blunt: Get out of your chair!!!

“But, wait!” you might say, followed by any number of excuses with varying degrees of legitimacy. I don’t want to hear it. If you’ve been following this blog that means you’re fully informed and therefore no longer unaware of all that you’re missing. Hear me out as I break down your excuses with both how and why it’s time for you to start traveling.

I Don’t Have Enough Money to Travel

Do you honestly think anything so lame as money would stop a real traveler from traveling? Granted, how and in what style you travel is dictated by your finances; but it should never be the determining factor to go or not go. So you don’t have much money; big deal! Most of my adult life I was just above the financial waterline myself. The key is in setting priorities. For example, which will mean more to you in another ten years – a new TV or that cruise you booked for a steal? By keeping your burdens as light as possible and setting aside a little at a time, most people this side of the poverty line can at least do something.

If money is really tight – and believe me; I know what that feels like – why not try something of short duration and close to home? Can’t afford an air ticket? Take the train or do a road trip. Maybe it’s not as exotic as you would like, but it can still encapsulate all that is good about the act of traveling; and the deposit in your memory bank will be greater than the withdrawal from your real one.

I Don’t Have Time to Travel

I’ve got one word for you – lame! Nobody has enough time to do everything they want to do, so it again comes down to priorities. Just as you would drop your loose change into a jar, scrounge up as many vacation days as you can. Budget your time so that you can steal away – even if it’s just for a weekend. No one says you have to spend half a year backpacking through Asia. I myself have never been away longer than three and a half weeks at a clip. It’s not the quantity but the quality the counts, just as it does in every other aspect of life. If traveling is really something you want to do, you will find the time to do it. I know you’re busy; I am too, but that still doesn’t count as a valid excuse. Nice try, though.

I Don’t Know How to Plan a Trip

I believe you. With so many options and variables, even those who work in the industry sometimes feel like their head is about to explode. But no one is saying you have to do it all yourself. Find yourself a knowledgeable travel agent or talk to someone who knows the drill. For example, this blog is full of ideas and advice. If you lack confidence, start with something small; a cruise, a road trip, an all-inclusive. Once you recognize that you’re a reasonably intelligent human being and that this isn’t advanced Quantum Physics, your confidence and sense of adventure can only grow.

I’m Scared

I’m not going to patronize you and say that there’s nothing to be worried about. The world is a scary, unstable place. But you know what? The same is true where you live. To overcome your fears you have to first learn why you have them. I realize this might be unpleasant. Finding the root of your fears is like giving a prostate exam – uncomfortable even if you do manage to put your finger on it. Still, all it takes is to realize that the benefits far outweigh the risk, and much like that exam, it will leave you with greater peace of mind.

Traveling is a Hassle. I’d Rather Just Read About It

OK, it’s time for me to pull out the big guns. Let me tell you about the best meal I’ve ever eaten. It was in the restaurant of a tiny hotel overlooking a valley on the Italian island of Ponza. First came the antipasto – a delicious medley of fresh olives and cheese bathed in a light drizzle of olive oil. Next came the rice balls and potato croquettes. After that the waiter brought out a heaping dish of linguini with shrimp topped by a dusting of fresh-ground parmesan cheese. Finally, after well over an hour of eating, came the main course – baked swordfish that was caught just that morning. I’d describe it further but it’s hard to see through all the tears welling up in my eyes at the memory alone. Suffice to say it was fabulous, especially when washed down by salad, dessert and a potent bottle of the local wine.

Now why would I torture you (and myself) by describing in great detail this delicious feast? To illustrate the downside of living solely through description. Maybe with lots of effort I can convey the crispiness of the rice balls; the soft texture of the pasta; the heady flavor of the wine that was likely bottled right there in the basement – but I can tell you truthfully; it doesn’t compare to actually experiencing it firsthand.

Have I made my point? Travel is the same thing. You can read about the Taj Mahal, but witnessing it in person is a whole different animal. I can tell you about how charming the Brazilian town of Parati can be, but until you’ve walked those uneven cobblestone streets bathed in half-light to the sound of a street musician, it’s all just theoretical. I know traveling can be a hassle – nobody likes being on a plane for long stretches of time – but it still doesn’t replace making the scenes you’ve heard described here your own.

I’m a Quadriplegic with Anxiety Disorders Chained to a Radiator in the Basement

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this exact same excuse (actually, I can) but if this is you, I will readily concede that your excuse is valid. In fact I really hope that you’ve enjoyed this post. From the sound of things, it doesn’t seem like you’ve got much else going for you.

Though I’m sure there are many more excuses you can come up with, I don’t have time to address them all. I think that in all things, anyone actively looking for an excuse can find one. I don’t feel any particular rancor toward those that do. I just feel kind of sad. Along with relationships, experiences are among the most valuable things a person can ever have. Missing out on that great adventure is akin to never meeting a person that would one day be one of your dearest friends. So don’t let that happen to you. I know your chair is comfy. I know you might already be in your PJ’s. Just start making your travel plans and leave the excuses for someone else – because I’m not buying them.

If you haven’t already done so, check out the preview of You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper by clicking here and stay tuned to this blog for more release details.