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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Reflections on Ponza: The Pearl of Rome

Port of Ponza, Isola di Ponza, Italy
Port of Ponza, Isola di Ponza, Italy

 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.

Chiaia di Luna, Ponza, Italy
Chiaia di Luna, Ponza, Italy

     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.

 

Cala Feola from above, Ponza, Italy
Cala Feola from above, Ponza, Italy

    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.