by Griff Rhys Jones, The Telegraph, February 2, 2018
The local paper was breathless with excitement: “Rihanna, sirena sexy, a Ponza!” it shrieked. And me too! I was in Ponza as well! Though 24 hours ago I hadn’t even known the place existed. (Mind you, I am pretty shaky on the exact status of Rihanna.)
The Pontine islands are a dragon-backed scattering of humps sticking up out of the sea south of Rome, where those in the know (which means knowing that they exist) take cool weekend breaks – including, so I was told, Beyoncé and Jay Z. And now, of course, Rihanna - “sirena sexy”. Given that the main island was, according to the New York Times, “a real treat for geologists”, this was a new insight into the leisure requirements of some of our more celebrated recording stars.
This five-and-a-half-mile-long stripe of tortured rock is generally accepted to have been the summer home not of the Sirens but of the witch Circe (who, in Greek mythology, ensnared Odysseus for a bit). It looked like it would suit mountain climbers more than pop artists. The main harbour town clings to a perilously high cliff rising around a bay. At first it feels more Greek than Italian. Its vertiginous paths rival Santorini. I have never peered over a wall to see a back garden quite so very far below me. Take strong Welsh legs if you can. Prepare to abseil back to the port from your boutique hotel if you must. But be ready to clamber.
Leaving the harbour, a cascade of steps and tiny narrow passageways led us ever upwards. We were searching for a place to stay. The passages were so narrow that, near the top, we were startled to meet an enterprising citizen trying to poke his Alfa Romeo down the hill. Stranded cars, seemingly parked up there before the rest of the citadel was built, nestled on lonely pinnacles. How did they get there? What were they for?
The town reminded me of Porto Venere, the gateway to the Cinqueterra, some 300 miles to the north, but it lacked that city’s dignity. In Porto Venere, the higher you clamber the greater the peace – a fine Romanesque church, an imposing and empty castle and, above that, empty woods.
In Ponza we found only rubbish bins and desolation. The Moorish maze on a cliff tempted us upwards, but we ran into chain-link fencing and empty lots – the lair of the witch. The boutique villa we were searching for proved impossible to find except by error. We finally happened upon it, way off the mark, down a side alley, Google having been rendered useless by the interlocking contours of the village. It was full.
Turning around and looking back, though, we got the full romantic measure of this place: the close village and the domed church, the pink and yellow blocks of villa. A latticed, ornate frame work for firecrackers, climbing along the town balcony overlooking the deep sheltered harbour, was awaiting a coming festival. A water tanker had anchored far below in the bay. The cliffs and escarpments soared against a glowing blue sky. Ponza was warm and magnificent - glowing with rugged heat in the late sun and begging to be explored further, even if that was going to prove difficult.
On the way to these islands, leaving Rome on a whim and sailing on a boat, we had taken on a tired song bird. It landed first on my wife and then on a winch, which dwarfed its miniscule, short-tailed frame.
“It’s an African bee-eater,” I pronounced.
It was in fact a flycatcher. Close enough, I thought.
After half an hour, it took off again and flopped straight into the sea. Then miraculously rose and headed north. We feared certain death, except that somewhere out of sight it circled around and came back and eventually hid below deck.
As we slipped through the channel to the east of Ponza, the bird popped its head out and got to land ahead of us. It needed Ponza. And you need to be a bird to get the most out of the rocky fastness of these volcanic remnants. Much of it is simply un-reachable and best observed from the sea.
The whole Pontine archipelago is spread over quite an area. There are two unvisited and uninhabited outcrops on either side of Ponza, called Palmarola and Zannone; you can take boat trips to get closer to them but you can’t land. The other inhabited island is called Ventotene and is in fact some 20 miles south on a direct line to Ischia, off Naples. It’s a separate holiday altogether.
There are a few urban distractions in the village on the main island. In Eea, an excitingly named restaurant halfway up the holiday Matterhorn, my companion Edward got himself a plate of risotto. It was rice. That’s the “ris” bit. The “otto” flavour was described as “mugs of algae” which proved to be a vaguely green-tasting fishy goo.
I had “flag fish”.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A fish with flags.” Edward shrugged.
I asked for clarification from the waiter.
“Triglia is triglia,” he said, impatiently.
It was red snapper. We were happy to wait in Eea. The view was soothing. The restaurant wasn’t poncey. Our food, when it came, was excellent.
What draws us to islands? The insularity? The noisy ferry port? The limited horizon that corresponds to our limited holiday availability? If you have an urge to buy a gold string bikini, then Ponza will provide. Otherwise, simply be on holiday. There’s nothing else to buy. The dusty museum had closed long ago. Every walk seemed to lead to a dead end or directly back to where you started. To get more out of Ponza, we needed to venture further.
These high, hump-backed volcanic outcrops must have frustrated the exiled (who were shipped out here by the Ancient Romans and, more recently, by the fascists). The sheer cliffs limit access to the beaches. But a fleet of “gommi” transports and bum boats line up along the old fishing quays. They are for rent – and the cliffs, the inlets and the caves are made for pottering into from the sea.
We motored out of the harbour. Every spectacular cove had small boats at anchor. Every small boat boasted a man in Day-Glo shorts and between one and three beautiful women aboard.
Edward kept hymning the bright blue waters. “It’s this high-intensity blue that people come for,” he told me. “You don’t get it anywhere else in Italy.”
Well, Edward is Italian-raised. He should know. Some of the anchorages, closer to the port, were more crowded than others. If you need a little solitude you could putter a few coves further. The ice cream boat with its solar-powered fridge will eventually find you anyway. We took three chocolate magnums and a then a punt. Yep, he had it – a strong shot of sugar-free iced coffee. The finest on the island.
That evening the shaded harbour was full of noise: the racket of small engines, outboard motors and Fiat vans, the cries of children, the clank of chains, the gabble of people. We left the throng; we had finally found a place to stay.
The Grand Hotel Domitilla is unexpectedly just that – grand - given that it sits in the middle of this warren of hovels and passages. Approached by a tunnel of greenery just off the road to the interior of the island, and spreading confusingly in all directions, it boasts plate glass doors and a wide lobby, scattered with distracted women standing about on Moroccan rugs. The breakfast area had an improvised camp awning of reeds, facing nearly green patches of lawn attended by a battery of stately waitresses.
We had lunch the next day in Sapori di Ponza (Tastes of Ponza) eating salads, parmigiano, zucchini – all straight off the counter – on the first balcony up from the harbour. The owner knew England and was intrigued by us – so few Anglos get here.
“From Ponza to Windsor,” he exclaimed, meaning himself.
“Very similar,” I said. “They both have too many visitors.”
He smiled and helped me to portions. As I pointed, he translated, and I apologised for causing trouble.
He was politely miffed. “We are happy. Everybody is friendly, no?”
“Oh yes. Oh yes.” They certainly were.
And you can do Ponza on a budget. Sixteen euros for lunch – though I think I was charged a supplement for my hat.
We found enough time eventually to get beyond the centre and walk upwards to the west of the town where the integrity of the island seems to be preserved. Follow the Via Madonna and it will take you past a terrace that runs above the ruins of a Roman villa, with its dead water fountains and cascading fish ponds. Three of the little gardens were still growing figs and vines, and the rest had gone over to weed. This was, at last, peaceful, calm and exquisite Ponza.
I would be happy to lie in the old cemetery at the summit. The place had been some old chapel and before that a Roman village. The view itself would keep the ancestors coming to admire the carefully segregated tombs, the clean staircases and imposing sepulchres in ice cream colours. And the blue, blue sea beyond.
And if you hire a boat and cruise beyond the swimming places to the very western edge of the island, the place gives up all its secrets.
Like a setting for Game of Thrones, a high-road snaked along the crumbling escarpment then lassoed and throttled a peak topped by a light house. Close to the cliff the water was massively deep. A gusting wind charged at the surface. A simple, abandoned, concrete slab-sided boat house lay at the end of a ridged ramp – as if placed there to provide some scale. A dozen little hired dinghies with skimpy sunshades were hovering in the shadow.
As the sun dipped, so the contoured details of the cliff face emerged. The grey smudges at the base of the white ash face were in fact gigantic, fallen boulders. There were natural buttresses, hundreds of feet high. The igneous pinnacles revealed their creative contortions with swirls of petrified rock. The curves achieved shape and depth, and the blank fringe on top took on the moulded, mounded boskiness of its trees.
Whatever the precise geology, it was a glory and Beyoncé must have loved it. This really had to be the lair of Circe – sporting, one supposes, a gold string bikini. And it was pretty fulfilling for a weekend’s imprisonment too.
Griff Rhys Jones is currently touring ‘Where Was I?’, a one man show about travel. For more information and to book tickets, visit socomedy.co.uk .
Laziomar (laziomar.it) operates ferry services from mid-June to mid-September to Ponza from Anzio, the most convenient port for Rome, 25 miles (40km) to the north. Journey time is 1hr 20 min; passenger fares from €45/£40 return; up to seven services daily. Anzio can be reached from central Rome on direct hourly trains (trenitalia.it ; $3.80/£3.35 one-way) from Roma Termini, Rome’s main station, in an hour and five minutes.
Laziomar also operates year-round ferries from two more distant ports on the coast south of Rome, Formia (2hr) and Terracina (2hr 40min), both of which are also accessible by train from Rome. Laziomar also operates from Formia to a second Pontine island, Ventotene, and between Ventotene and Ponza.
If you are travelling from Naples, SNAV (snav.it) runs five services weekly (twice daily in July and August) from Napoli Mergellina (3hr) from €41.50/£36.50 return.
Grand Hotel Domitilla (0039 0771 809 954; santadomitilla.com) at Via Panoramica, Ponza, is open from 17 May to 30 September and offers doubles from €103.50