Tuesday, October 2, 2012
October in The Pontine Islands
The Pontine Islands, known as the Ponziane, comprise two groups: Ponza, Palmarola, Zannone and Gavi to the northwest and Ventotene and Santo Stefano to the southeast. These groups are separated by about 22 nautical miles. Some 6 km to the south of Ponza the solitary rock known as “The Botte” rises from the sea. Italy's Undiscovered Islands, in the Tyrrhenian Sea off of Italy’s west coast, seem like a hidden destination out of a dream. Just far enough from the mainland to be an impractical destination for mass tourism. So much the better for those who do go to the trouble of making a trip here, because what you'll find is a rare Mediterranean gem that has kept its Italian identity intact and undiluted. The rocky coastline is dotted with grottos, both natural and man made. And the pristine beaches and beautiful sunsets look like the makings of a perfectly relaxing getaway. If you want to avoid the holiday scene altogether, just come in the gorgeous shoulder months of May, June, September and October… locals will tell you this is when their island really shines.
They are the result of volcanic activity and has been inhabited for thousands of years. Neolitich artifacts and Bronze Age obsidians have been excavated on the islands. The islands were used by the Etruscans who carved the "Blue Grottos". The earliest recorded history of the islands occurs with the Roman victory over the Volsci at 338 BC. According to a local legend, this was once the lost Kingdom of Tyrrhenia which sank with a narrow strip connected to mainland Italy. The islands have a romantic and ancient history, they were a regular stomping ground for Roman emperors and used during the reign of Caesar Augustus as as a retreat and a place to exile politically troubling citizens.
These days, they are a haven for sailors. Italy's best known documentary film maker, Foloco Quilici, calls the area the most beautiful place he has ever visited. “I cannot recall a year without feeling this urge for the sea, the start of another summer season that will continue until next autumn’s first north west breezes. That I should make the connection between my yearning has visited so many islands in the world – is not only because of their beauty, above and below the water, but because these islands were my first archipelago… Palmarola is the gem of the Archipelago, and for me one of the most beautiful islands ever to have been born of the sea. Here are solitude, silence, emptiness and wonder. Alone with its multicoloured volcanic rocks, its deep and limpid wate s , Palmarola is a mirage of sea beds to explore and to discover, anmisland bewitching in its protected sleep, cradled by a whispering and reassuring sea.”
To reach the archipelago we drive from Rome an hour south to Anzio, one of four towns where ferries leave for Ponza, eponym of the Pontines and the archipelago's main destination. We disembark in Ponza, the largest of the group, we are welcomed by the 18th-century Bourbon port, where a sun-bleached amphitheater of colorful houses looks down on the busy stage of the harbor, which is connected by stairs and passages to the cobblestoned pedestrian high street. One of the most charming parts of a trip to the Pontine Islands would be getting around by boat. Then you can zip up and down the coast, getting the best views of the cliffs, bays, and ancient grottos, and visiting beaches only accessible by water. Two other islands in the archipelago not served by regular ferry, Palmarola and Zannone are classic day trips from Ponza, each just 30 minutes away by boat. Zannone is a nature reserve with quiet hikes, dense forests, and wild sheep running free. This tiny island universe reaches beyond itself, and into a mirror-like sea, reflecting onto its surface and way down to the seabed.
Ventotene and Santo Stefano are land and sea conservation areas, supervised by the Ministry of the Environment, administration being in the hands of the Municipality. Ventotene draws people not just by its beauty but also because, architecturally speaking, Rome is still alive here. Its port remains in use, totally evocative for anyone who understands what it means to drop anchor in a stretch of sea linked to
ancient times and which makes it seem as if 2,000 years had not passed. In fact the port jetty with its two bollards and shops cut straight out of the soft local volcanic rock, are exactly as they once were. Arriving here and tethering the boat to one of the stone bollards, We are doing just what any sailor from a Roman galley or Aragonese man-of-war would have done in his time. To reach the Roman port of Ventotene, we have sailed through the channel that separates this contented island from its small twin Santo Stefano. also contented for the time being though for two centuries a place of sadness and pain. From Bourbon times and until five years ago, Santo Stefano was used as a penitentiary. It continues to be dominated by
the abandoned prison buildings, still massive and structurally intact, reminding one at the same time of Kafkaesque castles and baroque follies in the Neapolitan style.