Italy's volcano with pompoms on top
Ponza may not be as glamorous as its neighbours, but then simplicity is its charm
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Sunday 01 April 2001
At first sight Ponza looks like a Greek island: little fishing boats bobbing in the bay, colourful houses trundling up the hill. But it's Italian with Italian food and Italian style. And it was a well-kept, if craggy, secret until Euan Blair, free of his parents, caused a bit of a ruckus in a hotel there last summer. Allegedly.
At first sight Ponza looks like a Greek island: little fishing boats bobbing in the bay, colourful houses trundling up the hill. But it's Italian – with Italian food and Italian style. And it was a well-kept, if craggy, secret until Euan Blair, free of his parents, caused a bit of a ruckus in a hotel there last summer. Allegedly.
Only a few hours off Italy's west coast, between Naples and Rome, Ponza lies like a gnarled humpback whale slumbering happily in the sea. It is one of two inhabited volcanic islands in the group of Pontine Islands, which means that most of the activities and sights are aquatic – the sea here is beautiful and so are the beaches.
To get away, and get ahead. In April, May and June it is quiet, getting busier and hotter thereafter. Judging from the local shops it seems to have retained its simplicity and charm, far removed from the glamour and sophistication of other islands, such as Sardinia or Capri. It attracts mostly Italian tourists, a smattering of English, Americans, and slightly more French. It's a stimulating mix.
Since Ponza is a volcanic island the cliffs plunge precariously down to the sea, making many of the little coves inaccessible except by boat. There is a beach 10 minutes' walk from the main town. A Roman tunnel carved through a rock opens out on to a crescent-shaped beach with the cliffs looming over it.
A marine taxi-ride to Spiaggia di Frontone costs about L10,000 (£3.20) return. Frontone has a beach bar and restaurant manned by bronzed Italian lads who also take the money for the beach parasols and loungers. Food is basic – antipasto and salad – but good. A scramble down to Cala Gaetano, in the north, brings you to a rocky inlet which is good for snorkelling. Near the only other town, Le Forna, a natural lido is reached by steps. Otherwise rent a pop-pop fishing boat, take water to drink and a picnic, and find your own little cove.
There are diving trips from various places around the port. Rocks abound beneath the surface and there have been many shipwrecks here over the years. It is possible to dive to the wreck of an American ship which sank in a storm in March 1944 while carrying German prisoners of war from Anzio (all were saved). On the west side of Ponza a Roman cargo ship was discovered in 1985.
Try to visit the Roman fish farms. Large moray eels inhabit Roman fish-tanks at Grotte di Pilato, and locals like to regale tourists with stories of slaves being hurled in to fatten the fish. You can swim along the labyrinthine passages and see the extraordinary hydraulic engineering which constantly replenishes the tanks. Several grottos are sprinkled around the island, accessible by boat. It is also fun to watch the arrival of yachts and monstrous power-boats. The evening passeggiata is a great spectacle – particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings with the influx of stylish Italian weekenders.
The best view is reserved for the dead, from a cemetery above the harbour with vast family mausoleums, and a romantic photograph of a couple in profile looking out to sea, their ashes in a glass case and the view their eternal backdrop.
Ponza has a big problem at present – oil deposits on the beach that get stuck between your toes and ruin towels. To remove tar stains, take nail varnish remover or eucalyptus oil, or buy some lighter fuel and dab on to clothes before washing. This inconvenience shouldn't stop you going to Ponza, but beware.
Lentil soup is a speciality of the island, but nothing can beat the perpetual supply of fresh fish. For such a tiny island there is a mass of restaurants and pizzerias. The smarter restaurants are in a row above the port, laid out with brightly coloured tablecloths. They are cafés by day and become restaurants by night.
If a particular restaurant is crowded, it is a good bet, so make sure you book for the following evening. Last season the yellow table-clothed Acqua Pazza seemed the most popular. At L60,000 per person with aperitif and local wine, it thoroughly deserved to be crowded. If you don't speak Italian, copy your fellow diners. Gennarino al Mare, on the other side of the town near the boat moorings, is perennially good. Large groups from the yachts happily bolt down the seafood pasta, locally caught fish and home-baked fruit tarts. There is supposedly meat on the menu, but I have a suspicion that the overheard "no steak today" is a common response.
A local hang-out is the ice-cream parlour close to the Chiaia di Luna beach, where coffee and ice cream are served late into the night.
WHERE TO STAY
On arrival, as you walk up from the boat, there will be people offering rooms for the night, and there are many reasonably priced hotels and an accommodation list at the tourist office. For a simple, family-run pension try Gennarino al Mare via Dante (tel: 00 39 0771 80 071), which is open all year. The rooms are above a restaurant and each has a tiny balcony or terrace. Those facing seaward have views over the busy harbour. A double room costs L220,000 per night.
Outside Ponza town is the Casa Giulia (tel: 00 39 0771 80 407) with 12 guest rooms furnished with simple bamboo and wicker, each with a balcony or patio. A sea-water pool and beach are nearby. Boats go regularly from the little bay to Ponza. Casa Giulia is open from May to September and a double room is from L250,000 a night.
WHAT TO BUY
Shopping in Ponza is a relaxed, meandering affair. Take a stroll around the town along the harbour bustling with fishermen and locals selling boat trips, past the fish shops and up the steps to the line of colourful cafés and around to the shops. Perfumeries, fruit shops and supermarkets sit cheek-by-jowl among boutiques selling espadrilles, beach towels, swimwear, floaty cotton dresses, trousers, shorts and jewellery. Prices are not excessive and there is an absence of the souvenir and designer boutiques that litter Italy's flashier tourist spots.
The great holiday souvenir from Ponza is, unexpectedly, a bobble hat. Traditionally blue with a red pompom (or vice versa), the hats have long been made on the island, originally as winter-wear for fishermen. But hats of many colours – browns and pinks, oatmeals and yellows – are now proudly displayed in several shops. Guess what? They're all the rage. When the fashion designer Paul Smith "discovered" the island he ordered a whole load of pompom hats to be knitted in different colours for sale in his boutiques in London.
You can take your pick of bikes, buzzy motor scooters, buses, clapped-out, bone-shaking Mini Mokes or fishing boats. In fact, to get around the island, a bus is the best bet.
The island is only five miles long and a mile across at its widest point, with a main backbone of a road that runs the length of the island from the port in the south to Le Forna in the north. All side roads are impassable except on foot.
The fishing-boat taxis are reliable and cheap, or you can hire your own with its outboard motor, which is fun for a day. The prevailing wind hits the west of the island, making the sea quite choppy – those with weak sea legs, be warned.
There are three hydrofoils a day from Anzio in high season, and regular services year round. Ferries from Formia take two and a half hours, the hydrofoil half that. Seasonal ferries from Terracina take about an hour. In the summer there are also services from Fiumicino and Naples.
Ponza Tourist Information office is open daily (tel: 00 39 0771 80 031). Alternatively, contact the Italian State Tourist Office (tel: 020-7408 1254).
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