the Pontine Islands
Ponza - Palmarola - Ventotene - Santo Stefano
“Renowned for the beauty of their surrounding sea and sea-beds, the Pontine islands is where those in the know take their cool weekend breaks. The Romans love it, but few others know about it.“
FORGET Capri, Santorini, Corsica and even the UNESCO-listed aeolian isles. There’s a secret paradise atoll considered by many globe-trotters not only the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but among the world’s most stunning ones. Palmarola, shaped liked a sleeping bunny, is Italy’s best kept secret. Unknown even to most Italians, few have been here. Those who have, dub it “the jagged gem”.
At first it feels more Greek than Italian. Its vertiginous paths rival Santorini. The Pontine islands are a dragon-backed scattering of humps sticking up out of the sea south of Rome, where those in the know take cool weekend breaks – including, so we are shown in the papers , Beyoncé and Jay Z. And now, of course, Rihanna – “sirena sexy”. The islands are an unexplored paradise and ideal for diving. Given that the main island was, according to the New York Times, “a real treat for geologists”, they are now more in vogue than ever.
Read on to learn more about the Pontine Islands….
“Known as the Kingdom of Myth, with tall tales about mermaids and old Saints spun by the fisherman who visit.”
Palmarola is one of the most charming places in the remote islands of Italy’s Pontine Archipelago. It is a natural reserve and, in winter, it is completely uninhabited, except for the guardian. Palmarola has an extremely craggy coast dotted with grottos, bays, cliffs and crags. Landing is possible at a small natural harbour where you can make a brief stop and take a look at the grottos excavated by the sea; this
is a bather’s paradise, and a wonderful area for snorkeling. In circumnavigating the island, don’t miss the opportunity to search for the pirate’s treasure at Cala Brigantina, where pirates used to refugee in the Middle Ages, and to visit “la Cattedrale”, a shoreline that has been shaped by the sea and the wind and now resembles a cathedral. Forget shops, but you can eat at O’Francese on the main beach where the owners
serve fish fresh from the net. On day two, pay a visit to the uninhabited and mysterious island of Zannone. There are no tourist facilities there, not even a bar, but the atmosphere and the history of this place are worth a trip. The hill is dominated by a colonial villa, built in 1930 over the ruins of an ancient monastery. Since then, was passed from one noble family to another, until it became propriety of the Marquis Casati and his wife who used to hold there lavish debauched masked parties. The history became tragedy when the Marquis
killed himself, his wife and her lover and the house was reclaimed by the state.
Ponza is the main island and lies 18 miles off the coast about midway between Rome and Naples. It’s a labyrinth of orange-purple sea grottos, talcum powder-like beaches, white granite rocks and pirate caves where scuba divers still search for hidden treasures. Ponza’s Grotte di Pilato caves (four in all, connected by underwater tunnels) were hand-excavated by the Romans and used as an eel farm in the 1st century A.D., when the emperor Augustus first built a villa on the hill above. Then, circumnavigate the island to discover all of its stunning bays, like Chiaia di Luna, Capo Bianco, Cala Feola. At sunset, pay a visit to the must-go aperitif at the Frontone, which is a rustic outdoor bar set up among the trees just behind the sand. In the evening, take a walk into town and stroll along the picturesque ancient Roman harbour made of colourful
fishermen dwellings and prehistoric grottos turned into studios, and where evening drinks are served on rooftops.
Ventotene is a very charming island, is the archipelago’s second-largest isle and is car-free. The laid-back vibe contrasts with its dark past: it was a jail for lustful Roman noble women. Emperor Augustus shipped his daughter Julia here on charges of adultery and Nero exiled and sentenced to death his wife Octavia, so that he could marry Poppaea. Mosaics still cover the ruins of Julia’s villa at Punta Eolo. Another very interesting attraction in Ventotene is the “peschiera” (Roman fish farm), one of the few surviving examples of fish engineering. It was made up of two covered pools, protected from waves and sunlight, where fish could nest. They were attracted in a bigger outside pool, and trapped inside by an ingenious use of shutters and meshes. The Peschiera Romana is best visited by boat and offers its best to snorkelers because since the Roman Empire the sea level has gone up by around a meter and nowadays most of the ruins can be admired underwater. Most of the coastline is high and ragged, but there are two lovely beaches close to the two villages: Cala Rossano and Cala Nave. From being a place of confinement it’s now one of the greatest scuba diving spots in Italy, full with friendly barracudas and gigantic groupers. To escape the crowds of the summer months, head to the lighthouse where you can catch the last of the evening rays on volcanic rocks.
Just a mile from Ventotene lies the smallest of the Pontine islands, Santo Stefano. Today this jet-black rock, the tiniest of the Pontines, is uninhabited, but until 1965 thousands of criminals, mafiosi and anarchists were jailed and tortured here. Unfortunately at the moment it is
forbidden to step ashore for a visit but even just admiring this horseshoe-shaped prison fortress from a yacht sends shivers down the spine.
Also, the water is pristine here and, depending on wind and waves, you should be able to find the perfect spot for some snorkelling or diving.