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Ponza Is For Sea Lovers Only

Nancy Lytle

Emerging from a sea-inspired reverie, I saw that the island was beautiful. Rising out of a green sea, its sheer cliffs seemed magical, untouched by humans. At first impression, as the boat drew closer, Ponza appeared to be an Italian paradiso, a stone-faced Bali Hai. I shook off a disconnected feeling and stood up, eyeing my gear piled around the deck chair. Three hours of staring at the sea had put me in a kind of parallel universe and I needed to snap back, to be ready to match wits with my friend.

I leaned on the railing, suddenly hot in the sun. My ferry from Anzio drifted into the small bay at Ponza Town, its engine idling, and I could see hundreds of people on the quay, surrounded by luggage and beach supplies. They appeared to be jockeying for embarking position onto a boat that said "Napoli" on the stern. Under the white-hot sun, there were irritated shouts to straying, sugared-up, hyper-energetic children.

As my boat began its swing around to present its rear end to the dock, I looked for my friend and finally spotted her. Floriana stood a bit apart from the mob on the sun-bleached dock, waving languidly. She was terribly tan, wearing a red bikini with a wildly-patterned scarf wrapped around her hips. A large black straw hat covered her short blonde hair and her sunglasses seemed among the largest ever manufactured.

Seaside, watercolor by Nancy Lytle

Seaside, watercolor by Nancy Lytle

The stern of the boat backed into the slip, and with my luggage slung on both shoulders, I walked down the ramp alongside the motor scooters and cars, some even pulling boats on trailers, all gunning off the boat onto the dock in a classic Italian roar.

"Ciao, cara!" Floriana called out and slowly samba-ed over, exuding cool relaxation. "Are you ready to have some fun?" We hugged hard and exchanged cheek kisses as the ferry to Napoli emitted a great warning blast of its horn.

Floriana laughed, a silvery chime that I realized I had missed. There was a lot to catch up on. And two whole weeks to do it.

The island of Ponza is narrow, really narrow, and has a fascinatingly irregular crescent shape, only about two kilometers wide at its widest and about twelve kilometers long. Just the remaining snippet of an ancient volcanic crater, Ponza is one of five rugged islands in the Pontine cluster lazing in the Mediterranean sea between Rome and Naples. Ponza offers up amazing geology for the visitor to consider, with ultra-dramatic cliffs of pure white, golden-ochre, black, and shades of blue-grey. Natural arches, needles of stone and tempting grottos shimmer in the emerald waters surrounding the island

The Romans of Tiberius' time vacationed here, creating decorated holding-ponds for fish inside some of the seaside caves, and tunneling through solid rock to favorite beaches such as Chiaia di Luna and the village of Santa Maria. Today, almost two thousand years later, the sounds of people and transport still echo in these ancient but typical Roman engineering accomplishments.

Everything on Ponza revolves around the sea and boats. Since Ponza is dry, the water that keeps the island alive is delivered daily by tankers that spend twelve hours at a stretch just outside the harbor pumping the vital substance into Ponza's water system. Along the wharf of Ponza Town, the fishing and sight-seeing boats (giro di isola) are moored colorfully and comfortably together and the fish shops with their glistening bounty are steps away across the cobblestones. During the summer months, private pleasure crafts of the not-so-rich-and-famous constantly sail in and out of the bay or bob in their countless moorings.

Many of these private pleasure boats arrive and depart on trailers pulled by cars loaded on the traghetti, the daily ferries with routes to Ponza from Anzio, Formia and Terracina. Faster aliscafi (hydrofoils), bring people sans vehicles to Ponza at a much smarter clip. The scads of ubiquitous rubber boats with outboard motors are useful, dropping off and picking up swimmers at their favorite rocks and beaches, almost all totally unreachable except by sea. All in all, seaside pleasure on Ponza depends on boats and the generally calm and tideless sea.

Floriana and I rode in a small open taxi with a gaily-rippling blue canopy, out of Ponza Town, up a cliff-hugging road until we were high above the bay. The air became cooler - fresca, as I often heard Italians say. The sea below was emerald with dark blue shadows.

My friend had spent the last four weeks in traditional holiday mode, away from work in Rome. She still had two weeks to enjoy, with me. As the taxi cruised lazily up the road, she chattered on about fish, boat trips, her favorite beach spots, a cafe where she sang some nights, a saxophone player.

At the top of a high hill, Floriana's little blue and white rental house sat smugly amidst fig trees hanging heavy with fruit. From the terrace, we looked down at the harbor and the boxy houses of Ponza Town scattered on the volcanic hills. The ferry boat that had carried me from Anzio was moored for the night in the center of the small bay and the sun was low behind the house. Across the harbor, the multi-pastel glow of staggered Mediterranean houses was in full effect.

The island's houses are mostly in the traditional Ponsese style, pastel-painted cubes strung together with curious shallow domes on the flat roofs that correspond to the top of each room. Once inside you find that the domes create barrel-vaulted ceilings giving an effect of coolness in the summer. The number of houses clustered on sheer cliff-edges and climbing the sides of intimate valleys is satisfying moderate; the island is not over-built or loaded with ugly intrusive new structures like many Italian seaside locations.

As she uncorked a bottle of straw-colored ponsese wine, Floriana told me that very little has changed in the twenty years she has been holidaying on Ponza. "Ponza is a self-limiting island, since it isn't easy to get to the great swimming spots. One has to walk steep paths or be taken by boat." she said. Eyeing me speculatively, she continued, "So a relatively fit group of people vacation here, almost never Americans."

We sipped the fruity wine, cool and delicious. "Also, the people of Ponza have severely limited the video game and disco kind of fun to be found here. So the island is neither chic nor crassly teen-oriented."

Floriana smiled. "That's why I love it."

Our view from the terrace of the two-bedroom casale overlooked the harbor and Ponza Town, the island's main hub. The scene was intense in color; the diffused but very blue hues of the sea and sky contrasting with the muted greens of the terraced hills and, of course, the pink, yellow, blue and white houses that create cubist patterns varying with the light throughout the day. From our vantage point, we could monitor the comings and goings of traghetti, aliscafi and all of the other boats traversing the harbor, the marks of their wake fading slowly in the azure water - We could see the waterside main street far below, from where small blue buses ran roughly every fifteen minutes to Le Forna, a sort-of sizeable village farther north on Ponza, and beyond to La Piana, an end-of-the-road scattering of houses and cafes that reminds one of nameless places in Mexico or in one's dreams (complete with pear cactus).

Each small populated area on Ponza has its special and spectacular views and swimming spots, like the Piscine Naturali, a steep walk down stone steps from Le Forna. This is an enchanted place where the sea meets undulating white rock formations; sunning and swimming at the Piscine, an old Roman fishery, makes for a memorable afternoon on Ponza. The rocks are flat and smooth in some areas, perfect for lying about, and carved into swim-through arches and grottoes in others. Behind the gentle barrier of white rock, a natural lagoon entices swimmers to share the clear green water with schools of fish. In fact, Isola di Ponza as a whole is an active snorkel and scuba center, attracting hundreds of visitors for its diving opportunities in some of the clearest water in the Mediterranean.

After a lazy first evening on the terrace, we walked in the bright morning light down and down the irregular steps to the harbor. At the water, Floriana negotiated with a man in a brief bathing suit for a boat ride around the island. We climbed onto the raised deck of a smallish craft with an outboard motor and a canvas canopy. Our bald and bronzed boatman started the engine and headed out of the harbor.

"Isn't this a wonderful way to clear the mind?" shouted Floriana as the boat bounced, picking up speed. "We'll explore Ponza and see the secret places reachable only by boat. Alfonso will show us everything."

My friend made herself comfortable in the sunny area of the prow, stripping off her long tee shirt. She began to apply moisturizer to her bikini-clad body. Under the shade of the canopy, I awkwardly shifted around, sitting cross-legged on the plastic cushions covering most of the deck. I tried to find a stable way to sit and not get thrown off as the boat bumped over lingering curves of wake from bigger boats. We rounded the peninsula on the south side of the harbor and the freshening breeze felt pure and alive. Alfonso expertly zigged and zagged, keeping the boat close to shore where the water was shades of rippling emerald. The cliffs towered above, grey, black, gold and stark white, in large dramatic sections. The all-over effect of the colors of rock and water was stunning.

Floriana asked Alfonso to stop several times as the boat curved in and out of Ponza's highly irregular coastline and she jumped off each time into the dappled water. Splashing about, she urged me to come in. Finally during the third stop I jumped over, gasping at the stinging saltiness of the Mediterranean. Alfonso kept a watchful distance as the two mature signoras called out to each other by singing snatches of Duke Ellington.

The voyage continued its meandering course around Ponza and Alfonso gracefully steered the boat through natural rock arches, into the ruins of Roman fish ponds and under low rock entrances into a series of grottos. The last one, the Grotta degli Smeraldi, required that the canopy be lowered and we were required to lie flat on the raised deck in order to pass under the low arch. Inside, Floriana asked Alfonso to kill the outboard engine.

"Turn over on your back," she said to me. "See the natural dome above?" We lay supine in the darkness with only the vivid line of green light in the water vaguely revealing the rocky ceiling of the chamber. Soon, we found ourselves in a complete, full-voiced rendition of "Summertime," while our guide tried to keep the boat centered in the grotto. The sound attributes of the rocky vault made our voices seem to fill the space and hang there even after the final line. The song died away.

"Ok, ok? Signora?" Alfonso's voice was a little spooked. He started the engine and we moved back through the slit, rimmed with wavering green light at the bottom, into the sunshine.

After our cruise, we walked lazily along the shore to the center of Ponza Town. I asked Floriana if Ponza was mostly popular with Italians. So far, I had heard no English spoken at all.

Adriana considered the question. "Yes, mostly people from Roma, but also a number from Napoli. And some people born here, or parents born here, Ponsese, coming back for vacation each year from New York City."

A slow procession of people passed by us, walking the piazzetta, outfitted in a wide variety of sportswear and bathing suits. The young to middle-aged women seemed committed to imaginatively-wrapped pareos of every description, worn over bikinis. To me, most of the people seemed to be middle class folks enjoying a relaxed, non-trendy holiday. Everyone was smiling and just an occasional person carried the ubiquitous "fonino. There were surprisingly few children or elderly visitors, confirming what Floriana had said earlier.

Staying with Floriana, the days on Ponza took on a an easy routine. A leisurely get-up, coffee on the terrace. A hike down the steep white steps zigzagging to the port below, followed by a stop at the waterside kiosk for newspapers, including international editions brought in by mid-morning ferry. More coffee and cornetti above the wharf at an outdoor cafe like the "Welcome's Bar," again and always with a great view, including the parade of people at leisure.

Eventually, we would take up the decision as to which water adventure to enjoy for the day. My hostess's favorite place to sun and swim was Piana Bianca, a shelf of white rock just up the east side of the island. Typically, she prepared by buying some refreshments for the journey: a liter of acqua minerale and some fruit, then hired a rubber boat to ferry us to this intimate peninsula, backed by spectacular cliffs and lapped by clear and friendly waters. The boat returned in three hours to pick us up, willing strandees who had skipped lunch in favor of grapes and water. After a swim-and-sun experience, we usually had a granit at another cafe in town, perhaps a piece of pizza, then a taxi or little bus back up to the house on Via Sopra Giancos for a shower.

The last order of business on a typical day was the arrangement for dinner. Perhaps it would be at home, with friends bringing fish to cook and/or covered dishes. Or another mind-boggling walk down the hill after sunset for a restaurant dinner of ultra-fresh fish followed perhaps by music in a small cafe. Evenings in town ended with a last taxi ride, top-down in the balmy air, the sky full of stars overhead, up to the house waiting on the hill.

One night, our driver surprised us with a conversation in Bronx-accented English, explaining that his entire family returned to Ponza each summer from their homes in New York City, a not uncommon occurrence. At the end of World War II, water and food shipments to the island were totally disrupted as the Allied invasion unfolded at Anzio. A large number of Ponsese left the island and immigrated to the New York area, where today the official "Association" is headquartered in Dover Plains. The pull of the native island is strong and many Ponsese-Americans return for holidays and eventual retirement to their family homes, still proudly maintained. We soon met one such retire, affectionately known as "Don Antonio," who puttered happily each day in his garden on the hill behind our house, bringing his resident cats leftover pasta. He introduced us to his daughter Josephine, visiting from New York, who showed us through the rambling family villa. The interior was dim and cool, crammed with dark, traditional furniture. "My father counted the days until his retirement so that he could live here again permanently. Now he is content."

In addition to a handful of sea-view hotels and pensiones, Ponza has a fair but not huge number of restaurants, all serving varieties of fish, frequently cooked Neapolitan style. One of the best is Orestorante, a three-level establishment with open-air terrace dining overlooking the harbor and the mountains beyond. Our dinner there began one moonlit night with frutti di mare, an all-fresh assortment of marinated sea food including alici (anchovies), pulpa (octopus), tuna and swordfish. We skipped the pasta course and moved on to plates of island fish broiled and slathered with fresh bits of tomato, garlic and olives. Bread came into play to sop up every bit of the addictive juices.

We combined a swim and lunch one day by walking through the Roman tunnel near town center to one of Ponza's most spectacular beaches. The Chiaia di Luna Cafe couldn't be more seaside; exiting the tunnel, the restaurant is at the left, half inside the rocky cliff and half perched over the water on a timbered deck. The no-frills food is fresh fish prepared simply for a three-course menu of the day. As we lunched, the scene was riveting; the sheer cliffs of Chiaia di Luna surrounding a narrow volcanic strand, colorful with deep green beach umbrellas and sunbathers. In the water, swimmers and snorkelers shared the bay with pedal-boats, rubber rafts and kayaks. Further out, sail boats were moored and beyond them the sun was headed for the horizon. A dramatic place, with a slight sense of danger, as an occasional large wave sprayed against the bottom of the restaurant deck, and we noticed the heavy netting draped over a sizeable area of the cliff above the beach. However infrequently, wind-driven surf and rockslides are a factor as the rules of nature remain paramount on Ponza.

All too speedily, our two weeks together on Ponza were almost over. Floriana would return to work in Rome, and I would accompany her, to spend a few days in the big city. Our last day began with a brisk wind blowing across the island. Rising early for once, I had set up my watercolor supplies outside on the terrace and was happily painting a view of the porto in the morning sunlight. Soon I was having trouble keeping items from blowing away but managed to stick with it. Around ten o'clock Floriana emerged sleepily from the house, still in her robe.

"We have the scirocco," she said matter-of-factly and went back inside.

Within five minutes the blow became engulfing and I hastily gathered up my painting things and retreated inside. I closed the door with difficulty - the warm wind was like an invisible beast. Floriana sat with a cup of coffee, reading yesterday's newspaper.

"I've heard about the scirocco," I said. "Are you sure this is it?"

"It is the wind from the south, from Africa," she shrugged. "Sometimes it lasts for days."

By mid-afternoon, the island's ferry schedule was cancelled. Down in the port, sailors scrambled to secure all of the small boats close to shore. Through the window, we saw the sea patterned with whitecaps and spumed waves crashing against the rocks.

Resisting the idea of feeling trapped, I set up my paints on the kitchen table and spent the rest of that day and the whole of the next working on watercolor still lifes of the interior of Floriana's charming rental house. Flowers in vases, fruit, windows and shutters, a chair with an afghan - very Matisse. Floriana made cell-phone calls to Rome and spent time on the couch reading an anthology of writing by Italian women. We resigned ourselves to at least a two-day delay in our departure from the island. The wind shook the windows and shutters banged. We were grateful for an abundant supply of wine to ease the howling, restless nights.

Three days later, we awoke to hazy blue skies and calm air. The terrace was covered with a layer of fine red sand that we agreed had come from the Sahara. While Floriana went down to buy ferry tickets for the following morning, I swept and cleaned the terrace and the apartment. That afternoon, with sadness, we packed up.

We decided to splurge on our last evening on Ponza and rode in a taxi through the slanting golden light toward Le Forna. The Ristorante il Tramonto, (the Sunset), may be the most romantic dining on Ponza with its fantastic, stand-alone location and beautifully-served cuisine. We were shown to a table on the cliff-edge terrace just as the sun descended behind Palmarola, a smaller island in the near-distance. My breath caught in my throat at the beauty of it. Florianna said that she thought it was the most enchanting sister-island in the Pontine cluster.

"We must go there on your next visit!" she exclaimed gaily. "You can rent a cave to sleep in, on the beach, if you spend the night there." Not likely, I thought. It's tough enough to sleep on Ponza.

Looking around the restaurant, I saw that the tables and banquettes were arranged to create the feeling of seclusion and I half-expected to see a famous movie star or two. Flowering vines created natural dividers between areas, even draping over a piano in the far corner. The host, a friendly young Neapolitan fellow called Tonino, joined us for a toast to the tramontano with flutes of cold prosecco.

Floriana flirted with him, explaining that this was her last night on Ponza - and that of her American friend also, of course. They discussed their mutual love for Ponza and worked their way into favorite music. Finally, the farewell meal was discussed and decided on. I left it to them and blissfully watched the neighbor island become a fantasy silhouette of peaks and spires against the rose and violet sky.

We chose a fresh white Falanghina from Campania to drink throughout the meal, which began with thirteen small white plates of antipasti-to-share, expertly served and whisked away throughout the next half hour. The tidbits included tiny calzone stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella fresca, see-through slices of grilled zucchini and melanzane, aldente wafers of carrot in a parsley sauce, tender pepper strips coated with moist bread crumbs, sweet and pearly alici, and - the total effect was heavenly.

For primi piatti, we chose spaghettini tossed with zucchini and a creamy parmesan, a house specialty, and another pasta dish that presented a mound of tiny clams (vongole) cooked with wine, garlic, bits of cherry tomatoes and parsley atop a bed of linguine. Both dishes were wonderful. Our mutual main course was a whole fish roasted with potato slices, onion and studded with bits of ruby tomato, definitely southern Italian-style. The entire effect of the dish was moist, fresh and comforting. It was a lovely and traditional meal for a last night on the island at the end of August where, despite a sampling of the scirocco, we were able to believe that autumn was on its way - the evening temperature seemed promisingly cooler. We opted to finish our meal with the house-made sorbetto limone, embedded with flecks of lemon zest, a refreshing cleansing for our highly satisfied palates.

Forget the high blown restaurant language - we were friends together on Ponza, we had dined very well, we were happy! As we ended our meal at Il Tramonto, the sky and the sea were black and the lights of il continente, the mainland of Italy, were a tiny string of diamonds faint across the night.

Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2004

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