I’d been dozing on and off since the hydrofoil pulled away from Anzio, a coastal town an hour’s train ride from Rome. Despite the boat’s loud hum, the Tyrrhenian Sea was so calm the ride proved lulling. Now a chorus of ship and smallcraft horns woke me with a start. Were the angels themselves—very loud, obtrusive angels—heralding our arrival?
Ponza. I could see it outside my window. What a shocking interruption of all that serene blue water, with its high white cliffs and craggy brown rocks, surrounded by soldiering stalagmites rising from the sea like something from a Mediterranean version of a Yes album cover. This remote, tiny volcanic atoll had been a penal colony once, for banished Christians in the days of the Roman Empire and, more recently, antifascists, some of whom so loved the island they returned as residents when the postwar government came to its senses and released them.
Through thick and scratchy Plexiglas, the island looked both impossible to scale (unless you were SpiderMan or a mountain goat) and yet inviting. Ponza’s terraced slopes were carpeted with tidy vineyards and tangled ginestra, wild gorse bushes lit up with yellow flowers. The hills were dotted with modest villas, two and three stories high, painted in edible Neapolitan colors.
As the hydrofoil docked, we could see the port town, a threetiered crescent of cobblestoned esplanades climbing the hillside, like a wide smile. The small harbor was full of large ferries, showy yachts, sailboats, speedboats, little inflatables with dinky outboard motors, and even a few rowboats jockeying for space—all of these boats, it seemed, loaded with partying, picnicking passengers, tooting their horns in raucous counterpoint. We’d been promised a warm welcome, but this was ridiculous. My husband, Bruce, grabbed my hand and grinned.
I’d never heard of Ponza until Maria Romano, a graduate student in a fiction workshop I taught at the New School, in New York City, began to write about the fishing isle of her birth. From Maria I learned that Ponza had once been owned by only a handful of families, and even today it is still guarded carefully from the fate of overdeveloped Capri and the French Riviera. The Ponzesi let the summering, weekending Romans and Neapolitans come in by ferry, and they come in droves—the population swells from 3,100 to 20,000 in July and August. But residents are also adept at keeping most of the rest of the world out. The European yacht owners just drop anchor and sunbathe off their decks; the vacationing Italians rent villas or stay in guesthouses; there’s a smattering of small hotels. In the high season vacationers with shallower pockets may find themselves renting a cot set up in a Ponzesi living room. Wealthy or not, these smart people come to Ponza to swim and boat, to snorkel and scuba dive, to bask in the island’s beauty. They sit in cafés and eat pastry and drink wine and flirt with one another. They buy overpriced sandals and pretty local jewelry in a handful of shops and spend hours in the trattoria and ristorante eating the world’s freshest seafood. I was determined to be one of them.
We arrived on the last day of the Feast of San Silverio, the martyred patron saint of Ponza—hence all that hornblowing. Maria had mentioned the feast, but I was unprepared for the wave of humanity that greeted us, a fullfledged processional heading down to the water. At the head of the parade were children dressed in white firstcommunion clothes carrying a lifesize Christ upon a cross. Behind them was a local marching band, then what looked like 50 Italian widows in their Sunday dresses, singing a mournful song. Pulling up the rear was an effigy of San Silverio himself, in a little boat strewn with roses, being carried on a few men’s shoulders to the sea, to bless the lives of the fishermen.