Living in Ponza, Italy
Published: April 2009
By Helen Schulman
Before she had even set foot on the island of Ponza, Helen Schulman was intent on living like a local in this diminutive Italian paradise.
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.
The four of us stood enthralled and not a little befuddled by the noise and splendor. We’d rented a small apartment in Maria’s Aunt Linda’s boarding house, the Casa Vacanze Rosa Dei Venti. When I’d asked for the address back in New York City, Maria told me that there were no addresses in Ponza. "Just tell the taxi driver you are going to Linda’s," she said. But the docks were flooded with the San Silverio crowds and I had no idea where to find a taxi. Suddenly a handsome middleaged man dressed in white came out of the crowds.
"Are you the Americans?" he said.
I guess it was obvious.
He was Giovanni Mazzella, Maria’s cousin, the doctor. Somehow he found us a cab, paid the driver, and sent us on our way, staying behind himself to watch the festivities. As our driver circled the port, San Silverio and his little boat were launched onto the water. Our cab navigated hairpin turns and skinny roads, steering us through two tunnels carved by the ancient Romans out of the rocky island. It’s dark inside the tunnels, but that didn’t stop whole families with kids in strollers and teenagers on bikes from narrowly passing us and the Vespas and the trucks that jockeyed for space in barely two lanes. I held my breath, only letting it go when we emerged in one piece just as fireworks began exploding over the water at the far end of the harbor. At that moment, I realized that Fellini wasn’t a fantasist, he was a documentarian.
The drive took seven minutes. We were deposited at Aunt Linda’s, mother of the gallant Giovanni, in Santa Maria, the port town’s blocklong suburb. Her home and the boarding house sat on a small beach where boats were repaired in the sand. Next to the boat repair was Silvia’s, a pensione with an openair restaurant under a thatched roof. Down the block was Zanzibar, where the natives get their morning coffee and cornetti. This was the place for gelato and espresso in the afternoon, and in the evening for aperitivi and, from outside tables on the patio, the sunset. After that there was Pizzeria Da Luciano. What else?A pay phone. Docks where suntoasted Germans parked their boats. That was Santa Maria. And for the next week or so, with the laundry on the line, the local dogs, the playing children, the friendly locals, it was home.
The following day, we packed a picnic and boarded the water taxi to Frontone, which Giovanni said was the best family beach on Ponza. Most of the island’s beaches are inaccessible by land unless you are in the mood to rappel. People rent small boats and sail from cove to cove or take these taxis. The Frontone one left Santa Maria every 15 minutes or so and the ride took less than 10; the roundtrip set us back a euro apiece. Frontone is a large, crescentshaped cove with a rocky waterfront and a couple of stands renting lounge chairs and umbrellas. Giovanni had sent us shopping that morning, easy enough here; we just walked through a tunnel and found a latteria with beautiful cheese, a bakery, a vegetable stand. Being such a small island, Ponza imports almost everything, including water. (Huge tankers full of it arrive daily in the main harbor.) At Frontone, if your picnic of newly baked rolls, salumi, figs and apricots, buffalo mozzarella so fresh it weeps milk, and biscotti doesn’t suffice, you can also eat at one of two good restaurants on either end of the cove. And happily, if you are traveling en famille like us, you can scream at your children to your heart’s content along with the Italians: "Raffaeli, Simoni, basta!" What a relief to let my children run wild with these loud, tan beach urchins. My daughter Zoe made a friend, Laura, who spoke no English but had come with her Roman father’s American girlfriend, Gail. So I made a friend, too. In the late afternoon Gail and I stumbled along the rocks to one of the restaurants, treating each other to espresso.
Ponza is really, really tiny. Once we’d met Gail and Laura, we ran into them all the time—at the pizzeria, the openair fruit and vegetable market, the cash machine. There are just two towns (officially they are called "zones"): Ponza, the port, and Le Forna (which is a little larger than Santa Maria), on the island’s other side. One bus loops up and down the main road between them; you flag it down before it goes lumbering by. Le Forna is home to Le Piscine Naturali, a series of grottoes, naturally enclosed pools of ocean water that have collected in lavarock basins. We spent much of our week either there or at Frontone, when we weren’t renting boats for excursions to beaches around the curves of the island. At the Piscine Naturali you have to climb down a steep stone staircase to the water while greatlooking Ponzesi teenagers giggle and smoke on the surrounding cliffs, one of them every so often performing a deathdefying swan dive to impress the others. There’s a "beach" at the bottom of the rocks (also lava), and chairs to rent if the hard surface proves too tough on your vertebrae. It was a bit of a trick sliding into the sea off the rock and past the sea urchins, but then the mindbendingly gorgeous grottoes and caves one swims through to get to the lava pools were well worth the effort. Even a few stings by la medusa (jellyfish) didn’t destroy our pleasure.
On the night Gail’s boyfriend, Luca, arrived for the weekend, he took us all to dinner at his favorite restaurant, Il Tramonto, near his family’s home at one of the highest points on the island. The road got very steep as the taxi made it up the mountain, with Luca, a charming character, stopping the cab now and then to pick us all flowers. When we got out across the street from his house, the road was nearly empty, and with the sun setting, it seemed to lead us straight into a cloud.
Chainsmoking all the way, Luca led Gail and Bruce into the restaurant, but the kids and I hung back. His daughter Laura wanted to take our children with her to a nearby yard to see some baby goats. I hesitated. We were in the middle of nowhere (fabulous nowhere, but nowhere still) on a mountaintop, my kids didn’t speak Italian, Laura spoke no English, they were all eight years old or younger, and, well, we barely knew these nice people. I started trekking along after them when the proprietor of the restaurant emerged, enticing me inside by holding out a glass of Prosecco.
My children. Prosecco. My children. Prosecco.
While I weighed my options the kids disappeared down the road. I took the champagne glass and went inside.
The tables on the terrace of Il Tramonto have the best view in all of Ponza. Across the sea—which was now a warm silver in the dusk, the orange setting sun bleeding its rays into the water—was the uninhabited island Palmarola. We’d been there too, with Gail and Laura, earlier in the week. We’d been warned that Palmarola was even more magnificent than Ponza, which hardly seemed possible, except that it was true.
Now, sitting with Luca and Gail at the tippytop of Ponza, high and happy and about to embark on another fourhour meal, we could see mainland Italy to our right, just above the horizon. The children came back to a table full of food (fried seaweed puffs, anyone?) and totally inebriated parents.
"You can see the shape of the earth from here," said my daughter.
And it was true, even with my head spinning, I could see the planet’s curve.
Finally, it was time to go home. On our last evening, we were invited upstairs to the Mazzellas’ terrace for farewell drinks at six. Giovanni’s gracious wife, Ofelia, fried up two heaping platters of zeppole, one dusted with powdered sugar, the other with cinnamon. She had also baked cakes and slathered them with Nutella and then layered them with more cake, as if they were sandwiches.
That was just the curtainraiser. Coke and chips for the kids. Watermelon. Coffee and wine for the adults. Maria’s Aunt Clara and Uncle Joe were invited, because they speak English. We talked, about New York, where they had lived for 30 years, and about Ponza, where they had come home to retire, and the evening moved deliciously slowly from dessert to wine to more dessert. Then Uncle Joe decided the children needed some ice cream. So we climbed down the stairs and walked a bit further down the alley to Zanzibar, where he bought the kids gelati. Back at the Mazzellas’, Ofelia invited us to stay for dinner (dinner!) and we, of course, accepted.
It was no longer amateur hour. Out came cheese, tuna Ofelia had preserved herself—this took three days—olives, octopus salad, two different kinds of zucchini, a potatoParmesanpancetta pudding that I can only think of as unkosher kugel, and bread. Wine. A pizza. And then the main course.
Langoustine pasta with red sauce. Isaac, our little boy, murmured, "I can’t eat any more," when Ofelia offered him pasta con burro (with butter). What hurt expressions around the table! "Doesn’t he like Italian food?" asked Clara.
It was hard to convince anyone that he was full. He put his head in my lap and began to moan. Next there was fruit, strawberries in sugar syrup, coffee, and God knows what more, and at this point we called it quits. We thanked our hosts profusely and rolled down the stairs to our beds, grateful to the Mazzellas and feeling oddly as if we’d failed them.
In the morning when I woke up, I was still full. I stumbled out onto our patio. There were pots of pink, red, and white geraniums the size of a baby’s head. A little lizard pushed a ball of chocolate cereal we’d spilled from breakfast the morning before across the tile with its nose. I took our laundry off the line and smelled the ocean air in our stiff but clean pajamas, trying to memorize the scent before I folded them and laid them in our suitcases. When I unpacked the bags after we got home, I could still smell the sea salt.
When to Go
The best time to visit is in June or September, before or after the crowds.
From Rome, take a train to Anzio or Formia—or splurge on a taxi ($160 to Anzio; $335 to Formia). Then board a ferry or hydrofoil to Ponza. Roundtrip prices are between $40 and $80; the rides take 45 minutes to 21/2 hours. For schedules and information, go to caremar.it or vetor.it.
Don’t look for addresses on Ponza—few exist. Just ask a local or tell your taxi driver where you’re going.
Where to Stay
Agenzia Immobilevante For villa and apartment rentals. 390771/820083; immobilevante.it; prices start at $337.
Casa Vacanze Rosa Dei Venti Now owned by Giovanni Mazzella. Via Spiaggia S. Maria; 390771/801559 (ask for Ofelia); doubles from $107.
Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna Not far from the port; great beach views. Via Panoramica; 390771/80113; hotelchiaiadiluna.com; doubles from $324.
Villa Laetitia Anna Fendi Venturini’s B&B in a 1920’s house. Via Scotti; 390771/809886; villalaetitia.it; doubles from $310.
Where to Eat
Pensione Silvia Via Spiaggia S. Maria; 390771/80075; dinner for two $108.
Ristorante Il Tramonto The most romantic spot in the world. End of discussion. Via Campo Inglese, Le Forna; 390771/808563; dinner for two $135.
What to Do
The Feast of San Silverio is in the third week of June. A boat to Frontone beach leaves every 15 minutes or so from the port in Santa Maria. For the Piscine Naturali, take the bus from the town of Ponza to Le Forna and walk down to the grottoes.