San Felice Circeo: An Italian Intermezzo
Published: April 2009
By Gregor von Rezzori
It was the setting for a sentimental hiatus, an interlude between two love stories - a hotel on the mountainside, overlooking the sea . . .
The historical events that temporarily forced much of Europe's population into a nomadic life did not spare me; it took me a lifetime to settle down. Now I live in Tuscany, in a wilderness of abandoned vineyards, olive groves, and brushwood. In summertime, stern cypresses cast their shadows over the flames of broom and the air dances in the sunlight while the insistent sawing of cicadas keeps the world in a strange balance of tension and lull; in the winter, storms angrily shake the olive trees and make me a prisoner in my studio in the barn. My wife owns a beautifully restored captain's house on a Greek island where the olive trees are twice as big and many times older, and our playground is nothing less than the cerulean vastness of the Aegean Sea.
I love both places tenderly, and it seems a sin not to name either as my favorite. There are others I treasure in my memory as well: the settings of episodes in the personal myth of my own history, places that brought my heart to heftier beating and made me feel more alive. Still, I think instead of another place, one not marked by its meaning in the drama of my emotional life. On the contrary: it was the site of a sentimental hiatus, a place of serenity — an interlude between two love stories. It is a hotel by the sea, on the foot of a promontory, the Capo Circeo, that shoots up from the flat coast halfway between Rome and Naples.
Classical scholars will tell you that, according to legend, Ulysses was stranded near here and fell under the spell of the wicked sorceress Circe, who transformed her enchanted suitors into pigs. I, on the other hand, was running away from the noisy charms of Rome, where I lived at the time, seeking solitude, silence, the paradoxically clean foul smell of the sea in the breeze that caresses the coast. It was early autumn, and southern Italy, an enticement at any time, promised to be mild and fresh as well, with just a trace of glorious melancholy in the air.
I steered my car leisurely on secondary roads along the seaboard until, after passing the sandy town of Sabaudia, I came to a mountain whose ledge fell harsh into the sea. In order to continue I had to drive around it. Nestled on the mountain's southern flank was a small medieval town, San Felice Circeo. I liked it at first sight.
On the tiny piazza, the usual loitering pensionati looked at me with unconcerned curiosity. They had the weather-beaten faces of mariners and fishermen. When I asked them for a place to stay overnight, they took their time answering. Well, there were several hotels down at the beach, on the road toward Terracina, but they would be shut at this time of year, the summer tourists having gone home. I might try one in the other direction, on the slope of the mountain where a few villas stood amidst the pinewood — I couldn't miss it, the road doesn't go any farther: the hotel Punta Rossa.
It wasn't that easily found, however. The buildings lay hidden behind pines, lush laurels, and oleander. Set on terraces along the mountainside, they were linked by zigzagging flights of steps. An abundance of flower-sprouting pots and vases set off the neat, pseudo-Spanish architecture. The hotel was working full-swing — suites available, double and single rooms, a restaurant, bar, and nightclub. And there was another lure: scattered among the pines were small bungalows to be rented for longer sojourns. I inspected one and found it a delight: it had a garden, a drawing room, a bedroom, a large bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and a terrace. I took it for a month and stayed for nearly two years.
It was perhaps the happiest time of my bachelor life. The bungalow fitted a writer's needs ideally: the hours flowed by quietly and seemed inexhaustible. Nobody disturbed me. I had the hotel service at my disposal, yet I could cook meals myself in my kitchen. The butcher in San Felice Circeo was excellent; for some secret reason he was boycotted by the local trattorias and was only too eager to sell me his choicest meat. When I got up early enough — which meant 5 a.m. at the latest — I could get fish, still alive, from the fishermen at the beach.
The climate was mild year-round. In summer, the evening breeze that came down from the mountain cooled the air and brought me the fragrance of pines and cork oaks, of thyme and mint and rosemary, while I sat on my terrace. I looked up at the splendid stars and listened to the music from the nightclub on Saturdays and Sundays. I never went there to join the merry weekend crowd from Rome - not that I was shy.
I indulged in the role of the secretive recluse.
My passion at that time was waterskiing; one could comfortably endure the waters until deep into October. Every morning Luigi, who rented out his boat, waited for me at the landing where the other guests took their sunbaths and swam. In juvenile vanity (I was in my fifties then) I would don my skis and show off my skill, jetting up walls of water while leaning nearly horizontal atop the waves — a much-talked-about daily apparition, I imagined, of the romantic writer-eremita who avoided contact with the frivolous crowd.
My ambition was to water-ski to Ponza, the lovely island a dozen miles out in front of us. I wonder whether I would have achieved a record had I done it — anyhow, I never did. But I went often by boat to Ponza and swam there beside the cliffs whose unique geological formation has colored them in all shades from shrill yellow to pitch black. And I ate unforgettable frutti di mare at the trattorias around the small harbor. Ponza was famous for its seafood even in Roman times, and you can still see the vast basin in which the emperors fed their slaves to moray eels in order to make the eels fat and tender. "You can imagine wicked Caligula doing such a thing," said Luigi, with whom I shared delicious spaghetti alle vongole, "but the great Tiberius was the one who chose the juiciest slaves for the voracious beasts!"
For all its isolation, the Punta Rossa is a place from which you can easily get anywhere else in southern Italy. I would drive to Naples, to Amalfi, and deep into the Abruzzi, where time seemed to have stood still for centuries. And of course I wrote a lot, too. Can a writer wish for better?
Then love bade me welcome, and the days of blissful insouciance were over. But now and then — every death of a pope, as the Italians say — I go back to the Punta Rossa, out of gratitude for a time that gave me the feeling life was entirely worth living.
It hasn't changed much since my days: a few more villas in the surrounding hills, a few more people on holiday, a few more cars on the road that still ends there. Yet every time I see my bungalow again, bedded in roses, laurel, and bougainvillea, I take its image away with me as a token of sheer bliss.
For GREGOR VON REZZORI, who wrote this month's "My Favorite Place," picking a single spot was a challenge. The Romanian-born writer has lived a life of constant motion; he now spends most of his time in Tuscany, New York, and Rhodes. But it was a small hotel in Italy—and his sojourn there years ago—that stood out most in his memory. Rezzori has written more than 20 books, including the acclaimed Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and last year's Anecdotage (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).