For years what I knew about Sperlonga fit on a postcard, and that postcard came from my uncle. He rented a summer apartment in the fishing village of Sperlonga in the mid-seventies, taking refuge in a place not at all like Rome, where he worked as a screenwriter for Dino De Laurentiis, among others, or New York, where I was growing up. Sperlonga sat high on a promontory above the Mediterranean, a whitewashed, almost Greek-looking town that on the postcard seemed to have been carved out of soap. Below the cliff was a white-sand beach crowded with umbrellas, bathing huts, and men and women in Italian—i.e., immodest—bathing suits. Benvenuti a Sperlonga! It was as close as I got to la dolce vita before it became a cliché.
The other thing I knew about Sperlonga was that almost no one there had a phone. To reach my uncle you called Michelangelo, who ran the trattoria La Siesta down the street, and was always happy to help. In Italy, family—even someone else's—comes first, and besides, the town liked writers—Natalia Ginzburg and The New Yorker's Janet Flanner summered there.
In the early eighties, I went for myself. My uncle warned me it had all changed. Women no longer spread their laundry on the rocks to dry. There were telephones and televisions. Michelangelo was going into real estate. But when I got there, I wasn't disappointed. Far from it. Here was a fantastical vertical village, with streets like staircases, and many places where, if you walked too far, you'd almost fall into the Mediterranean. The foreigners there were stranded English countesses and Hollywood ingenues from Ernst Lubitsch's day. My uncle had told me about a fake nun, a woman betrayed in love who dressed in full habit, and there she was, still courteously referred to by her neighbors as sorella—"sister." When the wind blew, the whole town seemed to hum. There is a lovely passage in the Aeneid in which Aeneas's fleet passes by these shores and is nearly lured to its destruction by the bewitching voice of Circe. That's Sperlonga, otherworldly and a bit eerie.
So now it's almost two decades later and my turn to worry. There are tchotchkes for sale along the ancient stone walls. Michelangelo's rental agency is listed on the Web. In high season, the beaches are packed. Still, this is a town that looks and acts much as it always has. The old women wear black and speak an Arabic- and French-heavy dialect. To buy anything more elaborate than a lightbulb, you still have to drive 13 miles to the town of Formia. Every morning your jam-filled croissants come from the bakery Fiorelli on Via San Rocco. In the best restaurants—Gli Archi and La Siesta in Sperlonga and Laoconte in Sperlonga Mare, the add-on town that spreads like a landing field below the mother ship—you are served whatever the fishing boats have just brought in: spigola, cefalo, fragolino. Wonderful words. Three times a year by local ordinance the women whitewash the town walls. The men, mostly former fishermen, do what they always do—drink wine and play a fast card game called scopa at Bar Trani, in business on the main piazza for more than a century.
Sperlonga's two beaches remain among the cleanest stretches of white sand on the Italian coast. In season the waterfront is dominated by five very competitive beach clubs. My uncle taught me the virtues of Rocco's. Its squadron of blue-and-white-striped umbrellas was the first, plus it has good food. In the old days this is where I would page my uncle, at his sedulously secured umbrella in the front row. To Europeans, beaches are like parking lots: you have to pay for a space. But there are a few sections here where you can spread out without paying. Kayaks, sailboards, and catamarans can be rented on the south beach, next to the Grotta di Tiberio, a cavern surrounded by the excavated remnants of a villa where the Roman emperor liked to lay over on the way to and from his summer palace on Capri.
The cave adjoins an oddly antiseptic museum devoted to sculptures found on the site. There's a reflecting pool beside which Tiberius liked to sit and stare out toward the neighboring island of Ponza. Another piece of local history is depicted on a wall mural in an Old Town courtyard. It portrays the town's darkest day, August 8, 1534, when the Saracen warlord Khayr ad-Din Barbarossa sacked Sperlonga in an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap the beautiful Countess Giulia Gonzaga for his sultan's harem. In the picture there are rowing men, fighting men, bleeding men, women about to be carried off. The Sperlongani never forgot the lesson: Outsiders are not to be trusted. Four centuries later, in the 1950's, when the first paved road was proposed, townspeople were dead against it. Those who want to see us badly enough, they reasoned, can come by boat or by donkey.
Ultimately Highway 213, a.k.a. the Via Flacca, was built anyway, and the drive from Rome was reduced to two hours. In summer a bus connects Sperlonga with the train stations in nearby Formia and Fondi. But it's worth having a car (rent one in Naples or Rome) to see the hilly countryside, the water buffalo tilling the fields, the tomatoes on the vines. And to take day trips: Sermoneta, 40 miles northwest, is a perfectly preserved medieval hilltop town with wonderful chamber music concerts in the summer. Eleven miles northwest, Terracina, all yellow and red-tiled roofs, was once as rich and powerful as Sperlonga was poor and isolated. Or you can go southeast to Gaeta; due to wartime bombing, it's not all pretty, but its port is lined with good restaurants. Try Mediterraneo and trust the waiter, not the menu—this goes for anywhere in the Lazio province; the cooking is simple and dependent on what's fresh.
When I last visited Sperlonga I got to know Armando Cusani, the 30-ish mayor. Cusani is a descendant of one of the town's oldest families, but if Sperlonga has a new face, his is it. He returns calls. He'll meet you on a Saturday. He knows his budget. This is all very un-Italian. His administration has installed a state-of-the-art seawater filtration system. It has set up new parking lots. It is working on the hotel shortage. "People want to come here," he says, a bit less reluctantly than I or my uncle would like. "We cannot keep them out."
The Hotel lowdown
Staying in Sperlonga is tricky. The center of town has two hotels, both simple and clean if a bit frowsy: Residence Florenza (3 Via Ottaviano; 39-0771/54260; doubles $605 per week), 14 rooms with kitchens and ocean views; and 13-room Il Corallo (3 Corso S. Leona; 39-0771/54060; doubles $77). A dozen comfortable places line the nearby coast. One to consider: Hotel Aurora (15 Via C. Colombo; 39-0771/549-266; doubles $126). If luxury is a priority, follow the speeding Romans to the Hotel Punta Rossa (57 Via delle Batterie; 39-0773/548-085; doubles $302 with breakfast and dinner), about 20 miles north of Sperlonga outside pretty San Felice Circeo, the Malibu of these parts. You can also rent an apartment by the week. Contact Michelangelo (39-0771/546-000, fax 39-0771/549-784) or check out the English-language weekly Wanted in Rome (www.wantedinrome.com). Or just walk into Bar Trani and ask.
D.T. Max is a contributing editor to the Paris Review.