Ponza: the isle of isles

Even compared to the thousands of other jewels in Italy’s crown, the island of Ponza shines with a blazing light, and not only because of the striking whiteness of much of its rock. So much beauty and wonder is enclosed within these few square kilometers of land: historic ruins, panoramas that rob you of your breath, and even traces of humankind make for an island not only unique, but irreplaceable. It’s hardly surprising that Ponza has been used as a set for dozens of films, long and short, documentaries, TV series… Books have been written on the place, both essays and fiction, and the internet is awash with images of its most romantic corners.

Ponza has always been inhabited. The 21 miles of sea between the island and the coast are not hard to cross, as evidence from the Neolithic period attests. But it was the ancient Greeks – who gave it the name of Pontos, meaning “sea” – and the Romans who made it a fulcrum of their activities. Initially a colony, the Romans rewarded it for its service by conferring upon it the prestigious status of a Roman city. Numerous patrician villas sprang up, built by rich families who already appreciated the island’s stunning beauty, mild climate, and the richness of its soil and subsoil. Sadly, the island’s people never quite realized how lucky they were, especially when it came to archaeological remains. Over the centuries, the villas were stripped and the stone used to build new houses, sometimes even on the very same site. Until very recently, nobody paid any attention to this heritage, which had been almost entirely lost. Only a few stones remain of a couple of villas; there are still the two echoey tunnels, which cars drive through today. There’s a short stretch of an aqueduct, some water cisterns, and a mysterious Mithraeum – a Mithraic temple – buried deep beneath a modern building. Whatever the depredations of time, we can still see the pools that were used for raising fish: moray eels in particular, which the Romans absolutely loved.

Ponza outlived the Roman Empire, which fell by the wayside. It survived thanks to its isolation, and enjoyed relative peace and prosperity until the second millennium, when it became the target of Saracen pirates. From about 1200 onwards, Ponza’s history becomes complex and tortured, as the island endlessly changes hands, especially between those of its abbeys. But in the eighteenth century the island became what it is today. After two centuries of sea raids, which had almost driven the entire population away, Naples’ Bourbon rulers reinvigorated it by settling 52 Ischian families, ancestors of most of Ponza’s modern population. A vast project of public works got underway, helmed by Antonio Winspeare and Francesco Carpi, who gave us the port that we now have today; though we must remember that they used the labour of hundreds of convicts destined for prison. The island remained under Bourbon rule until 1861, when it was annexed by the new Kingdom of Italy.

Ponza has also suffered several blows to its landscapes, thanks to the presence of materials like bentonite in its subsoil; and mining has changed some of its most beautiful coves forever. Despite this, sailing around Ponza today is still an adventure of otherworldly beauty and delight: from the island’s inhabited side, with the gleaming stone of the abandoned quarries, to its best-known beach, Chiaia di Luna (meaning “moonlight”). A strip of sand like no other, Chiaia di Luna runs beneath an incredibly high cliff, and can be reached only by sea or by an ancient culvert. Even then, the beach has its dangers, with stone often falling from the sheer rockface. Sometimes, visits to the beach are forbidden altogether.

Ponza is small, but it doesn’t convey a sense of pokiness. Its ridge reaches 280 meters above sea level, and if you climb to the top of it, you’ll be rewarded with views that you’ll never forget.