Italy on the road
Ponza and the Pontine Islands: sea, taste, and history
A handy travel guide to discover the splendid islands located between Naples and Rome
Faraglioni, enchanting beaches, a sea perfect for snorkelling, archaeological sites, traditional dishes: Ponza, less than 10 km² of land just off the coast of Lazio is a true wonderland to discover.
The small archipelago of the Pontine Islands (also called the Ponziane Islands) is a remote corner of Italy where the climate is still extremely pleasant in September and October, and there are far fewer crowds than in August.
In fact, some of the islands are never really crowded: only Ponza and Ventotene are inhabited, the others, Gavi, Zannone, Palmarola and Santo Stefano, are uninhabited and are thus even more fascinating.
So here is a summary of all the information that could be useful for a break away from Rome on the islands that the ancient Romans used as a place of exile for dissidents, until they realised that, perhaps, they were too beautiful not to holiday there.
How to reach Ponza?
First of all, it is important to figure out which island to choose as a starting point; the most convenient and best equipped is obviously Ponza, that can be reached comfortably by ferry (which also allows cars to embark but is slower) or by hydrofoil (a passenger-only service). There are so many options, the harbours for embarking to Ponza are 5: Anzio, Terracina, Formia, San Felice Circeo and Naples. Although it is still better to dedicate several days to the islands, you can also organise a day trip from Rome, thanks to the easy organised tours.
What to eat in Ponza and the Pontine Islands?
The influence of the mainland is noticeable on the islands, so you can find all the typical dishes of the Lazio region, from pasta all’amatriciana to the tasty Saltimbocca alla Romana
However, the island’s cuisine holds many surprises: apart from fish, which is always the protagonist of a seafood cuisine, here legumes are strongly linked to tradition and are often included in dishes with shellfish or fish. This may seem unusual, but lentil soup is one of the comfort food dishes of the Ponza people.
One cannot leave the archipelago without having tasted linguine with lobster, spaghetti alla granseola (with crab) and above all rabbit alla ponzese, with bay leaves, cherry tomatoes, onion, and wine. Simple dishes, cooked the old-fashioned way.
Desserts, instead, curiously take their inspiration from Neapolitan tradition: the casatiello and zeppola ponzese are almost exactly like Neapolitan recipes.
What to see in Ponza and the islands of the archipelago?
Choosing between beaches, coves and viewpoints is really difficult, because the islands are rich and interesting. So here are the best ones for each island.
The largest and most populated, it has many beaches, accessible either on foot or by boat. Those to the west are best visited in the afternoon to enjoy the sunsets and the view of Palmarola. Cala Feola is a sandy beach that, besides being beautiful, was a favourite spot for monk seals in winter until the 1960s.
The most visited is definitely Chiaia di Luna, named after the bright cliff protecting it. A free beach, reached through a 170-metre-long tunnel from Roman times.
The influence of Roman history is clearly noticeable here: the Grotte di Pilato is one of the most picturesque swimming and snorkelling spots and consists of five caves carved into the tuff, connected by underwater tunnels that were – most likely – used for breeding moray eels. However, this is just one curious corner of Roman history: there are also cisterns and archaeological finds on the island.
Also, not to be missed are the Lucia Rosa Faraglioni, which, apart from their beauty, carry with them a bittersweet legend.
A paradise for divers and snorkelling enthusiasts – thanks to the seabed to the west, in the marine protected area – it is also a destination for those who love to be on the beach. Here the colour of the sand is black, and the volcanic origin of the island is revealed. Calarossano, Parata Grande and Cala Nave are the main beaches where one can relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the island. Of course, they should be avoided if the wind is not tolerated, as its name derives from the intense breeze that perpetually beats the shores.
Nobody lives permanently on Palmarola: only in the summer are those who enjoy peace and quiet. No restaurant list to choose from when visiting (there is only one!) and this island is the absolute embodiment of the overused word ‘wild’. Quite simply, it has stood the test of time and its nature remains intact. There are no interesting constructions because nature has already made something that is far better: circumnavigating the island, it is impossible not to be speechless when faced with the marvellous Palmarola Cathedrals, natural caves carved into the rock that look like a Gothic church.
The island is a nature reserve of the Circeo National Park and, except for the forest police who are there on duty, the island is completely uninhabited. But this was not always the case.
You can visit the remains of a Cistercian monastery and an ancient Roman fish market, although it was in the 1960s that the island became really famous for some gruesome ‘red light’ stories. Nowadays, however, it has recovered its original state and is once again an oasis of peace, with no inhabitants except wild mouflon and migratory birds. Also nesting here are the cory’s shearwater and manx shearwater, two birds that with their lamenting song probably inspired the legend of the sirens’ wailing. A small, unknown island, but with a history that has been intriguing since the mists of time.