Prison Or Paradise?
February 11, 2009. CBS News.
“Three men and three women have just spent two weeks living in pods 30 feet under the Tyrrhenian Sea.”
The six divers were reported to have spent 70 percent of their daytime hours in the water, the remaining time in four diving bells anchored to the sea floor in a bay on the Italian Island of Ponza.
“Why?” you might ask.
Well, the diving is supposed to be spectacular here. And Ponza, along with its neighboring island of Ventotene, has a long history as a place of exile and imprisonment. But the reason you’re here is because this may be one of the last undiscovered (except by Italians and they don’t come until July) islands in the Mediterranean. In fact, the island’s natural beauty above the waterline makes one wonder why anyone would want to spend two weeks under it.
The Sorceress And The Seductress
Ponza is said to be the island once named Aeaea (pronounced as written … aeaea), winter home of Circe, a goddess of magic described in Homer’s Odyssey as “the loveliest of all immortals”. Her particular skill was to lure men into an advanced state of enchantment, then turn them into animals. Whisk. Just like that! Odysseus was, of course, able to foil her scheme and turn her skills to his advantage in finding his way back to Ithaca.
The Emperor Augustus, who often vacationed in Ponza, had a very naughty daughter, Julia. Her behavior led to a series of embarrassing trysts with high-ranking Romans, which led her father to exile this wayward child to nearby Ventotene. She was sequestered in a sumptuous villa separated from the island’s population by a DMZ of sorts, across which no man was to venture under pain of death. Or worse. She died there ten years later having, it is said and against all odds, borne a child. Clever girl, this Julia.
La Lucia And Il Duce
There were other folks of note, as well. La Lucia, for one. An early symbol of women’s rights in Italy, she was the nineteenth century heroine named Lucia Rosa. She was in love with a simple farmer but promised to a wealthy merchant by her unromantic father. Lacking the tools today’s teenage girls have to stand up to unflinching parental pressure, she threw herself into the sea off the northwest side of the island and that was tragically that.
Fast forward to the 20th century. Ponza’s long history of isolation and detention made it the inevitable favorite as a prison for political opponents of Benito Mussolini and his fascist regime. Appropriately, Il Duce himself was imprisoned here for a brief time after his arrest and before his undignified execution.
The Name Game
Luckily, Ponzites have made it easy to relive these moments of its turgid past by naming various points of interest after the protagonists of these melodramas. On your way to see the Lucia Rosa Stacks marking the spot of her swan dive, or Circe’s Grotto (Grotta della Maga Circe on the road signs), you might meander past Ulysses’ Cave, Madonna Cliffs, Pilatus’ Caves (after Pontius Pilate), or Pope’s Point (Punta Del Papa) and wonder what fascinating stories might have led to their immortalization in the island’s topography.
That topography is, of course, what makes Ponza the paradise that draws all those Italians who’ve discovered its charms. Leave it to these handsome Italians to know charm when they see it. The crenellated shoreline hides a grotto, a cave, a craggy cliff, or a spectacularly private, reachable-only-by-boat beach around every corner. In fact, the best way to “do” the island is probably by boat. They’re numerous and captained by locals anxious to please. If you’ve had enough of the sea at this point, there is a convenient road from Ponza Town in the south to La Forna, the island’s only other town, in the north. But don’t drive yourself because the stunning views will distract you as you wind around the twisty roads.
Like so many seaside communities that have become off-the-beaten-path retreats for Romans, Neapolitans and Milanese, Ponza is a study in the contrasts that make these port towns so… Italian. From the working-class fishing fleet in the harbor, a few streets up into the town will bring you face to face with shops featuring the same toney brands you’d find on Rome’s Via Veneto. The town abounds with restaurants and hotels featuring drop-dead views and delightful consumables. A drink on one of the pool terraces at the Grand Hotel Chiaia de Luna is its own reward. The island produces its own wine from a region called Punta Fieno, which is the natural accompaniment for the island’s tempting cuisine. Try the lenticchie alla ponzese (lentil soup), followed by rabbit, topped off with the seafood special that could only be featured in a paradise with such a dark side—Moray eel. Buon appetito!
Karyn L. Planett