On the island of the sorceress Circe in autumn
PONZA -- Autumn is the prime season to explore this enchanting island. The water retains the lingering warmth of summer, turning swimming into a pleasure rather than just a respite from the heat. We find ourselves in the crystalline, pure waters of the sea, surrounded by steep cliffs, yet only a stone's throw away from Rome. Once uninhabited for 1700 years, from the time of the Romans to the Bourbons, today the island exudes a wild charm that captivates all who visit. Could it be that Ulysses was drawn to this place more than to the enchantments of the sorceress Circe? This treasure at Rome's doorstep can be reached year-round by ferry or hydrofoil from ports like San Felice Circeo, Formia, Anzio, Terracina, and Naples.
However, once you're here, Rome will seem like a distant galaxy: the island's rocky walls astonish with volcanic bubbles, lava cuts, and wind-sculpted curves. You can admire the same sinuous lines that the Ancient Romans beheld. It was also a place of confinement for prominent political prisoners like Pertini, Terracini, Zaniboni, and even World War 2 dictator Benito Mussolini, who spent some days here before Hitler set him up in the Nazi puppet state of the Republic of Salò. For diving enthusiasts or those seeking the "baptism of the sea," autumn offers breathtaking underwater landscapes and blue descents, free from mass tourism. Exploring the coves, you'll uncover groupers, breams, octopuses, moray eels, chromis, damselfish, and scorpionfish. The luckiest might even spot lobster, crayfish, dentex, amberjack, tuna, and other pelagic species. Sponges, spiral worms, and bryozoans, including sea roses and false corals, are also abundant.
But it's the wrecks that truly beckon underwater exploration, bearing witness to Ponza's role as an important stop in Mediterranean trade from the 6th century B.C. Among the iconic wrecks, the best-preserved lies at Punta Papa, 24 M deep, where a landing ship tank from World War II rests after crashing into the rocks and sinking. Split into two sections, the bow rests at 26 M depth, appearing as if still in navigation against a backdrop of white sand. The covered deck with impressive encrustations and large spiral worms lies at accessible depths, even for beginners. The stern, 100 M away, remains well-preserved. It's recommended to entrust your dive to Odissey Diving, guided by Andrea Musella, a Milanese young man with an intriguing life story who has made the island his home.
As summer ends, Ponza transforms into a trekker's haven at various levels. For a simple stroll from the port, you can reach Chiaia di Luna Bay, where Bourbon-era constructions stand atop ancient Roman ruins. To retrace the steps of the ancient Romans, from Grottone di Pascarella, a passage between historic buildings on Corso Carlo Pisacane, follow Via Corridoio, turning left, where a small shrine to the Madonna of Pompeii stands—a symbol of Carlo III's gesture in 1734 when he granted the island's land in emphyteusis to the settlers.
Climb up along the ancient necropolis of Bagno Vecchio to Mount Guardia, the island's most panoramic point, with views of Palmarola islet and the lighthouse of Monte della Guardia and Punta Fieno.
A longer, 14-km route takes you from the port to the island's northern tip at Cala Caparra. This route leads to the Pianoro of Punta d'Incenso, one of the few flat areas on Ponza.
Breathtaking cliff views reward the hike, bringing you to the extreme north of the promontory, 125 M above sea level, where you can gaze upon the islets of Gavi, Zannone, and Cala Felce. Along the way, you might encounter the remains of a Cistercian monastery constructed by Benedictine monks between the 1100s and 1200s, lending its name to the locale due to its "Cistercian" origins.
Exiting the main port, you encounter the "Grotte di Pilato" or "Pilate's Caves," hewn from the rock to create a breeding ground for moray eels in Roman times. High above, you'll find the Bourbon tower, the ancient prison that operated from the 1600s through the Fascist era. Just a quarter-hour from the village center, this island is both inhospitable and warm-hearted. For 1700 years, it lay uninhabited, from Roman times to the Bourbons, serving as a penal colony for centuries. Today, its wild charm enchants visitors. Could it be that Ulysses was drawn to this place more than to Circe? This treasure near Rome, reachable by ferry or hydrofoil, was forgotten for centuries. Hence, its waters remain crystal clear, and its rocks still surprise with volcanic bubbles, lava cuts, and wind-sculpted curves. You can admire the same sinuous lines that the Ancient Romans gazed upon. The coves where, according to legend, the sorceress Circe would rest are also there.
The island's inhabitants, accustomed to the challenges of island life, welcome vacationers with the pure and sincere smiles of those who, after a long winter, prepare to welcome the rest of the world to their island. Proud to showcase its wild beauty. From the harbour, two restaurants stand ready, with their local specialties and pastel-colored houses -- Orestoria, frequented by VIPs and royalty for its squid ink pasta, and "stracquo," a reuse of whatever the sea brings ashore, and the Michelin-starred Acqua Pazza by Chef Gino Pesce, with tables hanging over the blue sea.
Rock formations and archaeological sites scatter across this Mediterranean pearl, steeped in legend.
The best way to experience Ponza is by boat. Easily rent a dinghy for the day from Odissey Diving, accompanied by a Milanese young man. Andrea Musella, who made the island his home post-pandemic.
Alternatively, organize an outing that includes Palmarola Island with Cooperativa Ponzese, complete with a boat spaghetti feast overlooking the cliffs. Just outside the main port, the Blue Grotto or Polifemo's Grotto comes alive with dawn's sunlight, thanks to a double underwater opening that naturally tints the water blue. Perched on the cliff, overlooking the sea, is the family-run Hotel Bellavista.
Next, you arrive at the Bagni Vecchi or the so-called Penal Baths, tufaceous quarries where convicts once toiled, given that for centuries, Ponza was used as a penal colony by the Bourbons.
The island's most significant beach, Chiaia di Luna, is dominated by the namesake hotel, among the most charming on the island. Originally accessible through tunnels dug by the Romans, it's now impassable due to the risk of cliff falls. However, the panorama remains one of the island's most enchanting features. At the bay's end, Capo Bianco rises with its stark profile, leading to the Pontine Turkish Steps.
The sight of the sea stacks comes into view, where the young Lucia Rosa, a local noblewoman, committed suicide after being prevented from marrying a fisherman she deeply loved.
Cala Feola is a must-stop, both for its sandy cove and the unique prickly pear parmigiana at La Marina restaurant. The island's northern tip, known as the Habitat of Incense, is ideal for trekking with views of Palmarola, Gavi, and Zannone islands and to discover various species of ginestra, including a rare autochtonous variety. Amid the Mediterranean panorama, the characteristic terraced vineyards stand out.
Only four local producers cultivate these challenging yet captivating places: Casale del Giglio, Antiche Cantine Migliaccio, Marisa Taffuri, and the recently established Cantina Tre Venti.
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