29 October 2012

Island escapism: Ventotene

Balcony view, Ventotene
I am sitting on a shiny-tiled seaside terrace in the sunshine, with the wind rustling the pot plants beside me. Across the sparkling, frothing blue water is a rocky, green-topped island, and distant beyond that, Ischia in the mist. At the foot of the cliff below me is a curving beach of dark sand. Several smoothed rock outcrops stick out of the waves nearby; one has a flight of steps carved in the tufa and another has a clump of Roman ruins on its top. I've just eaten a marvellous slice of courgette-topped pizza from an Aladdin's cave of a bakery, and I am contemplating the imminent ferry journey home. I don't want to leave and it's not just the choppy sea conditions which are deterring me. I am on the little Italian island of Ventotene and I want to stay here. If not indefinitely, then at least for several more days, to relax into the island's rhythms.
It is late September, the end of the tourist season; the islanders are friendly and there is a cameraderie among visitors. We exchange happy smiles and greetings, sharing our luck in being here and knowing this secret.
Inside the prison, Santo Stefano
Ponza, the largest of the Pontine islands, is a summer resort for modern-day Romans, while the more southerly Ventotene is a little jewel with a more select appeal. There is not a great deal to do, but sea, boats and ruins make an appealing combination and this is a great spot for escaping the modern world.
The picturesque and craggy island I am looking at from my balcony is Santo Stefano. Until fifty years ago, it would have been a sight to have provoked a shudder. This was one of Italy's prison islands, but the large Bourbon-era prison building was abandoned in the 1960s; its crumbling ruin can be visited on guided tours.
Ventotene itself was a prison, though a gilded one, two thousand years ago, when Rome's first emperor, Augustus, sent his daughter Julia into exile here. The scanty ruins of the elegant imperial villa can be visited (guided tours only) on the headland above Ventotene's modern port, where ferries dock. Around the corner is one of the island's best sights, a Roman port carved out of the island's soft rock. Arched caves dug by Romans to store goods – deliveries for the villa, perhaps – are now used by fishing and diving businesses.
Zuppa di lenticchie, Ventotene
Past a little three-wheeled ape truck selling local produce, a pretty yellow-painted zigzag lane is the pedestrian's way up into the heart of the island's one settlement. Its large square, Piazza Castello, is the hub of activity – such as it is – on Ventotene. Locals track across the square on foot or on little motorised scooters, greeting acquaintances. With official residents numbering 700 and winter residents considerably fewer (200-250, I am told) no-one is a stranger here. In the piazza you can sit with a morning coffee and croissant – as I did after disembarking a 7.15am ferry – or an afternoon drink, or an evening meal of local specialities, such as seafood and zuppa di lenticchie (lentil soup). 
As I walk the few yards between the piazza and my hotel after dinner, I see a woman swimming alone in the cove under the hotel as a beam of moonlight shimmers over the waves. In the far distance a cruise ship passes by, lit up like a Christmas tree, crowded with ten times as many people as this green little island. It slips gaudily over the horizon and I sit back on my balcony, hearing only the wind and the waves. I know where I'd rather be.

Fishing boats in the harbour
It is possible to reach the Pontine islands in a day from the UK, by catching an early morning flight to Rome. From Fiumicino airport, take the Leonardo Express train into Rome's Stazione Termini, then change to a local train heading south, checking timetables and buying a ticket to Formia. Alight at Formia, walk downhill to the port, catch an afternoon ferry and you could be enjoying a late afternoon drink in the island sunshine. On Ventotene I stayed at Villa Iulia, at €50 a night.