The Pontine Islands

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 03:00

South of Rome and northwest of Naples in the Gulf of Gaeta lie six islands known as Isole Ponziane, or Pontine Islands. This archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea is named collectively after the largest island, Ponza, which is a haven for water sports enthusiasts.

Legend tells that the island was named after the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, however historians have since disproved this and agree that the name is of Greek origin. This said the island has an interesting history. 

Ponza was thick with forests when it was first colonised by the Etruscans, who chopped down the trees and terraced the land making it manageable for the growing of fruit and vegetables. Over the years, erosion and development have removed most traces of these ancient terraces, however in some parts of the island extinct stumps from the original trees, some over eight feet wide, still exist.

Literary scholars believe the island to be Aeaea, home of Circe, the sorceress who turned men into animals depicted in Homer’s "The Odyssey". Grotta della Maga Circe on the west side of the island, between Spaggia di Chaia di Luna (half-moon beach) and Capo Bianco is said to be the cave in which she lived and from where she’d cast her spells.

In fact the island is famed for its grottos, which were created by the Etruscans, and the beauty of these caves has a strange juxtaposition with their names, such as the Cave of Ulysses of the Blood and the Serpents Grotto.

Ponza is approximately five and half mile long and is the island that attracts the most visitors. It has a handful of beaches, but is mostly made up of a rocky coastline which is perfect for exploring by boat. The island has a wealth of diving companies that offer equipment for rent.

Although it is still traditionally Italian, the mainstream tourism having not diluted its identity, it is not the place to go if you are expecting very little in manner of facilities. The island has many hotels, apartment rentals and bed and breakfast establishments, and of course superb restaurants serving fresh local dishes.

There are many ferry services from mainland Italy that service Ponza, but as the schedules change regularly, it is best to search for them on the internet to ascertain the latest sailing times and charges. If large crowds are not your thing, then it is best to avoid Ponza during the August high-season.

The other islands in this archipelago are Zannone, Palmarola, and Gavi, and separated by 41 km are Ventotene and Santo Stefano.

Zannone is an uninhabited island approximately one square kilometre in size and just 10 km from Ponza, housing the remains of a ruined 13th century Benedictine convent, but very little else. The island is under the protection of the Forestry Service and forms part of the Parco Nazionale del Circeo (Circeo National Park) which was established by Benito Mussolini to preserve the last of the Pontine marshes. It is possible to visit the island by ferry to enjoy the tranquillity of this nature reserve, however camping on Zannone is prohibited.

Another of the islands that has a ferry service from Ponza is Palmarola, an island with a craggy coastline and menacing cliffs. The island has some spectacular grottos and, despite being almost uninhabited, there are a handful of restaurants that open during the summer months and a small holiday accommodation establishment. This island that Pope Silverus was exiled to and eventually died on in 537, is ideal for photographers and people who love to just relax on a beach or swim in the azure coloured sea.

The final island in the north-eastern group is the 700 metre long Gavi, a private uninhabited island that is home to wild rabbits and a rare type of lizard. There are no boat trips to Gavi and visitors are not allowed on this protected nature reserve.

South-west by 22 nautical miles from Ponza is Ventotene, an island that has had its fair share of banished Romans. Back in 2 BC, the emperor Augustus banished his serial adulterous daughter Julia the Elder here, followed by Caligula’s mother, banished by Emperor Tiberius, and Claudia Octavia, who was banished here by her husband, the emperor Nero, to name a few.

At just 3 km long, Ventotene is perfect for a relaxing mini-break. The volcanic landscape has some interesting natural tuff formations ideal for avid photographers, and there are enough Roman remains of villas and ancient water and drainage systems to keep those interested in history busy for a day: the island has no natural water supply, so all water has to be shipped in via a tanker. In 2009, the discovery of five Roman ships off the coast of Ventotene yielded an assortment of artefacts, some of which are now displayed upon the island. Ventotene has a handful of small hotels and holiday rentals for people wanting to spend more than a day there and, like Palmarola, during the tourist season there is an assortment of bars and restaurants.

The circular island of Santo Stefano measures just 400 m in diameter and is dominated by a prison that was originally built by the Bourbons in 1797. The prison comprises 99 cells constructed around a central watchtower and, although built to accommodate 600 prisoners, it housed over 800. Of these, the more infamous included Gaetano Bresci, who assassinated King Umberto I, mentioned in our recent story about Rome's Criminology Museum. The brigand, Carmine Crocco, also known as Donatello who fought alongside Giuseppe Garibaldi, was imprisoned here as was the journalist and politician Sandro Pertini, who went on to become the seventh president of the Italian Republic. Following the closure of the prison in 1965, the island has remained uninhabited apart from the daily influx of tourists that arrive by boat and, who knows, maybe one of those visitors will want to buy it, as in 2012 the island was put up for sale for the asking price of €20,000,000. Unfortunately the price does not include the prison.

The major islands can be reached by various ferry and hydrofoil services from the Italian mainland and then smaller islands in turn by boat from these.