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Escape to “Alcatraz”

July 5, 2008

Small, flat and not much to see. That damning verdict on Ventotene by a travel guide – the author of which probably never bothered to check out that accepted piece of wisdom – is all the more reason to get on a boat and go.

Island-hopping does not feature prominently on Italy’s itineraries, but as a sedate alternative to dashing around packed piazzas, the state-run (but soon to be privatised) ferries servicing the west coast between Rome and Naples offer a safer and saner way to travel.

Not that Ventotene was ever famed as a must-see, unless you were in chains. From Roman until modern times, Ventotene and the nearby islet of Santo Stefano served as prison islands – Italy’s Alcatraz.

The Emperor Augustus banished his elder daughter Julia to Ventotene for excessive adultery, and she was followed by other Roman womenfolk whose behaviour threatened to become a political liability. Nero exiled his wife Claudia Octavia there.

On Santo Stefano, the smallest of the Pontine islands, the 18th century Bourbons kept up the tradition by building a forbidding prison that still towers above the cliffs. The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini also jailed his political opponents there. Among these was Altiero Spinelli, later celebrated as one of the founding fathers of the European Union, who used cigarette papers to write his Ventotene Manifesto promoting a federal Europe.

Ferries and yachts slowly manoeuvre into the tight space of the Roman-built harbour, and passengers toil their way up a zig-zagging road that becomes the main single-lane high street. Ventotene is a mere three kilometres long, with some 600 residents and just a few cars. Cliffs plunge to hidden beaches, accessible only by boat.

Perhaps it was because much of Ventotene’s secrets lie hidden from view that the guide books say it has nothing to offer. Ancient inhabitants of the windswept island (hence its name) built down rather than up, sculpting their homes in the easily carved volcanic tufo. Stairs circle down a central pit, giving off to chambers, some of them illuminated by corridors that end with a window chiselled through the cliffs. Wild capers, vines and edible cacti known as Indian figs hide these warrens. A few have been restored and are open to visitors.

The island has no natural source of water, so the Romans dug vast cisterns that were fed by an elaborate rain catchment system. Channels then brought the water down the sloping island (no, it is not flat) to the villa complex housing the exiled womenfolk.

Guided tours of the cisterns reveal pictures and graffiti carved by inmates who were held there while constructing the Bourbon prison across the waters on Santo Stefano. Built in the late 18th century according to a theory that prisoners could be rehabilitated after bending their minds, the cells form a circle, all looking inward to the guard post. Fishermen can drop you off on the uninhabited island, which is a designated national park, but an organised tour avoids problems with any marine police patrol.

Back on Ventotene, not underground but underwater, close to the old harbour, lie the ruins of Roman fish farms whose clear waters and tunnels into the cliff can be explored with a snorkel. They too were irrigated with fresh water from the inland cisterns. Now children launch themselves off the crags into these artificial pools.

After a few days of exile, you might strike north by twice-daily hydrofoil to Ponza, the largest of the volcanic Pontine islands in the Tyrrhenian sea or head south to the still steaming volcanic springs of Ischia. A word of caution – although Ventotene doesn’t get too crowded in the summer, its larger neighbours do and they are better left for the spring or autumn.

Crescent-shaped Ponza, with its white cliffs, sea-stacks and craggy rock formations, embraces a harbour lined with terraced villas, painted in various pastel shades. Steep hills rise behind.

A walk through a Roman-era tunnel leads to a sandy beach on the other side of the island, but Ponza’s emerald-water caves and coves need to be explored by small motorboat which you can rent in the harbour. A day is easily consumed by meandering around the island, anchoring here and there. Watch out for spiny sea urchins.

Several fortresses dotted around the island, even one called the English Camp, are testimony to the many nations who invaded over the centuries. Like its neighbours, Ponza also served as an occasional penal colony.

Ischia, off the coast of Naples, has an equally troubled history, not just from sea-faring invaders, including Moors and pirates, but more from mother nature that still vents volcanic steam and hot sulphurous springs. Fortunately there has been no volcanic eruption for 700 years – the island was then totally evacuated – but a serious earthquake devastated some villages in 1883.

The natural hot springs feed the spas and mudbaths that draw comfort-seeking visitors. Not only are the menus in German but it is also a language of mass in church on Sundays, thanks to the generous German welfare state that subsidises cures in Ischia.

Measuring 10km by 7km, and dominated by Mount Epomeo at close to 800m, Ischia hosts distinct communities with their own histories. Marta, our friend and guide who was brought up on the island, says the Ischitani speak four distinct dialects, with strong Greek influence. One of the local white wines, coming from handkerchief-sized terraces wedged into the steep hills, is called simply Lefkos – Greek for white.

With the spring rains Ischia is transformed into a sub-tropical paradise, preserving its greenery into the dry summers. Streets are filled with the scent of jasmine and blossoming fruit trees that also line long, sandy beaches.

From Ischia, where next? A ferry will take you past the island of Procida and on to Naples in just over an hour. Otherwise, another ferry takes you south to the next island, Capri.

Exploring the islands:
First find your ferry

Several shipping lines offer ferries and faster hydrofoils to the islands. Check out the timetables on the websites of Caremar, Vetor, Alilauro, and Snav.

From the north, the best jumping-off point is Anzio (an hour by train from Rome), site of the 1944 allied landing. The nearby war cemeteries are very moving. Boats also leave further south from Formia and Naples, which at the time of writing still had its refuse crisis.

On Ischia, we stayed in Ischia Porto at the family-run Hotel Vittoria ; small, secluded and with a lush garden running down to an outdoor pool heated by volcanic springs. Half-board is from €53 to €75 a head. Umberto a Mare, hotel and restaurant in Forio, is said not to have a freezer, so the fish is as fresh as the wine list is long .

Explore Castle Aragonese – including churches, the ruins of the Temple of the Sun, and Bourbon prison. The 18th-century Villa Arbusto in Lacco Ameno combines an archaeological museum and gardens . Among Ischia’s oldest thermal baths are Antiche Terme Belliazzi in the Piazza Bagni. In Ventotene, there is Hotel Lo Smeraldo , also family-run, with half-board options. It’s a short walk through the village towards the Roman cisterns. For meals, try Zi’Amalia, the oldest trattoria in Ventotene – about €40 a head. Acqua Pazza in Piazza Pisacane is also good, but you will need to book.

Guy Dinmore and Marine Formentini

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