Visit Italy’s Hidden Treasure, Ponza
by Loren Pomerantz
I have a deep dark secret that I finally must reveal: I am not a foodie.
Bring on the gasps of shock and horror.
In this age of food porn, cacophonous cooking shows and fawning social media feeds full of plate pics captioned, “nom nom!” I can no longer take the stress of trying to pretend to care or remotely understand the breathless reverence shown for truffle oil, artisanal mango garnishes or a crockpot.
Which makes travel difficult for me, as well as my companions, because everyone always wants to have considered discussions about food, restaurants and what we’re going eat for dinner during lunch. After a day or two on any trip, it takes all my willpower not to scream, “I don’t care, don’t ask me, just pick something, anything!” and grab myself a bag of chips and beer and call it a meal – any meal.
So I went to Italy. Yeah, I know, the food capitol of the world and quite possibly the culinary conversation death of me.
But let me explain why I went. We were not going to Rome or Florence or Venice or any of the places where food is at least 50% of what all visitors talk about when they return from a trip. We went to Ponza.
Ponza? Where is that, you may ask? I did. And despite everyone we met vacationing there warning us not to tell anyone about this magical little island that has gone nearly undiscovered by anyone except Italians, I’ll tell you. Sorry, Italian tourists!
Ponza is a 4 square miles, reached by a 75-minute hydrofoil ferry ride that departs from one of two ports on the west coast of Italy on the same longitude as Rome. From the ferry it looks like the “Lost” island that makes you wonder if anyone actually lives there. But the turn of a rocky corner unveiled a sizable hidden inlet full of anchored yachts, fishing boats, dinghies and rows and rows of pastel buildings set into the cliffs like boxes of fancy macaroons that assured us there is a lot more life on this island than a smoke monster. In fact, there is Antonio.
Described to us simply as the cab driver with black, curly hair in a bun, we were told Antonio would be waiting on the dock, not specifically for us, but because he’s always waiting on the dock when the ferry arrives, and he’ll know where we live.
Which he was and he did, and turned out to be extremely important because there are no street names or numbers in Ponza. You just have to know where you’re going. Luckily, it turned out that Antonio is not only friends with the woman from whom we were renting the house, but her neighbor.
With just one main road snaking along the cliffs full of Roman Tunnels and hairpin turns requiring drivers to beep in order to alert anyone coming the other way of their presence and lots of treacherous dirt paths, Ponza is comprised of 2 main villages: Ponza Porto, where the ferries and scuba diving tour boats dock and most of the action is located in one row of cafes and shops, and La Forna, which is tiny, boasting a dozen small businesses perched high on a cliff and close to where we were staying on the other side of the island.
As Antonio took Holly, Wladi and me to our house, periodically stopping to point out views of interest and, at one point, to hand off flyers to his friend, the owner of the island’s sole discotheque, we were starting to suspect that Antonio knew everyone and, perhaps, everyone knew everyone. With only 3,000 permanent residents, a number that swells to 30,000 in August, this seemed possible.
When we arrived at our house – one that we bravely rented on HomeAway.com with few photos of the building, but many of the view, figuring that if it really sucked, we could always check into a hotel – we discovered that not only did it not suck, but that it was gorgeous. What a relief!
A ‘domed’ stone house built into the cliff, it had beautifully tiled floors, 3 big bedrooms, an enormous, white-washed patio partially shaded by a thatched roof with a sparkling pool, grill, outdoor shower, a hidden treehouse-like terrace and, most importantly the promised, breathtaking view of the ocean, boats, cliffs and the only sand beach on the island.
We were greeted by the owner’s son, Stephano, who, with one quick phone call to his friend (of course), arranged a boat rental for us on Monday, while Antonio headed back to the dock to pick up the fourth member of our party, James, who was coming in on the next ferry. With a slight delay caused by donkeys blocking the single the road, (why not?) as it happened to be the day of the annual San Silvieri festival, James arrived 2 hours later and our little group was complete.
After settling in, we set off to find the restaurant we were told was around the corner, which actually meant descending a very steep hill that led to 120 uneven stone steps all the way down the cliff to the beach, where we finally found La Marina and our waiter, the jolly Guido. A little more knowledge of Italian would have come in handy as we (ok, my friends) attempted to decipher the menu as I was prepared to just point at something and order. Between the four of us we speak fluent English, German, French, Spanish and Russian, none of which were any help to us, but luckily Guido and the all diners at the tables around us were!
It took a village and a lot of miming, but we ended up with a table laden with tuna tartar, marinated tripe (gross) and three al dente pasta dishes with a variety of fresh fish, vegetables and sauces. Sorry, if you’re looking for more in-depth descriptions you’re going to have to ask my friends. I thought it was all pretty good. Along with several bottles of crisp house white wine, we were happily settling into life on Ponza. Until we had to hike back up that cliff in the dark. That did suck.
The next morning we walked the 20 minutes along the cliff from our house into La Forna for essentials – fruit, cheese, lots of chips, some kind of cured meat (coulda been salami, coulda been ham), wine and sunscreen.
Once in town, we immediately ran into Stephano who was preparing to leave the island, Antonio who beeped and waved as he buzzed by us in his cab as we stood outside of Il Maestrale Ristorante Pizzaria, which is owned and operated by the sexy but married, Maurcio, who immediately introduced himself and offered his assistance with anything we may need. Throughout the week he invited us for pizza, beer and conversation. Like the Mayor, Mauricio knew everyone and, being fluent in English was a great help, from calling a friend (of course) to pick me up at the ferry and take me back to the airport, to arranging impromptu rides for us from town back to our house in various, strange cars and once, to James’ displeasure, the back of a mini pickup truck full of ladders. I never turn down a ride and besides, what is more Under the Tuscan Sun than riding in the back of some Italian workmen’s mini pickup truck?
At the café, we ran into Salvatore who came each morning to clean our pool, though we suspected it wasn’t really his job, but a favor for a friend (of course), and Guido, the waiter from the previous night, who insisted on buying us all espressos. 10 hours in Ponza and we already had a posse!
After picking up basic groceries, we walked the 15 feet to a small, outdoor café overlooking the cliff, where 2 beers come with tiny sardine or prosciutto sandwiches, olives, pretzels and rice chips all for 10 Euros and the company of the locals who gather there before siesta at 1:30. Everything I’m looking for in a meal.
Our days fell into an easy routine of wandering each day into our little town for supplies, wi-fi access, coffee and croissants or beer and snacks, and chats with our new friends before returning home to read our books, take a dip in the pool, graze on fresh salads and grilled fish all prepared by Wladi, sip cold white wine and sunbathe topless, which is the greatest, most freeing feeling in the world, I don’t care how old your boobs are, in the always 80-degree, breezy sunshine.
Occasionally, we’d venture into Porto Ponza for dinner, exploration and people watching, which is simple because, like the rest of the island, there is just the one street running through the town. This section was full of identical cafes, touristy shops and women trying unsuccessfully to walk in heels and short skirts on the cobblestone streets. Honestly, just wear flip-flops.
We bought limoncello and a bottle of the spicy, orangey version of the same liqueur before wandered into a jewelry store where James happened to mention to the owner, Isabella, that his charger wasn’t working and all of his devices were dead. Like everyone else we’d met in Ponza, she was happy to help out. She reached into a drawer, extracted a charger, gave it to James and told him to return it whenever he had time.
There isn’t much to actually ‘do’ in Ponza beyond sunbathe, eat simply (a relief and one of the reasons I went there!), drink wine, boat and take the bus back and forth from one village to the other, busses that come in a complicated variety of colors that all mean something different, but all seem to take the same route, nonetheless. We never did figure this out, even when our bus silently broke down on the top of the mountain at midnight and nobody but us seemed at all concerned. Another one came along 10 minutes later and we were on our way.
Like the busses, all the sites and experiences have whimsical schedules, such as the cemetery, which is supposedly “worth dying to live in” as we were told by Claudio, the one American tourist we met whose family is from Ponza and the first to tell us not to tell anyone about the island, which was closed on a random Tuesday, as was the aqueduct and the day-long boat rides to Pomorola, an island that we were repeatedly told not to miss. We missed it.
The boat rental arranged by Stephano had no set hours and required nothing more than 50 Euros and a handshake before we were off on our own to explore the perimeter of the island for the day – that is after we, a bunch of city-dwellers who never drive, warily elected Wladi to be our captain since he’s the handiest of the group. You work with what you’ve got….
This boat trip was the highlight of the trip! Each corner unveiled a new wonder, from caves and grottos to impossibly singular rock formations to lush swaths of greenery covering an entire side of a cliff. Seeing Ponza from the water is a must for anyone visiting the island. The water was calm and refreshing, so when the perfect inlet appeared, we dropped anchor for a swim and lunch.
For some there will not be enough to do in Ponza, but for many, there is the perfect amount of nothing to do in Ponza, which is why I feel compelled to defy the pleas of all the nice people we met who implored us not to tell anyone about it.
1. Leave the heels at home. The entire terrain of the island, whether cobblestone streets or dirt paths, is rocky and uneven.
2. Bring books or already downloaded digital entertainment. Wi-fi is spotty, so Netflix is out.
3. If not boating, rent a house or book a hotel with a pool or get to the beach at the crack of dawn. There is only one small, sand beach and it fills up early in the morning and is located at the bottom of a very steep cliff that requires walking down. If you aren’t sure-footed or have too much stuff, you’re going to have a problem.
4. Be patient. Everything is more complicated and takes a lot longer than you think it will, but luckily you are not in a hurry as there is nowhere to go.
5. Company is key. As there is not much to do besides talk to people, make sure to travel with the right group and engage with the other people around you. This is what really made the trip for us!