Delights of Ponza, Italy

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Posted by Dan Webster on Jan. 23, 2018, midnight

There were five of them in the bachelorette party. Five young Italian women, one of whom wore an emblazoned T-shirt.

On it was the profile of a woman, ironing in the kitchen, a ball and chain attached to one leg. I looked over at my wife. She nodded. The bride-to-be, we agreed.

The five were sitting maybe five rows ahead of us, readily apparent among the crush of passengers packed onto the ferry that had just left the mainland Italian port of Formia. All of us were bound for Ponza, the largest island in Italy’s Pontine Archipelago, which sits just 20 miles off the country’s western coast, midway between Rome and Naples.

Ponza, Italy

Ponza, Italy. Photo by Mary Pat Treuthart.

Also apparent was the fact that we two were some of the only — maybe the only — native English speakers on the vessel. Ponza, we discovered, is where Italians, particularly Romans, head for a holiday.

But that’s what we were looking for: the chance to experience a part of Italy the way Italians do.

That language practice would serve us well in the weeks to come when we would join friends for a road/train trip through Italy’s regions of Puglia and Abruzzo.

Puglia and Abruzzo (also known as Abruzzi) are situated on the east coast of the country, along the Adriatic Sea. In Puglia, we would drive around such scenic towns as Lecce, Ostuni, Alberobello (site of the famous Trulli houses), Villanova and Locorotondo.

We would stay in a variety of lodgings. In Puglia, we would luxuriate in the Risorgimento Resort in Lecce, and at the farm/restaurant/resort Masseria Salinola in Ostuni — both a couple of levels above our typical travel style. In Abruzzo, we would enjoy an ocean-view room in Pescara’s beach-front Hotel Maja, and eat one-of-a-kind pizza at Trieste Pizza.

But before all that came Ponza, a place my wife had heard about a couple of years before on a flight from Milan to New York. Her seatmate told her he was from Ponza and how beautiful it was.

The bit of research we did only piqued our interest. We learned that Ponza may have been named after none other than Pontius Pilate (disputed). It figures in Homer’s Odyssey (fairly well accepted). And it has been used at times as a penal colony and where angry Roman husbands banished their “disobedient” wives (fact).

It’s even where the ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was held shortly after his overthrow in 1943.

So last summer, at the beginning of our extended Italian jaunt, we decided to check out Ponza for ourselves. After spending the night at the stylish Gioberti Art Hotel, set only a block from Rome’s main train terminal, we traveled by rail south to Formia.

In Formia, we stayed overnight at the old-world Grande Albergo Miramare, which lived up to its name. Not only was it grand, it boasted a magnificent view of the sea from the terrazza of our room.

Public beach at Ponza.

Public beach in Ponza. Photo by Mary Pat Treuthart.

The next morning, we caught the 9 a.m. ferry, joining the throngs walking on board. After stowing our luggage, we found seats and then began to enjoy watching the bride and her bridesmaids while listening to the conversations around us. All Italian.

And that continued for the next two and a half hours. When we arrived at the Porto di Ponza, we found a cab driver who spoke at least a few words of English. Though we speak some Italian, we were thankful that the driver could understand us because our bed-and-breakfast was a bit hard to find.

He was even helpful when, after dropping us off some 300 steps below our hillside rental in the Santa Maria neighborhood, he talked a neighbor into guiding us the rest of the way.

At the B&B Ponza Suite (look for it on www.booking.com), we found our small, but comfortable and — most important — air-conditioned room. And while the manager’s English was worse than our Italian, we were able to communicate, mostly because she was patient and encouraging and didn’t wince as we threw out nouns and verbs with the vague hope that they made sense.

After checking in, we began to explore. Right away, we realized that we were only a 15-minute walk from the port. Unencumbered by our bags, we were able to make the trek with little effort — even given those 300-plus steps.

In fact, it doesn’t take much effort to get around the whole of Ponza, which is a five-and-a-half mile long by a mile-and-a-half wide. There is a problem, though: Basically the top of an extinct volcano that rises from the Tyrrhenian Sea, Ponza’s mountainous landscape is too big for the average tourist to hike but not big enough to warrant renting a car.

Yes, you can drive on from the ferry. And you can even rent a car once you get there. But parking is limited. The best options: Rent motor scooters or boats (motor or sail), take guided tours or hire private drivers.

We did the latter by asking among the cabbies working the port how much it would cost for an island tour. We ended up with a friendly driver who charged us 60 euro (not quite $70) for what turned out to be a 90-minute trip.

Santa Maria Beach

Santa Maria Beach. Photo by Mary Pat Treuthart.

And while she spoke no English, we were able to understand most of what she said as she drove up over the top of the island. She stopped at a number of turnouts that afforded great view of the island’s beaches (some of which were closed because of collapsing cliffs, others that are accessible only by boat), including the tourist-friendly Cala Fonte.

Returning to the port, we were ready for food. Because, of course, what would an Italian getaway be without dining? Ponza has its share of good restaurants, which for us had already included the port-side Oresteria by Ponza Fish for lunch. The friendly staff at Pizzeria da Luciano, overlooking Santa Maria beach, served us a tasty early dinner.

After which, while lounging on the terrazza of our rental, we watched as the lights of Ponza blinked on, one by one. Caught up in that magic glow, it was hard not to wonder: Was that bridal party having as much fun as we were?

Both of us hoped so. That ball and chain had looked heavy.