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November 17, 2015updated 29 Jan 2016 4:49pm

Italy’s Pontine Isles offer history and myth from Odysseus to Augustus to the EU

By Spear's

The Pontines may not get the publicity of some Italian islands, but it’s easy to see why their siren call proves too much for the wealthy to resist, says Silvia Marchetti

Long neglected in favour of honeypots like Capri and Ischia, the five Pontine Islands — dubbed the ‘pearls of the Mediterranean’ — sit off the coast midway between Rome and Naples. They are the choice, however, of il bel mondo: on the two largest islands of Ponza and Ventotene, royals mingle with aristocrats, businessmen and designers such as the Fendi sisters, who have entered the real estate market and are renting luxury seaside villas and village apartments with a fashionable touch.

The other three isles — Zannone, Palmarola and the jet-black prison atoll of Santo Stefano — are uninhabited rocks where untouched nature dominates. All you’ll find are wild goats, dwarf palms and the ruins of monasteries and prisons — but they’re no less fascinating for it.

One might think the allure of the Pontines is the matchless views and scenery: orange-blue sea grottos, aquamarine water, talcum-powder beaches, arcs of rock formations such as the jagged Rifles and Palmarola’s ‘Cathedral’ bay, so-called because of its cliff that pours straight down into a cobalt sea (pictured top). But that would be far too reductive, and plain. What draws 100-metre yachts and private helicopters with their curious owners are the rich historical and mythological tales that have been spun around the islands.

You’ll be living the Odyssey, for one. Ponza is supposedly where Odysseus, on his way back home after burning Troy, was bewitched by beautiful sorceress Circe, who turned him into a not-unwilling sex slave and his men into pigs. The witch’s lair is believed to be inside a small sea grotto beneath the beach. Today, glossy boutiques and elegant cocktail bars are named after the two lovers.

If Odysseus suffered pleasurably, others in the Pontines suffered in the regular way. Since Phoenician times, outcasts and political dissidents of all sorts have been confined there. This is where lustful Roman noblewomen were jailed, and Mussolini shipped all his enemies here. When his downfall came, fate was ironic and he himself found the first stage of his exile on Ponza. (He was later rescued by the Germans and installed at the head of a puppet state.)

All this darkness is belied by the cheerful pastel-coloured historical dwellings available to buy in the Pontines. These were former prehistoric caves, fishermen’s houses, canteens built inside ancient Roman harbours, prisoners’ cells in tiny picturesque villages or the villas of early settlers sent to colonise the isles by the Kings of Naples in the 18th century. All have been elegantly restyled and several even come with a private sailing boat that can be leased or purchased for you to explore the thousands of inlets.

Pontine Isles

Ponza, the main island, is a maze of winding alleys ambushed by bright bougainvillea, with cobbled streets and narrow steps that lead to the ruins of Emperor Augustus’s villa. Roman aqueducts, cisterns and fisheries where moray eels were once raised dot the landscape. Pontius Pilate’s Caves, named after the Roman governor who loved to bathe here, are a labyrinth of pools and tunnels. (Local legend says the whole island is named after Pontius Pilate, but the name predates him.)

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Taverns serving fried moray eels and fish guts, a delicacy for the few who dare, are next door to the Michelin-starred restaurant Acqua Pazza, suited for lovers of experimental fish dishes.

Elegant villas formerly belonging to families of rich lobster traders who made a fortune travelling across the Mediterranean rise in front of Bourbon look-out towers and crumbling fortresses surrounded by lush orchards and premium vineyards. Jutting out of the pink-reddish rocks overhanging precipices are cave dwellings. Once inhabited by cavemen in search of precious jet-black obsidian, such spaces were later used by Roman pioneer fishermen as canteens. Painted white inside, thanks to thick walls they stay fresh in summer and warm in winter.

These grottoes, once home to poor families who lived inside with their animals, are now Ponza’s trademark and the most desired type of home, with prices starting at €600,000. Grottoes (which are more spacious and homely than the word suggests) were second-nature to Ponzites, and they even built grottoes within grottoes. According to their custom, for each newborn in a family a new cave would be turned into an additional room. Wardrobes, beds, bathtubs and sofas are all carved out from the rock.

The ‘Grotte della Masseria’ rises atop the highest and most spectacular cliff, above the moonscape Chiaia di Luna beach, a yellow-white natural rock barrier where nineteen-year-old Sofia Loren, back in the 1950s, starred in her first movie. Its architecture is far from rough, rather stylish yet simple at the same time. A former stable where hermits hid in the Middle Ages waiting for Doomsday, it was a mass of ruins and dirty mattresses before its owners turned it into a chic dwelling. Consisting of four grottoes, it has three layers of infinity patios connected by steps covered in 18th-century majolica ceramics. From here the panorama embraces the tiny rabbit-shaped atoll of Palmarola that burns as the sun goes down.

When aperitif time nears, Ponza’s movida (nightlife) kicks in. While sipping the signature drink ‘Il Ponza’ at Au Bord de La Mer, made from a special marine fennel, you’ll be amused to see that locals spend their evenings on dome-shaped rooftops — still used today to drain rainwater — which have been turned into cocktail lounges.

Twenty-two miles away lies sister isle Ventotene, a broad, flat piece of land shaped like a lizard where the view stretches all the way to Mount Vesuvius. It’s tinier than Ponza but, if possible, even more fascinating. Here, according to Homer, Odysseus almost fell prey again to female enchantment: sailing by, he had to plug his ears against the Sirens’ seductive songs.

Pontine Isles

The emperor Augustus shipped his unfortunate daughter Julia here on charges of adultery, when the island was called Pandataria; coloured mosaics still today pop out amid the ruins of Giulia’s Villa. Tiberius sent Agrippina the Elder here; Caligula and Claudius both sent Julia Livilla here, where she was starved to death in her second spell; and Nero exiled his wife Octavia here, under sentence of death, in order to marry Poppaea.

Pioneers who settled on Ventotene from Naples’ coast were farmers. Once they started getting rich with the produce of their lands they built villas in the wild interior, surrounded by fields of lentils and fig trees, where it’s a pleasure to get lost.

The only village on the island is packed with low-lying former prison dwellings that surround the central Piazza Castello with its Bourbon fortress. Inside the fortress, some of Europe’s founding fathers came up with the European Union while they were there as prisoners of Mussolini: on this isle anti-fascist Altiero Spinelli co-wrote the ‘Ventotene Manifesto’.

If you think you’ve seen enough history, right in front of Ventotene rises the disquieting, horseshoe-shaped jail fortress of Santo Stefano, where thousands of prisoners were tortured up until 1965. The jail is a Panopticon, invented by British jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and it ensured a strict, centralised control of prisoners by putting all-seeing guards at the centre. It belongs to Italy’s state but the rest of the atoll, 28 hectares featuring a ghost town with estate, colonial villa, church, taverns and shops for inmates, is owned by a rich Neapolitan family looking for potential buyers. Not many people can say they own their own ghost town. (Ponza) | (Ventotene)

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