Add to that list July 29, 2011. I was walking down the main street in Ponza, looking for a souvenir of our visit when the tiny Italian cellphone that has been our constant companion on our trips here for the past six or seven years rang. "They've reopened the Chiaia di Luna beach."
|Chiaia di Luna beach - at beach level.|
For a moment, words failed me. I stopped in my tracks, my mind racing but not fixing on anything in particular and then the image began to come into focus. The beautiful Chiaia di Luna, the half moon shaped bay over which our hotel for the past four summers was perched and down on which we had gazed every day for those four years was reopened. The magnet which had originally drawn us to this island and to this hotel, that teasingly allowed us to look but not touch, was finally allowing us in. This was indeed a date for the history books.
* * *
Ponza is a rocky island, a small speck of an island located an hour plus off the Italian coast from Anzio. It is surrounded on all sides by water but despite that great advantage, it only has a small handful of sandy beaches. Most of the island's beaches are craggy, volcanic rock outcroppings on which bathers set up chairs and tiptoe over painful, jagged rocks to ease into the crystal clear waters. The major exception is Frontone, a mega beach close to the main port, but which, with its rows of umbrellas and chairs, looks (at least from a boat offshore, since we have never gone ashore there) like most other coastal Italian beaches.
Right in the middle of the island, however, is an enormous bay, a half moon shaped bay called Chiaia di Luna, which is enclosed by sheer cliffs that give shape to the bay and which shelter a tiny sliver of a beach. While the beach is made from small stones rather than sand, it has the look of a typical beach. Except it is deserted.
For as long as we have been coming to Ponza and to the Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna the beach at Chiaia di Luna has been closed. Closed because the sheer sandstone cliffs that give the beach its unrivaled beauty decided one day, some years ago, to do what sheer sandstone cliffs have been doing since the beginning of time and which the cliffs here have been doing as well. They caved in.
Unfortunately, some unfortunate bathers happened to be below the cliffs when they decided to do their freefall.
In the four years that we have been coming to Ponza and enjoying sunsets from the hotel's Ki Bar that is perched on top of one of those cliffs overlooking the Chiaia di Luna, enjoying sunset after sunset with electronic music, an aperitif and friends, we have been haunted by the Chiaia di Luna beach. It was simply abandoned. As if the police told everyone to get out after the collapse, removed the bodies and left everything else to nature. The terraces of the couple of bars that once lined the beach still have tables and chairs sitting out, the chairs pushed away from the table as though they were rushed from as the walls came tumbling down, the doors gently swinging in the breeze. Flotsam and jetsam has washed up on the beach, which has been closed to bathers arriving by boat by a rope with "No Entry" bouys stretched the entire length of the bay. Despite the efforts of authorities, occasionally one would see bathers who swam under the rope to catch some sun on the deserted beach.
But the main barrier to entry was the closing of the Roman tunnel.
Ponza, it seems, was a favorite of the Romans, presumably both for defensive reasons and as a summer beach destination. And being engineers with a little time on their hands (they had a thousand years to establish their empire, after all) they set to building a tunnel from the main port through the cliffs and to the beach. History books and tourist guides tell us that the tunnel was built to permit soldiers to get quickly from the port to the beach, which is on the other side of the island. But it is more likely that it was built for soldiers to get quickly from the port to the beach so they could enjoy a martinus (one only, please, while on duty) and the sunset.
* * *
So fo four years we walked past the sign trumpeting the Roman tunnel, only to find it fenced in, boarded up and overgrown. We enjoyed the Chiaia di Luna from above, at sunset, and from the water, anchoring in the bay on numerous circuits of the island, swimming in its cool, clear waters, but unable to come ashore and experience what the Romans of ancient time as well as the Roman holidaymakers of more recent times (before the cave in) were able to experience.
* * *
Only two days before the beach's reopening, I asked our captain, Antonio, during our giro of the island, when the beach would ever be reopened. This obviously is a sore spot among Ponzese. There is either disagreement or simply a repressed memory among them, for no one can give a definitive answer for even how long the beach has been closed. Some say 20 years, other say 4 or 5 years. From our experience it must have been at least 4 years, as it was closed on our first visit to the island, a fact that the management of the Grand Hotel Chiaia di Luna had failed to mention when we booked our room and which they failed to excise from their promotional materials. At least until this year.
Last summer we observed a great deal of activity going on on the cliffs above the beach. Enormous rolls of wire fencing were placed at the top of the cliffs and drilling and pounding was going on during our entire stay. Ponzese workmen were doing their best Roman imitation, acting the part of the engineer that was going to make the beach at Chiaia di Luna safe for topless sunbathing once again. By installing an enormous screen along the entire face of the cliff, to catch falling rocks and giving the bathers below enough time to put their tops back on and change into a dryer speedo before speeding away from the killing zone.
Upon our arrival this summer, it appeared as though the work had been completed. Yet still the beach was not open. That is what caused Capitano Antonio to go into a classic Italian rant, words spreeing forth from his mouth, hands jerking back and forth. Chi sa? Who knows? They have been working on this thing for years, spending tons of money and they have nothing to show for it. It is like a fairy tale. It probably will never reopen.
The next day, Pete asked our hostess at the hotel when, if ever, the beach would reopen. No so. I don't know, but really meaning I don't even know. Less than 24 hours later I received the phone call from Suzy that the beach had reopened. Talk about little fanfare.
* * *
Upon hearing the news, I finished my shopping and walked back, as fast as my legs would carry me, toward the Roman tunnel. I imagined myself a Roman soldier, hearing the sounding of the claxton that could mean only one thing. Last call at the beach bar. Or the arrival of a boatload of party girls from nearby Palmarola island. My heart raced. Hail Caesar.
* * *
I arrived at the entrance to the Roman tunnel, which I had passed dozens of times on my walks from the town to the hotel. But today the gate, which after a couple of years I had stopped even noticing was closed, was swung open. I walked down the overgrown pathway and into the tunnel, which is now supported with scaffolding and lined with a wooden boardwalk. It was dark and narrow and you could feel the spirit of departed Roman soldiers as well as the litter of more recent construction workers. At one point the single bulb that illuminated the tunnel was burnt out plunging the walkway into total darkness. But as it straightened out, a bright light from the other side drew me forward. It was all eerily like a near death experience, but instead it was a rebirth experience. As the light grew brighter and larger, I finally emerged onto a wooden platform poised a few feet above the stone beach. Stretched out before me for thousands of feet was the sheer, smooth, slightly arcing cliff of Chiaia di Luna. I stepped off the platform and onto the smooth stones and felt like I was not making history, but was one with it.
* * *
The beach, or spiaggia, of Chiaia di Luna is made up of about 60 billion small stones, each the size of a new potato or smaller, and smooth and cool to the touch. About 80 percent of them ended up in my shoes. With each step, at least for a grown man who has eaten and drunk his way through Italy for the past four weeks, I sunk into this expanse of stones and they were instantly attracted to the souls of my feet. Never mind. I was on the spiaggia di Chiaia di Luna, the very place where Roman centurions stripped their armor off centuries ago and lay in their togas (or less), enjoying the faint whistle of the wind and the lapping of the waves against the stones, as they gently crunched and rolled over one another, a glorious background noise that was less white noise than a beautiful symphony of nature. It is a faint tune that we had been unable to hear from our perch above the beach at our hotel or even from our boat anchored within swimming distance. But it is a celestial sound that I will always remember on the historic day that I was among the first to visit the newly reopened spiaggia di Chiaia di Luna.
Bill and Suzy