Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ponza Perfection

The New York Times and I have been spirited competitors for some time.  Ever since I became a member of the journalistic fraternity those many years ago (filling in for my brother's paper route when he was sick, even doing collections from customers) I have felt them sizing me up and they, no doubt, have occasionally looked over their shoulder to see what I am up to.  The similarities between us are nearly endless, starting with their quasi plagiarism from me for their "All the news that's fit to print" tagline (obviously lifted my my mantra - "all the news that fits, I'll print") and the nickname "The Gray Lady" (v. the fat, graying man).

Nonetheless, despite our Hertz-Avis rivalry, we have seen mostly eye to eye over the years.  A recent article, however, shattered the uneasy detente that had existed between us.  I refer, of course, to the article "Off the Roman Coast, Bobbing for Views," which appeared in the Sunday Travel section on May 6 of this year.  The Lady's depiction of the island of Ponza, which we included in this year's itinerary for the fourth consecutive summer, simply did not, in this humble reporter's opinion, meet the high journalistic standards that I expect of myself and of my peers.  When the flat prose and poorly chosen highlights were combined with the dull black and white photos in the print version, the effect on readers was no doubt - "I'll take a pass on that place."

Perhaps the Times was doing us a favor, making Ponza look ordinary.  They hid away the good photos in vivid color in their online article and everyone knows that no one reads online newspapers nowadays when a good handsmudging paper copy is available.   Or perhaps they intentionally misrepresented this magical island, hoping to keep it a secret for their in crowd and premium subscribers.  As noble as that impulse might be, it lacks journalistic integrity.  No, for me, I feel it is right and proper to shout it from the mountaintops, that Ponza is the most perfect place on earth.  And I don't care if my 14 readers all buy tickets tomorrow and flood the island.

The truth must be told.

* * *

I suppose one could find Ponza to be an ordinary place.  Unless one likes fresh seafood, warm people and warmer weather, crystal clear crisp blue seawater, winding mountain roads with panoramic views of the sea from a puttering Vespa, quiet peaceful beaches dotted with a smattering of stylish Italian sunseekers.  Or a relaxing day with family on a rented motor boat with a local captain, exploring every one of the island's thousands of nooks, crannies, cathedral cliffs, grottoes, beaches and beach restaurants.

It takes only a couple of hours to circumnavigate Ponza by boat and you can rent and captain your own, as we did a couple of years ago, or for about the same price you can get a local captain, who happens to know where each Titanic iceberg of a rock lies just below the surface, to take you.  We've done the giro (the circuit) four or five times now in our four years coming here.  I don't think we could ever get tired of it, even if we did it every day for the next thousand days (Ponza days, that is, just in the summer).  Our captain this year, a local man of about 50 named Antonio and who was described by the charter master as the best captain on the island, actually was the best captain on the island.  Our boat, which held Suzy, our twin sons, friends Pete and Nancy and me, in addition to our marinaio could have held a dozen or more souls but in Antonio's hands it was like a little dinghy, as he repeatedly threaded rocky needles in the surging swells that followed us all day.  He spoke no English.  Not a lick.  But we understood him perfectly and bonded with him instantly.   Maybe because he reminded us of another Italian Tony, last name Soprano.  Subconsciously perhaps we didn't want to end up like Big Pussy.

* * *

One of the main purposes of coming to Ponza, for us at least, is to eat.  If you like seafood it is a place that is impossible to resist.  Every lunch, every dinner a feast not seen since our last visit to Red Lobster.  (I kid the Red Lobster eaters).  Everything fresh, having been pulled from the sea that day by the owner's best friend.  Everything simple - ridiculously perfectly al dente spaghetti topped by fresh vongole (clams), each strand coated with a flavor that tastes like liquid sea.  Fresh whole fish simply grilled.  Fatty tuna seared on the outside and raw in the middle.  Swordfish served lightly cooked, topping pasta or thinly sliced and raw.  Heaps of fried calamari and little fishes that look like the ones I raised as a boy in my aquarium.  Wash it all down with cold white wine from nearby Campagna, where they know how to make a wine that goes well with fish.  Eating on Ponza is not just a pleasure.  It is a moral obligation.

And our return engagement to the island was animated in part, if not in major part, by our desire for a return engagement at the restaurant Cala Feola.  There, a year ago, we enjoyed the most magical afternoon and lunch with our four children and Pete and Nancy, stepping off our rental boat onto the rocky shore that protects a small marina just below the town of Le Forna.  Five paces away a small rectangular shack with a wooden roof and open sides, enclosing a half dozen simple tables and benches awaited us.  Hours later, plates clean, save for the lobster shells that had topped our pasta we reboarded our boat, dreaming of a return some day.  This day we did.

And forget about those who say you can't go home again.  We did go home to Cala Feola and it was a home run.  It was the same in every respect - warm greeting from the owner, a comfortable table with a great view of the beach and the boats, lots of wine and a basket of live lobsters to choose from to top our spaghetti.  It was the same and it was perfect.  How often does one get an opportunity to relive perfection?

* * *

A little over a week ago we were visiting the north of Italy, a region called Friuli.  One of the memorable activities we undertook there was to take our hotel's Vespas for a ride along the winding wine country roads.  At the time I wrote that there is nothing more exhilerating than riding a Vespa in the Collio.  I was wrong or at least partially wrong.  There is something every bit as good as riding a Vespa in the Collio.  Riding a Vespa on the mountain road that runs along the spine of the tiny rock of an island that is Ponza.  And there is nothing better than having your son holding on right behind you, sharing the sounds of the cool air rushing through your helmet and the sight of rocky Palmarola in the distance and rocky beaches dotted with colorful beach chairs and umbrellas hundreds of feet below.  This, too, is perfection.

* * *

Chiaia di Luna beach
The beaches in Ponza are not sandy except for the crowed Frontone beach - beware any beach that offers free boat service to it - and Chiaia di Luna, a long, half moon shaped bay with a sliver of a sandy beach that is abutted by completely vertical cliff and which, due to cave-ins of those cliffs over the years has been closed to beachgoers for many, many years.  But there are numerous rocky beaches, more like platforms that oozed into the water from ancient volcanoes, where industrious Ponzese have set up concessions offering beach chairs and umbrellas, and some with lunch service as well.  We have explored a number of these little makeshift beaches, each one with a little different character, different exposure and view, different clientele.

One of our favorites is la Caletta, a cheery beach run by a cheery fellow named Silverio (Saint Silverio is the patron saint of these island and it seems that every other male here is named Silverio), that is reachable by a perilously steep goat path from the town above.  The climb reinforces the natural inclination that one has of being happy to arrive and upset to leave.

We returned to la Caletta one day on this visit, on a day when the weather was not particularly good.  In fact, we nearly decided to skip it, opting for, surprise, a long lunch.  But just as we were settling the bill, the clouds parted and the sun began to shine.  So we made the trek down the mountain side, arriving at la Caletta before nearly anyone else came up with the same idea.  We rented chairs and umbrellas from a boy who we presumed was Silverio's son, the transaction triggering the return of the clouds.  Despite the mediocre weather we enjoyed the tranquility and cool breezes that lapped the shore and a little later Silverio made his appearance, instantly recognizing us from previous visits and making up for the lack of sunshine with his own.

* * *

The next day, during our giro of the island with our captain it became clear that I had left a pair of swim goggles at la Caletta the previous day.  Because the waters do have an occasional jellyfish (medusa) that can give a very nasty sting, having some of our group on medusa watch with swim goggles is a good idea, and the missing pair was being sorely felt.  So after our lunch at Cala Feola I prevailed upon our captain to drive up as close to la Caletta as he could and that I would swim in shore and ask if they had found my goggles from the previous day.  Tony S. obliged, practically driving our boat on shore and, as we approached, Silverio recognized us, gave us a wave, formed his thumb and forefingers into two circles and placed them over his eyes, acknowledging that he had found our goggles and knew they were ours and retrieved them from his hut.  Then a perfect throw from the shore to our boat and our recovery mission, made with Seal-like precision was over.  Everyone on board shook their heads in disbelief.  Things like this happen in Ponza every day.  The miracle of San Silverio.

* * *

There is a spirited debate going on between Suzy and me, whether it is better to come to Ponza for four or five days, avoiding the more croweded weekends or to stay for several weeks.  I don't know what the right answer to that question is, but I'm more than happy to test each proposition well into the future.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy


Barbara said...

Oh how I'm wishing we could travel with you! What a great adventure you're having!

Cara said...

Ahhhhh..... to visit Ponza! I feel refreshed and happy just to read about it. Great post.

Bill Menard said...

Thanks for your comments. We're already looking forward to coming back next summer!

Nina Wormbs said...

As I look for information about the closing of Chiaia di Luna I find this nice post written by you, visiting the hotel the same week as we did! At first, I wasn't sure, but looking closer at your photos I realize that you had breakfast at the same time as we did, on the hotel terrace overlooking the pool.
I am not sure yet when the beach closed, but I can tell you that 12 years ago it was open. So was Cala dell' Acqua and Cala d'Inferno, which today have limited access and are closed respectively. Talking to some people in Le Forna we heard that after rocks had killed people a survey was done of the entire island - maybe also Ventotene - and beaches and places were closed. When I and my husband were at Ponza in 1999 we lived in Le Forna and to find that so many places (more than the above) were closed, was a disappointment. However, when that disappointment passed we enjoyed our weeks visit immensely. Apart from wonderful Palmarola with adventurous grotto-swimming the tour of Ponza took us to beautiful yellow Cala Felci and the natural arcs on the east side. Some we revisited and some were new acquaintances.
We also hope to come back, again, some day.

Best regards,
Nina (part of Swedish family with three girls age 10, 10 and 7)

Bill Menard said...

How interesting, Nina. To think that we were at the Chiaia Di Luna at the same time. Small world. Maybe we'll see you there next summer!