Travel itineraries: Ventotene and Santo Stefano

The eastern group of Ponzian islands is very different from Ponza and Palmarola and includes the small island ofe Ventotene, less than 2 sq km, and the even smaller islet of Santo Stefano. Ventotene is formed in the lower part by the southeastern flank of a volcanic crater, overlaid with layers of more erodible material.  Morphologically, in fact, it constitutes an inclined plane sloping down to the sea regularly, from southwest to northeast, largely cultivated with vines, lentils and vegetables.

Few islands have so much history, ancient and recent, concentrated in such a small piece of land.  It is said, for example, that Ventotene was the island of Ulysses' Sirens. Certainly on Ventotene Caesar Augustus built an imperial villa with baths and theater, the vestiges of which are still there, where he relegated his daughter Julia, who was accused of low moral standards. The island later housed other patrician women and repudiated wives of other emperors, including Agrippina, wife of Tiberius, and Octavia, wife of Nero.  Many Christians self-exiled to Ventotene to escape religious persecution.  As time passed, the island, more difficult to reach than Ponza and lacking natural defenses against pirates, remained uninhabited, until in the 18th century the Bourbon kings who ruled Naples exiled 30 prostitutes and 30 criminals to the island, convinced that contact with nature would lead to a "recovery of morality."  The result of this experiment à la Rousseau is easy to imagine, but the colonization process continued nonetheless with the relocation of 20 families from Torre Annunziata and other towns on the Amalfi coast who were enticed to move to Ventotene with benefits of all kinds.  Even today in Ventotene, despite being part of the Lazio region, the Neapolitan dialect is still spoken.  The 20th century then brought political exiles to Ventotene and Santo Stefano: those confined or exiled by Fascism beginning in the 1920s for their opposition to the regime.

Although the color varieties of Ponza and Palmarola are not present, the island exudes a magical charm, a sense of belonging and inner stillness in most people who visit.  

There are two port facilities, the old Porto Romano, overlooked by the typical Ramps and carved entirely out of tufa, including warehouses, mooring bollards and fishponds, still used by boats up to 15m, and the Porto Nuovo, an artificial extension of Cala Rossano, recently widened. The island, as well as Santo Stefano, is a protected marine reserve.

We start at Punta Eolo, the northernmost cape, which we round as we leave the Porto Nuovo. On the cape we see the remains of the imperial villa.  In the water there are several shallows, so pass outside the Sconciglie, a paradise for diving with or without tanks.  Then come to Cala Parata Grande, redoubt from the east and sirocco; the grippiale is recommended here like almost everywhere around the island due to the presence of large boulders on the bottom that can trap anchor and chain. Continuing counterclockwise, we encounter some bays with emerald waters ridged by easterly winds to the majestic Punta Dell'Arco. We turn the cape and find ourselves on the eastern side, protected by the Mistral.  Every spot is good for anchoring, with the usual precautions.  Continuing northeast we arrive at Cala nave, on land a well-equipped beach with two islets easily reached by swimming, a splendid diving gym.  Beyond that we arrive at the Porto Romano, a great work of port engineering and therefore sheltered from all winds.

Ventotene has magnificent seabed and lends itself to scuba diving. Several diving centers operate in the Porto Romano, and swimming in schools of barracuda or encountering giant groupers is a daily occurrence.

The islet of Santo Stefano is just over .5 nm from the Porto Romano and has no ridges. It houses the Bourbon Prison, which has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is now under renovation. It was designed by Kaspar Van Vittel (the Vanvitelli) in the 1700s while he was building the Royal Palace of Caserta and built by his pupils. With its "horseshoe" shape, it is the earliest example of Panopticon, a structure that allowed the guard, placed in the fulcrum, to see inside each cell. A real torment for the poor condemned prisoners.  It was here that two political prisoners, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, secretly wrote  The Ventotene Manifesto (1940-1941), the important document of social reform that first launched the idea of a united Europe and would become a reality some 70 years later. The main building of the European Parliament in Brussels is in fact named after Altiero Spinelli.

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