Imagine a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, a haven of peace and uncontaminated nature – Mediterranean vegetation in endless shades of green, yellow broom, agave, aloe and fields of lentils growing wild, surrounded by a deep turquoise blue sea. The only sound to be heard is the crying of the seagulls and the howling of the wind. An earthly paradise.
This is Ventotene, a small volcanic island 28 miles off the coast of Naples, less than 2 miles long and half a mile wide. Ventotene was first discovered by the Romans more than 2000 years ago and, due to its isolation, deemed an excellent place of exile for the Roman emperors’ troublesome women – wilful wives, sisters and daughters.
Here, Augustus built a sumptuous villa for his daughter Julia, whom he exiled for presumed immorality. As there was no water on the island, a system of underground cisterns and aqueducts was constructed to collect the rainwater and channel it to the villa: a miracle of hydraulic engineering which can still be admired today.
After the Romans left, the cisterns housed a community of Cistercian monks for more than 1000 years. Later, in the 18th Century, they became the quarters of Neapolitan prisoners condemned to forced labour, sent by the Bourbon King of Naples to build a foreboding prison on the islet of Santo Stefano in front of the original Roman harbour.
They were followed by the first civil inhabitants of the island, enticed by the promise of a house, a piece of land to cultivate and no taxes. The settlers found themselves abandoned on an island without houses or agricultural land and no return ticket. They, too, took up residence in the cisterns with their livestock, until they had cleared enough of the thick woodland for arable land and a house.
Today there are 300 permanent residents on the island – 800 in the summer months – all of them descendants of the original settlers of the late 18th Century. The prison still stands, though it has not housed prisoners since 1965. It was particularly busy during the Fascist period with the continued tradition of using Ventotene as a suitable, inaccessible place of exile. Under Mussolini many political prisoners and partisans, including Sandro Pertini, later President of the Republic, were confined there.
Ventotene offers a real, unspoilt island atmosphere: the sea is visible on all sides from any point on land. There is no public transport and only residents are allowed to have cars. The 2 or 3 hotels outside the town run their own shuttle service back and forth along the island’s only road, wide enough for just one car at a time.The hotels, including those in the small town, are comfortable but not
luxurious – and there is a variety of bars and restaurants, some offering live music in the evening, but Ventotene is not a place for those who expect a hectic night life.
A boat trip round the island is a must: the only way to see and fully appreciate the curious and varied rock formations of the cliffs and the contrasts and colours of land and sea. The sea, naturally, is the main attraction for tourists, offering swimming, scuba diving, yachting, snorkelling, with a wealth of fish, coral and underwater archaeology, its relics bearing testimony to 2000 years of history.