The island of Ventotene is tiny. I mean, really tiny. It’s just 3km long and has only 700 permanent residents. While the secret’s out about neighbouring Ischia and Ponza, Ventotene still goes largely unnoticed by the international crowd and mostly welcomes visitors from nearby Rome and Naples. It may be small but, as I recently discovered, it offers lots of laidback, local charm and is an idyllic setting for a beach getaway.
Much of what happens on Ventotene is centred around the Porto Romano, which was carved out of the porous tufa rock by the Romans thousands of years ago. The small bay is now used by fisherman’s boats, diving schools and the occasional private yacht while the caves once used as storage by the ancient Romans now house bars, restaurants and shops. The pastel-coloured buildings clustered around the port give the island its picture-perfect aesthetic and were built by the Bourbons in the 18th century.
Ventotene’s main beach, Cala Nave, is close to the port and accessed through a large tunnel carved out of the tufa (which is only a little bit spooky the first time you walk through it). Part rocky, part black volcanic sand, the beach is a spiaggia libera meaning you’re free to lay out your towel wherever you see fit but, as it’s quite small, many people reserve umbrellas and sunbeds in advance. We took the advice of the bagnino and went to the beach first thing (before 10am) to secure our spot then came back after a leisurely breakfast. Note: Previously, it was possible to book lettini in advance, but this is how it worked for us in ever-changeable, post-COVID times. Hand sanitiser was readily available and there were signs to maintain social distance and wear a mask – though this wasn’t enforced on the beach itself.
Not only does Cala Nave boast the Bandiera Blu, or Blue Flag, certification for its clear waters but Ventotene as a whole is also a protected nature reserve and features long stretches of pristine marine habitat. Divers can admire all kinds of wildlife including colourful coral and sponges, octopuses, loggerhead turtles, and even whales and dolphins. There are manmade sights in the sparkling waters too, such as the wreck of the Santa Lucia, which was sunk during World War II, and Roman amphorae from ancient ships that never made it to their destination.
More evidence of the island’s long and fascinating past can be found at the archaeological site of Villa Giulia. Constructed by the Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC, the complex included thermal pools, a harbour, aqueducts and decorative fishponds. Though it was originally envisaged as a holiday home, the site instead became a place of exile for a number of ostracised women, starting with Giulia, the daughter of Augustus, who was banished by her father for adultery. Other woman who didn’t know their place and found themselves in exile on Ventotene include Julia Livilla, the youngest sister of Caligula; Claudia Octavia, the first wife of Emperor Nero; and Flavia Domitilla, the granddaughter of Vespasian. Visitors to Villa Giulia must book in advance, either directly with the museum (call or email), via private tour guide or, possibly most conveniently, by stopping by the Archaeological Museum in Piazza Castello.
The Bourbons revived the theme of incarceration in the 18th century when they built a prison on the neighbouring island of Santo Stefano. The horseshoe-shaped penitentiary was designed so that guards could see all the inmates at the same time without inmates knowing if they were being watched. In theory, this would ensure prisoners were on their best behaviour at all times, but a number of revolts and escapes suggests the design wasn’t quite foolproof. Under Fascist rule in Italy, the rocky outcrop later became a lockup for political prisoners, including Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi who, while incarcerated in 1941, penned the Ventotene Manifesto. Their text was smuggled onto the mainland and helped galvanise the formation of the European Union. The now abandoned prison is clearly visible from Ventotene and can be visited by guided tour (though these hadn’t yet restarted when we visited in July 2020, due to COVID restrictions).
Where to Eat
Though the island looks rocky and rugged when approaching by ferry, Ventotene actually has plenty of rich volcanic soil and its lentils are some of the most prized in Italy. Look out for them on menus of restaurants in town and, between January and June, growing in fields on the wilder, western part of the island.
Seafood is, naturally, the island’s other source of culinary pride and octopus, clams, mussels, prawns, and all kinds of freshly caught fish feature heavily on menus. My favourite meal was on the beautiful terrace of Ristorante Marisqueria, where we ate seared tuna with crispy leeks and a creamy bread sauce; pasta with rocket pesto and tender squid; and a crustless pastiera napoletana that I wish I hadn’t agreed to share.
For a laidback lunch, I recommend Ristorante Bar Zi’ Amalia. Draped in greenery and with tables on the corner of the main piazza, the setting is a dream while the food is wholesome, unpretentious and, most importantly, downright delicious. I enjoyed their octopus and potato salad so much I ate it twice on my four-day trip.
Set above the Cala Rossano beach, Il Gabbiano ticks all the boxes for a photogenic, chilled-out, aperitivo spot. This cute kiosk does cocktails with a view but it’s more than just a pretty face – it also serves up tasty pre-dinner snacks as well as light bites like sandwiches and salads.
How to Get to Ventotene
Ferries and hydrofoils depart from Formia, situated between Rome and Naples, all year round. In summer, there are additional crossings from the mainland at Formia, Naples and Terracina but also from other islands including Ischia and Ponza.